Elizabeth Taylor (r) with Rock Hudson and Liza Minnelli.
LOS ANGELES, Calif. — The world lost a fierce HIV/AIDS advocate with the March 23 death of actress Elizabeth Taylor. The Oscar-winning beauty launched a second career as an AIDS activist in 1985 when she organized AIDS Project Los Angeles’s first “Commitment to Life” event, which would go on to become the biggest AIDS fundraiser in history.
“It’s impossible to underestimate Elizabeth Taylor’s impact on the fight against AIDS from the very beginning,” said APLA Executive Director Craig E. Thompson. “We’re simply devastated by her loss.”
For Taylor, the fight against AIDS became personal from the start. While she and her publicist worked in the first months of 1985 to organize the inaugural “Commitment to Life” gala, she would learn that her friend and co-star Rock Hudson was dying of the disease.
Despite — and because of — widespread silence within the entertainment community, Taylor worked to pack the Bonaventure Hotel for the gala, which raised $1.3 million. More than 2,500 attended, and Taylor took the stage to present the first Commitment to Life award to First Lady Betty Ford. Among the attendees were Abigail Van Buren, Cher, Sammy Davis, Jr., Burt Lancaster, Cyndi Lauper, Shirley MacLaine, Rod Stewart and Stevie Wonder.
Taylor was honored at the following year’s Commitment to Life gala, and the event continued annually for more than a decade, raising millions for APLA’s work in Los Angeles.
Her AIDS activism reached far beyond entertainment circles and into the political arena, as well. In 1986, she co-founded The American Foundation for AIDS Research (amfAR) and testified before a U.S. Senate Committee in support of federal funding for HIV care and treatment.
In 1991, she launched The Elizabeth Taylor AIDS Foundation, which continues to provide funding for HIV and AIDS programs globally, including those at APLA.
Taylor herself remained a fierce advocate for HIV-related work. She appeared as recently as 2009 on the stage of Macy’s and American Express Passport in Los Angeles — another annual event that she helped found, which has raised more than $28 million for AIDS organizations, including APLA, over its three decades.
“We’ve lost one of the boldest advocates our community has seen,” Thompson said, “but her tremendous impact lives with us.”