By Jeff Yarbrough
Originally published on Advocate.com March 25 2011 1:10 PM ET
Elizabeth Taylor’s advocacy is what makes her one of the most intriguing people in the history of the fight against AIDS. Prior to interviewing her 15 years ago, I had personally done Advocate cover interviews with others in the AIDS pantheon; Randy Shilts (just before he died), Larry Kramer (just before he thought he would die), and Magic Johnson (just after he realized he might die), but she was the one that always got away. I had pursued her throughout the six years I edited The Advocate. Elizabeth’s gatekeepers would begrudgingly return my calls (made at six-month intervals), and each time, politely decline. “Her charity work speaks for her,” the Bad Cop would say. I would routinely reply, “Nothing speaks for Elizabeth Taylor except Elizabeth Taylor.”
In the summer of 1996 things changed. I still don’t know why. “Let’s set it up,” said the flack. “Oh, and you have to bring a gift. Everyone she meets for the first time gives her a gift.” The gift, apparently, was the only requirement that Elizabeth (or, perhaps, her wranglers) had put on the interview. The idea of shopping for Elizabeth Taylor was surreal. Richard Burton gave her the Krupp diamond, and I assume it was all downhill from there. Daunted, I opted to regift. A couple of months before his final exit in 1994, I spent a weekend with Randy Shilts in Guerneville, Calif. We talked on and off (between his frequent naps) about his work. And the Band Played On figured prominently, Conduct Unbecoming as well. My favorite book of his had always been The Mayor of Castro Street. Randy saw it as his most unappreciated work (the subsequent documentary had pulled focus from the source material). I asked him to sign a copy. Later, I realized he had not addressed it to me. Instead, it simply said, “Onward. – Randy.” He passed, and two years later, the book was about to as well.
When I got to Taylor’s Bel Air home, I was escorted into the house through a side door. I rounded a corner to find her positioned on a living room sofa. Prior to my arrival, I had been warned that her various ailments might derail the appointment. Later I realized that she had, most likely, been wheeled or carried to the couch. She never moved (except to gesticulate wildly). Even when I left, she stayed seated, tiny feet together on the floor. As I backed out of the room — trying not to trip over her dog — she sat tight and waved.
During the interview, she was unbridled; outing James Dean, calling Bob Dole a homophobe, accusing Americans of mass chauvinism. When the preordained time frame expired, an assistant popped his head in and said, “Time’s up.” Not “Miss Taylor has another appointment,” or “Dr. Krim’s on the line.” Simply, “Time’s up.” Candor was a primary force in the Taylor camp. I grabbed my stuff, realizing Shilts’s book was still in my bag. “The gift!” I remember saying, embarrassed as the words came out. I gave it to her and pointed at Randy’s inscription. “Onward,” she read aloud. Adding, “Onward: Story of my life!” And then she laughed that crazy laugh.
Weeks later, a Taylor handler called. “How’d it go?” Then small talk. “By the way,” he said, “We were wondering if you’d consider accompanying Miss Taylor to an event sometime.” In my younger gay days I had “walked” a few society matrons — and a couple of Warhol drag queens. Taylor’s was a heady request, but also sad to me. This star, full of power and talent and compassion, had teams of people around her. In retrospect, I can’t help but think that she was always pretty much out there on her own.