Taylor: Celebrity galaxy's brightest star

Dame Elizabeth Taylor arrives for her 75th birthday

Dame Elizabeth Taylor arrives for her 75th birthday party at the Ritz-Carlton, Lake Las Vegas in Nevada. (Feb. 27, 2007) (Credit: Getty Images)

Over the decades, Elizabeth Taylor moved through many phases and personae as the public watched with rapt attention.

She was The Most Beautiful Woman in the World, according to gossip columnist Hedda Hopper; a "home wrecker"; a serial divorcee who racked up seven husbands (and eight weddings); a drug addict, alcoholic and victim of obesity; a jewelry and perfume entrepreneur; and a friend to the gay community who helped raise funds for AIDS research. She was named Dame Elizabeth, a Commander of the Order of the British Empire, in 1999.

Through it all, the public never lost its love for Taylor, whether she was the tender youngster, the scandal victim, the superstar or the train wreck. Nor did it matter whether she was married to Messrs. Hilton, Wilding, Todd, Fisher, Burton, Warner or Fortensky.

Indeed, as celebrities in recent years began flaunting their personal failings and excesses on reality shows, Taylor began to seem classy once again, a figure from Hollywood's golden era who mostly shunned the limelight save for posting the occasional thought to Twitter.

No matter that too few of her roles were considered first-rate. Taylor's appeal had little to do with acting and less to do with anything tangible. Of their generation, Katharine Hepburn and Bette Davis were better actresses, Grace Kelly was perhaps more beautiful and Marilyn Monroe probably more seductive. But none of them -- nor any of the others who came out of Hollywood's studio system in the '40s and '50s -- rivaled the impact and longevity of Taylor's magnetism.

Whatever role was thrust at her -- on-screen or off -- Taylor took it on. And long before she died at 79, Taylor had taken the barrage of conflicting images that assaulted her throughout her years and turned them into something rare. Even in an era when anyone could be an actor and everyone had some measure of celebrity, Taylor -- who did everything outsize -- proved to be not just an actress, not just a celebrity, but an icon.

Two-time husband Richard Burton said it perfectly: "Before I met Elizabeth, I was making $175,000 a picture. Now I'm making half a million. It makes you think, doesn't it? That girl has true glamour. If I retired tomorrow, I'd be forgotten in five years, but she would go on forever. She's a legend in her own lifetime."

Taylor claimed not to understand her own allure, rejecting the term "sex symbol" and even criticizing her legendary beauty. "I don't have a complex about my looks," she said in a 1964 interview with Life magazine, "but I'm too short of leg, too big in the arms, one too many chins, big feet, big hands, too fat. My best feature is my gray hairs. I have them all named; they're all called Burton."

And despite her tempestuous personal life, Taylor was a doting mother to her four children and, by her own account, a firm believer in the institution of marriage. "I couldn't just have a romance," she said. "It had to be a marriage."

Perhaps it was inevitable that Taylor would eventually become inextricably linked to another globally adored, highly eccentric and deeply troubled icon, pop singer Michael Jackson. The public regarded them as an odd but compatible couple, entertainers whose fame had overpowered their personal lives and driven them to seek solace in seclusion and substance abuse at the cost of their health. Uncannily, they also dressed alike, favoring gaudy brooches and oversized sunglasses.

In his 1974 book, "Elizabeth," Dick Sheppard described the double-edged sword of the public's love-hate this way: "Ingrid Bergman fled from it; Marilyn Monroe and Judy Garland collapsed under it; Greta Garbo retired so that she could be relatively free of it."

But Taylor, he argued, found a different means for survival: "Refusing either to scream at the public, or bleed for it, she has, from the first, stubbornly, silently, steadfastly and successfully resisted public encroachment on that part of her domain which she regards as exclusively personal."

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