Hollywood Flashback: Ronald Reagan Atoned for AIDS Neglect at 1990 Fundraiser

ONE TIME USE ONLY- Ped Aids 'Heroes' Fest 1990-Newscom-H 2019
Michael Jacobs/ZUMAPRESS.com/Newscom

The late Elizabeth Glaser, who launched her foundation after contracting HIV from a blood transfusion, held her first charity event 29 years ago, with the former president's presence seen as a mea culpa given his administration had done almost nothing at the beginning of the crisis.

In the 1980s, a family tragedy gave birth to one of Hollywood's first major AIDS fundraisers.

Elizabeth Glaser, then 34 and married to Paul Michael Glaser, the star of ABC's police drama Starsky & Hutch, had contracted HIV in 1981 from a blood transfusion while giving birth to her daughter. Their infant girl, Ariel, became HIV-positive through breastfeeding. Three years later, their son, Jake, was infected in utero.

It wasn't until 1985, when Ariel was being tested for mysterious symptoms, that they learned of the three infections. By 1985, the year Rock Hudson's death from AIDS attracted massive attention, there were more than 20,000 AIDS cases in 33 countries. After Ariel died from AIDS in 1988, her mother decided to form the Pediatric AIDS Foundation for research. The organization's first fundraiser in 1990 at a house in West L.A. attracted a crowd that included Dustin Hoffman, Elton John, Warren Beatty and Barbra Streisand.

"Elizabeth's story and personal magnetism were so powerful, no one wanted to say no to her," says friend Lucy Fisher. "Not just with fundraising, but in Washington, too."

The biggest name to attend was former President Ronald Reagan with his wife, Nancy. The Reagan administration had done almost nothing at the beginning of the AIDS crisis, and his presence was seen as something of a mea culpa.

At the party, a reporter for USA Today asked Reagan as he walked by, "Mr. President, looking back at your administration, do you wish you'd done more about AIDS?" His publicist started shouting, "No questions, no questions," but the president stopped and said, "Well, that's when it was invented," and then paused.

His wife whispered something to him and he added, "But we did all that we could at the time." (Reagan, who died in 2004 at 93, was diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease in 1993.)

The reporter filed this quote and pages of other information from the event, but the only story that made it to press was a gossip column item about Sharon Stone not wearing a bra. The event raised more than $1 million.

Elizabeth Glaser died from AIDS in 1994. Jake, now 34, is still alive and is active in the organization now known as the Elizabeth Glaser Pediatric AIDS Foundation.

This story first appeared in the July 10 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.