Defying Doctors' Orders, a Shaky but Radiant Elizabeth Taylor Opens a Conference on Aids

updated 07/02/1990 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 07/02/1990 AT 01:00 AM EDT

She kept the crowd waiting for an hour and a half, but when Elizabeth Taylor finally arrived to kick off the International Conference on AIDS in San Francisco last week, the gathered researchers and physicians gave her a rousing ovation. Despite daunting odds, Taylor, 58, had managed to keep a promise made months ago to attend the conference's opening reception. Still recuperating from the life-threatening case of viral pneumonia that had confined her to a hospital bed for most of the spring, Taylor had not appeared in public since March and had been advised by her doctors not to travel. Yet here she was. Leaning on the arms of two men, she mounted the podium shakily, whispering "whew," as she reached the top of the steps.

Worried friends and fans were relieved to see that although Taylor was clearly weak, her manner was still as gracious and her beauty as luminous as before she fell ill. Dressed in a modest black-crepe dress, Taylor, who has firmly denied rumors that she has AIDS, expressed her concern for patients afflicted by the disease. "For me there was experienced medical help and knowledge to treat my illness," she said. "Sadly, for many people who are seriously ill with AIDS right now, there is not that help. Throughout the long, dark days of my hospitalization, I was always confident that I would ultimately get well, and I realized how lucky I was."

Taylor then announced a new international fund sponsored by the American Foundation for Aids Research, which she helped found in 1985. The fund, she said, would finance AIDS education and prevention projects in Africa, Latin America and Southeast Asia, where the AIDS crisis is often compounded by "crushing poverty, horrible famine and, sometimes, the nightmare of war." According to AMFAR executive Sally Morrison, Taylor's support is invaluable: "We need a lot of local cooperation to make our projects work. The attention Elizabeth brings to the projects worldwide really helps us get that cooperation."

After her brief remarks, Taylor rested for several hours in a hotel room before flying home to L.A., with her two nurses and two aides, in Merv Griffin's private jet. Downstairs at the reception, one doctor, impressed by the glamorous star's dedication to the AIDS cause, marveled, "She's one of us." Standing nearby, a gaunt, sickly man nodded in silent agreement.

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