By Bob Tourtellotte
LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Legendary actress Elizabeth Taylor, a two-time Oscar winner and Hollywood beauty whose screen success was sometimes overshadowed by her tumultuous personal life, died on Wednesday at age 79.
She died after a long battle with congestive heart failure at Cedars-Sinai Hospital in Los Angeles surrounded by her four children after having been hospitalized six weeks ago, her spokeswoman said in a statement.
In a career spanning seven decades, Taylor first gained major fame in 1944's "National Velvet" at age 12, and was nominated for five Oscars. She won the best actress honor twice, for "BUtterfield 8" (1960) and "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" (1966) with actor Richard Burton, whom she would marry twice.
Taylor lived a glamorous life and was married eight times in all, including to singer Eddie Fisher and movie producer Mike Todd. She was famous for her love of diamonds and furs, and later in life raised large sums for AIDS research.
"My mother was an extraordinary woman who lived life to the fullest, with great passion, humor, and love. Though her loss is devastating to those of us who held her so close and so dear, we will always be inspired by her enduring contribution to our world," son Michael Wilding said in a statement.
Taylor was born on February 27, 1932, in London to American parents and said many times she never wanted to be an actress but was pushed into it by her mother, former actress Sara Sothern Taylor.
She moved to the United States as a child and soon after her 10th birthday landed the lead in 1942 film "Lassie Come Home." That role was followed by her turn as a young girl whose love tames the fury of a wild horse in "National Velvet."
"Velvet" sparked a string of girl-next-door roles that were eclipsed by her first hint of dramatic promise in "A Place in the Sun" in 1950, playing opposite Montgomery Clift.
She confirmed her star power in 1958 as Maggie in Tennessee Williams' "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof" and cemented her reputation as among the greatest actresses of her generation playing a foul-mouthed alcoholic in "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?"
GLAMOROUS HOLLYWOOD LIFE
But Taylor's life went far beyond Hollywood fame as she set a the standard for glamour and tumult. After the death of Todd in 1958, she found herself in a well-chronicled love triangle with Fisher and his wife actress Debbie Reynolds, before marrying Fisher.
While filming the lavishly produced "Cleopatra" in 1961, she started a torrid affair with Burton, who played Mark Antony and was also married at the time.
The two strong-willed actors wed in 1964 after she divorced Fisher, and Burton lavished her with furs and diamonds, including a $1 million pear-shaped jewel, while publicly praising her "wonderful bosom."
The pair also were famous for hurling invective at one another. "We enjoy fighting," Taylor once said. "Having an out-and-out, outrageous, ridiculous fight is one of the greatest exercises in marital togetherness."
As she grew older and movie roles became fewer, the actress once famed for beauty began drinking heavily and grew addicted to prescription drugs. Her weight ballooned and she was lampooned by comedians. In 1983 she entered the Betty Ford Center in California to overcome her addiction.
But Taylor never forgot others less fortunate than herself, and she became a major fund-raiser for AIDS research.
"We have just lost a Hollywood giant. More importantly we have lost an incredible human being," singer Elton John said in a statement.
Among Taylor's close friends was pop star Michael Jackson, whom she befriended while he was growing up in the harsh spotlight of the media and whom she staunchly defended as he was tried and acquitted on child molestation charges.
In May 2000, Taylor received the title "Dame," the female equivalent of a knighthood, from Queen Elizabeth.
She died surrounded by her children, Michael Wilding, Christopher Wilding, Liza Todd, and Maria Burton. In addition to her children, she is survived by 10 grandchildren and 4 great-grandchildren.
(Additional reporting by Daniel Trotta; editing by Phil Barbara and Vicki Allen)