NEW YORK (CBSNewYork/AP) — Stage and screen legend, AIDS activist and philanthropist, Elizabeth Taylor, the violet-eyed film goddess whose sultry screen persona, stormy personal life and enduring fame and glamour made her one of the last of the old-fashioned movie stars and a template for the modern celebrity, died Wednesday at age 79.
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Born Elizabeth Rosemond Taylor in London on Feb. 27, 1932, she died of congestive heart failure at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, where she had been hospitalized for about six weeks, said publicist Sally Morrison. Taylor was the most blessed and cursed of actresses, the toughest and the most vulnerable.
The actress once shared a Midtown mansion on 10 West 56th Street with third husband, Michael Todd, and frequented several local haunts.
Taylor dined for 50 years at local favorite Patsy’s Italian Restaurant on West 56th Street, where co-owner and executive chef Sal Scognamillo recounted fond memories of the screen and stage star.
“If you were in this room when she walked in, it was like time stood still,” Scognamillo told CBS 2’s Scott Rapoport. “She was so nice. People would want autographs; she would give autographs.”
Scognamillo also recalled the famous faces with whom Taylor dined.
“Frank Sinatra first brought her here,” he said. “We’d be able to close the curtain – they’d have privacy.”
The restaurant owner said the one thing he’ll always remember was her eyes.
“It just went right through you,” Scognamillo said. “The violet was deep. It was like looking into a deep river almost.”
Scognamillo said he is now left with a lifetime full of memories of Elizabeth Taylor, a larger-than-life movie star – and a friend.
“It seems like yesterday, almost,” Scognamillo said. “I can’t believe she’s gone. She was a legend.”
The iconic movie star was also no stranger to the Broadway Stage, appearing in two revival plays – “Private Lives” and “The Little Foxes” between1981 and1983 – and producing another, “The Corn is Green.”
Taylor made her Broadway debut in “Little Foxes,” for which she got mixed reviews from local critics. Clive Barnes of the New York Post said at the time, “A great woman, a promisingly aspiring actress, a poor play – it can’t fail to succeed, or succeed enough to fail. Something has been made of nothing – but the something is presence, and the nothing is brightly colored tinsel.”
Frank Rich of The New York Times gave a much more positive review: “Entertainment – that’s what ‘The Little Foxes’ most abundantly is.”
Taylor received a Tony nomination for her performance. According to Playbill.com, years later, however, Rich named his positive review of the revival as one notice he wished he could have retracted. Box-office business never lagged, fueled by Taylor’s celebrity.
In 1982, Taylor and ex-husband Richard Burton starred as a divorced couple who meet on their respective honeymoons in “Private Lives.” They remained close at the time of Burton’s death, in 1984.
She had extraordinary grace, wealth and voluptuous beauty, and won three Academy Awards, including a special one for her humanitarian work. She was the most loyal of friends and a defender of gays in Hollywood when AIDS was still a stigma in the industry and beyond.
Taylor, however, was afflicted by ill health, failed romances (eight marriages, seven husbands) and personal tragedy.
“I think I’m becoming fatalistic,” she said in 1989. “Too much has happened in my life for me not to be fatalistic.”
Her more than 50 movies included unforgettable portraits of innocence and of decadence, from the children’s classic “National Velvet” and the sentimental family comedy “Father of the Bride” to Oscar-winning transgressions in “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” and “Butterfield 8.” The historical epic “Cleopatra” is among Hollywood’s greatest on-screen fiascos and a landmark of off-screen monkey business, the meeting ground of Taylor and Richard Burton, the “Brangelina” of their day.
Her defining role, one that lasted long past her moviemaking days, was “Elizabeth Taylor,” ever marrying and divorcing, in and out of hospitals, gaining and losing weight, standing by Michael Jackson, Rock Hudson and other troubled friends, acquiring a jewelry collection that seemed to rival Tiffany’s.
She underwent at least 20 major operations and she nearly died from a bout with pneumonia in 1990. In 1994 and 1995, she had both hip joints replaced, and in February 1997, she underwent surgery to remove a benign brain tumor. In 1983, she acknowledged a 35-year addiction to sleeping pills and pain killers.
Taylor was treated for alcohol and drug abuse problems at the Betty Ford Clinic in Rancho Mirage, Calif, where she met Larry Fortensky, a truck driver and construction worker she met in 1988 while both were undergoing treatment. He was 20 years her junior. They married in 1991 and divorced in 1997.
Her troubles bonded her to her peers and the public, and deepened her compassion.
Her advocacy for AIDS research and for other causes earned her a special Oscar, the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award, in 1993. She also received the Legion of Honor, France’s most prestigious award, in 1987, for her efforts to support AIDS research.
Her philanthropic interests also included assistance for the Israeli War Victims Fund and the Variety Clubs International.
In May 2000, Queen Elizabeth II made Taylor a dame — the female equivalent of a knight — for her services to the entertainment industry and to charity. In 1993, she won a lifetime achievement award from the American Film Institute; in 1999, an institute survey of screen legends ranked her No. 7 among actresses.
During much of her later career, Taylor’s waistline, various diets, diet books and tangled romances were the butt of jokes by Joan Rivers and others. John Belushi mocked her on “Saturday Night Live,” dressing up in drag and choking on a piece of chicken. “It’s a wonder I didn’t explode,” Taylor wrote of her 60-pound weight gain – and successful loss — in the 1988 book “Elizabeth Takes Off on Self-Esteem and Self-Image.”
In tune with the media to the end, she kept in touch through her Twitter account. “I like the connection with fans and people who have been supportive of me,” Taylor told Kim Kardashian in a 2011 interview for Harper’s Bazaar. “And I love the idea of real feedback and a two-way street, which is very, very modern. But sometimes I think we know too much about our idols and that spoils the dream.”
Survivors include her daughters Maria Burton-Carson and Liza Todd-Tivey, sons Christopher and Michael Wilding, and several grandchildren.
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