Famous Migraineurs: Dame Elizabeth Taylor
Elizabeth Rosemond Taylor, once hailed as “the most beautiful woman in the world,” was also a Migraineur. Dame Elizabeth Taylor was born on February 27, 1932, to her American parents Francis and Sara, in England, where she lived with her older brother Howard. The Taylor family lived in London, where her father was a successful art dealer and gallery owner, until Elizabeth was about seven. Ms. Taylor’s father also operated another art gallery in St. Louis, Missouri, while her mother (one time employed as an actress) was home raising her family. During the late 1930’s, with the ever increasing turbulence growing in Europe, the Taylor family moved to America, where Elizabeth’s mother began to coach her into show business.
Ms. Taylor’s beauty was quickly identified and her first acting job was in a film called There’s One Born Every Minute (1942) with Universal Studios. A few short years later she became a client of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer(MGM), who represented the biggest and the best stars of that era. Lassie Come Home (1943) was the first movie she played a role in under MGM Management and then had some small parts in Jane Eyre (1943) and The White Cliffs of Dover (1944). But it was the movie National Velvet (1944) that made Ms. Taylor a star_._ However this also began her lifelong battle with various medical issues because while shooting one scene she was tossed from her horse and broke her back. Being born with scoliosis, this break aggravated an already sensitive back. But she was a trooper, and finished the film. Its been reported that she suffered Migraines from an early age.
Stardom and acting were exactly what Elizabeth Taylor thrived on. As a young girl, she loved the costume changes, makeup and hair-do’s her roles called for. At 15, she was called the, “most beautiful woman in the world,” by her mother’s friend and columnist Hedda Hopper. Due to the special attention her career gathered, she soon began to have a reputation of being difficult to work with, especially during the films Cynthia (1947), Little Women (1949), Father of the Bride (1950) and A Place in the Sun (1951).
In 1950, at the tender age of 22, she married Conrad N. Hilton, Jr., of the Hilton Hotel Empire. Sadly, the marriage lasted under a year. Shortly thereafter, she married an actor from England, Michael Wilding. In 1952, they had two sons. Ms. Taylor’s acting career was very productive during this time, but was not demanding on her acting ability. Giant (1956) wasablockbuster hit she made with James Dean, but unfortunately, Dean was never able to see his work; he was killed in a car accident in 1955 before the release of this film. Her next few films won her Oscar nominations, Raintree County (1957) and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.
Mike Todd, a movie producer, was to become Ms.Taylor’s third husband during some very difficult years. Being terribly distraught over James Dean’s death and additionally upset by the almost fatal car accident her dear friend Montgomery Clift was in when he left her home after a party, the final blow came when her husband, Todd died in a plane crash. This put Ms. Taylor into a cycle of addiction that would be troublesome for the rest of her life. She used pills and alcohol to ease her emotional pain. However shortly after Todd’s death, Ms. Taylor began a relationship with Eddie Fisher under odd circumstances. Fisher was the best man at Elizabeth and Mike’s wedding, and Debbie Reynolds, Fisher’s then wife, was the matron of honor. Fisher seemed destined to become Taylor’s fourth husband, and they married in 1959.
Ms. Taylor was paid $500,000 for the successful hit Suddenly Last Summer (1959). This was the largest amount of money ever paid to an actress, for eight weeks of work. In addition, she received another Oscar nomination for the film. In 1960, she finally won the Oscar for Best Actress for her role in Butterfield 8 (1960). From here,Ms. Taylor worked with 20th Century Fox and received $1 million for starring in the film Cleopatra (1961) with Richard Burton. While filming this movie, Ms. Taylor and Burton began their love affair on and off the set and even raised the eyes of the Vatican, who called the stars “adult children.” An emotional crisis ensued, and Ms. Taylor attempted to take her life in 1962. But Taylor and Burton could not be kept apart. Divorcing their respective spouses, they were married in 1964. Richard Burton became the fifth and sixth husband of Elizabeth Taylor.
In1966Ms. Taylorstarred in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? with Richard Burton, and many other roles followed in this time frame. The 1960’s also brought her initial divorce from Burton. Again, not being able to stay away from one another, Ms. Taylor and Burton remarried in 1975, only to divorce for the second and final time in 1976. Moving on to the seventh marriage in 1978, Ms. Taylor wed John Warner, a U.S. Senate candidate from Virginia. She didn’t play the role of a political wife well, doing what she wanted, when she wanted. Ms. Taylor’s weight fluctuated a lot during this time, and the press never let her hear the end of it. After Warner was elected, the Warner’s were divorced.
Ms. Taylor appeared on Broadway for the first time in the early 1980’s in The Little Foxes and again with Richard Burton in Private Lives (1983). Again, this period was marked with tragedy by the death of Burton in 1984 and her good friend Rock Hudson in 1985. Emotional distress, chronic back pain from previous injuries, scoliosis and other health issues spurred a return to addiction. She checked herself into the Betty Ford Clinic. Soon after Hudson’s death, Ms. Taylor was stunned by the number of dear friends who were ill with HIV/AIDS and thus began her campaign for AIDS research. In 1985, she became the chair and cofounder of the American Foundation for AIDS Research (AmFAR). She was committed to this cause for the rest of her life.
Ms. Taylor revisited the Betty Ford Clinic in 1988 and met her eighth husband, Larry Fortensky, a forty-year old construction worker. They began their friendship in treatment and remained close afterwards. She continued being ill from time to time, having horrible times with pneumonia, almost dying from it in 1990. Happier times arrived in 1993 when The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences awarded Ms. Taylor a special humanitarian award for raising HIV/AIDS research awareness. Then in 1994, after a long 14-year hiatus from making films, she had a small role in The Flintstones, where soon after, she announced her retirement from the movies. The year 1996 closed with yet another chapter in her married life as she divorced Fortensky.
ABC television celebrated Ms. Taylor’s 65th birthday with a television special that also raised funds for HIV/AIDS awareness in 1997. The very next day, she had brain surgery to remove a tumor. In 1998, she had multiple surgeries for her hip, broke her back again, (making it a total of four times), and in 1999, fell and fractured her spine. During an interview with Barbara Walters in the late 1990’s, Ms. Taylor basically admitted she no longer acted due to her vast medical issues, many of which caused her extreme pain if she stood or walked for extended periods of time. Ms. Taylor was given the honor of becoming a Dame - Commander of the Order of the British Empire - which is the female version of a knight by Queen Elizabeth, in addition to being given an award for her services to charity and the entertainment industry in 2000.
In 2004, Ms. Taylor was diagnosed with congestive heart failure, and in 2009, had surgery to repair a leaky value in her heart. Somehow she always managed to jump back into life after being so ill. But the trip to the hospital in February 2011 proved to be different. Ms. Taylor was unable to recover from complications due to congestive heart failure and died on March 23, 2011. She lived a vibrant and exciting life, giving her best to the campaign for HIV/AIDS research and entertaining us along the way.
People.com. “Hollywood’s Last Greatest Star: Elizabeth Taylor - Her Final Days.” StarPulse.com. April 3, 2011.
Evans, Randolph. W. “Migraine: A Question and Answer.” Med Clin N Am 93 (2009) 245-262. doi:10.1016/j.mcna.2008.09.003
“Elizabeth Taylor Biography.” Encyclopedia of World Biography.
“Celebs Who Cope with Migraines.” ThirdAge.Com
© Nancy Harris Bonk, 2011. Last updated April 27, 2011.
Nancy wrote for HealthCentral as a patient expert for Migraine.