Elizabeth Taylor

Each week, The Daily Beast sifts through the cultural landscape to choose three top picks. This week, screen siren Elizabeth Taylor is memorialized after her death, Sweet Valley High makes a triumphant return, and the South Park boys unveil their Mormon musical.

Hulton Archive / Getty Images

Hulton Archive / Getty Images

Early Days

Taylor was born in 1932 to American parents living in London. Her father was an art dealer who had his own gallery in a trendy part of London, and her mother was an actress who had done well under the stage name Sara Sothern. As a young girl, she attended the private school Byron House and took ballet lessons with Madame Vacani, instructor to the royal family. At age 3, she performed in a dance recital at London’s Hippodrome in front of royalty.

Everett Collection

A Star Is Born

At just 12 years old, Taylor scored the leading role in National Velvet, a film about a young woman who wins a horse in the lottery and rides it in a fancy London race. During filming, she was thrown from a horse and suffered a broken back, but her hard work earned her rave reviews from New York Times critic Bosley Crowther: “Her face is alive with youthful spirit, her voice has the softness of sweet song and her whole manner in this picture is one of refreshing grace.”

Keystone Features / Getty Images

Riding High

Taylor lived a privileged life as a young girl: Her adopted godfather, Victor Cazalet, gave her a pony as a gift and provided her with riding lessons at his estate in Kent. “My happiest moments as a child were riding my Newfoundland pony, Betty, in the woods on 3,000 acres of my godfather’s estate near the village of Crambrook, in Kent,” she told Good Housekeeping. “Our family lived in the hunting lodge. I was given the pony when I was 3. The very first time I got on her back, she threw me into a patch of stinging nettles. But I soon became an accomplished horsewoman. I’d ride bareback for hours all over the property."

Clarence Sinclair Bull, John Kobal Foundation / Getty Images

Blossoming Beauty

Just before the release of the film Cynthia, a 15-year-old Taylor—who had not yet been allowed a boyfriend—told Louella Parsons in a radio interview that she wanted to be a great actress, but that “most of all, I want to snare a husband.” Soon, MGM sent her to England in 1948 to play the wife of Robert Taylor in Conspirator when she was only 17.

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Acting Chops

In 1949, Taylor was gaining attention as she made the cover of Time magazine and became engaged to the wealthy William Pawley Jr., whom she never married. Meanwhile, she began work on A Place in the Sun, a film directed by George Stevens. Taylor told Life interviewer Richard Meryman that it was the first film in which she was “asked to do any real acting.”

AP Photo

Husband Number 1

Taylor played a bride-to-be opposite Spencer Tracy in Father of the Bride in 1950, the same year she became an actual bride and married Conrad Hilton, Jr., heir to the hotel chain. They had an extravagant wedding that was stage-managed by MGM to coincide with the release of Bride. After the publicity blitz, Taylor left with her husband for an extended European honeymoon during which she realized Hilton had an alcohol problem. The marriage only lasted a year.

Hulton Archive / Getty Images

Sticking Out in the Crowd

Taylor’s success as a child star made her feel like a misfit as she became a teenager, she told Vogue: “When I tried to blend in, I stuck out like a sore thumb. I was famous and I looked much older than I was. When I was 15 I was playing 18 year olds and going out with men in their twenties or more.”

Jay Scott, BIPs / Getty Images

Husband Number 2

After divorcing Hilton at 19, Taylor married British actor Michael Wilding in 1952. He was 38—twice her age. The couple had two sons before separating in 1956.

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Wild West

Taylor starred with Rock Hudson in Giant, a 1956 film about a Texas rancher and his wife. Critics felt Taylor’s role in the film was overshadowed by the death of James Dean, who was killed in a car accident shortly after completing his scenes.

RDA, Hulton Archive / Getty Images

Third Time’s a Charm

Taylor married her third husband, Michael Todd in 1957, a marriage her biographer Brenda Maddox said transformed Taylor “from a dull movie beauty into an international celebrity… and into the archetypal star goddess.” Tragically, Todd died in a plane crash only a year after they wed and Taylor was forced to fulfill contractual obligations with her studio despite her grieving process.

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Put On a Happy Face

Taylor earned an Academy Award nomination for her portrayal of Maggie the Cat in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. She became “the quintessential Tennessee Williams heroine,” director Richard Brooks later said of her performance. The actress was forced to film the part shortly after her husband Michael Todd was killed in a plane crash, later admitting to Vogue that the stress almost caused her to have a nervous breakdown. “I developed an awful stutter, and the only way I could talk straight was in Maggie’s voice, with that Southern accent,” she said. “Any other time I would just ug, ig, um, like that; my jaw would jerk.”

AP Photo

Husband Number 4, Homewrecker Edition

Taylor caused an uproar when she married Eddie Fisher, who had been the best man in her marriage to Michael Todd only a few years prior. Fisher divorced actress Debbie Reynolds to wed Taylor, and the actress was labeled a “homewrecker” despite the couple’s insistence that Fisher’s last marriage had already been on the rocks before he hooked up with Taylor.

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Sudden Wealth

Taylor played Catherine in another Tennessee Williams adaptation, Suddenly Last Summer, for which she received her third Academy Award nomination. She also received $500,000, which was at the time the most ever earned by an actress for eight weeks of work.

Everett Collection

Close Call

Before receiving an Academy Award for Best Actress in Butterfield 8, in which she played a call girl, Taylor had a serious health scare and nearly died of pneumonia. Physicians performed a tracheotomy so she could breathe. “I had a near-death, out-of-body experience,” she told People magazine, “but nobody talked about that 30 years ago, because you felt crazier than a bedbug if you did. I saw the light and the tunnel. And there was somebody who was deceased and making me go back.”

HO / AP Photo; Hulton Archive / Getty Images

Doting Mother

Taylor had four children with three different men. Taylor and Wilding had two sons, Michael Howard Wilding and Christopher Edward Wilding. She and Todd had one daughter, Elizabeth Frances Todd. She began adoption proceedings for a daughter named Maria with Fisher, but it was Richard Burton who later adopted her.

Newsweek, March 1963

Taylor graced the cover of Newsweek in March 1963 to promote Cleopatra, the film that nearly bankrupted 20th Century Fox with its soaring budget. Originally slated to cost $2 million, the final budget was over $44 million. Taylor earned $1 million for her role as Cleopatra, the most an actress had ever been paid. While critics panned the film, it still managed to win four Academy Awards. It took 1965’s The Sound of Music, which became one of the most popular movies of all time, to put 20th Century Fox back in the black.

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Love on Set

Taylor was paid $1 million for Cleopatra after signing with 20th Century Fox in 1961. During the filming, Taylor and Richard Burton began seeing one another, which prompted the Vatican to speak out in protest, calling their behavior the “caprices of adult children” and accusing Taylor of “erotic vagrancy.” It was the first of many films the couple would star in together, including The VIPs, The Sandpiper, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, The Taming of the Shrew, Doctor Faustus, The Comedians, Boom!, Under Milk Wood and Hammersmith Is Out.

William Lovelace, Evening Standard / Getty Images; Getty Images

Richard Burton, Husband No. 5 and 6

Taylor and Burton made $50 million on the films they made together between 1964 and 1972, and they had a reputation as big spenders who dropped hundreds of thousands of dollars on jewels and a yacht. Burton bought Taylor a 33.19-carat Crupp diamond ring and he later bought her a 69.42-carat pear-shaped diamond. Taylor divorced Burton in 1974 but remarried him again the following year. The couple often fought, as one People magazine writer commented: “Their marriage … became a portable riot. At hotels, they would rent suites above and below their own so other guests wouldn’t overhear their brawling.” They divorced again in 1976.

Everett Collection

Tonal Shift

Taylor’s portrayal of Martha, a messy and unglamorous woman in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, earned her a second Academy Award for Best Actress. Directed by Mike Nichols, the 1966 screen adaptation of Edward Albee’s play showed a passionate and blowzy woman engaged in a dangerous game with her husband.

HO / AP Photo

Husband 7

Taylor wed John Warner, a Virginia politician, in 1976. Taylor took to campaign-stumping the state during Warner’s senatorial race, and after he won the Senate seat, she endured some of the most taxing personal years of her life. “I had been a very unhappy, self-destructive person the whole time I lived in Washington,” she told Good Housekeeping. “It’s a difficult city for women anyway, and so ego-oriented it makes Hollywood look like chopped chicken liver. I wasn’t allowed to express my opinions or even wear my favorite color, purple, because Republicans didn’t like that color…”

Lennox McLendon / AP Photo; Evan Agostini / AP Photo

Loyal Friends

Taylor befriended Michael Jackson following a Taylor walk-out from the pop star’s concert at Dodgers Stadium in the 1980s. When Jackson heard Taylor had left her show, he called her and she assured him she had left because she could not see well—not because he had performed poorly. “Then we met, and spent more and more time with each other, and just became really good friends. Told each other everything,” she said in a 2006 interview. Their friendship evolved as the two hosted elaborate birthday parties for one another and Jackson penned a song called “Elizabeth, I Love You” for the actress. Jackson also built a shrine to Taylor where her movies played 24/7 at his Neverland ranch.

Ron Galella, WireImage / Getty Images

Husband 8

Taylor met Larry Fortensky, a construction worker, during her stint in substance abuse rehabilitation. Fortensky, 40, was battling his own addiction problems and the two became friends during group therapy sessions. The two were married in 1991 at the home of Michael Jackson, Taylor’s close friend, and she helped Fortensky deal with his mother while he gave her support as she battled pneumonia once more in 1990.

Terry O'Neill / Getty Images

Health Struggles

Taylor has long battled a number of health problems: ulcers, amoebic dysentery, bursitis, acute bronchitis, back pain, pneumonia and alcoholism and prescription drug addictions, for which she was admitted to the Betty Ford Center in California for treatment. In 1997, she underwent surgery for a benign brain tumor. She allowed photographers to take pictures of her in the hospital with her shaved head and showing a large scar. “Most people are terrified, as I am, of brain surgery,” she told Life interviewer Brad Darrach. “But if they can go through the experience with me, sharing my fears and watching my struggles, maybe they’ll be able to say, ‘Hey, if she can get through it so can I.’ That hope helps me keep up my spirits as I face what lies ahead.”

Newsweek, June 1999

In June 1999, Taylor again appeared on the cover of Newsweek, this time contributing a personal diary that described her childhood as a movie star and her friends in Hollywood. “I was a total daydreamer,” she said of her school days. “I was constantly rapped on the knuckles: Elizabeth, stop daydreaming! I'd go into the bathroom and do my daydreaming there.” After a childhood of privilege and celebrity, Taylor would co-star with the era’s biggest male stars, including Rock Hudson and James Dean. “Jimmy was very introspective,” Taylor recalled. “He was very shy. He used that shyness. People took it as him being recalcitrant, but it wasn't. He was a very sweet, deep, intelligent and funny young man. And he had suffered so much in his life—a horrendous childhood. You just wanted to put your arms around his wounds, and kiss all the harm away.”

Fred Prouser / Retuers

Jason Winter

Taylor was reportedly engaged to 49-year-old Jason Winter, Janet Jackson's new manager. She told a friend Winter is "one of the most wonderful men I've ever known." Here, the pair at Macy's Passport fashion show in Santa Monica, California September 27, 2007. The show raises funds for AIDS/HIV research.