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03.23.11

Elizabeth Taylor Interview About Her AIDS Advocacy

Fourteen years after Kevin Sessums spoke to Elizabeth Taylor about her AIDS activism, he offers never-before-seen outtakes from the fun, feisty interview—from her secret about James Dean to why she never wrote a memoir. Plus, Valentino, Diane von Furstenberg, and writers and AIDS activists remember the late Hollywood queen's advocacy.

Fourteen years after Kevin Sessums spoke to Elizabeth Taylor about her AIDS activism, he offers never-before-seen outtakes from the fun, feisty interview—from her secret about James Dean to why she never wrote a memoir. Plus, Valentino, Diane von Furstenberg, and writers and AIDS activists remember the late Hollywood queen's advocacy. Plus, full coverage of Elizabeth Taylor.

"I love trusting. I get hurt very easily. I am tough when I have to be. I can will myself to back away from an oncoming train. I can spin on a dime. I have led a very strange life." Not just one entangled in celluloid? "Honey, you can see through celluloid and it is brittle. Neither of those things would for a moment describe me."

Thus spoke Elizabeth Taylor when I was visiting her at her home in Bel Air in 1997 for a cover story about her for POZ magazine. She had recently been in the hospital for the removal of a brain tumor, and her hair that afternoon was whiter than Harlow's in a black-and-white still and was clipped just as close to her head as Jackie Cooper's when he too was a kid star like her. I have been listening to the tapes of our Bel Air conversation all day today and the sound of Elizabeth's raucous laughter has filled my apartment. We had planned to talk only about her AIDS activism, but she happily veered off into Hollywood lore and English politics and how she'd like to break the legs of cosmetic executives who test their products on caged and abused beagles. Taylor was feisty. And she was fun. There was, indeed, an animal theme throughout our talk. She ribbed herself for having a pet chicken she named Strawberry back on her family's farm in Kent, England, where she spent her early years. She lovingly recalled riding her horses there. And she called her counselor at the Betty Ford Clinic "a real cow."

When I told her about then Conservative Party leader William Hague back in her homeland stating his support for gay marriage, she was elated. "My God! That's a step forward," she told me. "But it doesn't surprise me, really. When the English make a move, it's usually a good one—though it does take them a while. Everybody thinks everybody is gay who comes from England anyway," she said, that laugh of hers having become a kind of punctuation in our conversation, my cue to carry on.

"Even including you?" I ventured, taking her premise to an absurd conclusion and making her laugh even more. "Especially with that haircut you've got now, Elizabeth. It could be described as dykey."

"It's my butch-do," she labeled it. "My new lesbian look."

Was part of her AIDS activism, I wondered, her attempting to get away from being "Elizabeth Taylor," yet another of her characters, but one she had to play all her life?

"God!" she screeched, then lowered her voice to a level both sensual and sonorous. "I would find being 'Elizabeth Taylor' really boring."

"Is that your Tallulah Bankhead imitation?" I asked

"Believe me, Kevin, Tallulah Bankhead would have found being 'Elizabeth Taylor' really, really boring as well."

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Part of being "Elizabeth Taylor" that was not boring was all the legendary people with whom the real Elizabeth Taylor worked. What did she think of Tennessee Williams? "I adored Tennessee," she told me. "He was one of my best friends. He was hopelessly naive, however. He had no business sense. I stepped in and tried to act as his agent when I found out what he was not getting. He thought he had himself a good deal. He was getting 5 percent of the profits of the films of his plays. So I said, 'Tennessee, there is no such thing in the movie business as a profit, much less 5 percent of it. It's about the gross. Have you ever made any money off your films?' He said, no, he had not. 'Tennessee!' I screamed at him. 'That's why!' So I took him in hand. I loved him dearly."

And James Dean? "I loved Jimmy. I'm going to tell you something, but it's off the record until I die. OK? When Jimmy was 11 and his mother passed away, he began to be molested by his minister. I think that haunted him the rest of his life. In fact, I know it did. We talked about it a lot. During Giant we'd stay up nights and talk and talk, and that was one of the things he confessed to me."

Another tortured soul with whom she worked was Montgomery Clift. There was a quality to her AIDS activism that was not only warrior-like but also maternal, and I confessed to her myself that afternoon that it was as if she were turning to all of us who were HIV positive and saying, as she did to Clift, in A Place in the Sun, in the cinema's most famous closeup, "Tell Mama..."

She touched my hand and stopped me. She leaned forward. "Tell Mama all..." she finished the line for me with the most fervent of whispers.

And yet she never told all herself in a memoir. "I would have to give up today," she told me back then. "And dive into yesterday. You can't predict tomorrow. And my life has had so many startling tomorrows that I don't think they've stopped."

Today they did.

Rest in peace, Elizabeth.

Here are some others who told me what her work in the AIDS movement has meant to them:

Valentino
Legendary fashion designer, philanthropist, and Taylor's close friend

"The media will remember her for her marriages, her jewels, her movies. How unjust.

"I like to remember her not only for being amazingly beautiful and such a great actress but for the work she has done for people who suffer.

"I remember when she sold all her jewels in early '80s to build 15 hospitals in Africa... and how much money she raised for AmFAR that helped fund the research that is one of the main reasons today people infected with HIV can live normally.

"In 1991 we created together a charity for children with AIDS in Italy, and I personally saw her sitting on the floor next to terminally sick people, holding their hands and comforting them.

"She used to call me Rudy because she thought I looked like that other Valentino.

"I first met her when she was filming Cleopatra in Italy. She had been invited to the Italian premiere of Spartacus and had heard that there was a new designer that perhaps she should meet. So I was summoned to meet her. You can imagine how nervous I was to meet Mrs. Burton. Well, she was still Mrs. Fisher then. She was about to be Mrs. Burton. I could not believe she became one of my closest friends. I remember when I got the phone call from her one day and my assistant said it was Elizabeth calling. That was the first time I called her by her first name. Goodbye, Elizabeth. Your Rudy."

Peter Staley
Co-founder of ACT UP

"There's a lot of Hollywood cause-puffery these days, but what I loved about Taylor is that she meant it, deep in her bones. That was obvious from her timing—she became an AIDS activist when everyone else was running for the hills.

"And she was an activist. The first time I met her she raved about the condom we put over Jesse Helms' house and said, 'The next time you do something like that again, invite me along.' I couldn't help but laugh, imagining her on top of a roof unfurling a gigantic condom."

Andrew Sullivan
Writer, AndrewSullivan.com

"I met her once and we talked about AIDS and HIV. She knew so little about both I was somewhat dumbstruck. She seemed to believe that some people could be carriers of the virus without being infected themselves. It was useless arguing with her—and who would want to? But her ignorance was matched by her benevolence."

Diane von Furstenberg
Designer and philanthropist

"She is a true legend... for her beauty, talent, compassion and courage."

Sean Strub
AIDS activist and founder of POZ magazine

"At a time when the disgust, neglect, and derision of the broader society and culture was making people with AIDS feel dirty and ashamed, Elizabeth Taylor blessed us with her glamour. She made us feel like there was love and understanding just over the horizon, beyond the thick of ignorance and fear through which we had to fight our daily lives. Her activism was as authentic as it gets and was absent any of the self-congratulatory egotism or self-declared risks or concerns about how such activism might impact one's career that so often accompany celebrity support. She celebrated the movement's triumphs and mourned our losses every bit as much as the frontline ACT UP warrior. The power of her example is immeasurable. Like Lady Diana, Elizabeth Taylor was a true guardian angel for people with HIV."

Kevin Frost
Executive director of AmFAR

"Though I've thought about it often, I'm unable to fully articulate Elizabeth Taylor's importance in the fight against AIDS. There simply was nobody like her. She was courageous when most people were afraid, and compassionate when too many didn't care. She spoke out when people with AIDS were voiceless and leaves a legacy that has improved and extended the lives of millions and will enrich countless more for generations to come."

Larry Kramer
AIDS activist, founder of GMHC and ACT UP, and author of the upcoming Broadway revival of The Normal Heart

"This morning I saw her photo on NYTimes.com and I started to cry. There are not so many people who can make me cry anymore. She was the first, the best, and any other celebrity who fought for us came after her. And she never stopped. Great activists know that you must never ever stop fighting, and she never did. She always showed up when others failed to. No matter how she felt or thought she looked, she got herself there. I shook her hands maybe half a dozen times at AmFAR events. It was like touching royalty. Well, she was that."

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Kevin Sessums is the author of the New York Times bestseller Mississippi Sissy , a memoir of his childhood. He was executive editor of Andy Warhol's Interview magazine and a contributing editor of Vanity Fair and Allure. He is a contributing editor of Parade. His new memoir, I Left It on Mountain will be published by St. Martins Press.