Elizabeth Taylor 'ran Dallas Buyers Club-style HIV drugs network from her home'

Actor’s friend claims she set up scheme to procure and distribute experimental HIV medication in the early 1990s

Elizabeth Taylor’s status as a heroine of activism for HIV/Aids is already well-known – she chaired the first-ever US fundraiser for the disease, and famously persuaded President Ronald Reagan to take it seriously. But according to a close friend of the late actor, Taylor’s efforts went further still.

In a US TV interview to coincide with World Aids Day, Kathy Ireland has described how Taylor ran a Los Angeles equivalent of the famous Dallas Buyers Club, procuring experimental and still illegal Aids treatment drugs to distribute from her Bel Air home in the early 1990s.

Taylor’s scheme was a “west coast buyers club”, said Ireland, a model-turned businesswoman, referring to the Texas operation run by early Aids patient Ron Woodroof, who was played by Matthew McConaughey in the 2013 film.

Taylor used her Bel Air home as “a safe house” during the early era of HIV infections, when the illness was little understood and much stigmatised, Ireland told Entertainment Tonight.

“A lot of the work that she did, it was illegal, but she was saving lives,” Ireland said. “She said her business associates pleaded with her, ‘Leave this thing alone.’ She received death threats; friends hung up on her when she asked for help. But something that I love about Elizabeth is her courage.”

Taylor used her own money to fund the operation, according to Ireland, who said: “She would sell jewellery, there [were] transfers of money, sometimes there would be a paper bag and there would be money [in it].”

Dallas Buyers Club recounted the many run-ins with police experienced by Woodroof as he tried to source and distribute powerful but then unapproved drugs after his HIV diagnosis in 1985. Ireland said Taylor was aware she too could have been caught and prosecuted for her activities.

“She thought she might but she wasn’t afraid,” Ireland said. “She’d go to jail for it. Elizabeth and fear? Not in the same sentence. Fearless.”

Ireland also recounted Taylor’s previously reported visits to see people with Aids: “She would go quietly, with no media, with no press, she would go in to a hospice and she would hug patients who had just not felt that human contact.”

Taylor, who died in 2011 aged 79, was among the earliest, most prominent and bravest advocates for research and treatment connected to HIV. She also sought to counter the negative connotations of a new and frightening disease then associated principally with gay men. In 1985, with several friends already gravely ill, she agreed to chair the first major benefit event for Aids, the LA-based Commitment to Life dinner.

Later that year Taylor became the spokeswoman and chair for what was to become the American Foundation for Aids Research (Amfar), later founding her own HIV/Aids charity. Two years later she managed to persuade her former Hollywood friend Reagan to make a major speech about the illness.

Reagan had initially been wary of any connection to HIV, despite his friendship with many actors. Earlier this year it emerged that his wife, Nancy, had refused to assist Taylor’s friend Rock Hudson with getting better treatment when he fell ill in Paris in 1985.

But two years later, after Taylor wrote to him personally, Reagan gave the keynote address to Amfar’s annual fundraising dinner.

In a 1992 Vanity Fair interview conducted in the same Bel Air home referred to by Ireland, described as “a surprisingly modest ranch-style number”, Taylor conceded her initial HIV activism was greeted by hostility from some people – but she nonetheless wanted to use her immense fame for good.

“I decided that with my name I could open certain doors, that I was a commodity in myself – and I’m not talking as an actress,” she said. “I could take the fame I’d resented and tried to get away from for so many years – but you can never get away from it – and use it to do some good. I wanted to retire, but the tabloids wouldn’t let me. So I thought, ‘If you’re going to screw me over, I’ll use you.’”

She also had some very personal reasons for her activism, including her friendship with Hudson, whose Aids diagnosis was confirmed shortly before his death in 1985. Hudson kept his sexuality a secret during a long career as a ruggedly handsome heart-throb, and his acknowledgement of the disease significantly boosted public awareness.

Taylor’s personal secretary, Roger Wall, to whom she was very close, killed himself in 1991 after contracting HIV, with Taylor calling his death “one of the biggest losses of my life”. Around the same time it also emerged that Taylor’s daughter-in-law Aileen Getty was HIV positive.

Taylor’s activism continued. In the early 1990s she shamed President George Bush by telling an international convention on HIV/Aids: “I don’t think President Bush is doing anything at all about Aids. In fact, I’m not even sure if he knows how to spell Aids.”

Such bravery came in part from the insulation of extreme, lifelong fame, Taylor said, telling the Vanity Fair interview: “I don’t give a shit what people think.”

In the same interview, she almost alluded to the practices discussed by Ireland in describing her talents as an activist: “I’m a great hustler, a good con artist – in fact, one of the best. There’s certain things only I can do.”


Peter Walker

The GuardianTramp

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