Forget for a moment that she was married to seven different men, and one of them twice. Or that her role in John Huston’s Cleopatra movie solidified her stardom as the highest paid and one of most popular and iconic silver-screen actresses in the world.
What intrigued me most when I visited Puerto Vallarta, Mexico this weekend before traveling back to the United States on the same day of the 75th Golden Globe awards, was Elizabeth Taylor’s storied connection to this magical town. In Puerto Vallarta (PV), I discovered a Hollywood feminist in the hills of Puerto Vallarta with a message of strength and courage in her timely legacy.
Taylor defied the social conventions for women in the mid-to late twentieth century. She was a Hollywood feminist before they existed, overcoming the kind of physical abuse and harassment called out in 2017’s #MeToo whistleblowing movement. Taylor was a revolutionary Hollywood actress – the first to brand her own commercial success while generously helping others as one of Hollywood’s first humanitarian ambassadors.
Maybe it’s no secret that Elizabeth Taylor was a survivor and a ground-breaker.
She defied convention by marrying eight times and was notoriously shamed for highly publicized extramarital affairs. Her glamorous jet-setting life and career success as a child star, born to wealthy parents living in London, was certainly not the magical playground it appeared to be, despite the beautiful photos I discovered of Taylor and her fifth husband Richard Burton in my PV winter getaway.
I learned about Taylor’s beautiful hilltop home, Casa Kimberly, which is now a newly renovated boutique hotel since 2012. Visitors can stay in one of the nine rooms named after precious jewels, that range in price from $435 for the Richard Burton suite to $825 per night for the Presidential Diamond suite. This was Taylor’s tranquil personal space purchased by Burton, who also bought the house across the street. He added a Venetian style, “Bridge of Sighs” pink-colored bridge that ensured he could escape or make up with Taylor after one of their famous lover’s quarrels.
This stunning casa overlooks a 42-km strip beach in the Bandera Bay area that is considered one of the most beautiful bays in the world. Both PV and Casa Kimberly have become popular tourist destinations thanks largely to Taylor and Burton. The couple discovered PV when Burton was cast in John Huston’s award-winning film, Night of the Iguana. And, as a tourist looking out over the same lush tropical greens and endless sandy beaches they did, I must admit the views are unreal from my balcony suite of the luxurious Hotel Mousai and its rooftop vanishing pool.
Of course, I didn’t come to PV to escape the paparazzi like they did, although I appreciate its history as a safe harbor for the Spanish soldiers that traveled through it on-route to California in the 16th century.
It’s hard to imagine this rest stop could be anything but a paradise for Taylor. But I hadn’t yet considered the legacy of her failed marriages, health issues and personal tragedies that plagued Taylor.
Taylor was physically abused by her first husband Conrad Hilton, Jr., the heir to the Hilton hotel fortune whom she married at eighteen. She found the courage to leave him, only to begin a serial history of divorces. Outside of her third husband Mike Todd, who died early after they married in a sudden plane accident, and her failed marriages to Burton, Taylor struggled to find love.
Taylor was also unhappy with the contract roles assigned by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayor (MGM) studios while married to her second husband, Mike Wilding. Hollywood actresses were the property of studios so women didn’t have the freedom to vie for the roles they wanted, let alone a career direction.
After Mike Todd’s sudden death, his heavy financial debts added even more pressure to Taylor’s already unhappy life and pressure to succeed.
Matters worsened after a series of extramarital affairs with Eddie Fisher (devastating America’s sweetheart Debbie Reynolds) and Richard Burton. Taylor became a spurned woman and the studios used her sex scandals to cash in at the box office. They accentuated her “cat” role in billboards and steamy movies like Cat On A Hot Tin Roof which ironically lead to better roles and her eventual casting and stardom in Cleopatra.
Taylor became the highest paid actress, earning $1 million for this role but tragedies in her personal life affected her emotional health. The sudden car-crash death of her co-star James Dean, after they filmed the movie Giant, and the AIDs-related death of one of her dearest friends Rock Hudson made life difficult for Taylor.
This fueled her addiction problems and weight gain, and added to existing health issues with scoliosis and a broken back from a fall while shooting National Velvet as a teenager. Taylor underwent many back operations to remove discs and nearly died from a tracheotomy when she battled pneumonia.
But time and again, Taylor bounced back earning praise for acting roles in the 80’s and 90’s that were almost exclusively in television and theater.
Throughout her career, Taylor won two Academy awards and the Cecile B DeMille Award in 1985. Honorary awards flowed from her activist work, and she was the first celebrity to participate in humanitarian efforts to fight HIV and AIDs.
She spoke up for the LGBT community advocating their rights, and she used the personal fortune she quickly amassed as the first star to put her name on a fragrance bottle. Two perfumes, Passion in 1987 and White Diamonds in 1991, were created under Taylor’s supervision and eventually came to include more than 11 fragrances.
Taylor once told Vanity Fair magazine that her name
could open certain doors, as I am a commodity in myself.
Her work founding the National Aids Research Foundation brought attention and eventually lead to treatment, at considerable expense to her personal wealth. In many ways, her testifying before Congress to help get drugs approved for HIV made her an early activist, like the women honored at this year’s Golden Globe ceremony.
As Hollywood begins to move past the catastrophic and shameful unmasking of many of its industry’s leading men – like director Harvey Weinstein, and media moguls like Charlie Rose and Matt Lauer – Hollywood women are following Taylor’s lead. Taylor did what some of Hollywood’s most recognizable stars are doing. Women like Michelle Williams, Susan Sarandon and Emma Stone are using their fame and rallying support by making public calls to action. And they’re bringing other activist women with them.
Together, they are mourning the damage to victims but focused on the next steps.
This means arming victims with the power to survive and changing the status quo. Hollywood’s “Time’s Up” initiative at the Globes takes gender and racial injustice to the next level, honoring Tarana Burke the founder of #MeToo and raising legal funds to fight sexual predators in the courts.
It’s the only way to stop them from re-offending and to build systemic change. We need to show the world there’s a new sheriff in town – and she’s coming for you! Watch out too because all her sisters are behind her. So, when I consider the effect that Elizabeth Taylor had on the world, and the challenges she had to overcome, I salute the fact that she was more than a survivor.
She blazed a new path that took her beyond Hollywood sets and into the business world. Her financial fortune was valued somewhere between $600 million and $1 billion when she passed away at the age of 79. Her final battles as a humanitarian was an important reminder of what it means to have courage and be strong for others.