That Elizabeth Taylor was beautiful was never in dispute, she simply was. Her reigning title as The Most Beautiful Woman in the World alone would be enough to send her into the pantheon of our brightest stars. She was, of course, ferociously talented to boot. “A Place in the Sun.” “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.” “Suddenly, Last Summer.” “BUtterfield 8.” “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf.” These films have been seared into the cinematic canon, in no small part by Elizabeth’s white hot performances. But beauty and talent, perhaps even nearing Elizabeth’s levels, is nothing too terribly unusual in Hollywood. We expect at least one, if not both, from our celebrities.
What made Elizabeth Taylor so special then was not just her violet eyes, her two Oscars or even her very public private life. It was what she did with her fame and how she used it when it mattered most. Many of you are too young to remember, and others remember too well, but back in the early 1980s AIDS was fear. It was the boogey man and the Grim Reaper and – to some particularly unenlightened – God’s mighty vengeance all rolled up in one. I was still quite young when AIDS was first diagnosed in 1981, but I remember as it unfolded throughout my childhood. People thought you could get it from a handshake or a toilet, a hug or a water fountain. But not Elizabeth. She saw her friends dying, and instead of running she embraced them. Before the President of the United States ever uttered the words, she was shouting to anyone who would listen and often those who wouldn’t. To have such a glamorous star of her stature stand up when others wouldn’t was immeasurable. Of course, there were others, but few in the same stratosphere.
In September 1985 she helped establish the American Foundation for AIDS Research (amFAR) and over the years she raised more than $100 million in the fight against the disease. It was that same month during a press conference that then President Ronald Reagan first uttered the word AIDS in a public. Reagan had planned to release a statement to quell the panic about AIDS being spread to schoolchildren that same year. But a White House lawyer, a young future Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts, advised him against it. He wrote in a memo: “I would not like to see the president reassuring the public on this point. ... We should assume that AIDS can be transmitted through casual or routine contact until it's demonstrated that it definitely cannot be.” Some chose fear, Elizabeth chose courage.
It took the President two more years to give his first major address on AIDS, at the College of Physicians in Philadelphia in April. By that time 40,000 people had died of the disease. And then a month later he gave his much more well-known and infamous speech on the subject during the keynote address at amFAR. That, too, only happened because Elizabeth wrote him personally asking him to speak. It turned out, sadly, to be a disaster with lawyers and White House staff second-guessing doctors and facts. But that’s not for want of Elizabeth’s efforts. Today, amFAR remains one of the leading international organizations in the fight against AIDS and HIV. And until her passing yesterday at age 79, Elizabeth remained a fierce ally in the fight against AIDS and in support of the LGBT community. She was an icon for the world, but in a way we kind of felt like she was ours.
Beauty fades. Talent slows. But compassion, compassion can change the world. Thank you for caring, Elizabeth. A star for the ages now belongs to them.