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March 28, 2011

Star Power

Michael Kurtianyk

Last week, the great movie actress Elizabeth Taylor passed away. Though only 79, she lived a full life, and much has been made of the number of weddings: seven husbands and eight marriages (Richard Burton twice).


During the retrospectives, I learned that Liz Taylor was born in England, something few people remembered. She seemed entirely ours, an American who graced the silver screen in some memorable roles: “National Velvet,” “Father of the Bride,” “Giant,” “Suddenly, Last Summer,” “Butterfield 8” (Academy Award), and my favorite, “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” (Academy Award).


She will be remembered for two contributions to our society: causes and commercialism. First, her causes. Ms. Taylor advocated for funding for AIDS research at a time when AIDS was just coming to the fore. It was 1984. She hosted a fundraiser for AIDS Project Los Angeles and was the cofounder of the American Foundation for AIDS Research. Much was made last week that the death of Rock Hudson from AIDS not only spurred her to action, but also gave AIDS a face.


Her contribution to society was the commercialism, specifically, celebrity product branding. She was known for her line of perfumes, including “Passion,” “White Diamonds,” and “Black Pearls.” She was the first movie star to design jewelry for a product line called “The Elizabeth Collection.” She herself was famously surrounded by jewelry throughout her career: one being the 69-carat Taylor-Burton diamond, and the other being the 50-carat La Peregrina Pearl.


At the local watering hole, I asked the people around the table who was the most famous person that they’d ever met. One said Ronald Reagan; another mentioned James Dean and John F. Kennedy. When it came to me, I said Aubrey Hepburn. Yes, THE Audrey Hepburn.


What were the circumstances?


It was November 1992, and Audrey Hepburn was in Rochester, NY, to screen “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” at the Eastman Kodak Theater. I sat with the family of Robert Wolders, Ms. Hepburn’s companion at the time. I knew them through the arts scene, and what a thrill it was to be with them to watch the movie.


After the movie was over, I was ushered backstage where I was introduced to Ms. Hepburn. She was positively radiant as we shook hands and we discussed the movie. I told her what an honor it was to meet her, and that I admired her work in the film. Ms. Hepburn was gracious and charming and everything I imagined she would be. The entire conversation lasted no more than three or four minutes, but I will remember it forever.


A month later, I received an autographed photo of Ms. Hepburn in one of the “My Fair Lady” dresses she wore. The inscription reads:


“For Michael Kurtianyk. With warmest wishes. Audrey Hepburn.”


To this day, it hangs in my home office, where it is one of my prized possessions.


We no longer have the star power of movie actors that we had during the reign of Elizabeth Taylor and Audrey Hepburn. The closest is probably Julia Roberts. The Hollywood reporters would rather publish rumors and scandals instead of truth and goodwill. This is what sells newspapers today.


Elizabeth Taylor and Audrey Hepburn remind us of a time that is no longer present. How sad that this is so.


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