By Nancy Collins
“I don’t give a shit what people think.” Elizabeth Taylor, as usual, is speaking her mind.
She is talking about what people think of her stand on the world’s most explosive epidemic. And she is talking about people’s reaction to her new 40-year-old husband, Larry Fortensky.
Both subjects bring fire to her eyes. Perhaps the most famous eyes in the history of Hollywood. The lavender ones with the double rows of upper lashes.
Last July, Taylor told George Bush—and the rest of the world—what she thought of his AIDS policy. “I don’t think President Bush is doing anything at all about AIDS,” said Taylor to a packed press conference in Amsterdam at the Eighth International Conference on AIDS. “In fact, I’m not even sure if he knows how to spell ‘AIDS.’ ”
It was the A-I-D-S shot heard round the world, front-page news from Tokyo to Washington. Cornered at a press conference the following day, Taylor was set upon by the medical reporter for CNN:
“Secretary [of Health and Human Services Louis] Sullivan announced the administration will not be browbeaten by movie stars or anyone else on their AIDS policies.”
“Excuse me. Who said that?”
“Well, I wasn’t addressing my remarks to him,” shot back the movie star. “I was addressing my remarks to the president.”
She could hardly have known then that the disease would touch her own life. In July 1985 her old friend Rock Hudson surprised even Taylor when he announced to the world he had AIDS. “Oh, God, yes, I knew he was gay,” says Taylor, “but I thought he had cancer.”
In 1991 her personal secretary Roger Wall, diagnosed to be HIV-positive, swallowed a handful of sleeping pills rather than face a lingering death. “It was one of the biggest losses of my life,” says Taylor.
But nothing prepared her for the news that her former daughter-in-law had been stricken. Aileen Getty (divorced from Taylor’s son Christopher Wilding) was diagnosed in 1985 and now has “full-blown AIDS. I have two grandchildren under 10 whose mother is dying of AIDS,” Taylor says softly. “My grandchildren ask their mother, ‘Mom, will you be around for my ninth birthday?’ ‘Will you be alive for my 14th?’ ”
The Elizabeth Taylor legend is what makes Taylor’s involvement in AIDS so powerful and so complicated.
“People always ask, ‘Does Elizabeth Taylor work hard?’ ” says Bill Misenhimer, the first director of AmFAR and now chief financial officer of AIDS Project Los Angeles. “You’ve got to put it in perspective because what’s hard work for Elizabeth isn’t necessarily what everybody else would call hard work. Anybody who wanted to see her came to her. Once, we had a board meeting at the Bank of Los Angeles. She came and afterwards she said, ‘So this is what a bank looks like.’ She’d never been in one.”
Gary Pudney tells of a meeting he had with Taylor. “When we had the show formulated,” he says, referring to the Commitment to Life dinner, which Pudney produced, “there came the moment when it had to be presented to the boss. The show was laid out on cards, so I went to Elizabeth’s armed with my easel. It’s hot as hell and I’m standing there by the pool—in my suit and tie—waiting for Herself to appear. When she finally did,” he laughs, “she was wearing a very revealing red bikini and a very large diamond.
“Her body was spectacular. She proceeded to recline on a chaise longue, and at that point I really begin to sweat—because it’s a little disconcerting to make a presentation to a major screen goddess in a reclining position. I began to explain the show and she said, ‘Just start flipping the cards.’ She wanted to get right down to business. And she was fantastic in her grasp of what we were doing: the show’s pacing, her critique of the musical numbers, the speeches. No dummy she. But the interesting thing was she never talked about what she’d be doing or where she’d be in the show. She was more concerned with overall effect.”
Taylor has always kept her eye on the big picture. She sails past the details: only an eternal optimist could walk down the aisle eight times (she married Burton twice). Only a woman focused on informing the world about AIDS would not bat a double eyelash when asked if she and her husband practice safe sex. “Larry and I are regularly checked,” she replies rather icily. “And at the present moment we do not use condoms. If you’re in a monogamous relationship for a certain amount of time and are true to each other and have tested negative a couple of times for AIDS, I think you’re safe.”
Or that she wants to. As one friend observed, if Taylor didn’t have to rise to the occasion in her appearances for AmFAR, she would probably at this stage in her life “stay home and eat.”
The public’s love affair with Elizabeth Taylor baffles even some of her closest friends. “You’d think everyone would say, ‘O.K., I’ve seen her,’ ” says songwriter Carole Bayer Sager, a close friend. “We’re not talking about the Moment of Michael Jackson or Madonna, which five years from now will have been a moment. The reaction to Elizabeth is phenomenal.”
Even at a Michael Jackson concert. Last summer, while at the International Conference on AIDS, Taylor drove from Amsterdam to Brussels to catch her good friend Jackson at work. When she arrived at the stadium, her limo cruised to the middle of the field. “All eyes were on the car,” says a photographer who accompanied her. “As soon as the door opened and Elizabeth appeared, everyone turned away from the stage and started screaming, ‘Liz! Liz! Liz!’ And these were kids, not middle-aged people.”
After the concert, because of car trouble, Taylor and company didn’t pull back into Amsterdam until six A.M. By eight she was up and getting ready for her press conference, where, three hours later, she would blast the U.S. government for the immigration restrictions imposed on those with AIDS.
“She slammed into Bush on two hours’ sleep,” says the photographer, who was himself exhausted. “And she looked beautiful.” Reminded of this, Taylor flashes a self-satisfied smile. “I was coming down with the flu that night, too,” she adds. “But I thought, If I have a temperature of 105, I’m making my speech tomorrow. If you have to do it, you fucking do it. You don’t bitch about it.” She laughs. “Or if you want to bitch a little, that’s O.K.”
She pauses. “I have to show up because it galvanizes people. [They] know … I’m not there to sell or gain anything. I’m there for the same reason they are: to get something done.”
Even at some personal risk, as AmFAR learned early on, when Taylor appeared at a 1985 AIDS fashion benefit in New York’s Jacob K. Javits Convention Center. “We’d dutifully set in place security protection, but we didn’t make sufficient arrangements,” remembers Krim. “We didn’t realize she’d be mobbed by the crowd. She was atop a staircase with all the paparazzi and the public pushing behind—they almost threw her down.”
Is Taylor ever afraid? “Sometimes. . . . I’ve had people tear hunks of my hair out of my head. Like at Mike Todd’s funeral. I became totally hysterical—the grief and the fact that it felt like my brains and body were being clawed by birds. I came undone.”
Perhaps Taylor’s relative sangfroid is best explained by Carole Bayer Sager. “When Elizabeth goes out, she goes with the knowledge that attention might be part of the deal. But no matter who’s watching her, she stays focused. Even at the wedding ceremony [to Larry Fortensky last October]—which was a nightmare in terms of the helicopters, the reporter who parachuted down—the only thing she felt badly about was losing the intimacy. But, still, she extracted something out of what had turned into a zoo; she didn’t lose the essence of getting married. When Marianne Williamson [the minister] said, ‘Do you want me to talk louder so everyone can hear?’ she said, ‘No. Why don’t you just speak to Larry and me?’ ”
“We were at our most vulnerable,” Taylor says. “They knock you down [in therapy], kick the shit out of you, then give you the tools to build yourself up. Larry felt very protective toward me. He told me later there were times he wanted to kill the counselor.”
Giving up an addiction is a humbling experience. The Taylor-Fortensky union is one forged in humility and built on survival. “For Elizabeth, this is her first truly sober marriage,” says Sager. “Larry and she met in sobriety and help keep each other sober…. It makes for a strong bond.” And besides, she adds, “they’re crazy about each other.”
Suddenly, I’ve lost Taylor’s attention. She is staring at the man who has just slipped quietly into the room. He is wearing blue jeans, a wrinkled white T-shirt, and sneakers. His blond-streaked hair is tousled. He seems very much the “straight-ahead guy” described by Sager—good-looking and unassuming. When Taylor reaches out her hand, Fortensky, mindful of a stranger, comes forward hesitantly to kiss her on the cheek. When introduced, he is polite but subtly wary, as if assessing the situation on behalf of his wife.
“Larry was totally freaked out at first because there’s so much larceny in my world,” she later says matter-of-factly. “Some of it’s petty and some grand. The petty you pass, the grand theft you do something about.” And on that score, she claims, Fortensky has been invaluable. ”Larry sees through the world of bullshit I live in. He’s very protective.”
In a moment, Fortensky is gone. When he reappears two hours later, he briefly sits next to his wife, searching her face for signs of discomfort, flirtatiously gazing at her feet, asking if the sandals are new.
Larry Fortensky comes from conservative, middle-class Orange County, hardly the kind of background that spawns ease in the gay world. “He probably never met a homosexual until he moved into this house,” says Taylor, “and now, as the saying goes, some of his best friends are.”
Taylor says she wasn’t worried about Fortensky’s fitting into her life. He has, she says, “his own strong sense of identity.” (He also kept his full-time job as a heavy-equipment operator with a construction company.) Yet even she was “surprised at how quickly he adjusted.”
But some things Fortensky will never get used to. Like having talk-show hosts delve into their personal lives. Last year while Taylor sat on Arsenio’s couch, Misenhimer sat next to Fortensky in the greenroom. When Arsenio started in on Richard and Mike, Eddie and Nick, Larry squirmed. “He was so uncomfortable,” recalls Misenhimer. “He just kept saying, ‘I hate it when they talk about her husbands.’ ”
Once Taylor had signed on to help organize APLA’S Commitment to Life benefit dinner, she said, “I didn’t want to be honorary. I wanted to actually do the work, make the phone calls, because this was going to be a toughie. The scuttlebutt was ‘Stay away from this one. You don’t want to get involved.’ ” But Taylor got on the phone. “I asked people if they’d just attend—they didn’t have to do anything—or could they at least loan their names for a committee.”
“I have never had so many ‘no’s said to me,” she recalls. “They didn’t want to come to the evening, didn’t want to be associated. Some very big names [said no].” She refrains from elaborating. (Frank Sinatra was reportedly among them.) Some, Taylor continues, told her, “ ‘Oh, Elizabeth, this is one of your lame-duck causes. Back away from it. It’s going to hurt you.’
“I realized . . .that this town—of all towns—was basically homophobic, even though without homosexuals there would be no Hollywood, no show business! Yet the industry was turning its back on what it considered a gay disease.”
It took nine months to put the Commitment to Life dinner together. Chen Sam, reporting to Taylor, moved from New York to Los Angeles and into the Mondrian Hotel, where she lived along with 18 volunteers, the bill footed largely by Bill Jones. And ABC got involved, the first major network to throw its corporate weight behind the fight against AIDS. Gary Pudney, then vice president, offered the services of his specials unit, and the network kicked in $50,000.
In midsummer, a stunning announcement upped the ante. On July 25 the world was electrified by the news that Rock Hudson was dying of AIDS.
“From an AIDS-activist viewpoint, Hudson’s announcement was the best thing that had happened since AIDS started,” explains Misenhimer, “because, finally, people could connect a name to AIDS.”
A week after being flown to the U.C.L.A. Medical Center from Paris, where he had collapsed in the lobby of the Ritz Hotel, Hudson was visited by his Giant co-star. “Rock had lost a lot of weight,” recalls Taylor. “He wasn’t very lucid. He didn’t quite know where he was. Sometimes he’d remember things that happened on the set of Giant. He’d laugh about making a cocktail martini . . . even though lying in his hospital bed was a skeleton.”
Michael Gottlieb, Hudson’s doctor and one of the physicians who first reported AIDS to the Centers for Disease Control, in 1981, was meeting Taylor for the first time. He recalls her being “very down-to-earth. She asked what she could do and I said, ‘Just be there.’ It was important because a visit from Elizabeth Taylor could be a cheerful thing.
“Before I took her into his room, she asked the same questions everyone did about contagiousness: Is it safe to touch and kiss? No one was very clear about AIDS then. I reassured her that normal contact was all right, and we went inside. She kissed his cheek, hugged him, and sat on the bed.”
Taylor visited Hudson several times, always on Sundays, when she’d be driven to the back door of the U.C.L.A. Medical Center. “She was great fun,” says Gottlieb. “One time, when we walked out of the elevator, her ring hit the stainless steel. It made such a loud noise I was startled. ‘Oh,’ she said, ‘those are just my jewels.’ ”
Though AIDS had been discovered at U.C.L.A., the administration wasn’t eager to claim the disease’s first famous casualty. According to Gottlieb, a doctor at the U.C.L.A. Department of Medicine called him into his office one afternoon and said, “Rock Hudson will die at home, won’t he? He won’t get readmitted to U.C.L.A.?” Contacted at his current office the doctor denies having ever made any such comment. (Hudson, at his own request, died at home.)
Finally, September 19 arrived. “I’ve coordinated many AIDS benefits since, but there will never be one like this again,” says Sam, speaking of the 2,500-strong audience that crowded into L.A.’s Bona-venture Hotel. The first Commitment to Life dinner honored former First Lady Betty Ford, lasted six hours, took three stages to present the talent, featured Hudson’s first public statement about his disease, and elicited a telegram, read by Burt Reynolds, from Ronald Reagan, who had yet to acknowledge AIDS existed.
“The White House was resistant,” recalls Pudney. “But Rock Hudson being a movie star had a great deal to do with Reagan’s decision to do something.”
When the dinner was over, nobody wanted to leave. “The spirit in that room was unbelievable,” says Pudney.
Even the Los Angeles Times gushed. “Hollywood exists in big moments and when the community rallies to a cause or a legend or a disease, fervor may erase skepticism,” it wrote on September 21. “Imagine having Abigail Van Buren doing a fierce bugaloo at her table, while rock’s Cyndi Lauper … and Rod Stewart had Stevie Wonder standing for their rendition of ‘I Heard It Through the Grape-vine.’ Imagine Cher with braces on her teeth telling 2500 plus guests how significant it was that self-centered, selfish people could get together and love each other.”
“[Elizabeth] and I were crying,” recalls Misenhimer, who would go on to become AmFAR’s first director. “I told her how tough it was going to be, and she just grabbed my arm and said, ‘Don’t worry. I’ve been through a lot.’ We came away from that dinner knowing Elizabeth was committed.”
“We decided that night we were going to make a difference,” adds Taylor. “Goddamn, we would!”
On the East Coast there was a woman thinking similar thoughts. In 1985, Mathilde Krim was a doctor of biology studying interferons at New York City’s Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center. She was also the wife of Arthur Krim, the powerful founding chairman of Orion Pictures Corp. and one of the major fund-raisers for the Democratic Party. “From day one,” Krim says, “I was convinced that this was a transmittable disease and, if so, might be transmittable to every-body.” To help raise consciousness outside the gay community, she started the AIDS Medical Foundation. When she heard that Rock Hudson had left $250,000 to Taylor’s group, she “picked up the phone and proposed we make them into one foundation.” Ultimately, they did, and the result was AmFAR, a necessary marriage of science and show biz.
Though initially skeptical about the merger, Taylor overcame her doubts. “It did occur to me that having AmFAR on the East and West coasts might dilute it,” she says gingerly. “Then I realized that Mathilde is a very powerful lady with a background that couldn’t have been more suitable. So it seemed like a very large and powerful decision.”
National foundations are not formed by shrinking violets. Mathilde Krim is “a smart woman and one of the most powerful I’ve ever met,” says Misenhimer. “You don’t fight her because she always wins. And AIDS is her life.” Elizabeth Taylor is also used to getting her way. That these two have managed to coexist for seven years in the name of AIDS says more about their compassion than their egos. But there are differences.
Last November, when Magic Johnson announced he was HIV-positive, Krim responded by immediately writing Johnson to ask him to be on AmFAR’s board. Taylor’s distaste for what she perceived as inappropriate pushiness is evident. She sent Johnson flowers and “my support. I’ve never met Magic. I don’t want to use him…. It’s the same with Arthur Ashe…. What [the press] did to him is appalling. The way [somebody] chooses to die is their own goddamn business.”
It was also Taylor who, three years ago, insisted, over the objections of Krim, that the organization go international. She felt AmFAR’s remaining American was “very chauvinistic…. I got the action going, by hustling and using friends … but I had to do it. Now,” she says wryly, “we’re all happy and working for the same cause.”
Taylor bursts into a wild laugh. “I’m so full of bullshit I can’t believe it.”
“We complement each other very well,” says Krim. “I have a professional education in biology and medicine, and because I’m not a public figure I can work at the desk long hours. I mind the shop. Elizabeth contributes to projecting an image of the organization. She deals with the public very well.”
Taylor, indeed, has a knack. “From the beginning, she was in on almost every meeting in person or by phone,” says Misenhimer. “I remember one meeting we had at the Occidental Petroleum building. While we were there she popped in to see Armand Hammer and got him to give $10,000.”
One of Taylor’s first letters went to Nancy Reagan, suggesting she might want to get involved with AIDS. The First Lady’s response was frosty. President Reagan had yet to publicly utter the word “AIDS”—“not even when he spoke to Rock Hudson on the telephone,” says Krim. “Before Hudson admitted he had AIDS, he’d said he had hepatitis, so when Reagan called Hudson before he died, Reagan referred to his hepatitis.”
Not one to give up easily, Taylor kept after the Reagans until finally Reagan agreed to speak at the 1987 AmFAR Awards Dinner in Washington.
“[Reagan’s speechwriters] didn’t know anything about AIDS,”recalls Krim, “so we wrote the first half of the speech, where Reagan talked about compassion, justice, care—all the right things. We asked them to please not talk about mandatory testing, because it was not recommended scientifically, legally, or medically. We said it would elicit a furious reaction from the public. But one of Reagan’s advisers revised the speech and put it in.”
“Let’s talk about warm,” says Taylor, rolling her eyes as she remembers that afternoon in an un-air-conditioned tent so hot Gottlieb’s glasses steamed over. “The president mentioned mandatory testing and people jumped out of their seats. Then they started heckling him, so I jumped up and said, ‘Don’t be rude. This is your president and he is our guest.’ ”
Forbes surprised Taylor with the check at the May 1987 bash for the 70th anniversary of Forbes magazine, held at Timber-field, his New Jersey estate, and attended by 1,500 movers and shakers. “It was one of the most beautiful parties I’ve ever been to,” comments Taylor, who, people recall, was herself a visual standout that evening, deeply tanned and sporting a Christian Dior dress with a plunging neckline and a white stole. “I’d just been given the [French] Legion of Honor [for work with AIDS] and I was wearing not the medal but the little red ribbon, which is very subtle,” says Taylor. “I was very proud, so I put it on the white part of my dress. When we walked in, somebody in that big bank of press corps was screaming, ‘Liz!’ I just gave my glazed smile, pretending not to hear. Until I heard it again: ‘Liiiiiiiz!’ I was trying to ignore it—‘Oh, Henry [Kissinger], how are you?’
“ ‘Liiiiiiiz!’ Finally, I looked around and said, ‘Yes, what is it?’ And he said, ‘Your laundry tag is showing.’ And I thought, Well, so much for the Legion of Honor.”
When Forbes finally handed Taylor the envelope, she says, she was stunned. “I had never seen a check for a million dollars before.”
Elizabeth Taylor had never seen a check for a million?
“No,” she replies, her glance withering. “My paychecks get sent to the bank, dear.”
To some, Taylor’s instincts are more praiseworthy than AmFAR’s policies—hardly news to Mathilde Krim, who chuckles, “We’ve been praised and savaged.”
Critics of AmFAR say the organization’s method of allocating its funds is too unfocused. (Of the $20.6 million AmFAR raised last year, roughly 80 percent went to clinical and basic research, with the remaining 20 percent earmarked for education, public policy, and AmFAR’s international program.) The more radical AIDS activists view the organization as sedentary and Establishment; they berate it for being more reactive than proactive. “It doesn’t have its hand in the initiation of any legislation,” roars one. “All the reform on the executive branch—the speeding up of drugs through the F.D.A., coordination with the National Institutes of Health—has been done by ACT UP. In terms of the major policy reforms that have occurred in AIDS, the only one Am-FAR had a hand in was the Ryan White Comprehensive AIDS Resources Act [authorizing emergency federal funds for cities and states hardest hit by AIDS]. AmFAR has a presence in Washington when they bring in Elizabeth. She is an incredibly powerful public advocate. But she’s not going to write a new piece of legislative initiative. Elizabeth is the public face of AmFAR and when AmFAR does go to bat, she’s there. She’s holding up her end. The problem is the organization.”
“My original intention was that [AmFAR] be ready on every issue that was breaking,” says Misenhimer, “so we could snap our fingers and have our spokesman available. AmFAR should be the American Red Cross, the American Lung Association, the American Heart Association—but for AIDS. They—not the American Medical Association—should be the ones setting policy and issuing medical statements.”
Gottlieb, who was not revoted to the board in 1990, views his old organization with sadness. “It’s lost its urgency.”
Last year Taylor established her own personal foundation, the Elizabeth Taylor AIDS Foundation, whose focus is direct AIDS care and education as opposed to research. AmFAR watchers saw it as tangible proof of her discontent. The actress demurs. “Now I have the best of both worlds,” she says. “I raise money; it’s hard cash and goes directly to the source. There’s no overhead, not one dollar.” Among the outlays ETAF has made in the names of Elizabeth and Larry Fortensky: $100,000 for AIDS-prevention programs, including condom giveaways and needle exchanges for intravenous-drug users in Latin America, and $250,000 to AIDS Project Los Angeles.
Taylor claims she will never leave AmFAR. “I couldn’t. It’s a part of me. But I have to keep reminding myself not to succumb to Founder’s Syndrome. You become overly protective, chauvinistic, and unyielding … egos get in the way. You start thinking, This organization is mine. It’s not. You’re working for other people. You’re a volunteer. And that’s what I am. A volunteer.”
Taylor wasn’t so sure. “I was terrified I’d end up a vegetable on life support.” So she called her lawyer and made out a living will, stipulating that if she was unconscious for two weeks somebody had to pull the plug.
Taylor is now sitting on the edge of her seat. Talking about her death livens her up. “I wasn’t leaving anything to chance. I came into this hospital for a sinus infection, and now here I was, dying.”
Well, she didn’t. They went on to perform a lung biopsy. “They cut from here to here,” says Taylor, moving a hand from her breastbone, under her right breast, toward her back. “And then they used a machine to wedge open the ribs.” She says this rather extreme diagnostic technique was the only method available to try to figure out how to combat the mysterious virus. But even that didn’t work.
Catheters were stuffed into her chest and it was discovered that in addition to the virus she had the fungal infection candidiasis (thrush), one of the illnesses associated with AIDS.
“They’d given me so many antibiotics they’d blown my immune system. . . . I had the symptoms of AIDS, but I didn’t have the fear. I knew I’d get better. I had the luxury of being almost certain I’d live.”
Taylor pauses. “The first time I died was overwhelming. This time it galvanized me. I thought, I’ve got to do something to help people who are really sick.”
But then, of course, she has. The world’s most famous movie star is now the world’s most famous AIDS activist. And once again she is center stage. “In Amsterdam, people from ACT UP were demonstrating outside the building where we held my press conferences. As I walked past them one day they yelled, ‘Act up, Liz. Act up.’ And I thought, Well, you’ve got the right girl. Worry not. I will.”