Last Tuesday, in honor of World AIDS Day, Entertainment Tonight broadcast an interview with AIDS activist and former swimsuit model Kathy Ireland. Besides weighing in on Charlie Sheen's HIV diagnosis — “It's heartbreaking” — and plugging her HIV/AIDS-awareness documentary Treatment for All, Ireland revealed that her late friend and fellow activist Elizabeth Taylor had set up a “safe house” where AIDS patients could access illegal and experimental drugs to treat their ailments. Or as the interviewer put it, comparing it to the activities detailed in the 2013 movie Dallas Buyers Club, “essentially … a West Coast buyers club.”
Ireland went on: “Talk about fearless; in her home in Bel-Air. It was a safe house. A lot of the work that she did, it was illegal, but she was saving lives. It was in a time when it was not something to do. Business associates pleaded with her, 'Leave this thing alone.' She received death threats. Friends hung up on her when she asked for help, but something that I love about Elizabeth is her courage.”
Taylor's enthusiasm for the cause is well documented, but it seemed this was the first anyone had heard of Dame Liz's days as a underground pharmaceuticals kingpin. The Internet ran with the story, but New York Magazine journalist Walter Armstrong was dubious. In a thoughtful article published Thursday, Armstrong wondered, “How could Elizabeth Taylor’s Big Secret have remained a secret for this long in the small, organized and gossipy network of gay men who were smuggling and selling unapproved AIDS drugs?” Meanwhile, Ireland's tale had already been added to Taylor's Wikipedia page. (The page has since been updated yet again to acknowledge challenges to the claim.)
Armstrong continued: “What I worried about: that over time, given the online proliferation of this story and the dynamics of search-engine optimization, Taylor would suck all of the oxygen out of the room when it came to recognizing a daring innovation born of desperation that she had nothing to do with. Those real people — the most important ones — are Jim Corti and Marty Delaney. Project Inform is the name of the real West Coast buyers club.”
Martin Delaney's Project Inform was instrumental in educating AIDS patients about and connecting them with unapproved and experimental treatments, even conducting its own trials. And here in L.A., an HIV-negative nurse named Jim Corti was smuggling in from Tijuana and China treatments like ribavirin and Compound Q. Emmy-winning TV writer Patrick Mulcahey was part of the five-man team that operated Project Inform in the '80s. In a 2013 article he wrote for the Huffington Post, “Not Buying Dallas Buyers Club,” Mulcahey also name-drops Corti: “There were only five of us — Tom, Ron and I in the office, plus our co-founders Martin Delaney and Joe Brewer — and we all had full-time jobs, too. Joe was a tireless organizer. Marty was always off writing or networking or lobbying the FDA and NIH. We had an unofficial sixth in Jim Corti, whom nobody else seems to remember now, but who did what Ron Woodroof did, only better and longer and not for money.”
Googling Corti, I came across the personal blog of musician Lyle Chan, who worked with Corti (aka “Dextran Man”) to bring unapproved AIDS treatments into Australia in the late '80s and early '90s. Compared with Kathy Ireland's breezy anecdote about Liz Taylor, Chan's post is a fascinating chronicle of what people were willing to do to be of service to a cause, including manufacturing caplets of ddC (“the most illegal thing Jim had ever done”) when the FDA refused to approve it and the pharmaceutical companies refused to expand clinical trials. In a second post, Chan recalls when the supply of ddC was interrupted by the '92 L.A. riots — Corti, who was white, lived in South Central.
I had calm but desperate phone conversations with Jim Corti, my supplier. Los Angeles was in shutdown. The National Guard and the Marine Corps had been mobilized to stop the riots. Jim and I tried to come up with a way to get my shipment out of the city while keeping him safe. I knew Jim lived in south-central LA. He told me he had to make hair-raising U-turns driving to and from home to avoid the street confrontations. He was a white man living in a predominantly black neighborhood. Not only was it plain foolish to venture into the streets, but FedEx, the messenger company that innocently transported our packages, was understandably out of operation. Freeways were closed. There was a dusk-to-dawn curfew. Public transport, needless to say, was canceled. We had no idea how long the riots would last, nor what further destruction would occur. Rodney King himself appeared on TV to appeal for calm, but the riots had worked up a momentum that needed to run its course. Finally Jim just left town until it was safe to return. Our clients in Sydney – and Jim’s other clients elsewhere in this clandestine worldwide network – just had to wait for their ddC.
I emailed Chan to ask if he'd mind if I talked about and quoted from his blog and he responded: “By all means … anything to keep his amazing deeds remembered. Jim would sometimes reverse a check from me to him so that the money went back to helping other people with AIDS in Australia. That was the kind of guy he was.”
Chan's no longer in contact with Corti — in fact, he was told by a journalist that Corti died in 2006. He doesn't have any personal knowledge of Liz Taylor's in-home buyers club, but says it sounds “so unlikely.”