TODAY   |  March 23, 2011

AIDS crusader Taylor not afraid of scandal

People magazine’s Peter Castro speaks with TODAY about Elizabeth Taylor’s legacy, saying that even with her own romantic scandals, the actress was ready to take on controversy, standing up in the fight against AIDS and standing by her friend Michael Jackson – even during his darkest days.

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This content comes from Closed Captioning that was broadcast along with this program.

>>> and we have some sad news to report this morning. the hollywood legendary elizabeth taylor has died of congestive heart failure after being hospitalized for about six weeks. a wonderful actress and also an amazing champion for awareness about hiv /aids.

>> a very important person who's now left us.

>> that's right. we have been talking just about how much she affected people when it came to her career and her dedication to those humanitarian causes. we have peter castor, the managing editor of "people" magazine joining us on the phone now. peter, i can't think of a bigger star and perhaps a bigger loss in hollywood today. would you agree?

>> i would absolutely agree with that. it's almost cliche to say she was a cultural touchstone like elvis and marilyn and sinatra, but she was. i can't think of anyone else that falls into that category. her friend carol sayer said she's the closest thing this country had to royalty.

>> peter, in 1985 she joined with dr. ma tilda creme to form amfar. that will be as big a part of her legacy as we go forward.

>> you know, al, she didn't have to do that. she was already an established star. she already had an enormous amount of respect and adoration and love. jeff was on and said it was an act of bravery and that was what it was. it can't be described as anything else. she lit the spark in this country for awareness. she gave it credibility, awareness and made americans think for the first time that, wait, this is something that's much bigger and does affect us all despite our sexual orientation.

>> we should probably remind people what that time was like. she basically came out and said these things at a time when people actually said publically that aids was god's wrath on people and when people were afraid to touch people who had hiv /aids. so when she came out and said this and she helped support the founding of amfar, an important organization that's funded research, she really changed our culture.

>> you know, ann, i think you're absolutely right. let's not forget this is a woman who, for better or worse, was never afraid to shock people. i mean, she had her scandalous moments and shocked the country when she took up with eddie fisher , but she was used to taking on the public and used to taking on controversy. in this case, very much unlike the romantic scandal she had in her past, in this case this was a controversy she was ready to take on. she had her gloves on and was ready to go. we are all grateful for that.

>> peter, natalie here. we also know she was such -- speaking of somebody who always stood in front of an important cause and who really believed and stood by her friends, here was somebody who to his death stayed right by michael jackson to the very end given all that he went through as well. talk about that a little bit as well, the fact that she was such a loyal friend to him.

>> again, echoing what i said a little while ago, she was never afraid to take on controversy. you know, she adored her public but was never guided by public opinion . that was a case in point where a lot of people thought you should really distance yourself from this guy. but she was not like that. she was about loyalty. unfortunately, you know, in many of her marriages she encountered disloyalty. i don't mean to play amateur psychologist, but maybe her sense of loyalty came from the many marriages and the disloyalty she encountered in those.

>> you know, peter, one of her quotes was, you find out who your real friends are when you're involved in a scandal. she obviously lived through those kinds of things and knew what it was like to go through it which is why she was probably such a loyal friend.

>> absolutely. in all of this, we talk about scandal and everything. let's not forget how much grace she had, too. i think there was a low point in her life during her marriage with john warner where he wasn't around a lot. he spent time in the senate and she said, i became my only eating companion and she gained a lot of weight. this was really a low point in her life. but she always met any kind of challenge with the utmost grace.

>> i'm reading notes from our researchers. i didn't know she was a dame of the british empire .

>> dame elizabeth.

>> also earned the french legion of honor and received humanitarian awards, of course, for her work. she's quoted as having said, i have dedicated my efforts above all to the thousands of men, women and children throughout the world who have died of aids or are currently fighting for their lives. then she also later on said, celebrity is not something that comes without responsibility.

>> beautifully said.

>> it's a beautiful statement. don't forget she spent her first seven years of life in england . she grew up there, came here and became a hollywood star . she always had an attachment to england. her best friend roddy mcdowel is english. it was dear to her heart. the causes were very important to her. i'm so glad part of the conversation today beyond the looks, talent and the oscars is focused so much on her embracing aids and trying to, you know, eradicate it from this culture.

>> i bet she would be proud of that as well. peter, one thing i have been curious about with elizabeth taylor , it's revealed in her work and it seems also for those who met her, they talked about this as well. she was also an incredibly -- she seemed anyway, kind of tender, vulnerable. i was using the word earlier -- from fragile. do we have a history to explain the dichotomy? her courage in stepping up and speaking out for those who have hiv /aids and yet at the same time this kind of vulnerability she had which revealed itself in so many ways.

>> that's an excellent question, ann. she didn't have the greatest relationship with her father especially. and, you know, when she was 18 she married nicky hilton , paris hilton 's great uncle. he was abusive to her. apparently had a physical altercation that led to a miscarriage. she was really used to pain at a very early age. i think that made her vulnerable. we are preparing a 15-page obit package on her and there is one quote that comes out of this that's so haunting. it says, you know, i have been lucky all my life. everything was handed to me, looks, fame, honors, love. this is in 1992 in "life" but she said, i have paid for that with terrible illness, destructive addictions, broken marriages. to your point she was vulnerable but had great reason to be.

>> we talk about her being married eight times. two of those times were to the person she describes as the love of her life, richard burton . talk about that relationship if you could.

>> well, you know, if i could be a fly on the wall for some of the days during those marriages. i mean, you're right. he was the love of her life. boy, did they fight. and they broke up and got back together. you know, she said something that was something only she could say. she said, you know, i wonder -- after he died -- i wonder if we just loved each other too much. it's an extraordinary statement. but he was the love of her life. you know, when they met on the set of "cleopatra" sparks were flying left and right. we shouldn't forget mike todd . he was the second love of her life. 25 years her senior. i think he was 49 or 50 and she was just 25 when they married. she absolutely adored him. they were married only a little over a year and he tragically died in a plane crash . after richard burton i would say he was right up there.

>> in fact, ironically the name of the plane he died in was called "the lucky liz."

>> wow.

>> there are a lot of ironies in her case. well, gosh. thank you so much peter castro from "people" magazine. you have been able to give us a lot of great perspective.

>> thank you very much.