Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Prescription to Die

Elizabeth Taylor

Like many stars of her era, Elizabeth Taylor was indoctrinated into the world of Hollywood at a young age. As a child actor, she was managed by her show-biz veteran mother out of her initial contract with Universal, and quickly signed to MGM, where she landed a pivotal part in Lassie Come Home. After National Velvet raised her profile, she became one of the leading stars of the era, and began her infamous string of highly-publicized, failed marriages.

Elizabeth Taylor
Elizabeth Taylor

In 1954, her third husband Mike Todd died in a plane crash. The grief led to her initial bout of self-medicating with prescription drugs, of which she had become a frequent consumer after a serious horse-riding accident during the production of National Velvet, and alcohol, which would continue over time. While married to her fourth husband Eddie Fisher, she filmed Cleopatra with the mercurial Richard Burton and began a very public affair with him. Confusion over her love life drove her to a suicide attempt in 1962. She eventually married, divorced, remarried and redivorced Burton before proceeding to two later marriages which also ended in divorce.

In C. David Heymann's 1995 book Liz: An Intimate Biography of Elizabeth Taylor, Taylor's addiction woes were catalogued. It was revealed that, at times, she consumed "enough medication to fuel an army." In 1981, over 300 prescriptions for 30 different pills were written for the star. Her close relationship with Michael Jackson was noted, too: for his birthday party in 1982, she was prescribed 600 pills.

Reports showed she preferred downers: barbiturates and opiates, as well as occasional stimulants.

In 1983, she checked into the Betty Ford Clinic for the first time for alcohol addiction, garnering national headlines. Celebrities weren't yet as public about rehab then as they are now. But she relapsed a year later, when her ex-husband Richard Burton died. She partially attributed her relapse to treatment for a broken back in 1988, and reentered the Betty Ford Clinic for the second time, where she met yet another future husband, Larry Fortensky. In 1994, the California State Medical Board reprimanded three of her doctors for over-prescribing thousands of drugs to Taylor, in response to a complaint opened in 1990. The revelations of that case — for instance that she received prescriptions for Demoral more than once in a day from different pharmacies — would be sadly echoed in the case of her late friend, Michael Jackson.

In an ironic twist, Taylor, who is reportedly sober at this time, has been spotlighted in coverage of the Jackson death for introducing Jackson to one of the doctors who allegedly facilitated his drug abuse, Dr. Arnold Klein.

Unlike the other celebrity pill poppers, there is a happy ending to this story, as Taylor emerged from her addictions and remains clean today.