Elizabeth Taylor wed a total of eight times, twice to Richard Burton. Monday (*at time of original publication) marked what would have been the 41st anniversary of their second wedding—a wildly romantic secret ceremony in a national park in Botswana in 1975, just 16 months after they divorced. The love affair of the world’s most famous couple was dubbed “the marriage of the century,” but perhaps Burton put it best when he said, “You haven’t lived unless you’ve known Elizabeth.” In honor of Liz and Dick, here are five things you may not have known about Elizabeth Taylor.
1. The Cartier diamond Burton bought Taylor for $1.1 million would have gone to Jacqueline Kennedy had Burton not outbid Aristotle Onassis. “I wanted that diamond because it is incomparably lovely,” Burton later said. “And it should be on the loveliest woman in the world. I would have had a fit if it went to Jackie Kennedy or Sophia Loren.” The 68-carat sparkler became known as the “Taylor-Burton diamond,” and when it was later placed on exhibit in the jeweler’s gallery in New York, as many as 6,000 people a day came to view it. Although Taylor’s fourth husband, Eddie Fisher, once said that a $50,000 diamond could keep Taylor happy for approximately four days, Taylor explained her materialism should never be confused for vanity. “You can’t cry on a diamond’s shoulder, and diamonds won’t keep you warm at night,” she said. “But they’re sure fun when the sun shines.”
2. Taylor once described swimming with sharks as “one of the most thrilling in a life crowded with thrills.” She first swam with sharks at age 74 when, on a trip to Hawaii, she had herself lifted from her wheelchair and lowered into a Plexiglas shark cage submerged in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. Taylor was wearing a white T-shirt over a one-piece bathing suit—and lots and lots of bracelets. When the tour guide suggested she remove her jewelry because their flash and glitter would send the sharks into a frenzy, Taylor reportedly replied, “Isn’t that the fucking point?”
3. When Cleopatra producer Walter Wanger called Taylor on the set of her film Suddenly Last Summer to offer her the lead role through her then-husband Fisher, Taylor replied with a joke: “Sure, tell him I’ll do it for a million dollars.” While such a steep offer was all but unheard of at the time, it was granted, and in 1959 Taylor became the first Hollywood actress to receive $1 million for a single movie. “If someone’s dumb enough to offer me $1 million to make a picture, I’m certainly not dumb enough to turn it down,” Taylor later said. In 1963, when the highest-paid American business executive earned $650,000 and President John F. Kennedy’s salary was $150,000, Taylor reportedly took home $2.4 million.
4. Taylor’s transition into humanitarian and AIDS activism began in 1985 with the death of her close friend Rock Hudson. “You could explain to the senators who Angelina Jolie is—but no one had to explain who Elizabeth was,” said Michael Iskowitz, Senator Edward Kennedy’s chief counsel on HIV from 1986 to l992. “She was it for them.” Taylor reportedly sent a lavender-scented letter with information about HIV that read, “I think you should read this.” Iskowitz remembered: “I’ve seen many celebrities come to the Hill to appear before Congress, but absolutely no one had the effect that she did. No one wouldn’t take a call from her. She also followed through on the bills and even all the amendments. Other celebrities come to the Hill to initiate legislation, and you never heard from them again. Not Elizabeth.”
5. When Taylor died in 2011, The New York Times ran an obituary written by Mel Gussow, a theater critic and cultural reporter for the newspaper who had himself died six years earlier. (The obituary editor said the piece was “too good to throw away.”) Taylor’s long-standing desire to be buried near Burton in Celigny, Switzerland, was not meant to be, as Burton’s widow, Sally, had claimed the gravesite next to his. Instead, Taylor left wishes to be buried near her longtime friend Michael Jackson in Forest Lawn Cemetery in Glendale, California. In a nod to her reputation for keeping people waiting—in 1965, Taylor was tardy to her wedding to Burton—she arranged to be 15 minutes late to her own funeral. “I swear she’ll be late for the Last Judgment,” Burton had said.