Elizabeth Taylor, 1932-2011: Hollywood's Star of Stars

Child actress, teen temptress, cinematic empress, Taylor helped define contemporary fame first by her beauty, then with her love life and finally with a multifaceted celebrity

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Elizabeth Taylor in the 1958 film Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.

"Men!" The gorgeous teenager shrugs her shoulders and ponders the inanities of the lesser gender. "The minute we're alone, he just wants to kiss me. And he says the silliest things. Well, nobody's eyes are like wet violets, are they?" She should have known better: the man was just reporting what he saw. Even at 16, even in the creamy black and white of MGM's 1948 Julia Misbehaves, Elizabeth Taylor had eyes the color of wet violets.

The rest of her was O.K., too. Indeed, from just about the moment MGM signed her in 1943 to the end of her contract in the early 1960s and beyond, Taylor was routinely called the world's most beautiful woman. The label stuck to her like a price tag on the 33.19-carat Krupp diamond, one of her many famous gems. It set a tab on her allure — and on the most public of Hollywood's "private lives" — while obscuring her value as an actress and an enduring symbol of American moviemaking. Many talented tyros had been bred in the studio hothouse. But in the '40s, none came to flower so luxuriantly; in the '50s, none found so bracing a challenge in Hollywood's search for artistic maturity; and in the '60s, when the system collapsed, none survived it so craftily as Taylor did.

The marriage records, tabulating her eight weddings and seven divorces, would list her as Elizabeth Taylor Hilton Wilding Todd Fisher Burton Burton Warner Fortensky. The AIDS patients she helped with her brave, exhaustive work raising millions of dollars for treatment of the disease might call her St. Elizabeth, or Mom. But to generations of film fans and paparazzi, from her MGM debut at age 11 to her death of congestive heart failure in Los Angeles on March 23 at 79, she was simply Liz. Her friend Johnny Depp captured her mixture of the earthy and the ethereal when, in 2009, he described Taylor as "a glowing, levitating thing — but a real broad, a liver-and-onions broad." Indomitable and irreplaceable, embodying glamour, excess and beguilement, she was the Hollywood star.

Elizabeth Rosemund Taylor was born in 1932 in London to Francis Taylor, an American art dealer living there, and his wife Sara, who had acted on Broadway under the name Sara Sothern and retired when she married. When war arrived in Britain, the Taylors immigrated to California, where Sara had notions of finding for her daughter the stardom that had eluded her. At 10, Elizabeth was fighting for screen space with Carl "Alfalfa" Switzer in a Universal programmer called There's One Born Every Minute. She seems mesmerized by the camera; she practically stares a hole through the lens. Her intensity was lost on Universal production boss Edward Muhl, who terminated her contract with this pungent critique: "She can't sing, she can't dance, she can't perform." Muhl could see that she wasn't Deanna Durbin — the demure coloratura who was Universal's reigning young star — but not that she could be, and soon would be, Elizabeth Taylor. (Six years earlier, the Universal talent scouts had put Durbin and a 14-year-old Judy Garland in a musical short. They kept Durbin and let Garland go.)

Over at MGM, producer Sam Marx had a problem. He had cast Maria Flynn as the girl lead in Lassie Come Home, who had either been skittish around the star collie or (the legend varies) turned out to be a head taller than her costar, Roddy McDowall. Marx called an audition for half a dozen girls who had appeared in Mrs. Miniver. He also told Francis Taylor that he should send his daughter over for inspection. When she walked in, Marx recalled in 1983, "she was wearing a kind of blue velvet cape. And to me she seemed in a glow of purple ... It was truly like an eclipse of the sun. It blotted out everybody that was in the office. You just saw this gorgeous, beautiful, darling little girl." She got the part.

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