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Friday, 19 May, 2000, 11:05 GMT 12:05 UK
Dame Liz: Taylor made for charity
By Bob Chaundy of the BBC's News Profiles Unit

"She knows more about suffering than Charles Dickens and Saint Augustine put together," the actor Laurence Harvey once said of Elizabeth Taylor.

During her 63 years, the Hollywood actress has suffered ulcers, amoebic dysentery, acute bronchitis, near-fatal pneumonia, a benign brain tumour, innumerable back problems, arthritis, alcohol addiction, pain-killer addiction, sleeping-pill addiction, enough illnesses, ailments and operations, in fact, to have single-handedly sustained the medical profession and the pharmaceutical industry for years.

Dame Elizabeth on BBC's Omnibus programme
Dame Elizabeth on BBC's Omnibus programme
It is small wonder that Elizabeth Taylor developed a strong empathy with those who suffer.

When, on account of her having twice broken her back in the past three years, she had to be wheeled into Buckingham Palace to be made a Dame, the honour was, in part, a recognition of her outstanding charity work.

Although she has generously contributed to several causes, Dame Elizabeth Taylor's worthy efforts have become synonymous with Aids.

She, more than any other celebrity, politician or world activist, was responsible for changing attitudes to the disease.

By persuading, coaxing, and, if necessary, bullying her rich and influential friends into supporting her initial fundraising events, she began the process of fighting ignorance of Aids and the prejudice surrounding it.

And she has made it a job for life, or at least until a cure is found.

Taylor with Rock Hudson
Taylor and Rock Hudson on the set of Giant
Fifteen years after the likes of Sammy Davis and Frank Sinatra attended her first Aids fundraising bash, the Cannes film festival has just staged a $100,000 per table charity dinner co-hosted by Dame Elizabeth and Sir Elton John, with guests that included Prince Albert of Monaco, Gregory Peck, Kenneth Branagh, Elizabeth Hurley and Jeremy Irons.

Throughout her life, Elizabeth Taylor has counted dozens of gay men as friends, most notably Montgomery Clift, James Dean and Rock Hudson. When the Aids virus first struck the US in the early 1980s, it was mainly confined to the gay community.

Its first major casualty was Rock Hudson with whom Taylor had co-starred in Giant in 1956 and then again in The Mirror Crack'd in 1980.

"Everyone was talking about Aids but talking behind their hands," Dame Elizabeth says in a BBC Omnibus Special profile to be screened on 26 May. "But nobody was doing anything about it, including myself. And then I got really angry."

What angered her even more was the intense homophobia that Aids brought with it. "People were telling me not to get involved, I got death threats, I got angrier and angrier. So I put myself out there."

Addressing an Aids benefit concert at Wembley stadium
Addressing an Aids benefit concert at Wembley stadium in 1992
Kick-started by a cheque for $250,000 from Rock Hudson's estate, in 1985 she formed the Aids Project Los Angeles and hosted a dinner that raised $1m for research.

She then discovered a woman in New York, Dr Mathilde Krim, who was attempting to do the same thing. The two joined forces to form The American Foundation for Aids Research (AmFAR).

The Foundation's activities soon became international, with Elizabeth Taylor as its chair. She attends all its main meetings to which, ever the star, she is accompanied by her hairdresser.

So far, AmFAR has raised more than $166m for various levels of medical research. With her acting career more and more limited by poor health, her charity work has heralded a new lease of life.

"That was when I could take the fame that I've tried to get away from and use it to do some good," she said.

Her public feistiness, so familiar to those acquainted with the soap opera of her private life, was well suited to her fund-raising role.

With friend, Michael Jackson at Aids event in 1997
With friend, Michael Jackson at an Aids event in 1997
She told the eighth International Conference in Amsterdam in 1991: "I don't think President Bush is doing anything at all about Aids. In fact, I'm not sure he even knows how to spell Aids."

In private, Dr Mathilde Krim sees a different side to Dame Elizabeth. She recalls her looking after her former daughter-in-law, Aileen Getty, who had contracted Aids through a blood transfusion.

"In the most tender way, she was holding her in her arms, lying in bed with her to hold her. This is an image the public doesn't see of Elizabeth. She is a very private person".

See also:

18 May 00 | Entertainment
16 May 00 | Entertainment
16 May 00 | Entertainment
11 May 00 | Health
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