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Film legend Elizabeth Taylor dead at 79

Elizabeth Taylor in costume for her character in

Elizabeth Taylor in costume for her character in the 1957 film "Raintree County." Photo Credit: AP

Elizabeth Taylor grew into a star so radiant that her name continued to symbolize beauty, wealth, luxury and a distinctively Hollywood brand of excess long after her film career faded.

Taylor, whose career spanned nearly 60 years, died of congestive heart failure at 1:28 a.m. Wednesday at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles. She was 79. The actress had been hospitalized for about two months with heart illness.

"She was surrounded by her children: Michael Wilding, Christopher Wilding, Liza Todd and Maria Burton," Taylor's publicist, Sally Morrison, said in a statement.

Taylor's death brought reactions from figures across the worlds of entertainment, sports and politics. Barbara Walters called her "the last of the movie stars." Magic Johnson and Elton John thanked Taylor for her AIDS activism. Former first lady Nancy Reagan noted that "she was truly a legend."

Taylor made more than 50 movies in a career that also included television and stage appearances. She won two best actress Oscars -- as a less-than-virtuous woman in the 1960 melodrama "BUtterfield 8," and as an unhappy wife (opposite her then-husband Richard Burton) in the 1966 adaptation of Edward Albee's play "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?"

Her other indelible performances include a precocious young jockey in "National Velvet" (1944), the tempestuous Maggie in "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof" (1958) and the title role in "Cleopatra" (1963), a legendary flop.

Though her film career began tapering off in the 1970s, Taylor remained enshrined in the highest pantheon of global fame. Much like Michael Jackson, with whom she shared an unlikely friendship and oddly similar taste in clothes, Taylor became known more as an icon than an entertainer. Whether as a child star, a serial monogamist (eight weddings, seven husbands), a celebrity train-wreck or a collector of almost offensively enormous jewelry (including the 69.42-carat Burton-Taylor diamond), Taylor lived nearly her entire life in the public eye.

Elizabeth Rosemond Taylor was born in London on Feb. 27, 1932, to Americans Francis Taylor, an art dealer, and the former Sara Sothern, a onetime stage actress.

Just before World War II, the Taylors returned to the United States, settling in Beverly Hills. There, 9-year-old Elizabeth was discovered by the chairman of Universal Pictures.

After just one movie, Taylor switched to MGM, where she remained for nearly 18 years. Her stormy working partnership with studio head Louis B. Mayer ended in a falling-out. Taylor left to make "Cleopatra."

Though still stinging from bad publicity after "stealing" singer Eddie Fisher from his then-wife Debbie Reynolds, Taylor began an affair on "Cleopatra'' 's set with Burton, her also-married co-star. The two became one of Hollywood's most delicious tabloid subjects.

The financial failure of "Cleopatra," however, signaled the end of Taylor's sex-symbol phase. Despite her Oscar-winning turn in "Virginia Woolf," Taylor had trouble navigating the subsequent decades.

As films in the 1970s became more experimental and downbeat, there seemed little place for a still-gorgeous older star from a bygone Hollywood. In 1982, she made her Broadway and West End debuts in Lillian Hellman's "The Little Foxes," and the following year rejoined Burton -- on stage -- in a production of Noel Coward's "Private Lives."

She also gravitated further toward television, appearing in miniseries, movies and soap operas. Her last feature film was 1994's "The Flintstones." In 2001, she appeared in a television movie as one of four over-the-hill divas (Taylor, Reynolds, Joan Collins, Shirley MacLaine) who overcome their mutual hatred to stage a reunion.

Taylor turned to AIDS activism in the 1980s, when Rock Hudson, her longtime friend and co-star in the film "Giant," was diagnosed with the disease. (He died in 1985.) Taylor began publicly raising awareness of the epidemic, became chairwoman of the American Foundation for AIDS Research and later established the Elizabeth Taylor AIDS Foundation. Her efforts earned her a special Oscar, the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award, in 1993.

Throughout the 1980s, Taylor suffered relapses: alcohol binges, drug dependency and a visit to the Betty Ford Center, where in 1988 she met Larry Fortensky, a construction worker 20 years her junior. That marriage, which ended in divorce in 1996, would be her last.

Taylor had a history of health problems. Her 2004 diagnosis for congestive heart failure, compounded with spinal fractures and the effects of scoliosis, left her nearly bedridden. She had a benign brain tumor removed in 1997.

Along with her two sons and two daughters, Taylor's survivors include 10 grandchildren and four great-grandchildren. A private family funeral is planned later this week.

With Gary Dymski

and Michele Ingrassia

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