By David Kirby
On a warm June afternoon in 1991, about 800 members of the international press corps were fidgeting impatiently as they waited for Elizabeth Taylor to finally make her grand appearance at the Basel Art Fair in Switzerland. As National Chairwoman of the American Foundation for AIDS Research (AmFAR), she was to speak about the global AIDS crisis and AmFAR’s auction that night of three major works of art to support research.
As AmFAR’s public information director, I had played this scene many times before. We all knew that Elizabeth (NEVER call her “Liz,” I was admonished on my first day) was not exactly an on-time sort of gal. She knew we would wait, and we always did – happily.
On this particular occasion, the wait was getting uncomfortably long. The press conference had been called for 1:00PM. I begged our Swiss hosts not to begin on time. Instead, they started 15 minutes early. By 1:00PM, the other press conference participants had completed their statements.
There were no questions, just 800 reporters from all over the world glancing at their watches. We waited. The hall was stuffy. People complained. The Italians were indignant, the French were pouty. The Swiss were downright apoplectic.
But not a single grumbling reporter left that hall.
At around 1:20, I called over to the hotel. Sally Morrison, AmFAR’s point person for Elizabeth (and faithful friend and personal publicist for many years) picked up the phone.
“I’m afraid Elizabeth’s just now gotten out of the bath,” Sally said with her British accent. “It’s going to be a while.”
My heart sank into my stomach. I had witnessed Elizabeth’s extraordinary bath-to-motorcade process the day before. It was lengthy, though efficiently executed. I had watched in awe as Elizabeth sat wrapped in a towel at a small vanity brought into her Presidential Suite overlooking the roaring Rhine River. Her husband, Larry Fortensky, was watching CNN.
One person handled her magnificent chestnut mane; another applied makeup around those extraordinary eyes, which up close seemed to be more pale lilac than deep violet. As a third assistant began painting her nails, Elizabeth set down her Richard Burton diamond, a square ice cube, just inches from my face. You don’t forget these moments.
Back at the art fair, things were getting uglier. Luckily, Dick Cavett, of all people, happened to be in attendance and, thankfully, he began interviewing AmFAR Founding Co-Chair Dr. Mathilde Krim, who was born in Switzerland, a definite plus at the moment.
Around 1:45 I called the hotel again. “Sally, I don’t think we can keep these reporters here much longer,” I said. “They have an art fair to go write about.”
I heard Sally call across the hotel suite.
“Elizabeth. It’s David on the line. He says the media are getting rather anxious.”
And then I heard that squeaky, almost little-girl voice in the background. It was ET.
“Well tell David that I have diarrhea!” the voice said.
“Sally,” I said, “I can’t go out there and tell 800 reporters that Elizabeth has diarrhea. You need to get her over here now.”
Sally called across the room again. “Elizabeth, lots of people have diarrhea, and you never hear them going on about it.”
“Yes,” the voice said. “But I’m a movie star. My diarrhea is more interesting!”
It was classic Elizabeth Taylor. Defuse a tense moment with salty hilarity, preferably involving bodily functions, while telling the plain, simple truth. Her diarrhea was more interesting. If I had announced it to the press corps, it would have made worldwide headlines.
Instead, Miss Taylor arrived at about 2:15, radiant, charming, brilliant and gorgeous. By the time she finished, no one even remembered she had arrived late.
Such was the intoxicating magic of Elizabeth Taylor, and I was so lucky to be dazzled by her presence – backstage-close and personal – for four extraordinary years.
I was with Elizabeth in 1990 as she took Capitol Hill by storm to help introduce the Ryan White CARE Act, which still provides HIV/AIDS treatment, services and prevention programs to millions of Americans today. Senators, Hill staffers and the jaded DC media tripped over themselves to get a glimpse of Cleopatra and Virginia Wolf.
I was with Elizabeth when she got out of her sick bed and flew to San Francisco to speak to attendees at the International AIDS Conference in 1990, and with her at the 1991 conference in Florence as well.
At the 1992 conference, in Amsterdam, we had decided to hold a press conference denouncing the (now defunct) US immigration policy that prevents HIV-positive people from travelling to America. In her remarks that I wrote, I included the fact that Elizabeth carries a British passport, and would not be allowed back to America if she were HIV positive.
Much to my surprise, she had brought her passport with her, and she held it aloft as a theatrical prop, her voice trembling softly with rage as she spoke, all to tremendous effect. The second she lifted that passport, the cameras exploded in flash. The image was seen around the world, and our message was heard everywhere.
At another press conference in Amsterdam, Elizabeth was asked what she thought of the AIDS policies of President George H.W. Bush. The movie star with interesting diarrhea did not hesitate for a second.
“I don’t think Bush even knows how to spell ‘AIDS,’ she said with a coy smile.
Once again, it was the sound-bite heard round the world, including the front cover of the New York Post back home, which blared: “LIZ: BUSH CAN’T EVEN SPELL A-I-D-S.”
There were so many fairytale moments I spent in her presence: Fundraisers in New York, Los Angeles and Washington, and AmFAR board meetings where she fought hard and passionately to direct money into an international fund to help fight AIDS in the developing world, an issue on which she was extremely ahead of her time.
On one trip, in the fall of 1992, we flew to Spain where AmFAR was to be honored with the Principe de Asturias Award – sort of the Nobel Prize of the Spanish speaking world – alongside South African President Nelson Mandela.
The day of the ceremony, in Oviedo, Sally and I took Elizabeth upstairs to Mandela’s suite, where were all had tea, cakes and lively conversation. It was one of those moments where you cannot believe that you actually get to be a fly on the wall. But there you are, listening.
“When I was in prison in South Africa all those years,” Mandela told her, “They used to let us watch American movies. And we always asked to see your movies. It gave us great hope and courage to know that such beautiful women were there on the outside.”
Nelson Mandela was flirting with Elizabeth Taylor! He smiled, and she blushed, something I had never seen her do before.
Then talk turned to more serious matters of the world, and eventually to AIDS in Africa, where most cases of HIV are transmitted through heterosexual sex.
“Why do you think that is?” Mandela said. “Why do you think there is female-to-male transmission?”
Elizabeth pondered the question a moment. She stirred her tea. Sally and I waited in anticipation. This should be interesting, I thought.
“Well you see, Nelson. It’s like this,” Elizabeth replied. “Women have these, these,,, juices.
Another bodily function moment. Sally and I practically did spit takes with our tea, but Mandela nodded politely and knowingly and simply said, “Oh, I see.”
On our last day in Florence, where the hotel was surrounded around the clock by police and paparazzi, I spent an hour or two with Elizabeth as aides were busy packing up for the next leg of the trip. She was to fly on Gianni Versace’s private jet to Paris, and we were going to take her to the airport.
Elizabeth was sorting through a large bag of lipstick colors, searching for the right match to the coral lining of her black silk jacket. I helped her as we chatted like school chums. Soon, I realized we were all alone.
Elizabeth told me how devastated she was by Rock Hudson and how angry she was that Reagan and Bush “had not done shit for AIDS.” She talked about Richard Burton and Mike Todd, and told me that Todd was the man she loved the most. There in the room were two giant trunks, covered in circa 1960’s indoor-outdoor carpeting.
“Mike had those made for me on our honeymoon,” she said. “He bought so much stuff for me we had to get these to carry everything home. But they are old and ugly now. I am going to leave them here.”
I was stunned. This luggage belonged in the Smithsonian! “Why don’t you auction them off for AIDS research?” I asked.
“Oh David,” she laughed. “Nobody is going to want those old things, silly boy!” They were probably thrown out by the hotel staff in Florence.
That same afternoon, Hollywood’s greatest living actress told me all about her wedding to Larry Fortensky at Michael Jackson’s Neverland Ranch. She was feuding with AmFAR at the time over the international program. She felt so strongly about fighting AIDS overseas, that she started her own group, The Elizabeth Taylor AIDS Foundation, which thrives to this day.
“We sold the photos to People Magazine for a few million dollars, and that is when I got the idea,” she explained to me. “When the check arrived, I decided that I wanted to go down to the bank myself and personally open the foundation’s account myself.”
She got dressed, summonsed her driver, and left her modest Bel Air home to visit the bank.
“So I got out of the car, and I had this check firmly in my hand, and I walked into the bank,” she said. “And when I walked in, I looked around and I was stunned to realize: I had never been in a bank before in my life! Can you imagine that?”
Yes, Elizabeth, I can imagine that. Banks are for mortals. You were a goddess for millions and millions around the world. Yours was the only Hollywood death that could have interrupted newscasts today from Libya, Japan and Jerusalem.
David Kirby is author of Animal Factory, now out in paperback.