Elizabeth Taylor: Savvy, Steely-Eyed Business Woman

Even without a film in more than 10 years, Taylor was likely a multimillionaire.

March 23, 2011, 2:58 PM

March 24, 2011 — -- Elizabeth Taylor may be remembered for her sultry and dramatic roles in Cleopatra, Butterfield 8, and Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Yet despite being the first actor to receive $1 million for a movie and two Best Actress Oscars, her main source of recent income was most likely not from her films, but her branded products.

One of the first celebrities to endorse a perfume, Taylor launched her first fragrance, Passion, in 1987. It's still licensed with beauty products company, Elizabeth Arden.

"That was really setting the standard. Celebrities had not really done that before," said William J. Mann, author of How to Be a Movie Star: Elizabeth Taylor in Hollywood.

Doing so allowed Taylor to "keep herself comfortable in her later years," according to Mann.

"It shows how smart she was," Mann said. "People think about her as a glamorous movie star. She was actually a very smart business woman."

And Taylor's death may not be a barrier to her income earning potential. Already predicted to hold Hollywood iconic status like that of Marilyn Monroe, Taylor merchandise likely will produce a steady stream of income. Marilyn Monroe has been featured at least eight times on Forbes' annual Top-Earning Dead Celebrities list, bringing in $6.5 million when she was featured on the list in 2008.

Taylor paved the road for other celebrity fragrances, like that of Britney Spears, Taylor Swift, and P. Diddy. In 1991, she introduced White Diamonds, and followed with a handful of other scents, many of them still available. Taylor's most recent perfume, Violet Eyes – alluding to her fabled eye color - launched in spring of 2010.

In 1993, Taylor partnered with Avon Products to launch her own costume jewelry line. Her pieces have become "the most sought after and highly valued of the Avon costume jewelry collections," according to eHow.

Avon and Elizabeth Arden could not be reached for comment.

Fur Coats, Yachts and Jewels

"Without those she would not have been able to continue the kind of lifestyle she was used to as a movie star," Mann said of Taylor's product deals.

Scott Feinstein, a business manager in Hollywood for actors including Vanessa Hudgens and Taylor Lautner, said the payments from her classic films were probably not substantial sources of income. Feinstein said most of her income was probably from her merchandising deals.

"I can't imagine she has much coming from somewhere else," said Feinstein of Taylor, who hadn't had a prominent acting role in more than 10 years. "The residuals from her movies and television work would be minimal at best."

Mann explained that Elizabeth Taylor enjoyed her fur coats, yachts, and infamous jewels. In 2002, Simon and Schuster published her memoir, Elizabeth Taylor: My Love Affair with Jewelry, which detailed her jewelry collection. Simon & Schuster printed more than 215,000 hardcover and paperback copies of the book, according to Tracey Guest, the publisher's director of publicity. Guest said publishers cannot release sales figures or terms of contracts.

"After a certain age, Hollywood wasn't giving her roles. In the late 40s and early 50s, she was very smart in knowing she needed another source of income," Mann said.

Forbes reports that Taylor's fragrances have earned $200 million in sales.

Though it is unclear what Taylor received from her perfume sales, the $200 million sales estimate is a sign of Taylor's iconic status, said Clare Hendrix, intellectual property licensing executive and legal counsel with CMG Worldwide, which represents the estates of deceased legends Marilyn Monroe and Babe Ruth.

"I don't think it gets bigger than that. That is pretty successful," said Hendrix. "Now we'll probably see a rise in sales of her perfumes."

Hendrix estimated that celebrity perfume deals range in "high six figures, if not seven figures" for living and decreased celebrities, depending on their popularity.

Charitable Work in the Fight Against AIDS

In a tribute to her on its website, Elizabeth Arden said it will continue to sell her perfumes.

"White Diamonds remains a best seller almost 20 years after its 1991 introduction, a testimony to her transcendent and enduring appeal," said Elizabeth Arden chief executive officer, E. Scott Beattie, in a statement. "Our best tribute to Elizabeth Taylor will be to continue the legacy of the brands she created and loved so much."

On the question of what could happen to her estate now that she has passed away, many speculate it will be distributed to her four children and 10 grandchildren.

"We presume that with her estate, she would have at least one, probably several trusts set up," said Danielle Mayoras, an estate planning and elder law attorney who co-authored with her husband, Andy, Trial & Heirs: Famous Fortune Fights. "But even with celebrities with enormous wealth, sometimes they don't have wills."

Unlike trusts for the most part, wills must be carried out through probate courts.

"For trusts, everything is handled in private, without the expense of probate courts," said Andy Mayoras, a probate litigator.

Mann said Taylor had positive relationships with her children and grandchildren. He said he predicts a smooth estate distribution process.

"By Hollywood standards, it was a terrific relationship," Mann said. "They all seemed to love and respect her. She had a lot of grandchildren to dote upon. For all her globe-trotting, Elizabeth turned out to be a really great mother."

And Taylor most likely bequeathed a substantial amount of money to her charitable work.

"She always lived rather opulently. She spent her money in that way," said Mann. "But she always made time to give her money to charity too."

Taylor was a devoted AIDS activist, helping form the American Foundation for AIDS Research in 1985 and the Elizabeth Taylor AIDS Foundation in 1991.

In a 1999 interview with Barbara Walters, Taylor explained her deep longing was to do more work to fight AIDS despite her physical ailments.

"I would give up movies in a second to be healthy enough and well enough to work for AIDS," Taylor said.

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