By now, it’s almost de rigueur for the modern celebrity: achieve fame and fortune before being staggered by a string of disappointments, then follow with a downward substance-abuse spiral and a publicized admission to the Betty Ford Center. But when Elizabeth Taylor checked in on Dec. 5, 1983, and revealed her problem to the world, it was all but unheard of. The malady-prone screen legend was already in the hospital for a reported bowel obstruction when family and friends intervened. Their despair over her ballooning weight and ceaseless partying prompted them to reserve her a spot at the clinic. The then- 51-year-old Oscar winner took their advice, walked through the doors, and enrolled herself.
The center, which former First Lady Ford helped found in 1982 after facing her own boozy demons, had been treating patients without fanfare. Taylor was the first star to submit to its ego-piercing program. Her honesty paved the way for everyone from Johnny Cash to Mary Tyler Moore to follow suit, catapulting celebrity mea culpas to a new level. (See Barbara Walters’ dewy-eyed interview specials.)
”I think she should be celebrated,” says C. David Heymann, who wrote 1995’s Liz: An Intimate Biography of Elizabeth Taylor. ”The fact that she admitted…her alcohol/pill problem raised awareness…about a problem that existed among millions.”
At the 14-acre Rancho Mirage, Calif., spread, Liz discussed her 25-year addiction with fellow patients. In 1985, The New York Times printed an excerpt from a journal she’d kept during her stay: ”I feel like hell. I’m going through withdrawal…I am so, so tired.”
Chores like doing laundry only compounded that fatigue. At first, Taylor, who’d been pampered by studios since age 9, resisted. ”She wasn’t used to being treated like everybody else,” laughs Heymann.
But a long-standing appetite for destruction—Eddie Fisher! Studio 54!—wasn’t solely responsible for her addictions. In 1990 the Medical Board of California accused three doctors of doling out thousands of prescriptions to Taylor throughout the ’80s. (They were censured with letters of reprimand.)
She checked out on Jan. 20, 1984, and dedicated herself to another high-profile arena: AIDS research. After close friend Rock Hudson’s death, she chaired AmFAR, controversially challenging President Reagan’s indifference.
Taylor again entered the center in 1988, after her appearance in Franco Zeffirelli’s disastrous Young Toscanini, but hasn’t returned since. The most bizarre result of that stay was her 4 1/2-year marriage to fellow patient and former construction worker Larry Fortensky. At the ceremony, held at Michael Jackson’s Neverland Ranch, Taylor cooed ”I do” for the eighth time. Seems there are some addictions no clinic will ever cure.