Some people say she’s the most beautiful person in the world but if you wouldn’t agree, at the very least, Elizabeth Taylor is one of the most iconic Hollywood legends of all time. With a career that spanned nearly five decades, you’ll soon learn that Liz Taylor collected starring roles, jewelry, and even more scandalously – husbands. You won’t even believe how old she was when she first got married!
This Is Not A Rags To Riches Story
Elizabeth Taylor was born on February 27, 1932, in London to Americans Francis Lenn Taylor, an art dealer, and Sara Sothern, a retired stage actress. Taylor and her older brother had a privileged upbringing, especially since their parents’ social circle included renowned artists and politicians. At the age of three, Taylor began horseback riding, a skill that would benefit the beginnings of her career as an actress. The onset of World War II forced the Taylors to relocate to the United States in 1939, eventually settling in Beverly Hills, California after Taylor’s father was able to open a new art gallery in Los Angeles.
Film Producers Were Put Off By Her Looks
Around the age of nine, Taylor was encouraged to audition for films, mostly due to her mesmerizing eyes, which were a famous “deep violet,” complemented by a set of double eyelashes caused by a genetic mutation. Elizabeth Taylor had a small role in 1942’s There’s One Born Every Minute, but producers didn’t think she was comparable to her contemporaries like Shirley Temple or Judy Garland. Universal’s casting director infamously said, “The kid has nothing… her eyes are too old, she doesn’t have the face of a child.” MGM gave Taylor another chance and cast her in 1943’s Lassie Come Home, after which she was granted a seven-year contract.
Taylor Got Her First Big Break At Twelve
Elizabeth Taylor’s first big break came at the age of 12 when she was cast in the starring role for 1944’s National Velvet. Since 1937, MGM had searched tirelessly for a young actress with a British accent who could ride horses. Having spent her childhood in London where she began horseback riding, the newly signed Elizabeth Taylor finally fit the bill. However, producers still thought Taylor was a tad short for the role, so they postponed filming National Velvet to allow time for her to grow a little bit taller. Taylor spent the extra time working on her horseback riding skills.
She Signed Her Life Away To MGM
National Velvet became a box-office success and marked the official start of Elizabeth Taylor’s lengthy career. However, her contractual obligations to MGM gave the studio control over many aspects of her life. She would say later in her life that her childhood ended once she became a star, telling Rolling Stone, “I was used from the day I was a child, and utilized by the studio.” MGM wanted to die Taylor’s black hair, change her name to “Virginia,” and pluck her eyebrows into the thin shape popularized in the ’30s—all demands that Taylor and her parents were able to successfully turn down at the time.
She Was Groomed To Be A Star
By the time she turned 15 in 1947, MGM had already groomed Elizabeth Taylor to become the superstar that she was. She was publicly portrayed in a more mature light as the power of her attraction grew stronger. MGM had her go on a date with football champion Glenn Davis and she was briefly engaged at age 17 to William Pawley, Jr. Even Howard Hughes reportedly offered to build her a movie studio and give her parents a six-figure sum of money if she agreed to marry him. In 1964, Taylor told LIFE, “I only had two ways of running from everything. Go to college or get married.”
Elizabeth Taylor Marries A Hilton At Age 18
Of those two options, Taylor chose marriage. At the age of 18, Taylor married hotel heir Conrad “Nicky” Hilton, Jr. in May 1950. Because MGM funded and organized all the wedding preparations, it became a big media event as 3,000 fans lined the streets outside the Church of the Good Shepherd in Beverly Hills. Taylor’s first marriage would only last nine months. Weeks into the marriage, Taylor realized she had made a mistake after discovering that not only did she and Hilton have little in common, but he was also an abusive alcoholic. Taylor was granted a divorce the following January in 1951.
She Was Still A Teen When She Moved On To Mature Roles
Despite the bad publicity that stemmed from her short-lived first marriage and subsequent divorce, Elizabeth Taylor found it easy to transition into adult roles—which was not easy for many child actors from that time. She was only 16 when she filmed Conspirator, in which she plays a woman who suspects her husband of being a Soviet spy. From the age of 18, Taylor continued to take on adult roles and MGM even used her first marriage to promote 1950’s Father of the Bride, which was a $6 million box office success at the time. 1951’s A Place In The Sun was Taylor’s second critically acclaimed film at the time, in which the actress herself said that she was acting for the first time instead of being herself.
Elizabeth Taylor’s Second Marriage Was To Michael Wilding
Elizabeth Taylor met British actor Michael Wilding while filming Conspirator. They began a relationship after Taylor was on location in London to film the historical film Ivanhoe. Wilding was 20 years Taylor’s senior, but they pursued the relationship for different reasons. While Wilding thought that the relationship would benefit his career in Hollywood, Taylor thought their incredible age gap offered the same calm and security of a friendship. The two actors married in February 1952 and eventually went on to have two sons together. They began to drift apart over the course of their marriage, which ended in divorce in 1957.
Taylor Was Financially Dependent On The Studio Despite A Desire To Leave
Taylor’s initial contract with MGM ended in 1953 and despite wanting more interesting roles than the one the studio gave her, she decided to resign a seven-year contract with them in 1952 due to financial need. At the time, Taylor was pregnant with her first son with then-husband Michael Wilding. Under her new contract, Taylor was paid $4,700 a week, while MGM funded a loan for a house and offered Wilding a three-year contract. Despite these benefits from resigning, the new contract only obligated MGM to more control over Taylor’s life. Taylor’s subsequent films included Rhapsody, Elephant Walk, The Last Time I Saw Paris, and The Barefoot Contessa.
Taylor Gets Recognized By The Academy By The ’50s
With the rise of television in the mid-1950s, movie studios began to focus more on the quality of their films, rather than the rate at which they were producing them. Since the shift, Taylor landed the lead role in the 1956 film Giant, co-starring James Dean and Rock Hudson. Taylor was praised for her performance in the film, which set a precedent for her subsequent project, 1957’s Raintree County, which was made with the intention of being the next Gone with the Wind. Although the film itself was a flop, Taylor earned her first Academy Award nomination for Best Actress.
Taylor’s Third Marriage Wouldn’t Last Long Either
After filming Raintree County, Elizabeth Taylor married her third husband, producer Mike Todd, in February 1957. They would go on to have one daughter together, but the marriage wouldn’t last long—and this time not because of a divorce. In March 1958, Todd was killed in a plane crash over New Mexico. It became a difficult time for Taylor, who was already two weeks into filming her next project, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. Despite her grief, Taylor was forced to continue working due to the studio’s demands and the large debt that Todd left behind.
The Only Time Taylor Didn’t Lose A Husband Over Divorce
Taylor told LIFE in 1964 that Cat on a Hot Tin Roof was definitely a high point in her career, despite her devastation. “I think in a way I became Maggie. Mike was killed just two weeks after I started work on Cat and I guess I went slightly around the bend with grief. I was lucky I had somebody else to become. When I was Maggie was the only time I could function. When they said, ‘Cut,’ I would go back to my dressing room, and I don’t remember much what I did. I couldn’t read. I couldn’t talk; I couldn’t eat even. Most of the time I would just more or less look.” Mike Todd was one of the seven husbands Taylor actually loved, but probably not as much as the one that came along a little later down the road…
How Her Reputation Went From Grieving Widow To Homewrecker
During this time, Elizabeth Taylor found solace in Mike Todd’s best friend, singer Eddie Fisher. However, the shared grief led to an extra-marital affair, since Fisher and his then-wife, actress Debbie Reynolds, were considered America’s sweethearts. In an instant, Taylor was no longer seen as a grieving widow and instead, was viewed as a homewrecker. MGM capitalized on Taylor’s scandal by promoting Cat on a Hot Tin Roof with a poster that showed Taylor lying seductively while in lingerie. MGM’s decision to take advantage of Taylor’s personal life for sales set a precedent for the rest of her career.
She Knows She Was Involved With Fisher For The Wrong Reasons
Elizabeth Taylor and Eddie Fisher’s scandalous affair culminated in marriage in May 1959, although Taylor later admitted that she married him out of grief. Taylor told LIFE, “I let myself go into marriage with Eddie because I felt so sick and dead and cold after Mike’s death. I felt I had loved and there would be nothing in my life like that again. But you have to try to survive, make contact with people. I really thought for some idiotic reason that Eddie needed me, and I should make somebody happy. It turned out all we had in common was Mike, who’d been his best friend.”
Her Final MGM Film Earned Her Her First Oscar
Taylor was contractually obligated to do one more film for MGM and for this they chose her as the star of Butterfield 8, in which Taylor plays a high-class call girl. Again capitalizing on her personal life, MGM thought it would be easy for the public to view her as the protagonist of the film due to her already tarnished reputation. To make matters worse, Eddie Fisher was also cast in the film, but as Taylor’s close friend. Despite doing the film against her will, Taylor was praised for her performance and even won her first Academy Award for Best Actress in 1961.
Taylor’s Near-Death Experience With Pneumonia
Despite the fact that it was her first Oscar win, some critics speculate that Elizabeth Taylor was granted the award out of pity. In the months leading up to the 1961 Academy Awards, Taylor had fallen incredibly ill in Europe—so much so that she was on the brink of death. A severe case of pneumonia prompted Taylor to undergo an emergency tracheotomy. Within a couple weeks, Taylor was recovering just fine and she appeared at the Oscars ceremony with her tracheotomy scar in full view. Upon being handed her Oscar, she quietly gasped into the microphone, “I don’t know how to express my gratitude for this and for everything. All I can say is thank you, thank you with all my heart.”
Elizabeth Taylor Is The First Actress To Be Paid $1 Million For A Role
Taylor’s near-death experience halted production of one of the biggest productions of her career: Cleopatra. After finally gaining the freedom to leave MGM, Taylor went over to 20th Century Fox to star in the film, a historical epic about the famous ancient Queen of Egypt. For starring in Cleopatra, Taylor became the first actress to ever be paid $1 million for a role, in addition to getting ten percent of the film’s profits. The elaborate sets, costumes, and props—in addition to filming being relocated to Rome after Taylor recovered—cost the studio $31 million, making it the most expensive film ever made up until that point in the early ’60s.
Taylor Finds Herself In Another Illicit Affair
Actor Richard Burton was cast as Elizabeth Taylor’s co-star. While filming Cleopatra, the two weren’t very secretive about their newly budding affiar—despite the fact that Taylor was still married to Eddie Fisher and Burton was married to actress Sybil Williams. While the film was in production, the two were spotted canoodling on a yacht along the Amalfi Coast, which sparked outrage among the public. More controversy arose for Taylor, who already had the reputation of a homewrecker. Taylor and Burton were even publicly condemned by the Vatican for what they called “erotic vagrancy” and U.S. Congress even received calls to ban the couple from re-entering the country.
Taylor Says That The Film Was A Low Point In Her Life
Cleopatra became a huge-box office success, grossing $15.7 million in 1963. However, because the production costs amounted to $62 million, 20th Century Fox was nearly bankrupt and it took years for them to earn that money back despite the film’s profits. On top of that, Cleopatra didn’t fare too well with the critics, who said that Elizabeth Taylor was overweight in the film and that she could hardly match the talent of her classically trained co-stars. Taylor later told LIFE, “I’m afraid Cleopatra may have been rather a low point. The only things I was proud of… Fox cut out with unerring accuracy—that is, the core of the characterization.”
Hollywood Capitalized On Her Scandalous Private Life To Sell Movies
Taylor and Burton were now out in the open with their affair and film producers were quick to think of ways to capitalize on it. The couple was cast as co-stars in 1963’s The V.I.P.s, in which Burton played a millionaire estranged from his model wife, who was attempting to leave him for her lover. The movie was a hit, grossing $15 million with the scandal surrounding their real life to help it gain popularity. This would be the first of many times that projects in which Taylor and Burton starred in together would mirror their actual lives. Together they starred in 11 films, off which they made a combined $88 million over the next decade.
Taylor’s Fifth Marriage To Actor Richard Burton
Elizabeth Taylor and Eddie Fisher divorced by the following year in 1964. Nine days after her divorce was finalized, Taylor married her fifth husband, Richard Burton, in a private ceremony. Taylor and Burton were now free to pursue their relationship since they left their previous spouses for each other and just like that, the world was introduced to “Liz and Dick.” Their high-profile relationship was a new phenomenon for the public as the media tracked their every single move—one of the first instances in which society became obsessed with celebrity. They shamelessly lived their jet-setting lifestyle and spent millions of dollars on endless luxuries.
The Most Critically Acclaimed Performance Of Her Entire Career
In 1966, Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton starred in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? The comedy featured the stars as a middle-aged couple in the middle of a marital crisis. The film is considered the most critically acclaimed performance of Taylor’s career—she even gained 30 pounds for the role, wearing wigs and prosthetics to look more convincing as a frumpy woman in her fifties, while Taylor herself was only in her thirties. The role was a huge contrast from Taylor’s otherwise glamorous public image and she ended up winning her second Oscar for Best Actress at the 1967 Academy Awards.
A New Generation In Hollywood Sparked A Decline In Taylor’s Career
Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? may have been the climax of Elizabeth Taylor’s career, since her subsequent projects didn’t fare as well as she might have hoped. Additionally, the late ’60s introduced a new generation of movie stars, causing an aging and weight-gaining Taylor’s career to enter decline. Many of her projects from that point on were either flops or she was cast in minor roles but given top billing so that studios could use Taylor’s fame as a way to boost their films. Many of the films also still played off her personal life, but by then the public had grown tired of the phenomena known as “Liz and Dick.”
It Seems They Couldn’t Really Stay Away From Each Other
Taylor and Burton’s last film together was 1973’s Divorce His, Divorce Hers, which told the story from both sides of a couple whose 18-year marriage was beyond repair. Coincidentally, Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton would end their 10-year marriage in 1974—for the first time. The love they shared was still evident when the couple reconciled and remarried in 1975 while in Africa. However, they realized their initial divorce happened for a reason and finalized the second one by 1976. Two of Taylor’s eight marriages were with Burton, the man she would say was the only one she truly loved (in addition to Mike Todd).
Elizabeth Taylor Gets Political
It seems that Elizabeth Taylor didn’t spend too much time grieving the second divorce from Burton because the same year, she met Republican politician John Warner. Five months after their first date in 1976, they were married at his farm in Virginia and Taylor subsequently tried to settle into her new life as the wife of a politician. Many people speculated that Warner may have been using her to boost his political pursuits (he was a Senatorial candidate that ended up serving five terms), or if her reputation would bring down his career. A bigger thing to question at the time was if this seventh marriage to her sixth husband would be the one that would last.
Taylor Was Miserable With A Life In Washington
Elizabeth Taylor’s life in Washington was far quieter than the glamorous Hollywood lifestyle she was accustomed to. The couple managed their marriage while Taylor started a stage career in New York City and Warner’s political career took off. By 1982, the couple faced the truth: it wasn’t meant to last. In 2011, Warner told People, “We never had any real infractions between us – it was just that I became so absorbed in the Senate… Then she started plays in London and that became a little more difficult, and finally we just said, ‘Hey, let’s always remain good friends but let’s take the legal part and … go our separate ways. That’s how it happened.”
Liz And Dick Reunite For One Last Performance Together
In the midst of her early-’80s stage career, Elizabeth Taylor partnered with producer Zev Buffman to found the Elizabeth Taylor Repertory Company. The first and only production was Noël Coward’s Private Lives in 1983, about a divorced couple who encounters each other while on their respective honeymoons with new spouses. Of course, Taylor’s co-star was none other than her ex-husband Richard Burton. The reunion helped sell tickets to the show and the media was left to wonder whether Taylor and Burton were due for a third marriage. The couple by now, however, was aging and unwell, so their performance didn’t fare well with critics.
Was Elizabeth Taylor A Hollywood Novelty By The ’80s?
Throughout the rest of the ’80s, Taylor’s tepid stage career was accompanied by cameos and special appearances on television shows such as All My Children. She also starred in a number of made-for-television movies such as Malice in Wonderland and There Must Be A Pony. Hollywood had decided that Taylor’s star power was fading when they granted her honorary awards like the Cecil B. DeMille Award in 1985. She also had brief engagements to Mexican lawyer Victor Luna and businessman Dennis Stein during this time, but neither engagement made it to the altar.
Elizabeth Taylor Checked Herself Into Rehab
Elizabeth Taylor has been known to be in poor health for much of her life, especially after having a near-death experience with pneumonia while filming Cleopatra. A drug and alcohol addiction consumed her for many years—especially during the ’80s. Thankfully, Taylor was well enough to admit she had a problem and was the first celebrity to openly admit herself into rehab. At the end of 1983, Taylor admitted herself at the Betty Ford Center for treatment. Seven weeks later, she felt completely renewed, but her addiction to prescription drugs would land her back at Betty Ford a second time.
Finally, Elizabeth Taylor’s Eighth Marriage To Larry Fortensky
During her second stint in rehab, Elizabeth Taylor met Larry Fortensky, a construction worker who was 21 years her junior. It was the first time that Taylor became involved with a “regular” guy and apparently, it was her who proposed. In 1991, the actress and construction worker got married in what is known as one of the most lavish celebrity weddings of all time. Hosted by Michael Jackson at his Neverland Ranch, the wedding had a high-profile guest list and cost an estimated $1.5 million. Taylor sold her exclusive wedding pictures to People magazine for $1 million, but she ended up putting that money towards a good cause.
Elizabeth Taylor Gets Outspoken About Her Cause
In 1991, Taylor founded ETAF, the Elizabeth Taylor AIDS Foundation, using the money she got from her wedding photos to help launch it. Taylor had become a fervent activist for HIV and AIDS awareness 1985 after her dear friend, actor Rock Hudson, had passed away after succumbing to the disease. Taylor dedicated much of the rest of her life to the cause and became one of the first celebrities to speak openly about it—even speaking publicly to get Washington to acknowledge the disease. Over the course of her activism, Taylor has raised more than $270 million for the cause.
Her Goddaughter Is Now An ETAF Ambassador
In 2017, Elizabeth Taylor’s legacy lives on as Paris Jackson was named an ambassador for the Elizabeth Taylor AIDS Foundation. Elizabeth Taylor was the godmother of Michael Jackson’s only daughter, who spoke at Global Citizen Live in New York about her godmother’s cause. “She was passionate, she was outspoken… So, here we are 30 years later, living under a president [whose] …budget proposed slashing health-care funding for HIV and AIDS worldwide. So, now here I am hearing my godmother’s voice urging me to be heard and not allow all that’s been accomplished in finding a cure to fall by the wayside.”
Yes, Elizabeth Taylor Divorced Her Last Husband, Too
While many had hoped that Taylor’s eighth marriage would finally be the one that would last, they were unfortunately mistaken by 1996. Taylor and Fortensky signed a prenuptial agreement in which Fortensky was to receive a $1 million settlement with no additional support if the marriage lasted five years, which it did. Despite that, Taylor reportedly kept in touch with her seventh husband for many years and even allegedly gave him $50,000 to help keep his house out of foreclosure in 2009. However, after her final marriage dissolved, Taylor dedicated much of the rest of her life to fighting HIV and AIDS.
She Retired To Hollywood To Dedicate Her Life To AIDS Awareness
Elizabeth Taylor was so dedicated to her philanthropy, that she officially announced her retirement from show business in 2003 after a career that spanned five decades, over the course of which she starred in over 70 films. Taylor’s last public performance occurred in 2007 when she and actor James Earl Jones performed the play Love Letters at Paramount Studios for an AIDS benefit. At this point, Taylor had not performed on stage for 23 years and although many were nervous about the quality of her performance, Taylor—who was introduced on stage in a wheelchair due to her declining health—was welcomed to a standing ovation.
Elizabeth Taylor’s Sweet Smell Of Success
While Elizabeth Taylor’s acting career slowed down in the ’90s and she turned towards activism, she was in pursuit of other ventures at the time. One such venture was her fragrance line. Taylor partnered up with Elizabeth Arden, Inc. and closely supervised the production of all 11 fragrances that bear her name. Her first fragrance Passion launched in 1987 and remains her top-selling perfume, along with White Diamonds in 1991. According to The Guardian, a majority of her estate—estimated between $600 million and $1 billion—comes from the yield of her perfumes, since her fragrance line paid way better than Hollywood ever did.
She Admits That She Was “Foolish” For Her Multiple Marriages
Breaking up two marriages (at least), eight trips down the aisle and eight subsequent divorces earned Elizabeth Taylor a ton of criticism. Despite going through so many relationships, Taylor would say later in life that “All the men after Richard were really just company.” It was clear early on that Richard Burton was the only ex-husband that Taylor truly loved. She told The Telegraph, “I was a fool to marry so often. If I had my time over again, I would never do that. The truth is I don’t give a damn about most of those men. Richard is the only one I truly loved and still care about. I shall miss him until the day I die.”
The Life Of A Legend Ended, But Her Legacy Lives On
Elizabeth Taylor’s health had seriously declined in her later years and she was even confined to a wheelchair due to back problems. In 2004, she was diagnosed with congestive heart failure which would eventually cause her to be hospitalized in 2011, and she eventually succumbed to the illness six weeks later. Elizabeth Taylor passed away on March 23, 2011, at the age of 79 in Los Angeles. Her funeral happened the following day in a private burial service at Forest Lawn memorial park. The service reportedly began 15 minutes behind schedule because, according to representative Sally Morrison, “she even wanted to be late for her own funeral.”
“Big Girls Need Big Diamonds”
Of all the things that made Elizabeth Taylor iconic, perhaps the most memorable was her incredible jewelry collection. The most impressive pieces in her collection were all gifts from ex-husband Richard Burton including a 33-karat Krupp Diamond (later known as the Elizabeth Taylor Diamond), a 68-karat Taylor-Burton Diamond, and a 50-karat La Peregrina Pearl. After her death, Elizabeth Taylor’s entire jewelry collection sold for $115.9 million, which all went to benefit the Elizabeth Taylor AIDS Foundation. The Krupp Diamond sold for $8.8 million alone, while the Taylor-Burton Diamond was believed to have been sold for anywhere between $3-5 million.
The Elizabeth Taylor Diamond Sold For Over $8 Million
Richard Burton gave Elizabeth Taylor the Krupp Diamond in 1968, having purchased it at a New York auction for only $307,000. The 33.19-karat diamond had an Asscher cut and is believed to have been cut before the 1920s. Taylor wore her Krupp Diamond as a ring and considered it to be her favorite piece. Whenever it was appropriate, Taylor would often wear her own jewelry in her films, so you might have seen the Krupp Diamond on-screen in the past. After her death, the rock was renamed the Elizabeth Taylor Diamond and was sold to a South Korean conglomerate for over $200,000 per karat.
Elizabeth Taylor Sold This Diamond To Help Build An African Hospital
The following year, Richard Burton bought Elizabeth Taylor the Taylor-Burton Diamond. The then 69-karat diamond (it has since been cut to 68-karats) was too heavy for Taylor to wear on her finger, so she commissioned an $80,000 diamond necklace to set it in, which was designed to conveniently cover Taylor’s tracheotomy scar from 1961. Elizabeth Taylor publicly debuted her sparkling necklace at the 42nd Academy Awards in 1970 and at Grace Kelly’s, then-known as Princess Grace of Monaco, 40th birthday party. Taylor herself ended up selling the diamond in 1979 and donated some of the proceeds to help build a hospital in Botswana.