Elizabeth Taylor: Glamour Queen to Virtual Recluse

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Like Maggie the Cat, one of her more memorable roles, Elizabeth Taylor seemed to have nine lives.

The screen legend died Wednesday at age 79 of complications from congestive heart failure. But before her death, she survived several near-death experiences and morphed from screen goddess to successful businesswoman and tireless AIDS activist to virtual recluse.

"Ultimately, it was congestive heart failure that really made her not want to be in the public eye," William J. Mann, author of "How to Be a Movie Star: Elizabeth Taylor in Hollywood," said. "She needed oxygen all the time. It became difficult to travel. It was difficult to speak, difficult to walk, just a chore to get dressed."

In 2004, Taylor was diagnosed with congestive heart failure, a condition in which the heart can no longer pump enough blood to the rest of the body. Ever since then, she was in and out of hospitals, and in and out of the tabloids documenting her rumored health.

But just as soon as she was said to be near death, the ailing actress, who got around in a wheelchair, would appear in public.

Elizabeth Taylor during a rare outing in 2010.

"Elizabeth was always very conscious of her public appearance," Mann said. "About five years ago, Dominick Dunne wrote in Vanity Fair that it seemed she had 'closed the door' on acting. She called him up and he had to write a retraction in his next column."

"She was very conscious of, as long as she could feasibly do it, wanting to be in public eye," Mann said.

He recalled how friends who worked for her would take her to outdoor clubs -- most often gay clubs -- on a Sunday afternoon for a drink.

"She'd come in her wheelchair, her dog in her lap, and receive fans," he said. "She loved the attention."

This was, after all, a woman who famously said she could barely remember a time when she wasn't famous, whose arresting beauty and glamour made her an icon of Hollywood's golden age.

Taylor bounded into the spotlight at age 12 after starring in the 1944 box office sensation "National Velvet." She won acclaim as an adult with 1951's "A Place In The Sun" and went on to score best actress Oscar nominations for "Raintree County," "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof," and "Suddenly, Last Summer."

Elizabeth Taylor posing on the beach.

In 1963, she memorably starred in "Cleopatra." She won Oscars for "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" in 1966 and "BUtterfield 8" in 1960.

Taylor's real box office success ended with the '60s. Despite a few cameos in the '80s and '90s, Taylor retreated from the screen, though not from the public.

"She wasn't a Bette Davis or Meryl Streep saying, 'What is my next great acting part?'" Mann said. "That was never her driving passion. She didn't sit around waiting. That wasn't her."

Elizabeth Taylor at a 1991 press conference for White Diamonds.

Instead, Taylor went into business, launching her first of three fragrances, Passion, in 1987. It's still licensed with beauty products company, Elizabeth Arden.

With earnings of $200 million, her perfume business, along with a jewelry design business, allowed Taylor to maintain the lifestyle of glamour she'd become accustomed to.

Taylor also dedicated her post-acting life to a cause close to her heart, raising money and awareness of HIV and AIDS through her American Foundation for AIDS Research (amfAR) and The Elizabeth Taylor AIDS Foundation.

"The movie making was fun," Mann said. "But that was probably the most important mission of her life, her humanitarian work and AIDS activism. I think she would most want to be remembered for her compassion and willingness to stand up for people who needed her."

Elizabeth Taylor at a 2009 fashion show.

In recent years as her health faltered, AIDS events were often the few occasions that found her out in public.

"Acting is, to me now, artificial," she told The Associated Press at the dedication of UCLA's AIDS Research and Education Center in 1995. "Seeing people suffer is real. It couldn't be more real. Some people don't like to look at it in the face because it's painful. But if nobody does, then nothing gets done."

Though Taylor's body and face bore the ravages of her years of battling illness, weight issues and substance abuse, she still managed to look like Elizabeth Taylor, screen legend.

"Her hair was black as ever was and she wore her red lipstick," Mann said. "She still looked like a movie star."

Elizabeth Taylor at her 75th diamond jubilee birthday party.