Dame Elizabeth Taylor, actress and legend of the silver screen, passed away this morning at age 79. She suffered from chronic health problems and died at Cedars Sinai Hospital from congestive heart failure, a condition she was initially diagnosed with in 2004.
Born in London, Taylor began acting at the age of 12, scoring her breakthrough role of Velvet Brown in the 1944 film National Velvet, where she played an aspiring equestrian who illicitly competes in the Grand National Steeplechase. She became a major child star at MGM and was one of a few young actors who were able to make that difficult transition to adult roles. Maturing into a dazzling beauty with raven hair and violet eyes, Taylor was at her zenith during the 1950s and 60s, appearing in films such as Father of the Bride, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Suddenly Last Summer and Cleopatra, where she met her future husband Richard Burton. She took home Oscar gold for her performance as a call girl in BUtterfield 8 and for playing the disillusioned and acidic Martha in a cinematic treatment of Edward Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
In 1956, she appeared opposite James Dean in a screen adaptation of the Edna Ferber novel Giant. During filming, photographer Sid Avery captured a behind-the-scenes shot of the actress, currently on view at the National Portrait Gallery. "It is in the unscripted, candid moment captured in this image that Taylor’s extraordinary beauty is most striking," says Ann Shumard, the Portrait Gallery's curator of photographs. "Blissfully unaware of the camera, the 23-year-old actress raises her face to the Texas sun as she enjoys a break in the filming of Giant. Even in an unguarded moment, she is every bit the star whose beauty made her such a mesmerizing presence on the screen."
Taylor also had a longstanding love affair with jewelry and wrote a book about her collection and the stories behind her pieces. Currently on display at the Cooper Hewitt Museum's exhibition Set in Style: The Jewelry of Van Cleef and Arpels is her lamartine bracelet that dates from 1970.
"Elizabeth Taylor had extraordinary taste in jewelry and a very fine collection," says Sarah Coffee Coffin, a curator at Cooper-Hewitt. "The bracelet and earrings that go with them were both a present from Richard Burton that he bought her in Geneva in 1971. He liked them because the cabochon amethysts went with her violet eyes."
Her film career waned in the 1970s and in the 1980s she was a recurring figure on the daytime soap operas "General Hospital" and "All My Children." It was also during this period that she poured her time and resources into AIDS charities in an era when it was still a taboo subject. She created the Elizabeth Taylor AIDS Foundation in 1991 to assist people living with the disease. And though she was absent from acting and made few public appearances in her later years, she kept in touch with her legions of devoted fans via Twitter, sending out messages until just days before she was admitted to Cedars Sinai Hospital on February 11.