In honor of what would’ve been Elizabeth Taylor’s 83rd birthday today, we take a look at her along with four other classic film actresses whose passion for humanitarian causes were as strong as their celebrity.
Taylor testified before Congress in support of the Ryan White CARE Act of 1990 which provided government funding for AIDS programs. She used the million dollars she earned from selling photos of her wedding to Larry Fortensky to People magazine to found the Elizabeth Taylor AIDS Foundation in 1991. The organization raises money to provide care to people with AIDS. Over the next two decades, the organization awarded over 14 million dollars to 600 organizations dedicated to fighting the disease. Taylor won the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Academy Award in 1992 and received a Presidents Citizen Medal in 2001 for her philanthropy.
Taylor isn’t the only classic film actress who used her wealth and fame to help others. These four actresses from Hollywood’s golden era devoted as much time to off-screen charity work as to their on-screen stardom.
The star of Breakfast at Tiffany’s was admired for her slender figure. Most people don’t realize that she was thin due to the malnutrition she suffered from as a child in Holland during World War II. After the war ended, Hepburn received food and medical treatment from the charity UNICEF. In gratitude, she chose to work for the organization after she became famous. During the 1950s she began taping radio broadcasts in support of UNICEF. In the 1980s, she chose to give up acting and work fulltime for the charity and was appointed Goodwill Ambassador of UNICEF in 1989. She traveled to Ethiopia when the country was in the midst of a terrible famine. When she returned, she gave over 100 interviews to media outlets in the United States, Canada and Europe to spread awareness of the crisis and raise money to help the nation.
Hepburn went on to travel to Turkey on behalf of a UNICEEF immunization campaign and to Central and South America on behalf of the charity’s development projects. She also visited Sudan, Bangladesh, and Vietnam. Her final UNICEF trip was to the war-torn nation of Somalia. She said of the experience, “I walked into a nightmare. I have seen famine in Ethiopia and Bangladesh in 1992, but I have seen nothing like this – so much worse than I could possibly have imagined.” Unfortunately, shortly after her return she was diagnosed with terminal cancer. Hepburn was awarded a Presidential Medal of Freedom and was posthumously honored with the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Academy Award.
The wholesome star of numerous romantic comedies and musicals during the 1950s and 1960s is also a fierce advocate for animal rights. In 1971 she co-founded the group Actors and Others for Animals and appeared in a series of newspaper ads encouraging women to stop wearing fur. She expanded her advocacy in 1978 when she created the Doris Day Animal Foundation (DDAF), a charity which gives grants to organizations that help animals. The DDAF’s projects include founding World Spay Day in 1995, which encourages pet owners to have their dogs and cats spayed or neutered. Since its inception, the foundation has donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to provide free operations and over 1.5 million animals have benefitted.
The foundation also gives scholarships to veterinary students and has a program that helps rehabilitate injured and elderly stray dogs so that they can be adopted. In 1987, she added political advocacy to her work, creating the Doris Day Animal League, which lobbies for animal welfare legislation. Day donated a quarter of a million dollars to a Texas ranch that helps abused horses, which was named the Doris Day Horse Rescue and Adoption Center. Now 90 years old, Day continues to play an active role in running her organizations.
Best known for starring in Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds, the 85-year-old actress still occasionally takes on acting roles. Off-screen, her creative approach to charity provided thousands of Vietnamese refugees with a career and transformed the American beauty industry. During the 1970s, Hedren was an international relief coordinator for the organization Food for the Hungry. After the Vietnam War ended, Hedren visited a camp for Vietnamese refugees near Sacramento, California. Several women admired her long manicured nails. At that time, manicures were an expensive luxury that only wealthy women could afford. Hedren had the inspiration that the refugees could become manicurists because it did not take long to obtain the necessary training and manicurists did not have to speak fluent English. She hired her manicurist to train the women at the camp. They all found employment.
Word spread in the Vietnamese community, and thousands of Vietnamese immigrants became manicurists and salon owners, allowing them to achieve financial security. The number of salons grew and manicures became an affordable part of millions of American women’s beauty routine. Today, 45 percent of manicurists in the United States and 80 percent of manicurists in California are Vietnamese. Nail salons are now a 9 billion dollar business.
In 2014, the Beauty Changes Lives Foundation created the Tippi Hedren Nail Scholarship fund in her honor. The charitable Hedren also runs the Roar Foundation and the Shambala Wildlife Preserve, which provides a home to numerous lions, tigers, leopards and bobcats. She created the foundation in 1983 after starring in and producing the 1981 film Roar which featured dozens of lions that she and her husband purchased and moved into their Beverly Hills mansion. (The bizarre movie, featuring Hedren’s daughter Melanie Griffith, will be re-released this April.) Shambala now is a refuge for numerous zoo animals who have lost their homes, including Michael Jackson’s Bengal tigers.
Jane Russell, the buxom actress who starred opposite Marilyn Monroe in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, was a woman of contradictions. Though she was marketed as a sex symbol, she was actually a conservative Christian who attempted to convert Monroe. Russell had an illegal abortion when she was 19 which left her infertile. Afterward, she became staunchly anti-abortion. She and her husband adopted two children from England in the 1950s. It was difficult since there was no formalized legal process for international adoptions, and at the time, adoption agencies only placed newborns. This was a problem because there were many older orphans who lost their parents during World War II.
The experience, and her religious faith, inspired Russell to found the World Adoption International Fund (WAIF) in 1955. The organization was the first to help Americans adopt children from foreign countries. WAIF placed more than 51,000 children in homes. Russell also lobbied for the passage of the Federal Orphan Adoption Amendment which allowed the children of American soldiers who were born overseas to be adopted in the U.S. She continued to advocate for adoption until her death in 2011, fighting for the rights of single parents to adopt and helping to pass the Adoption and Child Welfare Act that reformed the foster care system.