Unpacking the Myths and Facts Surrounding Elizabeth Taylor’s ‘Underground HIV/AIDS Drug Ring’
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She’s an icon of Hollywood, and a legend of the film industry and pop culture, but how familiar are you with rumors surrounding an Elizabeth Taylor drug ring for smuggling HIV/AIDS meds back in the days of the AIDS epidemic? It was a story that made headlines back in 2015, but how much of the good-spirited, well-intentioned rumor is actually true?
Elizabeth Taylor was passionate about HIV/AIDS activism during a time when the government’s primary response to the epidemic was hateful laughter. Taylor, who lost many cherished loved ones to AIDS, raised lots of money (and lots of public awareness) about the illness.
From a 1992 Vanity Fair profile:
In the winter of 1985, when Taylor heeded the plea of seven gay men (two of whom have since died of AIDS) to sign on as chairman of the first major AIDS benefit — the Commitment to Life dinner, which netted $1 million for AIDS Project Los Angeles, a community-based service group providing hands-on care to AIDS patients — she was out there alone. No celebrity of Taylor’s stature up to that point had had the courage to put his or her weight behind a disease that was then thought to be the province of gay men. Elizabeth Taylor brought AIDS out of the closet and into the ballroom, where there was money — and consciousness — to be raised.
Elizabeth Taylor also threw some serious shade at George H. W. Bush:
“I don’t think President Bush is doing anything at all about AIDS,” said Taylor to a packed press conference in Amsterdam at the Eighth International Conference on AIDS. “In fact, I’m not even sure if he knows how to spell ‘AIDS.’”
In 1991, she founded the Elizabeth Taylor AIDS Foundation, a nonprofit that has since raised tens of millions of dollars to fund HIV prevention and treatment programs all over the world. The org has a really amazing timeline version of its history on its website.
But according to some, Taylor’s HIV/AIDS activism went back even further than that.
In 2015, model/actress Kathy Ireland (who considers Taylor a mentor and business partner) spoke to Entertainment Tonight about the late actress, dropping a bombshell about an Elizabeth Taylor drug ring.
According to Ireland, Taylor ran a secret safe house and trafficked medications to help HIV/AIDS patients get their hands on experimental treatments that hadn’t yet been approved by the FDA. At the time, the U.S. government was really dragging its feet on allowing HIV-positive patients to access potentially life-saving treatments.
The ET special refers to Taylor’s work as a sort of “West Coast Buyers Club” that recalls the premise of the hit 2013 film Dallas Buyers Club starring Matthew McConaughey.
“Talk about fearless in her home in Bel-Air,” Ireland said to ET. “It was a safe house. A lot of the work that she did, it was illegal, but she was saving lives. It was in a time when it was not something to do. 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.”
Ireland also mentioned that Taylor often made hospital and hospice visits to AIDS patients without any media present. “She would hug patients who had just not felt that human contact,” Ireland says.
The Hollywood icon even sold her own jewelry to fund this Elizabeth Taylor drug ring, and you know how much the woman loved her diamonds.
But not everyone believes rumors of an Elizabeth Taylor drug ring.
Sally Morrison, former vice president for development and external affairs at the American Foundation for AIDS Research, told NY Mag in 2015:
I don’t think Kathy Ireland’s story is true. … I know that Elizabeth was very supportive of the work that Project Inform was doing with experimental AIDS drugs. She contributed to the organization as a private person. And she encouraged amfAR to include some experimental agents in our treatment information. But running a West Coast buyers club? That’s a bit of a stretch, isn’t it?
Others have questioned whether the Elizabeth Taylor drug ring could have possibly remained a secret during a time in HIV/AIDS history that is considered so well-documented. “How could Elizabeth Taylor’s Big Secret have remained a secret for this long in the small, organized, and gossipy network of gay men who were smuggling and selling unapproved AIDS drugs?” asks that same NY Mag article.
Speculation over whether Taylor was truly involved in running a “safe house” or an “underground drug ring” isn’t just a petty disagreement. Two very real men — Jim Corti and Marty Delaney — are credited as the activists behind San Francisco’s Project Inform, the real-life “West Coast Buyers Club,” and the painstaking work of those men should not be diminished.
“Marty Delaney knew Elizabeth, but not until later in her life, and certainly not in the 1980s and early 1990s. I never heard anything about Taylor running a buyers club out of her home, and he probably would have told me. He certainly shared other juicy gossip he picked up in Hollywood,” says an unnamed Project Inform activist who spoke to NY Mag.
“Making up stories to embellish Taylor’s important AIDS activist legacy dishonors it and is an insult to the people with AIDS and our allies who did put themselves at risk to access experimental treatments in those days,” says Sean Strub, activist and founder of POZ magazine. “It is important that we are vigilant in making sure that history is recorded accurately.”
It’s also important to acknowledge that whether or not some Elizabeth Taylor drug ring for HIV/AIS meds actually existed, it’s impossible to downplay Taylor’s legacy as a pioneering celebrity AIDS activist, and from an early time. She almost singlehandedly forced national and international media to cover HIV/AIDS issues when those dying of the epidemic needed a voice.
By the time Elizabeth Taylor passed away in 2011, she had reportedly raised more than $270 million for HIV/AIDS causes, and that’s a fact that will never be forgotten.
Had you ever heard rumors of this Elizabeth Taylor drug ring?
This article was originally published on Sept 17, 2016. It has since been updated.
Featured image at top: Jeffrey Markowitz/Sygma via Getty