By EW Staff
Updated March 23, 2011 at 01:12 PM EDT

Elizabeth Taylor, the Hollywood icon who was as famous for her eight marriages as she was for her 54 movies and two Oscars, died this morning of congestive heart failure at Los Angeles’ Cedars-Sinai Hospital, where she was being treated during the last two months for her condition. Taylor, 79, is survived by her four children, 10 grandchildren, and four great-grandchildren. Michael Wilding, Taylor’s son, said in a statement: “My Mother was an extraordinary woman who lived life to the fullest, with great passion, humor, and love. Though her loss is devastating to those of us who held her so close and so dear, we will always be inspired by her enduring contribution to our world. Her remarkable body of work in film, her ongoing success as a businesswoman, and her brave and relentless advocacy in the fight against HIV/AIDS, all make us all incredibly proud of what she accomplished. We know, quite simply, that the world is a better place for Mom having lived in it. Her legacy will never fade, her spirit will always be with us, and her love will live forever in our hearts.”

Taylor had long since transitioned out of acting but had remained famous for being herself, a screen legend since her child star days in the 1940s. Taylor’s violet-eyed beauty had enthralled audiences ever since she was 12, when she starred in 1944’s National Velvet, still the definitive girl-and-her-horse movie. She transitioned into adult roles in 1950’s hit comedy Father of the Bride and the 1951 tragedy A Place in the Sun. Throughout the 1950s and early 1960s, she was one of Hollywood’s premier screen goddesses, equally at home in glossy epics like Giant (1956) and serious Tennessee Williams adaptations like Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958). She won her first Oscar for Best Actress for her role as a promiscuous model in 1960’s Butterfield 8. Her goddess period peaked with 1963’s sprawling Cleopatra, a four-hour-plus saga that remains one of the costliest flops of alltime. (Taylor ultimately earned $7 million for the title role, including $1 million up front, making her the highest paid actress to date.) She came back with her Oscar-winning performance as a professor’s bitter wife in 1966’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, a film whose blunt language and sexual subject matter effectively killed off the old Production Code, leading to the movie ratings system Hollywood has used since 1968. Taylor’s acting career petered out during the late 1960s and ’70s (her final big-screen appearance would be a cameo as Fred Flintstone’s mother-in-law in 1994’s The Flintstones), but by then, her reputation as a screen immortal was secured.

Fascination with Taylor persisted in part because of her many marriages, most notably, her tumultuous liaison with Richard Burton, many times her costar and twice her husband. Taylor’s first marriage, to hotel heir Nicky Hilton, lasted from 1950 to 1951. She was married to Michael Wilding from 1952 to 1957. She married movie producer Mike Todd in 1957, but he died in a plane crash a year later. Her next husband was singer Eddie Fisher, causing a scandal when he left wife Debbie Reynolds for her in 1959. Taylor, in turn, left Fisher for Burton, to whom she was married from 1964 to 1974, and again from 1975 to 1976. She was married to Virginia Senator John Warner from 1976 to 1982. She met her final husband, a construction worker named Larry Fortensky who was 20 years her junior, when both were patients at the Betty Ford Clinic; they were married from 1991 to 1996.

Long after she had stopped acting, Taylor remained in the public eye, thanks in no small part to her philanthropy; her Giant costar Rock Hudson’s death from AIDS in 1985 transformed her into one of Hollywood’s earliest and most vocal advocates and fundraisers for AIDS patients. Of course, her marriages and frequent health scares kept her in the news as well. It seemed that no matter what she did, Taylor cultivated around her an atmosphere of glamour, mystery, and drama.

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