Elizabeth Taylor Dies at 79

Elizabeth Taylor - Portrait - 1960
Archive Photos/Getty Images

Surrounded by her four children, the screen legend passes away of congestive heart failure early Wednesday morning in L.A.

Elizabeth Taylor, the two-time Oscar winner whose beauty and outsized lifestyle epitomized the quintessence of Hollywood movie stars, died early Wednesday morning at Cedars-Sinai Hospital in Los Angeles of congestive heart failure. She was 79.

"She was surrounded by her children: Michael Wilding, Christopher Wilding, Liza Todd and Maria Burton," Taylor's publicist, Sally Morrison, says in a statement.

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"My Mother was an extraordinary woman who lived life to the fullest, with great passion, humor, and love," her son, Michael, said in a statement to ABC News. "Though her loss is devastating to those of us who held her so close and so dear, we will always be inspired by her enduring contribution to our world. Her remarkable body of work in film, her ongoing success as a businesswoman, and her brave and relentless advocacy in the fight against HIV/AIDS, all make us all incredibly proud of what she accomplished. 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."

Her family has asked that contributions be made to the Elizabeth Taylor AIDS Foundation in lieu of flowers. Personal messages should be directed to Taylor's Facebook page, which quickly filled with tributes Wednesday.

Taylor had suffered from health problems in recent years.

Last month, she checked into the hospital with congestive heart failure, but her condition had stabilized.

Known for her tempestuous marriages and personal battles with weight and health as well as her movie roles, Taylor were never far from the public eye. She also was a woman of charitable good works. After her good friend Rock Hudson died of AIDS in 1985, Taylor helped start the American Foundation for AIDS Research (AmFAR), creating the Elizabeth Taylor Foundation for AIDS in 1993. Her AmFAR fund-raiser has become a popular staple at the Cannes Film Festival each year.

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By 1999, it was estimated that her efforts had brought roughly $50 million into AIDS-research coffers. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences honored her with the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award in 1993.

Taylor won her first best actress Academy Award for Butterfield 8 (1960) after having been nominated the three previous years for Raintree County (1957), Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958) and Suddenly, Last Summer (1959). She added a second Oscar for Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966).

As her career blossomed in the 1950s and '60s, she became a favorite of the society pages and gossip columns. By 1958, she had made about two dozen films and was already twice divorced — a precursor to the eight failed marriages to seven men, including Richard Burton twice.

She also won a Tony Award nomination in 1981 for the Little Foxes. In 1993, she received the American Film Institute's Life Achievement Award. Queen Elizabeth II made her a Dame of the British Empire in 1999.

Born in London on Feb. 27, 1932, to American parents who were art dealers from the Midwest, Elizabeth Rosemond Taylor spent her early childhood in England. With violence accelerating in Europe and war impending, the Taylor family moved to Los Angeles. Soon, her beauty and crystalline violet eyes attracted studio attention, and she made her screen debut in 1942 at age 10 in There's One Born Every Minute.

It was a family friend, producer Samuel Marx, who brought Taylor to MGM and spurred her career. She was cast opposite Roddy McDowall in MGM's Lassie Come Home (1943), then signed by the studio to a long-term contract. While there, she attended the studio's Little Red School House with the likes of Judy Garland, Debbie Reynolds and Mickey Rooney.

Taylor resisted the studio's suggestion that she change her name to Virginia and refused to have a mole removed from her face, which would became her beauty trademark. For MGM, the child actress played in such films as Jane Eyre (1943) and The White Cliffs of Dover (1944). But it was her performance as young equestrian Velvet Brown, opposite Mickey Rooney, in National Velvet (1944) that vaulted Taylor to national attention and child stardom at age 12.

She soon enjoyed a string of successes, starring in Father of the Bride (1950) with Spencer Tracy, A Place in the Sun (1951) with Montgomery Clift, Ivanhoe (1952) with Robert Taylor and Giant (1956) with Hudson and James Dean.

Once described by Sir Winston Churchill as the screen's “most classic beauty,” Taylor was riding a crest of critical acclaim and popularity when she signed in the early '60s for the then-record sum of $1 million to star in Cleopatra (1963) at Fox. Her prima donna behavior on the set with her co-star Burton — not to mention their burgeoning romance — caused the movie to soar way over budget, with estimates of its total cost about $40 million, a gargantuan sum of the time.

After divorcing their respective spouses, Taylor and Burton married in 1964. Burton was her fifth of her eighth husbands (the previous four: Conrad Hilton, Michael Wilding, Michael Todd and Eddie Fisher).

She starred again with Burton in Edward Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? And her performance as the foul-mouthed, faculty wife Martha won her a second Oscar. They co-starred in three other films: The V.I.P.s (1963), The Sandpiper (1965) and Franco Zeffirelli's rompish 1967 adaptation of Shakespeare's The Taming of the Shrew, playing the titular character Katharina.

Also during the '60s, she also performed in Doctor Faustus (1967), Reflections in a Golden Eye (1967) and then in a series of lackluster films, including Boom! (1968), Secret Ceremony (1968) and The Only Game in Town (1970).

Undeniably, the scandals and lifestyle had taken a toll on her career, and the '70s saw a downslide with such unmemorable movies as Under Milk Wood (1972), X, Y and Zee (1972), Hammersmith Is Out (1972), Night Watch (1973) and Winter Kills (1979).

The ‘80s were similarly unremarkable on the film front, highlighted with the first film of that decade in 1980, The Mirror Crack'd, an Agatha Christie whodunit.

She turned to the stage and made her Broadway debut in Lillian Hellman's The Little Foxes, earning a Tony nomination. Her salary was touted as “the biggest salary ever on Broadway.”

She performed at the Kennedy Center in 1981, wowing old friend Ronald Reagan, now the U.S. president. In 1983, Taylor co-founded the Elizabeth Taylor Theatre Group, which produced stage revivals; the most celebrated was her teaming with Burton in Noel Coward's Private Lives.

Her weight gains and troubles made her fodder for comics, but she had a shrewd sense of self-deprecation as well. Her career selections were often cheeky: She appeared in a cameo role on the ABC soap opera General Hospital and drew a record 16 million viewers that day.

But her subsequent choices were often humorous or baffling. She did a voice-over for a 1992 episode of The Simpsons, and her finale movie role was as Pearl Slaghoople in The Flintstones (1994). More recently, she played in the telefilm These Old Broads in 2001.

Her personal life was always tabloid fodder. Her first marriage to Burton ended in divorce in 1974; they remarried the next year alongside a river in Africa in front of a hippo and a rhino; and divorced a year later.

In 1976, she married Virginia Sen. John Warner, a union that ended in divorce in 1982. In 1983, she made her first trip to the Betty Ford Clinic to overcome an alcohol dependency, returning five years later to combat an addiction to painkillers. In 1991, she married Larry Fortensky, a construction worker whom she met at the Ford Clinic. The ceremony took place at good friend Michael Jackson's Neverland Ranch. The marriage ended in 1997, the same year she underwent surgery for a brain tumor.

She suffered repeated health scares, including falls at her Bel Air home that injured her lower back. Reportedly, she endured more than 30 major and minor operations. Ever resilient, her robust sense of humor was always healthy. When queried about the fact that her life often outdistanced soap operas, Taylor quipped, “Damn right, I've survived. I've been through it all. I'm Mother Courage and I'll be dragging my sable coat with me into old age.”

Taylor launched a perfume line in the 1990s. Two fragrances, Passion and White Diamonds, were enormously successful, famously capitalizing on her showbiz allure and mystery. Sales were stupendous, bringing in an estimated $200 million annually.

By 1999, she had reportedly brought in an estimated $50 million to fight AIDS. She was tireless in support of other charities, including the Israeli War Victims Fund in 1976. She also helped the Variety Clubs International by raising money for the children's wings in hospitals, contributed to health clinics in Africa, including the Botswana Clinic, and served as the honorary chairperson for the Virginia Mental Health Assn.