EW Staff
April 01, 2011 AT 04:00 AM EDT

To be honest, choosing this week’s cover was tough. An exclusive interview with one icon? Or a tribute to another? Ultimately we decided to give you both. In our cover story on Arnold Schwarzenegger — his first major interview since leaving the governor’s office — he says he plans to return to movies, and shares details on his new animated series, The Governator. Our tribute to Elizabeth Taylor, which begins on the back cover, celebrates the crazy, magnificent life and work of a legend.

I got my own glimpse into Taylor’s life five years ago. I interviewed her for PEOPLE, where I was an editor at the time, and spent the afternoon at her house in Bel Air. At 74, she sat in a wheelchair, and painkillers or age or both had rendered her a bit foggy. But her violet eyes still sparkled when she told a joke and flashed when confronted with a question not to her liking.

The house was relatively modest, casual, and cluttered, but the trinkets on the shelves — two Oscars, for example — spoke of a singular life. Paintings by van Gogh, Renoir, and Modigliani were tacked on the wall above the sofa. At one point Taylor ordered me to try on the legendary 33-carat Krupp diamond (so gargantuan and clear and brilliant and deep, it looked like something from outer space) that she wore on her left hand. I did as I was told. It fit, just barely, on my pinkie. But as I removed the ring, I made the mistake of touching the stone — something you’re apparently not suppposed to do to a diamond. Taylor screeched, grabbed it out of my hand, returned it to her own, and sat there clearly peeved. (It remains, of all the awkward moments I’ve endured, my favorite by far.)

During the interview, Taylor seemed as if she wanted to remind the world she was alive and well. She repeatedly spoke about her recent trip to Hawaii, where she had gone shark diving, and she joked about tabloid headlines declaring her imminent demise. I doubt she gave up this life easily. And the news of her death was both expected and shattering. The world where a star can blaze as brightly and persistently as she did no longer exists. The audience is too fractured now; too many things besides movie stars command our attention. But Taylor’s crusade against AIDS — which began a quarter century ago, before other celebrities and politicians would touch the issue — indicates a degree of courage and authenticity that anyone can aspire to. The world is undeniably more interesting because she was here.

Jess Cagle, Managing Editor

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