And now, for the first time, the Elizabeth Taylor AIDS Foundation has released photos of Elizabeth Taylor and Larry Fortensky’s lavish 1991 wedding at Michael Jackson’s Neverland Ranch exclusively to PEOPLE.
This inside look commemorates PEOPLE’s Oct. 21, 1991, cover story on the biggest and most media-saturated wedding in Hollywood history. (Remember, this was in the days before weddings like George and Amal Clooney’s and Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie’s.)
In the photos, the blushing, bronzed bride is dressed in a pale yellow $25,000 Valentino gown (a gift from the designer). She is seen with her groom – her seventh (she married Richard Burton twice) – and with her close friend, Jackson, who hosted the wedding for 160 high profile guests on his 2,700-acre Santa Ynez Valley, California, estate.
As about a dozen helicopters hovered overhead, a brazen paparazzo even parachuted into the ceremony, landing 20 feet from the shocked bride and groom. (Despite the fact that the wedding was guarded by a former Israeli army officer and a 100-man security force.)
Taylor, then 59, is seen in the photographs sharing a laugh with an upbeat Jackson, and standing with her new hubby, then 39, under the gardenia-draped gazebo where they became husband and wife.
While Taylor’s ex-husband Eddie Fisher predicted that her marriage to Fortensky “should last [because it’s] the first time Liz has married a regular guy,” it wasn’t to be. The couple divorced five years later.
Taylor died on March 23, 2011, of congestive heart failure at 79. Jackson died on June 25, 2009. Forensky, now 62, still lives in California and says he remained close friends with his ex-wife after they split, reportedly speaking for hours by phone a few times a month.
“I have wonderful memories of my time with Elizabeth and I will treasure her memory forever,” he said in a rare 2011 interview after her death.
Taylor met Fortensky, a twice-divorced construction worker with rugged looks, in 1988 when they were both battling drug and alcohol dependencies at the famed Betty Ford Center in Rancho Mirage, California.
Inside the Big Day
At their much-anticipated wedding, the two couldn’t have been happier. As famous faces including Liza Minnelli, Eddie Murphy, Nancy Reagan (Taylor moved the wedding date to accommodate President Ronald Reagan, but he was still unable to attend), then-Twentieth Century Fox head Barry Diller and his date, designer Diane Von Furstenberg, Arsenio Hall, George Hamilton, Merv Griffin, Quincy Jones and Macaulay Culkin looked on, Taylor walked down the aisle, escorted by Jackson and her eldest son, Michael Wilding Jr., then 38.
Fortensky’s best man was Taylor’s hairdresser, José Eber (shown in the picture). Taylor’s longtime friend Norma Heyman was matron of honor.
Hollywood self-help guru Marianne Williamson presided over the nondenominational ceremony (Taylor was Jewish; Fortensky is Protestant), with the couple exchanging vows and rings. Wearing her pavé diamond-encrusted wedding ring for the first time, Taylor placed a loving hand on her new husband’s cheek after their first kiss as man and wife.
“You could just look in their eyes and tell Liz was very happy,” Von Furstenberg said at the time.
Under the massive tent where the glamorous reception was held, the bride and groom toasted each other and their host – who reportedly paid for much of the estimated $1.5 million wedding – with mineral water.
“You’ve been so generous, it makes me want to cry,” Taylor told Jackson. “I’ll never forget it as long as I live.”
Jackson and his date, Brooke Shields, cut into the couple’s first dance as guests sipped Dom Perignon and chardonnay from a nearby winery and dined on platters of rolled salmon and five tiers of chocolate mousse cake.
At about 10:30 p.m., the newlyweds said their goodnights and retired to Jackson’s ranch house, where they spent several nights before a two-day tour to promote Taylor’s White Diamonds perfume, opting to honeymoon later. Syndicated newspaper columnist Liz Smith predicted that Taylor’s marriage to Fortensky “will be fun for her. Under the high gloss of her facade, she is really an ordinary woman who has led an extraordinary life.”
That life became even more extraordinary when Taylor began working tirelessly to battle HIV/AIDS, which became her legacy. Taylor used proceeds from her exclusive wedding pictures to start the ETAF in 1991, raising funds and awareness to fight the spread of HIV/AIDS and providing assistance for those living with the virus.
“My grandmother’s deep love and concern for people led her to create The Elizabeth Taylor AIDS Foundation, which focuses on the immediate needs of HIV+ people, by supporting access to medicine and health care, healthy food, needle exchanges, and safe places to live and be cared for,” Taylor’s granddaughter, Laela Wilding, tells PEOPLE. “She is a champion for us all, and her determination and love is a shining inspiration that we should all support those in need, support each other, despite any differences we have in gender, race, class, or HIV status.”