Remembering Elizabeth Taylor

March 23, 2011 2:24:03 PM PDT
Of all the tributes pouring in about Liz Taylor - and they're plentiful - the most important isn't her beauty (also plentiful) or her incredibly productive career (ditto, at 50 pictures and two Broadway plays), or her stormy and passionate marriages (plentiful doesn't adequately describe the numerous trips down the aisle; although hers was a conservative view - she married the men she fell in love with).

No - the most important tribute for the 79-year-old Taylor, who died today of congestive heart failure, is her impact on the fight against AIDS.

For the last 25 years of her life she made the transformation from movie star to activist. She was friends with Rock Hudson, the heart-throb actor whose heterosexual leading-man roles belied his true identity. When he died of AIDS in 1985 - and his private life as a closeted gay man became quite public - Taylor embraced the cause. She single handedly brought celebrity and stardom to the fight against AIDS - especially at a time when some Americans were trying to rally round the flag that AIDS was a "gay" disease, and that somehow those who got it deserved it because they were same-sex oriented.

Her involvement helped diffuse that Neanderthal thinking, while at the same time helped raise - what? - hundreds of millions in the process? Most of the money went to AMFAR, the leading AIDS research and fundraising group.

"I use my fame now when I want to help a cause of other people," she said in 1997, after the impact of her AIDS work had made a dent in the disease.

She had a penchant for getting up close and personal with troubled and, often, strange people. Michael Jackson, Richard Burton (whom she married twice), Larry Fortensky (the construction worker, whom she married once), and a host of others. Her own personal demons, her addictions, and her many near-death experiences, perhaps got her in touch with other peoples' weaknesses.

And that, coupled with her fight against AIDS, made her an even bigger celebrity and something of a grand-dame in the gay and lesbian community.

"I think the strangeness is why queers were so drawn to her," David Gerstner, Professor of Film and Queer Studies at CUNY, told me today. And he quickly added, "and she was soooo beautiful?.."

Despite her incredible celebrity, she seemed sort of approachable. One Eyewitness News viewer, Martin W. Schwartz, told me he met her once - at JFK back in 1970, when he was a U.S. Customs Officer. Here's Marty's story:

"I was assigned to the International Arrival Customs Area in plainclothes to do secondary checks of passengers coming off certain flights known for drug and diamond smuggling. She came in from Europe and the Special Agent in Charge asked me to take her to a private room and guard her while her luggage was cleared. We sat and talked in the room, and I told her about my Uncle Sid (Caesar, the great comedian). At one point, she offered to purchase my shield, which I told her I could not sell. Then she invited me to her room at the Waldorf for lunch, but I declined, of course."

Too bad for you, Marty!

But it proves the point: She was an approachable mega-star, and I think that commonness - despite the movie-star life and the glam and all those jewels - resonated with average folk.

I covered Liz Taylor twice. (By the way, she hated the name "Liz," preferring Elizabeth.). The first was in 1990, when she spent weeks in St. John's hospital in Santa Monica, near-death from pneumonia. Her stay became a death watch of sorts, with her family and four kids constantly coming and going - and scores of reporters and satellite trucks parked outside the hospital.

The second time I covered her was her 60th birthday celebration in 1992 at Disneyland. I was working for a Fox-owned TV station - before it became Fox as we know it today - and the President was Barry Diller, a good friend of Taylor's. We covered the party. She took over the amusement park in Anaheim; it was chaos in terms of reporters covering her.

No matter what she did - she generated news. Even if it became fodder for mocking; who can forget the cruel but funny bit John Belushi did, imitating Taylor's near-death experience choking on a chicken bone? Tasteless, nasty, and a classic bit of satire. I can't help but imagine Taylor herself probably found it funny. She was always quick to self-deprecate.

We'll look back at Taylor's life and career, tonight at 11.

Also at 11, we're investigating a disturbing story about a violent encounter at a local high school. The campus has a program for students with learning disabilities and another for students with behavioral issues. The two groups for some activities are mixed - and that caused a problem the other day. Two students with behavioral issues allegedly beat up a 15 year old autistic boy. And when a substitute teacher saw the assault - he somehow ends up body slamming the autistic teen - breaking his leg in the process. Jeff Pegues has the exclusive story.

And we have a story about taxes - with the tax deadline coming up. About 60% of Americans pay someone to prepare their returns. Tonight, Consumer Reports looks at the various programs out there that help you do your own taxes - for free. Are they reliable?

We'll also have any breaking news of the night, plus Lee Goldberg's AccuWeather forecast, and Rob Powers with the night's sports. I hope you can join Liz Cho and me, tonight at 11.


And a P.S. to this column: yesterday we asked for your feedback on Attorney General Eric Holder's meeting with NYPD Commissioner Ray Kelly and other top cops around the nation, to talk about the alarming increase in the number of law enforcement officers shot so far this year.

I pointed out that the shootings are sparking, again, the debate over gun control. And some suggest that increasing the price of weapons and of ammunition is one way to cut down on guns - simply make them prohibitively expensive by adding taxes, much like what's been done with cigarettes.

Thank you for your response. Here are two that reflect the two viewpoints.

From Roberta Pliner of Manhattan:

"Senator Moynihan once suggested making ammo exorbitantly expensive with high taxes (like cigarettes in NYC now). His point was that the guns are already out there, way too many of them, but impossible to get rid of in sufficient quantities to constitute any gun control. But ammo gets used up and has to be replaced. Make it real, real expensive to replace."

And the counterpoint comes from Martin W. Schwartz a lawyer from Nanuet, who is a former police officer, federal criminal investigator and prosecutor:

"This approach is utter nonsense. First of all the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled in two seminal cases that the Right to Bear Arms is an individual one that must be respected by both the federal government and the states under the Second and Fourteenth Amendments to the Constitution. Thus you cannot pass a law that effectively bans guns and ammunition, whether by direct words or prohibitive taxes. It would require an amendment to the Constitution. And what would it accomplish? Nothing! You cannot deter bad behavior by passing laws that make inanimate objects unlawful. Look how successful we were with alcohol and drugs.

"And while cigarette use is down, that is more because of public education on the dangers of smoking, than taxes. It is evident in any bodega that even the poorest of smokers still find the money to buy tobacco. All that the government can do about gun crime is to make sure that the people who commit it are so severely punished that others might be deterred from using firearms wrongfully, and those who do are removed from our streets.

"The unfortunate rise in the deaths of law enforcement officers the last two years cannot be blamed solely on guns --- there were other many other causes such as vehicle accidents, stabbings and blunt object assaults. Crime has been on the rise in America since the start of the current recession, and when crime goes up, more officers are injured or killed. It's a pattern of history that has repeated over the decades. What needs repair is our economy, not our gun laws."

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