By Jeff Yarbrough
Originally published on Advocate.com March 23 2011 12:30 PM ET
Introduction by Aileen Getty
Without the love of Elizabeth Taylor in my life, I would probably be dead — if not physically, most certainly emotionally.
I was born and raised in Italy. At the age of 15, I moved to London, and at 17, with a one-way airline ticket in hand, I flew to the United States. As a child I don’t think I was aware of Elizabeth Taylor. I had seen only Gone With the Wind, Mary Poppins, and The Sound of Music. When I turned 18, living in Los Angeles, I fell in love with Christopher Wilding, the most wonderful man in the world. His mom is Elizabeth Taylor, and his father is Michael Wilding.
I first met Mom in Chichester, England, at Michael Wilding’s home, where two days earlier he had died. I met a human being who wore her heart on her sleeve, refusing to accommodate social safety codes. I met a woman who ruled; the dumber the joke, the more raucous her laugh. She was proud to be the mother of her children, eager to hang out with them and feel the scary. That was the first time I felt the love of a family, and it was safe and honest.
Chris and I married and had two divine boys, Caleb and Andrew; five years of sobriety; love; lots of laughter; and scrapbooks to house a lifetime together.
In 1985 Mom and I began walking uncharted territories, and we both became involved with the American Foundation for AIDS Research. I think AIDS became very important to Mom because she really identifies with the isolation and the abandonment that so many people with the disease experience. In her own life she has experienced abandonment on a different level, but abandonment is abandonment…period. The isolation she has experienced and lived with has been very deep. She does not have the access to the world that many of us take for granted. Fame and notoriety have a way of stealing society’s humanity. She deserves to be treated as an emotional and feeling human being.
Many of Mom’s friends are members of the gay community, and their isolation and abandonment have turned her life upside down. When Rock Hudson was diagnosed with AIDS, it was absolutely devastating for her. When he went public with that information, he got knocked around by the press very badly. I remember going through thousands of letters that had been sent to him, and so many of them focused on his “deserving it” and his sexual preference being “not God’s way.” At that time AIDS was all so new and unknown, but that did not justify people’s lack of compassion or cruelty, and this just tore Mom’s heart apart. I think these issues made her involvement in the AIDS movement absolute. She has never avoided an important issue involving humanity and the human spirit.
Right from the beginning she would visit people with AIDS, getting involved with them, talking and listening, making them feel supported and loved. This was always on her own time, and the press never knew that she was actively working with the people. I remember that there was a couple—two men—and one of them had died of AIDS. Somehow Mom got the name of the surviving partner, and she had a beautiful silver frame made for him. She was always doing wonderful things for people in need, and the press and foundations never knew that an angel was working right under their noses.
In 1985 I was diagnosed as being HIV-positive. My own family was not very supportive at that time, but Mom was incredible. Chris and I went over to her house to tell her, and we all cried and cried. I felt so guilty, so ashamed. I had been exposed to the virus because I had had an unsafe sexual affair outside of my marriage, but Mom loved me through my shame and held me tight. This can be very difficult: If you do something wrong, sometimes you feel that you want to be scolded or punished for your actions, as opposed to being loved and supported. Mom just loved me.
Now, when I see her addressing an AIDS conference or calling the president to task, it usually makes me cry. There are not many people like Elizabeth Taylor who are out on the streets working for the silent masses. Her love is unconditional, and that can be overwhelming, particularly when it is intimate, as it is in my case. I remember her yelling at me once over the telephone. She was really furious because I was using drugs. I was trying to deny it, but she is no fool, and that made her even more angry. I sobered up very quickly after that.
Mom has always been there for me. Her tough love works wonders. She is my ally, and she makes me feel like a human being. I know that I could die with Mom, and she would hold me safe and tight. Her instinct to love has given me the power and will to live. I love her…my Mom…my angel.
The Advocate’s interview with Elizabeth Taylor took place on July 29 in her Los Angeles home. Taylor had just returned from addressing the National Press Club in Washington, D.C.
On October 12 you’ll be back in Washington, leading a procession from the U.S. Capitol to the Lincoln Memorial as grand marshal of the National AIDS Candlelight March. How did your participation come about?
Well, for the past two years, I’ve been trying to get involved, but I couldn’t because of my hip surgery. I was thrilled when I was asked to be the grand marshal. But it’s going to be rather tricky with my metal hips.
Does it annoy you on some level that society has created a fund-raising situation in which an organization or benefit can raise ten times its usual amount if your name is attached to it?
Just giving the use of your name doesn’t really mean anything. You have to be physically involved, be a participant, and show up and make yourself a part of the organization. There are so many AIDS hospices that I visit, and I get to find out directly from people who have AIDS what their needs are. It becomes much more personal if you’re involved that way than just being on a political platform or speaking out.
Fame can be very handy. Some people are always complaining about being famous and saying, “I want my privacy” — well, this is a time to take your fame and use it as clout and do some good with it.
How is it that you decided 11 years ago to use your fame in battling AIDS?
I remember complaining, “Why isn’t anybody doing anything? Why isn’t anyone raising money?” And it struck me like lightning: “Wait a second, I’m not doing anything.”
So with the help of several other people, we put on the first-ever gay benefit here, the Commitment to Life. Betty Ford was the guest of honor, and it took about a year to put together. I’ve never heard so many nos in my life. Oh, my God, it was unbelievable! Nobody in this town wanted to know or be a part of it. They said, “No, this is one you want to stay away from. There’s a stigma.” I didn’t even know that Rock Hudson was sick yet. I found that out two or three months after I was involved.
That’s amazing! Everyone—
Assumes it was because of Rock that I became involved. It was just the opposite. I became involved, then I heard about Rock.
Did it ever occur to you that without the work you did early on, we might not be as far along in this fight as we are?
No, because all I see is how much more has to be done. I’m a piece of sand on the beach. And in order to create a beachhead, we need millions more like me.
You were very critical during the Reagan and Bush administrations about their lack of initiative in regard to AIDS. What do you make of Bill Clinton’s efforts?
I wish President Clinton were more direct, more hands-on. He’s been given a chance to turn the world around and be outspoken on an issue that’s controversial to still so many people, but it would take enormous daring. I had hoped that he would. I really thought he had the chutzpah and the cojones.
Do you think President Clinton would be more active on AIDS issues during a second term?
I hope he’d take the chance and say, “OK, folks, be ready for action, because I’ve waited four years to take this opportunity to do what I promised I’d do four years ago.”
I really hope, of course, that he gets in. There’s something about Dole that frightens me. Maybe I shouldn’t say this, but I’m going to: I think he’s homophobic.
Why do you think so?
It’s just an instinctive feeling. The man has the right to whatever feelings he has. But because of his waffling attitude on certain issues, it makes me think he’s homophobic. I don’t think it takes a lot of delving into Bob Dole to come to that kind of conclusion. A lot of people would read that.
The focus of the Elizabeth Taylor AIDS Foundation is patient care. Why is that so important to you?
If you go in and actually see the people and say to them, “What is it I can do to help you?” and they tell you — that’s what makes your heart bleed real blood.
I went to a hospice in the Borghese Gardens in Rome, and I said to the guys — there were no women there — “What is it you would really like?” And one beautiful-looking young man said, “I would like someone to come in here and just put his arms around me and make me feel like a human being.”
Do you think Americans are a bit myopic about the AIDS epidemic, that they don’t care about what is going on in the rest of the world?
Americans generally tend to suffer from mass chauvinism. But the rest of the world is suffering.
You do have to take care of yourself, take care of your own shit. But AIDS is everybody’s own shit.
There were rumors circulating in April 1990 that you yourself actually had AIDS.
I was in the hospital, and it was said that I had AIDS. Actually, I had pneumonia and almost died, and I had Candida albicans and thrush and several things in common with AIDS. It was interesting for me, realizing that people with AIDS felt the same way I did — only I had the luxury of knowing that perhaps I would live; people with AIDS didn’t have the luxury to even dare have that thought. It awed me and scared me and made me feel so much closer to people with AIDS.
Many people with AIDS consider suicide. This was probably brought close to home for you when your personal secretary, Roger Wall, who was HIV-positive, took an overdose of sleeping pills rather than face the possibility of a lingering death. What are your feelings about his suicide?
At first I was very angry. Then I couldn’t accept it and suffered such pain. Then my anger turned into overwhelming pity and sorrow and loss. And then I started to realize that he had that right — and probably I would have done the same thing. But I don’t think you can know until it happens to you.
And you’ve had other people in your life who have fought this thing tooth and nail. Do you have any insight into what makes someone decide to go on and somebody else stop?
It depends on the people that are around you. It depends on how much suffering you’re going through, how much pain you’re in, how much of your mental capacities are gone. I hear that the main percentage of people with AIDS that kill themselves are the ones that have lost their eyesight.
You’ve talked before about having had a near-death experience. Are you less afraid of dying as a result of this, and do you ever impart that when you are talking to people at a hospice?
Sometimes I do. I was pronounced dead once and actually saw the light. I find it very hard to talk about, actually, because it sounds so corny. It happened in the late ’50s, and I saw Mike [Todd, Taylor’s third husband, who was killed in a plane crash in 1958]. When I came to, there were about 11 people in the room. I’d been gone for about five minutes — they had given me up for dead and put my death notice on the wall. I shared this with the people that were in the room next to me. Then after that I told another group of friends, and I thought, Wow, this sounds really screwy. I think I’d better keep quiet about this.
For a long time I didn’t talk about it, and it’s still hard for me to talk about. But I have shared it with people with AIDS because if the moment occurs and you’re really sharing, it’s real. I am not afraid of death, because I have been there.
Early in your film career, gay content was routinely stripped out of the source material when plays or novels were made into movies: Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and Suddenly, Last Summer, for example. Do you recall any discussions of those cuts among the higher-ups working on those pictures?
I do remember one couldn’t say the word “malignant,” and you couldn’t say the word “rape,” so it wasn’t just homophobic. The whole board of censors was so stupid. They’d put an orange down your cleavage, and if the camera could see the orange, then the camera had to be moved. People didn’t take it seriously because it was all kind of daft.
I think in Boom! you were credited as the first major actress to say “fuck” on-screen.
Oh, I do hope so!
And earlier, of course, in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? you challenged the censors by using words like “bastard” and “son of a bitch.”
Well, that damned Elizabeth!
Did you intentionally set out to break those barriers in terms of choosing those parts, or did they just happen to be great scripts that you wanted to do?
I’ve always believed in speaking my mind, and if it’s part of the character, like in Virginia Woolf, I would be unflinching. If it fit the role, I wouldn’t back away from it at all. I like colorful language. [Laughs]
You spoke in Patricia Bosworth’s biography of Montgomery Clift about his homosexuality.
I was 18 or 19 when I helped him realize that he was homosexual, and I barely knew what I was talking about. I was a virgin when I was married and not a world expert on sexuality. But I loved Monty with all my heart and just knew that he was unhappy. I knew that he was meant to be with a man and not a woman, and I discussed it with him. I introduced him to some really nice young guys.
Did the career aspect ever come up? Did he say he could never live openly as a gay man because…
He had a very hard time being open about being gay, and I don’t think it had to do with his career. It was more his background — a very Presbyterian, middle-class background. His mother was very uptight, and I think he was afraid of her. There was no love there at all, and it influenced his whole personal life.
It was very hard for men who wanted to come out of the closet in those days. The men that I knew — Monty and Jimmy [Dean] and Rock — if anything, I helped them get out of the closet. I didn’t even know I was doing it. I didn’t know that I was more advanced than most people in this town. It just never occurred to me.
Rock Hudson seemed to be very content, in a way, with being gay.
He was, but it took him years of pain, terrible pain. The Hollywood he had to suffer through was so horrific.
What would you say if a closeted actor came to you for advice now about coming out?
I’d say, “Come out. And embrace those you love and that love you.”
My feeling about marriage at this moment in time is so sour that I would say to all, “You’re crazy!” But if you want to get married, get married. If you want to be stupid, go ahead, but I don’t want to hear about any of your tears.
You’ve always been very true to yourself, as opposed to following the conventional wisdom. Where does that come from?
When I was very young, the only time I had for myself was when I could get on my horse in the morning before going to the studio. I’d jump for about an hour, and I felt true freedom. It was like my spirit was at one with the trees and the sky and wind, and I could scream or cry or feel whatever I wanted to. Nobody could hear me, and nobody could tell me to shut up. I could do whatever I wanted on that horse, and then I’d have to go and be the puppet.
When I was 15, I told L.B. Mayer to go to hell. It was then that I realized I was a complete, free individual and that I loved God. I was so grateful to God for giving me all the gifts I had. And I felt free. I didn’t belong to the studio, I didn’t belong to anything — I was totally my own person. I realized I had to follow moral ethics, but I was free to be my own self as long as I didn’t hurt anyone else.
How do you feel about gay men and lesbians raising children?
I think it’s great! I’m the godparent of a little boy, Jake, who has two fathers. He’s such a lucky boy.
So you see it more as the ability of a parent to provide emotionally for a child than the traditional male-female model for raising a kid?
Well, yes. I mean, love is love — tenderness, guidance, disciplining, being supportive. Look at all the children out there that live horrible lives, and these little children that have gay parents have golden love given to them. They’re cherished little beings.
If we do find something to make AIDS more manageable, do you worry that there’ll be yet another STD around the corner to worry about?
There’s always been something around the corner. AIDS keeps mutating itself so quickly. It’s so wicked, this virus; it’s got a really malicious sense of humor, and it plays off youth and ignorance and stigma. It plays off all the things that we don’t want to deal with. That’s what makes it such a deadly disease—because it will not be trifled with. It’s “Don’t fuck with me, baby. I’m here to stay.” It’s got that kind of attitude that should really scare us. And our fear is warranted.
Do you feel that you’ve gained personal worth from the fight against AIDS? Do you feel a sense of accomplishment?
No, I feel a sense of challenge, like I can’t rest for a moment. I was sick for two years and had my hips fiddled around with, and it just made me so impatient. While I was having my hips done, I could feel an almost supernatural sense of complacency building up around me. I wanted to do something about it, but I couldn’t because I was physically incapable. But I was aware of this itch, and when I go back out again, I feel it now. It does something to my skin.
You don’t feel a sense of accomplishment about the work you’ve done?
I guess I just want more. We need so much more, and that really drives me and makes me want to goose people.
What was your reaction when you learned in Vancouver at this year’s International Conference on AIDS that the Canadian government was threatening to cut funding for AIDS research?
Right in the middle of the conference, the government sits and turns its back! And you think, How can that happen in your very midst? That can’t give you a sense of hope. But it sure makes you want to kick ass!