AS ELIZABETH GLASER BEGAN SPEAKING in the ballroom of the Century City Plaza Hotel in Los Angeles last May 18, it was clear that she had come to say goodbye. “The great life lesson that I have consciously avoided was confronting death,” she told the 500-strong crowd of business leaders who had gathered to honor her crusade to fund pediatric AIDS research. Noticeably frail, her voice raspy, Glaser seemed even more diminished in the harsh lights trained on the lectern. “I have confronted my own fears, the fears of others, social discrimination and lack of education,” she said, pausing often to sip water. “It has now become a time in my life to learn about and understand death. If I can do that, it will be truly an achievement.”
On Dec. 3, Glaser, 47, lost her long battle against AIDS. She had contracted the virus in 1981 from a tainted blood transfusion and unwittingly passed it on to her two children. After the disease was diagnosed in May of 1986, Glaser dedicated herself to raising funds and the nation’s consciousness. In a heartrending speech at the 1992 Democratic Convention, Glaser told millions about losing her 7-year-old daughter, Ariel, to AIDS in 1988 and shared her fears that son Jake, now 10, could also die. She became a very public figure fueled by an almost unimaginable private passion.
“Elizabeth’s life was about inspiration, love and the power of faith,” says her grieving husband, actor-director Paul Michael Glaser, 51. But he notes that her work to stop the epidemic remains incomplete: “Grief can be an opportunity. Rather than sit and be victims to our loss, we should redouble our commitment to move on and go for it.”
“She was a mother bear in that she had buried her daughter,” adds her friend Josh Baran. “Her efforts were all about trying to save her son. She felt that the next dollar spent or the next minute spent could be the moment of breakthrough, and therefore she did not leave this world easily.”
Her marriage to a celebrity helped give her cause an initial boost of publicity; her energy did the rest. In only six years, the nonprofit Pediatric AIDS Foundation, which Glaser cofounded, has become a favorite charity among celebrities and politicians. “I think part of her appeal was that she was just a mother who happened to have two children with Hiy’ says Marlee Matlin, one of the many stars who worked with her. Says actress Mary Steenburgen: “Because Elizabeth lived right on the edge of life, she was only interested in the truth. There wasn’t one molecule of bulls—t in her.”
Aware of her limits, Glaser spent much of her final year in the family’s Santa Monica home. In a sunny bedroom overlooking her vegetable garden and Jake’s tepee, she reminisced with the people whose lives she touched, including Hillary Clinton, who made a surprise visit last April. Over cookies and Diet Coke, “they talked about dealing with fear and being sick,” says a friend. “Hillary said it was very important in her life to find a quiet time every day to sit and calm her mind and connect at a deeper level and deal with the uncertainties of life. It meant a lot to Elizabeth.”
In August, Glaser, her health clearly beginning to fail, joined Paul and Jake for the annual family vacation on Martha’s Vineyard. She delighted in observing old habits during their six-week stay. “You had to go to a certain restaurant to sit outside and eat lobster, and then you had to walk across the street for custard,” says Susan DeLaurentis, a cofounder of the Pediatric AIDS Foundation. “She could still get excited about a beautiful sunset or a beautiful beach.”
Glaser also entertained several famous visitors, including Princess Diana, who dropped by for tea. The Clintons also came calling. “She was in great physical agony that day, but she exhibited such extraordinary courage,” the First Lady told PEOPLE last week. “Elizabeth exhibited such grace in her life, focused all her energy on tomorrow. There’s a lesson in that for all of us.”
Though increasingly distracted by pain, she traveled to New York City for a Sept. 25 Pediatric Aids Foundation fundraiser that brought in more than $1 million. “The trip was very exhausting for Elizabeth,” says an intimate. “There was a rapid decline from that point on.”
The woman who became a public symbol of the AIDS tragedy had always longed to build a quiet life as a wife and mother. Born in New York City to businessman Max Meyer and his wife, Edith, an urban renewal planner, Glaser began a teaching career after receiving her master’s degree in early childhood education from Boston University in 1970. In 1973, the shy 26-year-old moved to Los Angeles to teach. Two years later, while driving home on Santa Monica Boulevard, she noticed “the cutest guy I have ever seen” waiting in the next car at a stoplight. “I smiled. He smiled. Then the light changed,” she recalled in her 1991 memoir, In the Absence of Angels.
The hunk waved her over, got out of his car and introduced himself as Paul Michael Glaser, an actor who had just been signed to star in the TV series Starsky and Hutch. Over dinner at a Chinese restaurant, she envisioned a bright and loving future. “When I looked at Paul,” she wrote, “I saw happily-ever-after.”
The Glasers shunned the trappings of celebrity life after marrying in August 1980, and Elizabeth became pregnant three months later. Just before the baby was due, Elizabeth began hemorrhaging and was rushed to Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, where, after the delivery of her daughter, she was transfused with seven pints of blood. In 1985, 4-year-old Ariel fell ill with mysterious stomach cramps. The following year, doctors determined that Elizabeth had gotten HIV from the contaminated blood and unwittingly passed the disease to Ariel through breast milk. Jake, born in October 1984, also contracted HIV.
It was Ariel’s death, in 1988, that turned Glaser into an activist. “After Ari died, I felt dead too,” she said. “I could no longer see any beauty in the world.” In late 1988, she successfully prodded Bush Administration officials and members of Congress to increase funding for pediatric AIDS research. She also quietly approached a few celebrity pals to participate in a Washington fund-raiser in the summer of 1989. Cher, whose daughter Chastity had once been a student of Glaser’s at the Center for Early Education, was among the first to volunteer. “Elizabeth was determined to do something,” Cher says. “It was as if the disease had brought out the absolute best in her.” In contrast, Paul dealt with the situation in a private manner, quietly concentrating on his second career. “My job was to support the family and Elizabeth’s work,” he says. “I had gone as far as I could as an actor, and going behind the camera was the only way I could keep myself sane.”
Glaser launched the Pediatric AIDS Foundation with close friends Susie Zeegan, now 47, and DeLaurentis, 43, with generous $500,000 donations from both Steven Spielberg and Paul’s aunt, philanthropist Vera List. “Being naive and unsophisticated probably helped us become successful,” says Zeegan. “We didn’t know you couldn’t go to the President of the United States and say, ‘Listen to us.’ ” In addition, Glaser’s determination—and, in those fearful times, uncontroversial image—caused people to just say yes. Today the annual Foundation picnic—at which the likes of Tom Cruise, Jack Nicholson and Candice Bergen host a carnival for kids with HIV—is one of highest-wattage events on the Hollywood calendar.
More than 90 percent of the $30 million PAF has raised so far is spent on direct grants for basic pediatric AIDS research and other programs. Some progress is being made. Last February, for example, scientists announced that a PAF-sponsored program to treat HIV-positive pregnant women with the drug AZT helps reduce by 60 percent the chances that they will pass the virus to their fetuses. “Never in the history of the AIDS virus has a drug been able to prevent the virus going from one person to another,” says Dr. Art Ammann, the Pediatric AIDS Foundation’s director of research. “If that can occur between mother and baby, then maybe we can slow down transmission of the virus in others.”
Near the end, Glaser’s zest for life often broke through her fog of pain. “One day she was feeling well enough to play some rock-and-roll music,” says Steenburgen. “She actually got up and danced.” And she remained hopeful that a cure could be found in time to save her son. “Her anxiousness was about a new generation,” says Health and Human Services Secretary Donna Shalala, who spoke to Glaser on the telephone last month. Glaser eventually lost her ability to speak, but would move her arms or legs to let friends know she was still fighting to stay alive. “It was so Betsy to hang on so long,” says Cher.
By Nov. 11, as friends gathered to celebrate her birthday, Glaser was unable to join them in the traditional series of ribald tequila toasts. Two weeks later, on Nov. 27, she was awake and attentive as Paul lit a menorah candle and sang “Ma’oz tzur” in celebration of the first night of Hanukkah.
On the morning of Dec. 6, three days after her death, Glaser was buried just outside of Boston, next to her daughter Ariel. Nearly 100 friends and family members gathered for the outdoor ceremony, which included a reading from Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet. (A private memorial service will take place in Malibu later this month.) As for the future, Paul says, “I have two feet, and I will just put one in front of the other. We have beautiful friends and a lot of love around us.” But Jake—who has HIV but remains asymptomatic—is struggling to understand the situation. “His mother is gone, his sister is gone, and he has the same disease. It is pretty hard to absorb,” says a family friend.
Bob Hattoy, an HIV-positive Clinton Administration official who also spoke at the Democratic Convention, says a simple lesson can be drawn from Glaser’s fiercely optimistic life. “She taught me that it’s not the length of our lives, it’s the depth,” he says. “It’s not about dying with AIDS, it’s about living with AIDS. She rose to the challenge.”
VICKI SHEFF-CAHAN and KURT PITZER in Los Angeles with LINDA KRAMER in Washington