USA TODAY US Edition
‘Serious about getting things done’
Taylor’s devotion helped take charities like amfAR very far
Elizabeth Taylor exploited her fame — to do good.
The star’s activism and charity work made her stand out in an industry where fame can be used to put the spotlight on causes. Taylor raised and donated millions to charities over the years.
And while she won two Oscars for her performances in Butterfield 8 (1960) and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966), she also was recognized with a special Oscar at the 1993 Academy Awards, where she received the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award. Taylor received more honors for her philanthropic efforts through the years, including a Presidential Citizens Medal from outgoing President Clinton in 2001. Most recently, she was awarded (in absentia) amfAR’s Award of Courage during the organization’s annual New York Gala in February.
With that award, Taylor’s work came full circle. In 1985, she cofounded amfAR, the Foundation for AIDS Research, with Mathilde Krim, a researcher at New York’s Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center. amfAR is one of the leading non-profits supporting AIDS research, HIV prevention and awareness.
Taylor’s involvement in amfAR ranks her among the top Hollywood philanthropists, says Stacy Palmer, editor of the Chronicle of Philanthropy. And it wasn’t just what she gave, but the cause she chose. “In those days, celebrities took on safe causes. To take on AIDS was a really courageous act for a celebrity, and it took her kind of star power to draw attention to the real needs that were going on,” Palmer says.
Though many point to the death of Taylor’s close friend Rock Hudson in October 1985 as the reason she became interested in promoting AIDS research, Krim can’t say for sure if that was what sparked her concern, “but it certainly strengthened it.”
How did the collaboration between screen legend and research scientist begin? Taylor knew Krim’s husband, Arthur, who was an entertainment lawyer for movie studios and a friend of Taylor’s third husband, Michael Todd. “I could pick up the phone and call her and say who I was, and she agreed to meet me right away,” says Krim, who had earlier started an informal study group to research early AIDS patients. “And I went to her house and we discussed the cause of AIDS, and she, of course, was well aware of it already, ahead of anybody else. So we found common ground very easily.”
Because Hudson’s death was still recent at the time of their meeting, Taylor “decided, yes, to help us because she had just come through the death of her friend.” Her friendship with Hudson meant Taylor was “involved and very close to someone (with AIDS) who was sharing all the fears and prejudices, and she was indignant about it,” Krim recalls.
Taylor wasn’t about to take her involvement with amfAR lightly, either. Palmer says, “She took a very serious approach to thinking about her giving in this — to be a founding member of amfAR and really working with the doctors to figure out what was going on.” There are those stars who just attach their names to a cause, Palmer says, but Taylor “really looked to see what was the cause and how can we make a difference to change the course of this disease.”
Taylor’s influence on amfAR is not lost on Krim. “She was very important because of the attention she could get. She spoke in public very openly, very well. She even went to visit politicians in Washington with us. She was very effective for us until very recently when she became very ill” and could not speak publicly.
Krim hadn’t spoken to Taylor during the actress’s most recent hospital stay, but she did talk to her about the award amfAR gave her in February. “ She had planned to come to New York, but she couldn’t,” Krim says.
Is it fair to say that other celebrities have taken their cues from Taylor? “Absolutely. Even if they didn’t work on her cause but followed her lead. They watched her example as a fundraiser — as someone who was serious about getting things done,” Palmer says.
And if Taylor saw more need, she acted on it. In 1991, Taylor founded The Elizabeth Taylor AIDS Foundation, which aims to help people living with AIDS.
Krim says Taylor took personal interest in not just Hudson but others close to her who were suffering from AIDS, including several employees.
“Elizabeth Taylor was always known for her beauty, success, her jewelry — mostly the sparkle, her side that has to do with the public entertainment and films. The public did not have the opportunity I’ve had to meet Elizabeth,” Krim says, adding that they met under circumstances “where it was not the appearance but the content that mattered, and I discovered a woman who had much intelligence, the ability to think for herself and courage.
“She had a great compassion. She took care of a numberof people. This is the aspect of her that should be mentioned.”