I just finished reading the biography Elizabeth Taylor by David Bret. It came out shortly after her death in 2011, which means that he must have been writing it beforehand. Perhaps he was just waiting for her die to write the final words.
But, to explain the question I posed above, I meant: How did Elizabeth Taylor last as long as she did, which was 79 years? Her generation of movie stars was a hard-smoking, hard-drinking lot, and she was no exception. And like other child starlets, such as Natalie Wood and Judy Garland, Elizabeth Taylor got started with the drugs at an early age: drugs for sleeping, drugs for staying awake, drugs to calm her nerves, etc. And Elizabeth Taylor had another eerie parallel with Judy Garland: both of them had fathers named Francis who were both gay. Well, I should say that they were bisexual since they fathered children, but, it seems that their main inclination was to be gay. And like Judy Garland, Elizabeth Taylor became a gay icon, and her first and second husbands were both bisexual.
Elizabeth was born in England, although both her parents were Americans. As with Natalie Wood, it was Elizabeth’s mother, Sara Sothern Taylor, who had achieved some success on the stage who drove Elizabeth into acting, and that began as soon as the family relocated to Los Angeles when she was 7. Her first movie role didn’t come until she was 9.
I am going to focus on Elizabeth Taylor’s health because her life story is way too long to tell here. And, she had a tremendous amount of illness in her life, and even as a child, she had more frequent bouts of illness than most children do, including back problems, which is not typical of children. She had a total of about 40 surgical operations in her life- maybe more than that- including appendectomy, multiple back surgeries, hysterectomy, double hip replacements, excision of a brain tumor, lung operations, throat operations, and over 70 hospitalizations. She had so much illness that I can’t imagine why anybody would envy her or want to trade places with her. I realize that nobody gets through life without having some bad days, but one would hope that the good days would at least outnumber the bad days, but I doubt that that was true for her. I don’t know how many times she got pneumonia, but it was too numerous to count. And as with Marilyn Monroe, Elizabeth Taylor’s health problems often caused delays in the production of her movies, and most famously that happened during the making of Cleopatra.
As for her food, ET was a very conventional eater who ate the Standard American Diet, and her tendency was to get heavy. She would balloon up to 180 pounds or more between films. She was a yo-yo dieter her whole life. And keep in mind that that is a bad thing in itself; it undermines both health and weight control.
So, it was bad food, heavy smoking, heavy drinking, heavy drugging (including several suicide attempts with drugs), an aversion to exercise, and did I mention that she had a tremendous amount of stress in her life? Mainly, it was her tumultuous marriages, but she also had the stress of a lot of untimely, tragic deaths of loved ones, such as James Dean, Montgomery Clift, and Rock Hudson. The sudden death of her third husband Mike Todd in a plane crash also hit her very hard. But, my impression from reading this book is that the husband with whom she had the closest bond and the deepest connection was definitely Richard Burton. And just think: he was an extremely heavy smoker and drinker, which surely drove her in that direction. As I said, it seems that that whole generation of movie stars were alcoholics, but nobody drank more than Richard Burton. But, here is a medical fact that few people realize: women’s bodies cannot handle alcohol as well as men’s. Women’s livers just cannot metabolize alcohol as fast. For consuming the same amount of alcohol, women develop higher and more protracted blood levels of alcohol, resulting in more damage to their bodies. Therefore, men who coax women to keep up with them drinking really do them harm.
I mentioned that Elizabeth Taylor’s mother Sara Sothern Taylor was an actress as a young woman, and I can tell you that, like Elizabeth Taylor, she was quite a beautiful woman. I can also report that Sara lived to the age of 99. And I think that that explains how Elizabeth Taylor managed to live to 79 despite a very abusive and destructive lifestyle; she had longevity in her family. Am I saying that she could have lived to 99 if she had taken care of herself? I wouldn't go that far considering how few people live to 99, but I do think she could have easily made it to her 90s if she had taken better care of herself.
I have only seen a few Elizabeth Taylor movies, but if I were going to recommend one it would be Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf. She won the Best Actress Academy Award in 1966 for the role of Martha, the disenchanted, childless, alcoholic wife of a cynical, disillusioned history professor, played by her than husband Richard Burton. They were the fightingest couple in film history, and people joked that it wasn’t that different from their real lives. But regardless, it was acting, and they really pulled all the stops to make it seem real. Both of their performances are amazing but especially hers.
In the later years, Elizabeth Taylor was mostly involved in her businesses, retailing jewelry and fragrances, and also with her charitable foundation for AIDS research, which became a very big part of her life. And she became very infirmed at the end, having to move around in a wheelchair, reportedly from severe osteoporosis. It is said that she had Alzheimer's but that is unconfirmed. She definitely had heart failure.
Surely, it is true that Elizabeth Taylor lived in a different world, far removed from ordinary life, and her whole personhood and life experience was far and away different from that of regular folks. But, what was NOT different for her was the composition of her flesh and blood. Despite her wealth and fame, she was subject to the same rules, the same laws, the same results from the things that she did to herself that other people have to face. Her money and celebrity didn’t help her in that way at all. I suppose you could say that having the money to obtain the best medical care for her numerous problems made a difference in keeping her alive. But, remember that Medicine is a double-edged sword, and that’s putting it nicely. It was doctors who got her in trouble in the first place- with sleeping pills, tranquilizers, etc. And having vast wealth was apparently of no value to her in getting her to eat better food. So, the plain truth is that Elizabeth Taylor influenced the culture but not nearly as much as the culture influenced her.