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Early on, when it seemed like this might be another close call Elizabeth Taylor would bounce back from, her private room at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles was filled with gifts and flowers and friends dropping by and calling to wish her well. "We talked about how it's really hell getting older," says Debbie Reynolds, a dear friend even though her husband Eddie Fisher left her for Taylor back in 1959. "We were complaining to each other about that, like two girls would." But toward the end, when Taylor's failing heart robbed her of the fire that fueled her life, fewer and fewer people were allowed in to see her, until it was only her closest family. On her very last night, "it was just her kids," says her longtime friend Sally Morrison. "She was comfortable, and it was peaceful, and she was surrounded by her children. We all think of her as this legendary, iconic public figure, as somebody who lived her life out loud. But she was also somebody's mother, and that was supremely important to her."

Elizabeth Rosemond Taylor died of complications from congestive heart failure at 1:28 a.m. on March 23 at the age of 79, the end of a kind of life Hollywood doesn't make anymore. Taylor's eight unpredictable decades were an epic of diamonds, drink, diets, husbands, heartbreak, illness, big budgets, big egos, grand gestures, embattled friends, small dogs and Oscars. At times she seemed like the ringmaster of the grand spectacle she inhabited; other times she careened through it at breakneck speed, barely hanging on. "We lost the last of what can truly be called a star," says Larry King, who interviewed her several times and became a close friend. "We have movie stars and Oscar winners and very talented actresses, but there is no Elizabeth Taylor. She was larger than life."

Taylor's astonishing beauty and simmering sensuality made her the premier movie goddess of the 20th century. She was nominated for five Academy Awards and won two. She starred in glorious bombs like Cleopatra (1963) and was the first leading lady to be paid $1 million for a picture. But her most dramatic production, it was often said, was her own life. She was married eight times (once to a senator, once to a construction worker), accused of "erotic vagrancy" by the Vatican, bestowed diamonds and jewels worth tens of millions of dollars, befriended by kings and tycoons, and addicted to alcohol and painkillers-a breathless soap opera she never seemed to tire of starring in. "I've been lucky all my life. Everything was handed to me: looks, fame, wealth, honors, love," she told LIFE in 1992. "But I've paid for that luck with disasters. Terrible illnesses, destructive addictions, broken marriages."

When she checked into Cedars-Sinai this February, Taylor had already survived a number of critical hospitalizations-including an emergency tracheotomy in 1961 and cardiac surgery to replace a leaky heart valve in 2009. This time Taylor was admitted for symptoms of congestive heart failure first diagnosed in 2004-and she expected, once again, to will her way back to health. "She was hoping to come home, and she was optimistic about everything," says photographer Firooz Zahedi, her friend since the 1970s. "She had her bedroom at home redecorated and freshened up for when she came back." But in the last few weeks, her condition worsened. "She was very ill, just trying to survive," says Debbie Reynolds, who last talked to her friend two weeks before Taylor died. "She expressed how scary it was, when you can see that it's perhaps the end, to find a way to leave this world and go on to the next."

Taylor, who in 1959 converted from Christian Science to Judaism, which traditionally requires swift burials, was laid to rest just a day after her death, in a small, private service at the Great Mausoleum at Forest Lawn Cemetery in Glendale near Los Angeles-also the final resting place of her great friend Michael Jackson. Known for always being late, Taylor had stipulated that the service begin 15 minutes after its scheduled time, so she could "be late for her own funeral," said a spokeswoman. Actor Colin Farrell, a close friend, recited a poem, and her son Michael Wilding, daughter Liza Todd and grandson Tarquin Wilding also spoke. Taylor's closed casket was covered with a blanket of gardenias, lilies of the valley and violets-the color of her famously mesmerizing eyes.

A public memorial service is being planned for the near future, while Taylor's estate-she amassed a fortune estimated at several hundred million dollars-is being settled by her executors. Much of her money is expected to be earmarked for charity, including her longtime cause, AIDS research. Her remarkable collection of jewelry-hundreds of pieces estimated at $150 million (see box, page 72)-will be auctioned off by Christie's, sources say. (A spokeswoman for Christie's declined to comment.) Those who were close to Taylor say her legacy should be as much about generosity as it is about glamour. "People saw her beauty and her lifestyle first and missed seeing the real person she was," says Dr. Matilde Krim, who, with Taylor and others, started the powerful AIDS research foundation amfAR in the 1980s-a time when few people, much less stars, were speaking out about the disease. "She was very strong, very intelligent; she was not flying around in the clouds. She had her feet on earth."

Born in London in 1932 to American parents Sara, a onetime stage actress, and Francis, an art gallery owner, Taylor arrived in the U.S. at age 7. A child trouper of the Hollywood studio system, she appeared in 14 movies between ages 10 and 18, including 1944's classic National Velvet. But Taylor's early fame deprived her of a normal childhood. "She was making a lot of money and had people catering to her, but she couldn't just be a kid," says Debbie Reynolds. "That's why she was always a bit of a kid later in her life. She just wanted to enjoy herself and be free."

That impulse perhaps guaranteed that her relationships with men would be tempestuous. In 1950 Taylor wed Conrad "Nicky" Hilton Jr., heir to the multimillion-dollar hotel empire (and Paris' great-uncle), in what was the first of her marriages-as-spectacle. Thousands of onlookers thronged the streets outside the Church of the Good Shepherd in Beverly Hills as Taylor-then just 18 and ravishing in yards of white satin encrusted with seed pearls-raced to the ceremony. "Turn on the sirens," she urged her police escort. "Let them know I'm coming!"

It was a moment, but it could have been her motto. After Taylor separated from Hilton, she divulged that he-like her father-had physically abused her and even kicked her while she was pregnant, causing a miscarriage. But that ill-fated marriage didn't slow her down: She next chose English actor Michael Wilding, older by two decades, whom she married in 1952. "It's leap year, isn't it?" she said at the time. "Well, I leaped!" Taylor had two children with Wilding: Michael, now a sculptor, and Christopher, now an editor. Her third marriage, to producer Mike Todd, 23 years her senior (they had a daughter, Liza, now a sculptor), ended in tragedy when he was killed in a plane crash, leaving Taylor a widow at age 26. She sought comfort in the arms of actor Eddie Fisher, then still married to Debbie Reynolds (see box, page 81). As Fisher later wrote, "Elizabeth lived by her own rule: She wants what she wants when she wants it."

Incredibly, all that was mere prelude to the main event. On the set of Cleopatra in Rome in 1961, Taylor was drawn to Richard Burton, the rough-edged, married Welsh actor who played Mark Antony and whose passion for life and love equaled her own. She fell for "his sense of poetry and wildness," she later said; he called her "an erotic legend . . . whose breasts would topple empires." Their wild 10-year marriage-during which they adopted 3-year-old Maria from Germany-crashed in a love-hate inferno, due largely to Burton's boozing. They soon remarried, but the sequel lasted less than a year. Still, Taylor never stopped loving him. The best time of her life, she told PEOPLE in 1999, "was when Richard and I were married, and the kids were babies, and we lived like a pack of gypsies."

Taylor's battle with her weight began during her next marriage, to future U.S. senator John Warner. The two settled on Warner's estate in the Virginia hunt country. "I think she fell in love with the farm, and I guess I came along with the horses," says Warner, who remained cordial with Taylor after their 1982 divorce. As a lonely political wife, she explained, "I became my own eating companion." But food was not her only addiction: In 1983 she checked into the Betty Ford Center to battle alcohol and prescription drug dependencies. She notched one more fizzled marriage-to then-39-year-old handyman Larry Fortensky, whom she met during a return visit to Betty Ford in 1988. Her friends say Taylor had a sense of humor about her roster of ex-spouses. "When I married my fourth husband and then a year later got a divorce, she sent me a little note," remembers Taylor's friend, the actress Joan Collins. "The note said, 'I'm still ahead by three.'"

Taylor also proved her business savvy with her signature fragrances, including Elizabeth Arden's hugely successful White Diamonds, which has generated more than $1 billion in sales. Her appeal, it seemed, never waned, nor did her ability to draw people to her. When Taylor performed in the play Little Foxes in London's West End in 1982, Princess Diana came to see her backstage and "planned to stay for five minutes," says Taylor's producing partner Zev Buffman. "She ended up spending an hour and a half in the dressing room, howling and laughing and having the greatest time. Elizabeth could be at ease with heads of government and royalty and make them laugh and be themselves."

And even though she was named a dame by Queen Elizabeth II in 2000, she insisted she was as much a broad as a dame. "I went to the movies with her once and she was in jeans, a T-shirt and an Ed Hardy hat, but she also had on, like, 12 diamond bracelets and the [33-carat] Krupp diamond," says jewelry executive Peter Sedghi, who worked with her on her House of Taylor jewelry line. "Who but Elizabeth Taylor would be able to pull that off?"

Who, indeed? To the end Taylor did things her way, going swimming with sharks in 2006 and continuing to host brunches and holiday gatherings for her close circle of friends and family. Whatever part she was playing-seducer of men, champion of the sick, great-grandmother to four-Taylor simply relished it all. "She always lived life exactly on her own terms, from telling MGM studio chief Louis B. Mayer to go to hell when she was a kid to insisting she would only make Cleopatra if she could be paid $1 million to saying to the world, 'I don't care if you don't care about people with HIV, I'm going to make you focus on it,'" says Sally Morrison. "She was fearless and brave and always in control, and at the end it was no different. She was ready to go."

ELIZABETH TAYLOR, A PEOPLE TRIBUTE BOOK, WILL BE AVAILABLE ON NEWSSTANDS APRIL 8, OR ORDER IT NOW AT PEOPLE.COM/LIZTAYLOR

  • Contributors:
  • Alex Tresniowski,
  • Michelle Tauber,
  • Alexis Chiu,
  • Lesley Messer,
  • Reporting by Mary Green,
  • Elizabeth Leonard,
  • K.C. Baker,
  • Howard Breuer,
  • Liz McNeil.