Remembering Elizabeth Taylor's AIDS Activism

Elizabeth Taylor spent much of the later years of her life involved with AIDS activism. She testified before Congress, founded the American Foundation for AIDS Research and raised a great deal of money for the organization. Host Melissa Block remembers Taylor's devotion to the cause and speaks to Dr. Mervyn Silverman, a former president of amfAR president.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

We are marking the death today of Elizabeth Taylor. Elsewhere in the program, we have a reflection on her movie career, from the dewy, 12-year-old equestrian in "National Velvet" to "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof" to "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf."

(Soundbite of film, "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf")

Ms. ELIZABETH TAYLOR (Actress): (As Martha) I had it all planned out. First, he'd take over the history department. Then when daddy retired, he'd take over the whole college, you know. That was the way it was supposed to be. Getting angry there? That was the way it was supposed to be.

BLOCK: Off-screen, Elizabeth Taylor also brought the same passion we just heard to a real-life health crisis. Now we're going to remember her pioneering work as an advocate for AIDS research and for people with HIV and AIDS.

(Soundbite of archived audio)

Ms. TAYLOR: So many people were frightened and doing so little about it and saying so little. The silence was thunderous. And the only way to stop that is to speak up.

BLOCK: In 1985, Elizabeth Taylor co-founded the American Foundation for AIDS Research, or amfAR. Dr. Mervyn Silverman is a former amfAR president. He's also a former director of health in San Francisco. Welcome to the program, Dr. Silverman.

Dr. MERVYN SILVERMAN (Former President, amfAR): My pleasure, Melissa.

BLOCK: I'd like you to take us back to that time in the mid-1980s and give us a sense of the climate, just how transformative a thing it was to have Elizabeth Taylor out in front on this issue.

Dr. SILVERMAN: Well, you know, especially considering today, where people I think are very much aware of AIDS, and they know people who have had HIV and AIDS, back then, there was a lot of stigma, a lot of discrimination, a lot of fear.

And here was Elizabeth Taylor coming forth and speaking out. And of course she was very helpful in raising the necessary funds for the American Foundation for AIDS Research, which went to giving the initial impetus to some of the drugs that we now have.

So she played a very, very important role at a very important time.

BLOCK: One key galvanizing force for Elizabeth Taylor herself was the disclosure, back in 1985, that her friend and her former co-star, the actor Rock Hudson, himself had AIDS.

Dr. SILVERMAN: Well, that's true. I mean, he was a very important factor. She also knew others who were suffering from this mysterious disease and were so very frustrated that nobody was paying attention. And by that I mean Congress, the White House, the public.

BLOCK: In those first years, when she was embarking on this fundraising, were there a lot of people, especially in Hollywood, who turned her down, who just would not support the benefit because of the stigma that was still attached to AIDS?

Dr. SILVERMAN: Melissa, that's absolutely true. She stood out as almost the lone star, if you will, when most people were running in the other direction. She did it boldly, and she didn't do it to improve her career - in fact, the thought was it probably would have an adverse effect - because she believed so dearly about the issue.

BLOCK: Hers was a political voice too, very outspoken. We have some tape from her in 1992, at an international AIDS conference, when she was slamming the U.S. visa restrictions on people with HIV.

(Soundbite of archived audio)

Ms. TAYLOR: President Bush, Mr. Quayle, Senator Helms, your policy is wrong, dead wrong, and you know it.

BLOCK: Dr. Silverman, does that sound like the Elizabeth Taylor that you knew?

Dr. SILVERMAN: Oh absolutely. I was with her when we testified before Congress. And that was vintage Elizabeth Taylor. She didn't pull the punches. She really said what she thought and said it very bluntly.

And hopefully - in fact, not hopefully. I know it made a difference. When we see what's going on now, that doesn't seem that unusual. Back then, it was very.

BLOCK: Dr. Silverman, thanks so much for talking with us today.

Dr. SILVERMAN: You're welcome. Take care, Melissa.

BLOCK: Dr. Mervyn Silverman is former president of the group that Elizabeth Taylor co-founded, the American Foundation for AIDS Research, or amfAR.

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