Elizabeth Taylor, who died today in Los Angeles at age 79, will be memorialized for her iconic screen career. But her ties to Washington occupy another rich story line in her legacy.
Taylor may have been the greatest movie star of her generation, but she was well past the twilight of her film career by the time she showed up in Washington in the mid-1970s. That was before her marriage to then-senatorial aspirant John Warner of Virginia, when Taylor still possessed some of the glamour of her glory years. As a 1980 Washingtonian profile by Kenneth Schwartz and F. Peter Model noted, she attracted “admirers and photographers at such charity events as the American Ballet Theater fundraiser, where she appeared [in 1976] flanked by Liza Minnelli and Halston.”
But after Warner wooed and wed her, the leading lady took on a supporting role: “dutiful spouse of a serious-minded image conscious politician.” Her presence in Washington was sporadic—she spent most of 1979 abroad—and it was subdued.
Taylor and Warner divided their time between his farm near Middleburg and a half-million-dollar townhouse in Georgetown. But they spent a significant part of their brief marriage campaigning for Warner’s Senate seat. As his star rose, Taylor’s seemed to fade. She stashed in a safe her famous collection of diamonds and jewels—once estimated as being worth $15 million—and sold some of her most cherished items, including a Cartier diamond for which her ex-husband Richard Burton paid more than $1 million. (Taylor wore the 69.42-carat rock to the Academy Awards in 1970, a one-night outing that cost $2,500 to insure.)
As Taylor and Warner’s public appearances increased, she toned down her style. “She never quite donned the traditional Republican cloth coat,” the Washingtonian article said, “but on the campaign trail flaunted wealth is not appropriate. . . . ” The diamonds and emeralds were out of place at gland-handing rallies and country barbecues. Taylor looked “outfitted not by Tiffany’s but by Kay’s.”
The couple divorced in 1982 after four years together. But whatever star power Taylor may have lost in her stint as a politician’s wife she regained as an activist and fundraiser for people infected with HIV and dying of AIDS. That role may be the one Washingtonians most remember and embrace.
Taylor gets credit for prevailing upon her fellow actor and old friend President Ronald Reagan to finally utter the term AIDS in public, in a 1987 address. She invited Reagan to speak at a dinner honoring the American Foundation for AIDS Research, for which she served as national chairman. Reagan had been in office more than six years, and the diseased had killed more than 20,000 Americans.
AIDS activists and scientists have blamed the US government’s slow and cumbersome response to the disease for its rapid spread, but Taylor’s influence helped create a turning point in national policy. “Elizabeth Taylor was the first major Hollywood star to take up the banner of HIV/AIDS activism,” Don Blanchon, executive director of the Whitman-Walker Clinic, said in a statement on her death. “At a time when most Americans thought of HIV/AIDS as something that didn’t affect them, her commitment to the issue and considerable star power helped to take the fight against HIV/AIDS right into the mainstream of American society.”