Mar 23, 2011

Dinner With ELIZABETH TAYLOR: Just me, my coworkers, our round ¨silver¨ table and 2,500 others at the Bonaventure Hotel, Los Angeles



Early evening on September 19, 1985 a group of specially invited guests -- including the fabulous/beautiful and bejeweled friend to all, Lillian Bernie Wallen Ezer (RIP) of Beverly Hills, who was the only female present at our party and later served as hostess at our table-- gathered at my duplex near Fourth and La Cienega--just a few blocks from Cedars Sinai hospital.  Champagne corks popped and drinks flowed and we were lucky to all be alive! We were having a little pre-party before a very special dinner later at the downtown Los Angeles´ Bonaventure Hotel.  All were thrilled and dressed  elaborately, rented several limousines and with great thanks to my somewhat homophobic ¨employer/dinner-sponsor´ in New York, Sirco International Corporation, Burt Siris (RIP), Chairman, we were ready to attend a ¨star studded¨ dinner after purchasing a ¨Silver¨ table (I don´t think I knew there were ¨Gold¨ tables available for purchase or I would have pushed for a ¨Goldie¨)  at the AIDS Project Los Angeles’ Commitment to Life dinner.  Intertestingly, Dame Elizabeths face, hair and lovliness is exactly the ¨minds eye¨ image (above, although she wore a gorgeous gown) I recall it to be as she made her presentation at the dinner that night.  It was the start of decades of her warriorlike activism when fighting HIV/AIDS!

“I have to show up because it galvanizes people. [They] know . . . I’m not there to sell or gain anything. I’m there for the same reason they are: to get something done.” The discovery of HIV/AIDS not only changed the world forever, but also the life and purpose of Dame Elizabeth Taylor. Elizabeth was the first person in the entertainment industry to stand up and take charge when few were willing to listen, and even fewer were willing to help. “Elizabeth did something when it required real courage,” said Elton John. Since then she has remained at the forefront of the battle against this disease, a loyalty that has earned her the name the “Joan of Arc of AIDS.”

In the early 1980s, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention named a new disease called AIDS—acquired immunodeficiency syndrome. Although the cancer like symptoms were found in heterosexual hemophiliacs, needle users and recipients of blood transfusion, America and the world were closing their eyes to the AIDS epidemic because the disease had been wrongly portrayed as a gay man’s disease, known in the media as the “gay cancer”. Because of rampant homophobia, there was an instant stigma attached to AIDS. “But when I saw the kind of hypocrisy that was going on, I thought it was terrible,” Elizabeth said. “The industry knew homosexuals were being hit hard, but instead of extending a loving hand and saying, ‘You helped me get to where I am today, without you I wouldn’t have made it,’ they turned their backs.”

“I remember complaining, ‘Why isn’t anybody doing anything? Why isn’t anyone raising money?’” asked Elizabeth. “And it struck me like lightning: ‘Wait a second, I’m not doing anything.’” But she would. Elizabeth Taylor had a plan of action.

“I decided that with my name I could open certain doors, that I was a commodity in myself—and I’m not talking as an actress. I could take the fame I’d resented and tried to get away from for so many years—but you can never get away from it—and use it to do some good. I wanted to retire, but the tabloids wouldn’t let me. So I thought, If you’re going to screw me over, I’ll use you.” Elizabeth’s plan to use the media could only work. They had followed her every move for decades, and by attaching her name to the AIDS crisis, they would have to acknowledge it. Elizabeth Taylor would breakdown the stereotypes associated with the disease and enlighten an ignorant world. AIDS was not a gay man’s disease. AIDS has the potential to affect everyone and no one can hide from it.

Elizabeth Taylor’s first order of business was the AIDS Project Los Angeles’ Commitment to Life dinner. She was approached by APLA to lend her support to the event in January 1985. Not only did Elizabeth agree, but she and her publicist, Chen Sam, also planned the dinner from a small office they rented. “I didn’t want to be honorary. I wanted to actually do the work, make the phone calls, because this was going to be a toughie.” Elizabeth again saw the bigotry surrounding the disease when she tried to recruit longtime friends and peers to lend their support for the dinner. “I have never had so many ‘no’s said to me,” remembered Elizabeth, “They didn’t want to come to the evening, didn’t want to be associated. Some very big names [said no].” Elizabeth also said that “People not only slammed doors in my face and hung up on me, but I received death threats. Something happened to the world, and I think it was massive fear.” However, Elizabeth ignored the senseless threats and pushed forward.

While planning the APLA dinner, the disease became even more personal for Elizabeth. In July 1985, it was revealed that Elizabeth’s friend and two-time costar, Rock Hudson, was dying of AIDS. This only helped to further fuel her desire to overcome the dreaded disease. Elizabeth would discover that AIDS had ravaged his body and mind so much that he didn’t know her when she came to see him. It was during this time that Elizabeth spent time with Dr. Michael Gottleib, Hudson’s doctor. Dr. Gottleib was one of the true heroes in the early days of the AIDS crisis. “He has taken no credit for anything,” said Elizabeth. “He’s remained quiet as a mouse, and he is the one that people should be thanking.” The lack of a medicinal treatment for Hudson was one thing, but the way he was being treated by the press and the public was awful. Elizabeth’s daughter-in-law, Aileen Getty, recalled reading through letters that were sent to the actor saying that he deserved the disease, and it was God’s way of punishing him. But even with the hateful ignorance of public opinion, AIDS finally had an identity. AIDS now had a face.

On September 19, 1985, the inaugural Commitment to Life dinner was finally held. 2,500 people packed the Bonaventure Hotel and although it initially proved difficult, Elizabeth’s peers in the entertainment industry did lend their support. Elizabeth’s old friend Sammy Davis Jr., was among the first to agree, and Burt Reynolds emceed. Other luminaries such as Abigail Van Buren, Cyndi Lauper, Rod Stewart, Stevie Wonder and Cher all appeared. That night Elizabeth spoke emotionally of a crisis that was dividing a population. “Never has a disease left so many helpless, leaving loved ones and families reaching out only to frustration and fear”. Also read were statements on behalf of Rock Hudson and President Reagan. The evening was a success and one million dollars of desperately needed funds were raised that evening. But it would be too late for Rock Hudson. Less than two weeks later, Hudson was dead.

An important announcement was also made that September. Elizabeth knew that if there was to be any sort of breakthrough, the clout of the entertainment industry would have to align with those in science. The result was amfAR, an amalgamation of Dr. Michael Gottlieb’s National AIDS Research Foundation and Dr. Mathilde Krim’s AIDS Medical Foundation. Elizabeth would be amfAR’s Founding National Chairman. amfAR was also pioneered by Chen Sam, Bill Misenhimer, Dr. Arnold Klein, and David Geffen. The foundation benefited greatly in those early days from a $250,000 windfall left by Rock Hudson. amfAR would prove to be a leader in the fight, and the organization stood tall alongside other heroes like Ryan White, Larry Kramer, and Elizabeth it all, HERE

"Why shouldn't gay people be able to live as open and freely as everybody else? What it comes down to, ultimately, is love. How can anything bad come out of love? The bad stuff comes out of mistrust, misunderstanding and, God knows, from hate and from ignorance."  Elizabeth Taylor, 2000
·  Thanks be to Elizabeth Taylor, RIP
·  Thanks be to Burt Siris, RIP
·  Thanks be to Lillian Bernie Wallen Ezer, RIP
·  Thanks be to Sirco International Corporation, Bueno California Division
·  Thanks be to Towleroad, sidebar
·  Thanks be to Wounded Bird, sidebar
·  Thanks be to God


JCF said...

Partay in the Great Gay Disco in the Sky Tonight, as the Red-Ribbon'd Angels welcome their Queen!

Rest in the arms of the Holy One, Liz...

Kirkepiscatoid said...

Wonderful story! My guess is some day you two will get to share the Gold Table in the Sky, but meanwhile, I'm glad you are still here spreading the good works she started, with your blogging and friendships--both live-time and cyber ones!

Leonard said...

Thank You Kirkepiscatoid--it´s always wonderful to have you visit (and to visit you too).

Un abrazo fuerte,

Bonnie said...

Hi Leonardo--Thanks for the beautiful tribute to a beautiful (inside and out) lady! Courageous and impressive she definitely was. Not to mention how we all loved her and her films. And, and, and, I admit to being rather fascinated by her personal life too.

Laurel Massé said...

Thank you for this lovely post (to which I was directed by Grandmère Mimi's blog, Wounded Bird).)
Much appreciated.

Göran Koch-Swahne said...

What the others said!