LOS ANGELES >> Elizabeth Taylor, the violet-eyed film legend whose sultry screen persona, stormy personal life and enduring fame and glamour made her one of the last of the classic movie stars and a template for the modern celebrity, died Wednesday at age 79.
She was surrounded by her four children when she died of congestive heart failure at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, where she had been hospitalized for about six weeks, said publicist Sally Morrison.
"My mother was an extraordinary woman who lived life to the fullest, with great passion, humor, and love," her son, Michael Wilding, said in a statement.
"We know, quite simply, that the world is a better place for Mom having lived in it. Her legacy will never fade, her spirit will always be with us, and her love will live forever in our hearts."
"We have just lost a Hollywood giant," said Elton John, a longtime friend of Taylor. "More importantly, we have lost an incredible human being."
Taylor was the most blessed and cursed of actresses, the toughest and the most vulnerable. She had extraordinary grace, wealth and voluptuous beauty, and won three Academy Awards, including a special one for her humanitarian work.
One of those Oscars came for a searing performance in "Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" She played an alcoholic shrew in an emotionally sadomasochistic marriage opposite real-life husband Richard Burton.
For all the ferocity of her screen roles and the turmoil of her life, Taylor was remembered by "Virginia Woolf" director Mike Nichols for her gentler, life-affirming side.
"The shock of Elizabeth was not only her beauty. It was her generosity. Her giant laugh. Her vitality, whether tackling a complex scene on film or where we would all have dinner until dawn," Nichols said in a statement. "She is singular and indelible on film and in our hearts."
Taylor was the most loyal of friends and a defender of gays in Hollywood when AIDS was new to the industry and beyond. But she was afflicted by ill health, failed romances (eight marriages, seven husbands) and personal tragedy.
"I think I’m becoming fatalistic," she said in 1989. "Too much has happened in my life for me not to be fatalistic."
Her more than 50 movies included unforgettable portraits of innocence and of decadence, from the children’s classic "National Velvet" and the sentimental family comedy "Father of the Bride" to Oscar-winning transgressions in "Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" and "Butterfield 8." The historical epic "Cleopatra" is among Hollywood’s greatest on-screen fiascos and a landmark of off-screen monkey business, the meeting ground of Taylor and Burton, the "Brangelina" of their day.
She played enough bawdy women on film for critic Pauline Kael to deem her "Chaucerian Beverly Hills."
That sauciness was part of her real life, too.
"She had a sense of humor that was so bawdy, even I was saying, ‘really? That came out of your mouth?’" Whoopi Goldberg said on ABC’s "The View," recalling how Taylor gave her advice about her own Hollywood career. "She was just a magnificent woman. She was a great broad and a good friend."
But her defining role, one that lasted past her moviemaking days, was "Elizabeth Taylor," ever marrying and divorcing, in and out of hospitals, gaining and losing weight, standing by Michael Jackson, Rock Hudson and other troubled friends, acquiring a jewelry collection that seemed to rival Tiffany’s.
She was a child star who grew up and aged before an adoring, appalled and fascinated public. She arrived in Hollywood when the studio system tightly controlled an actor’s life and image, had more marriages than any publicist could explain away and carried on until she no longer required explanation. She was the industry’s great survivor, and among the first to reach that special category of celebrity — famous for being famous, for whom her work was inseparable from the gossip around it.
The London-born actress was a star at age 12, a bride and a divorcee at 18, a superstar at 19 and a widow at 26. She was a screen sweetheart and martyr later reviled for stealing Eddie Fisher from Debbie Reynolds, then for dumping Fisher to bed Burton, a relationship of epic passion and turbulence, lasting through two marriages and countless attempted reconciliations.
She was also forgiven. Reynolds would acknowledge voting for Taylor when she was nominated for "Butterfield 8" and decades later co-starred with her old rival in "These Old Broads," co-written by Carrie Fisher, the daughter of Reynolds and Eddie Fisher.
Taylor’s ailments wore down the grudges. She underwent at least 20 major operations and she nearly died from a bout with pneumonia in 1990. In 1994 and 1995, she had both hip joints replaced, and in February 1997, she underwent surgery to remove a benign brain tumor. In 1983, she acknowledged a 35-year addiction to sleeping pills and pain killers. Taylor was treated for alcohol and drug abuse problems at the Betty Ford Clinic in Rancho Mirage, California.
Her troubles bonded her to her peers and the public, and deepened her compassion. Her advocacy for AIDS research and for other causes earned her a special Oscar, the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award, in 1993.
As she accepted it, to a long ovation, she declared, "I call upon you to draw from the depths of your being — to prove that we are a human race, to prove that our love outweighs our need to hate, that our compassion is more compelling than our need to blame."
The American Foundation for AIDS Research, for which Taylor was a longtime advocate, noted in a statement that she was "among the first to speak out on behalf of people living with HIV when others reacted with fear and often outright hostility."
"She leaves a monumental legacy that has improved and extended millions of lives and will enrich countless more for generations to come," the group said.
The dark-haired Taylor made an unforgettable impression in Hollywood with "National Velvet," the 1945 film in which the 12-year-old belle rode a steeplechase horse to victory in the Grand National.
Critic James Agee wrote of her: "Ever since I first saw the child … I have been choked with the peculiar sort of adoration I might have felt if we were in the same grade of primary school."
"National Velvet," her fifth film, also marked the beginning of Taylor’s long string of health issues. During production, she fell off a horse. The resulting back injury continued to haunt her.
Taylor matured into a ravishing beauty in "Father of the Bride," in 1950, and into a respected performer and femme fatale the following year in "A Place in the Sun," based on the Theodore Dreiser novel "An American Tragedy." The movie co-starred her close friend Montgomery Clift as the ambitious young man who drowns his working-class girlfriend to be with the socialite Taylor. In real life, too, men all but committed murder in pursuit of her.
Through the rest of the 1950s and into the 1960s, she and Marilyn Monroe were Hollywood’s great sex symbols, both striving for appreciation beyond their physical beauty, both caught up in personal dramas filmmakers could only wish they had imagined. That Taylor lasted, and Monroe died young, was a matter of luck and strength; Taylor lived as she pleased and allowed no one to define her but herself.
"I don’t entirely approve of some of the things I have done, or am, or have been. But I’m me. God knows, I’m me," Taylor said around the time she turned 50.
She had a remarkable and exhausting personal and professional life. Her marriage to Michael Todd ended tragically when the producer died in a plane crash in 1958. She took up with Fisher, married him, then left him for Burton. Meanwhile, she received several Academy Award nominations and two Oscars.
She was a box-office star cast in numerous "prestige" films, from "Raintree County" with Clift to "Giant," an epic co-starring her friends Hudson and James Dean. Nominations came from a pair of movies adapted from work by Tennessee Williams: "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof" and "Suddenly, Last Summer." In "Butterfield 8," released in 1960, she starred with Fisher as a doomed girl-about-town. Taylor never cared much for the film, but her performance at the Oscars wowed the world.
Sympathy for Taylor’s widowhood had turned to scorn when she took up with Fisher, who had supposedly been consoling her over the death of Todd. But before the 1961 ceremony, she was hospitalized from a nearly fatal bout with pneumonia and Taylor underwent a tracheotomy. The scar was bandaged when she appeared at the Oscars to accept her best actress trophy for "Butterfield 8."
To a standing ovation, she hobbled to the stage. "I don’t really know how to express my great gratitude," she said in an emotional speech. "I guess I will just have to thank you with all my heart." It was one of the most dramatic moments in Academy Awards history.
"Hell, I even voted for her," Reynolds later said.
Greater drama awaited: "Cleopatra." Taylor met Burton while playing the title role in the 1963 epic, in which the brooding, womanizing Welsh actor co-starred as Mark Antony. Their chemistry was not immediate. Taylor found him boorish; Burton mocked her physique. But the love scenes on film continued away from the set and a scandal for the ages was born. Headlines shouted and screamed. Paparazzi, then an emerging breed, snapped and swooned. Their romance created such a sensation that the Vatican denounced the happenings as the "caprices of adult children."
The film so exceeded its budget that the producers lost money even though "Cleopatra" was a box-office hit and won four Academy awards. (With its $44 million budget adjusted for inflation, "Cleopatra" remains the most expensive movie ever made.) Taylor’s salary per film topped $1 million. "Liz and Dick" became the ultimate jet set couple, on a first name basis with millions who had never met them.
They were a prolific acting team, even if most of the movies aged no better than their marriages: "The VIPs" (1963), "The Sandpiper" (1965), "Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" (1966), "The Taming of the Shrew" (1967), "The Comedians" (1967), "Dr. Faustus" (1967), "Boom!" (1968), "Under Milk Wood" (1971) and "Hammersmith Is Out" (1972).
Art most effectively imitated life in the adaptation of Edward Albee’s "Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" — in which Taylor and Burton played mates who fought viciously and drank heavily. She took the best actress Oscar for her performance as the venomous Martha in "Virginia Woolf" and again stole the awards show, this time by not showing up at the ceremony. She refused to thank the academy upon learning of her victory and chastised voters for not honoring Burton.
Taylor and Burton divorced in 1974, married again in 1975 and divorced again in 1976.
"We fight a great deal," Burton once said, "and we watch the people around us who don’t quite know how to behave during these storms. We don’t fight when we are alone."
In 1982, Taylor and Burton appeared in a touring production of the Noel Coward play "Private Lives," in which they starred as a divorced couple who meet on their respective honeymoons. They remained close at the time of Burton’s death, in 1984.
Elizabeth Rosemond Taylor was born in London on Feb. 27, 1932, the daughter of Francis Taylor, an art dealer, and the former Sara Sothern, an American stage actress. At age 3, with extensive ballet training already behind her, Taylor danced for British princesses Elizabeth (the future queen) and Margaret Rose at London’s Hippodrome. At age 4, she was given a wild field horse that she learned to ride expertly.
At the onset of World War II, the Taylors came to the United States. Francis Taylor opened a gallery in Beverly Hills and, in 1942, his daughter made her screen debut with a bit part in the comedy "There’s One Born Every Minute."
Her big break came soon thereafter. While serving as an air-raid warden with MGM producer Sam Marx, Taylor’s father learned that the studio was struggling to find an English girl to play opposite Roddy McDowall in "Lassie Come Home." Taylor’s screen test for the film won her both the part and a long-term contract. She grew up quickly after that.
Still in school at 16, she would dash from the classroom to the movie set where she played passionate love scenes with Robert Taylor in "Conspirator."
"I have the emotions of a child in the body of a woman," she once said. "I was rushed into womanhood for the movies. It caused me long moments of unhappiness and doubt."
Soon after her screen presence was established, she began a series of very public romances. Early loves included socialite Bill Pawley, home run slugger Ralph Kiner and football star Glenn Davis.
Then, a roll call of husbands:
— She married Conrad Hilton Jr., son of the hotel magnate, in May 1950 at age 18. The marriage ended in divorce that December.
— When she married British actor Michael Wilding in February 1952, he was 39 to her 19. They had two sons, Michael Jr. and Christopher Edward. That marriage lasted 4 years.
— She married cigar-chomping movie producer Michael Todd, also 20 years her senior, in 1957. They had a daughter, Elizabeth Francis. Todd was killed in a plane crash in 1958.
— The best man at the Taylor-Todd wedding was Fisher. He left his wife Debbie Reynolds to marry Taylor in 1959. She converted to Judaism before the wedding.
— Taylor and Fisher moved to London, where she was making "Cleopatra." She met Burton, who also was married. That union produced her fourth child, Maria.
— After her second marriage to Burton ended, she married John Warner, a former secretary of the Navy, in December 1976. Warner was elected a U.S. senator from Virginia in 1978. They divorced in 1982.
— In October 1991, she married Larry Fortensky, a truck driver and construction worker she met while both were undergoing treatment at the Betty Ford Center in 1988. He was 20 years her junior. The wedding, held at the ranch of Michael Jackson, was a media circus that included the din of helicopter blades, a journalist who parachuted to a spot near the couple and a gossip columnist as official scribe.
But in August 1995, she and Fortensky announced a trial separation; she filed for divorce six months later and the split became final in 1997.
"I was taught by my parents that if you fall in love, if you want to have a love affair, you get married," she once remarked. "I guess I’m very old-fashioned."
Her philanthropic interests included assistance for the Israeli War Victims Fund and the Variety Clubs International.
She received the Legion of Honor, France’s most prestigious award, in 1987, for her efforts to support AIDS research. In May 2000, Queen Elizabeth II made Taylor a dame — the female equivalent of a knight — for her services to the entertainment industry and to charity.
In 1993, she won a lifetime achievement award from the American Film Institute; in 1999, an institute survey of screen legends ranked her No. 7 among actresses.
During much of her later career, Taylor’s waistline, various diets, diet books and tangled romances were the butt of jokes by Joan Rivers and others. John Belushi mocked her on "Saturday Night Live," dressing up in drag and choking on a piece of chicken.
"It’s a wonder I didn’t explode," Taylor wrote of her 60-pound weight gain — and successful loss — in the 1988 book "Elizabeth Takes Off on Self-Esteem and Self-Image."
She was an iconic star, but her screen roles became increasingly rare in the 1980s and beyond. She appeared in several television movies, including "Poker Alice" and "Sweet Bird of Youth," and entered the Stone Age as Pearl Slaghoople in the movie version of "The Flintstones." She had a brief role on the popular soap opera "General Hospital."
Taylor was the subject of numerous unauthorized biographies and herself worked on a handful of books, including "Elizabeth Taylor: An Informal Memoir" and "Elizabeth Taylor: My Love Affair With Jewelry." In tune with the media to the end, she kept in touch through her Twitter account.
"I like the connection with fans and people who have been supportive of me," Taylor told Kim Kardashian in a 2011 interview for Harper’s Bazaar. "And I love the idea of real feedback and a two-way street, which is very, very modern. But sometimes I think we know too much about our idols and that spoils the dream."
Survivors include her daughters Maria Burton-Carson and Liza Todd-Tivey, sons Christopher and Michael Wilding, 10 grandchildren and four great-grandchildren.
A private family funeral is planned later this week.
Associated Press Writers Bob Thomas and David Bauder contributed to this report.