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An actress, a philanthropist and a Hollywood legend known as one of the most beautiful women in the world, Elizabeth Taylor – who died of congestive heart failure at age 79 on March 23 – leaves behind a legacy every bit as colorful as any of her screen roles. "Elizabeth is bigger than life," her friend, songwriter Carol Bayer Sager, once told PEOPLE of the star. "She's the closest thing we have in America to royalty."
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A STAR IS BORN
Elizabeth Rosemond Taylor was born in Hampstead, London, on Feb. 27, 1932, to art dealer Francis Taylor and Sara, a former stage actress. Her unique beauty inspired her mother to put her into show business, and by age 3 Elizabeth was taking ballet lessons. "I never could kick up my heels like other kids; there were too many restraints," Taylor wrote in her 1988 memoir Elizabeth Takes Off. "My life was overscheduled and overdisciplined."
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Taylor appeared in her first movie, the 1942 comedy There's One Born Every Minute, when she was 9 years old. MGM noticed her potential – and remarkable violet-colored eyes – and signed her for 1943's Lassie Come Home. The following year, she made her star-making turn in National Velvet (pictured), playing the determined Velvet Brown, who takes her horse all the way to the Grand National.
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HERE COMES THE BRIDE
At only 18, Taylor married hotel heir Conrad "Nicky" Hilton Jr. in Beverly Hills. MGM paid for the May 6, 1950, ceremony and lavish reception at the Bel-Air Country Club as the studio promoted its star's movie, Father of the Bride. But there was no fairytale ending. "The honeymoon and the relationship were both over by the time we returned," Taylor wrote about Hilton's drinking and abusive behavior in Elizabeth Takes Off. In less than a year, the marriage was over.
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In 1951, the actress became a leading lady when she costarred with Montgomery Clift in A Place in the Sun (pictured on the set). The two forged a close bond; her enduring Hollywood friendships would later become a statement. When Giant costar Rock Hudson died of AIDS in 1985, she helped start the American Foundation for AIDS Research and the Elizabeth Taylor AIDS Foundation. "I want to do all I can because I have to live with me," Taylor told PEOPLE about her activism.
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Taylor married for the third time, in 1957, to movie producer Mike Todd – who was 25 years her senior. "I have had two great loves in my life. Mike Todd was the first," Taylor later wrote. Her happiness would be short-lived: Todd's plane, the Liz, crashed on March 22, 1958, killing him. "I honestly didn't think I would survive and didn't much care if I did not," she later said of mourning the father of her daughter, Liza.
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After Todd's death, a reluctant Taylor continued filming the 1958 screen adaptation of the Tennessee Williams stage classic Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. Playing southern siren Maggie the Cat, the actress sizzled in her signature role as a love-starved wife opposite Paul Newman – and earned an Oscar nomination. "I'm proud of my performance, and I feel it helped me to recover gradually from Mike's death instead of drowning in my sorrow," she wrote about the film.
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Taylor took pride in her large and loving family: She was the mother of four children, the grandmother of 10 and the great-grandmother of several. "My best friends," she called her kids – including sons Michael and Christopher Wilding (pictured circa 1956), from her second marriage to British actor Michael Wilding; daughter Liza Todd; and Maria Burton, whom she later adopted with husband Richard Burton.
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Hollywood couple Eddie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds were close friends of Taylor and Mike Todd. But after Todd's death, the crooner and Taylor found solace in each other – and started a scandalous affair. Fisher ultimately left Reynolds and married Taylor in May 1959. "The press made much of Eddie's leaving his wife, Debbie Reynolds, but their marriage was in trouble long before I hit the scene," Taylor later insisted.
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"When I saw him on the set of Cleopatra, I fell in love and I have loved him ever since," Taylor later said of Welsh actor Richard Burton, her costar in the 1963 film. The pair's lightning-hot romance became a tabloid cover story and she married him nine days after divorcing Eddie Fisher in March 1964. The Battling Burtons – as they were known for their infamous fights – tried their hand at wedded bliss twice. "For some reason, the world has always been amused by us two maniacs," Burton once said.
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QUEEN OF THE NILE
"It was probably the most chaotic time in my life," Taylor told Vanity Fair about the epic Cleopatra, for which Taylor became the first actor in history to be paid $1 million. When production ran into overtime (partly thanks to her explosive romance with Burton), Taylor's salary hit $4 million-plus, and the nearly bankrupt studio sued her. In time, both sides settled, but the film – at a whopping $44 million ($287 million in current dollars) – still remains the most expensive movie ever made.
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Taylor went from movie star to politician's wife when she married Sen. John Warner (R.-Va.) in 1976. During their marriage, an unhappy Taylor (at club Studio 54 with Liza Minnelli and Betty Ford in 1979) went from her usual 121 lbs. to more than 180 lbs. Family ultimately urged the actress – who'd been abusing alcohol and prescription pills – to check into the Betty Ford Center on Dec. 5, 1983. "My children, my brother, a few intimate friends made me face the facts," she later wrote.
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In 1992, a slimmed-down and radiant Taylor received the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award at the Academy Awards. The actress had a long history with Oscar: In addition to several nominations, she won her first golden statue for her role as a promiscuous model in 1960's BUtterfield 8 – despite having herself criticized the quality of the movie. Her second, in 1966, was for Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, which costarred Richard Burton.
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In June 2006, Taylor told Larry King that she had sleepovers with close friend Michael Jackson (together in 2001) and his nephews. "We were all in the bed watching television," she said. "There was nothing abnormal about it. We laughed like children and we watched a lot of Walt Disney." Of her bond with Jackson: "We both had horrible childhoods. Working at the age of 9 was not a childhood for me – and he started at 3."
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SEAL OF APPROVAL
In 2001, President Clinton awarded Taylor the second-highest civilian honor in the nation, the Presidential Citizen's Medal, in recognition of her commitment to AIDS activism. Taylor was also feted at the 25th annual Kennedy Center Honors in 2002. Besides being honored for her philanthropic work and acting career, Taylor also found enormous success as a businesswoman with her White Diamonds fragrance and House of Taylor jewelry line.
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Taylor received the British Academy of Film and Television Arts' award for artistic excellence at a ceremony with Tom Cruise and Katie Homes in 2005. Confined to a wheelchair following two hip replacements, Taylor – who was made a dame in 2000 by Prime Minister Tony Blair – survived surgery for a benign brain tumor in 1997 and also suffered bouts of pneumonia, scoliosis and congestive heart failure. But as she told Larry King in 2006: "If (people) want to hear that I'm dead, sorry, folks. I'm not. And I don't plan on it."
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'LIFE OF HER PARTY'
Battling reports of her declining health, the then-76-year-old (in Beverly Hills in 2008) spent an evening out at favorite watering hole The Abbey, a popular gay bar in West Hollywood, with martini in hand. "Even if she was not as strong as the last time she was here, she was once again the life of her small party," an onlooker said of the star.