Next week it will be 50 years since Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor married. But what made their destructive relationship the greatest romance in history, asks Anna Burnside.
BOURBON. Vodka. Lust, diamonds, yachts, pills, jealousy. The lifelong love affair between Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor contained all these elements, to say nothing of death, pain, professional rivalry and paparazzi hiding in trees. And yet it transcends the excesses of two flamboyant individuals and their prurient press coverage to stand as one of the greatest loves of all time, visible to this day burning out of the archive photographs, steaming from the pages of their correspondence.
Fifty years after they married for the first time it’s hard, for those of us who remember Taylor only as a kaftan-wearing habitué of the Betty Ford clinic, to appreciate the extent of her fame and notoriety. She was old Hollywood’s last star, famous since making National Velvet at the age of 12. And while she encountered Burton briefly in the 1950s, while she was an MGM starlet (and thought: “Ohhh, boy – I’m not gonna become a notch on his belt”), by the time they met properly, on the set of Cleopatra in 1961, she was one of the biggest names in cinema.
This was down to more than her violet eyes, impressive embonpoint and acting chops. Aged 29, she had three children and was already on to her fourth husband, pop crooner Eddie Fisher. Taylor ensnared Fisher, then married to actress Debbie Reynolds, after the death of her third husband Mike Todd. Her role in the end of the popular, sweet Reynolds’ marriage outraged America.
By the time Burton, a stage actor with a stalled film career, was brought in to replace Stephen Boyd as Mark Antony, Cleopatra was over budget and out of control. Taylor was in poor health and poorer spirits. Filming was put on hold until she recovered from near-fatal pneumonia. When they met on set, Burton asked: “Has anyone ever told you that you’re a very pretty girl?”, which Taylor found an underwhelming compliment from the legendary Welsh wordsmith and womaniser. On their first day of shooting, the star was braced for a further charm offensive. Instead, she faced a hungover wretch. “He was kind of quivering from head to foot,” she recalled years later. “He ordered a cup of coffee to still his trembling fists and I had to help it to his mouth, and that just endeared him to me.” This did not stop her suspecting that he played up his vulnerability to appeal to her.
But it worked. Despite both being married to other people (Burton to Welsh actress Sybil Williams, the mother of his two children) they began a flagrant affair. Burton later put his physical infatuation down to the moment he saw the lush-bodied Taylor naked, as Cleopatra, in her bath. Their first screen kiss was filmed shortly afterwards. There were several takes, each one longer than the one before. Eventually director Joseph Mankiewicz asked: “Would you two mind if I say cut?”
Neither tried to keep it a secret and their trysts took place across the lot. At one point Burton marched into the men’s makeup trailer and announced to the company: “Gentlemen, I’ve just f****d Elizabeth Taylor in the back of my Cadillac.”
Le scandale, as they both came to call it, was front page news all over the world, keeping John Glenn’s orbiting of the earth off the front pages. The Vatican newspaper, in an open letter, accused Taylor of “erotic vagrancy”. Everyone had an opinion. Burton’s friend Laurence Olivier sent him a telegram: “Make up your mind, dear heart. Do you want to be a great actor or a household word?”
Burton replied “Both”.
At one point, before Cleopatra had wrapped, Burton told Taylor it was over and left for Paris. The next day she was rushed to hospital, having taken an overdose of Seconal. It was back on.
After the fact, Taylor claimed that they both tried to hold back and were “more off than on”. Her marriage to Fisher was over, but Burton, although always sexually incontinent, had previously returned to his wife. And despite the intrusive press attention, as Taylor’s notorious lover, Burton’s stock rose. When his agent boasted that his client now commanded $500,000 per picture, Burton retorted: “Maybe I should give Elizabeth Taylor 10%.”
After Cleopatra limped to its conclusion (it cost $44m and took two tortuous years to complete) Burton went home to Sybil. But in 1963 he was reunited with Taylor, filming The VIPs in London, staying in an adjacent suite at the Dorchester. By the following year they were both finally free to marry. The ceremony was in Canada, where Burton was playing Hamlet. The night after the ceremony, back on stage, he announced: I would just like to quote from the play – Act III, Scene I: ‘We will have no more marriages.’”
He should have added – for the next ten years at least. Their decade together was defined by heavy drinking (both of them), prescription drugs (mostly her), doomed attempts at sobriety (him) and competitive jewellery shopping (they were desperate to keep up with the Onassises). They continued to work together, making 11 films in total. Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf?, for which Taylor won an Oscar, saw the couple playing a waspish couple ripping each other apart in front of their horrified guests. It was such a powerful piece, with so many echoes of their own marriage, that Burton described himself as “rather lost” when shooting ended. Both later felt that the film was detrimental to their marriage, with Taylor saying she was: “tired of playing Martha” in real life.
But through the flops as well as the hits, the liquid lunches and the bourbon-soaked afternoons, Burton and Taylor had a connection that continued until the end of both their lives. They played erotic Scrabble. He bought her the world’s rarest diamonds and most luscious pearls but also wrote her tender notes, sometimes while she was asleep in the next room.
“I lust after your smell,” he penned early in their affair, “and your round belly and the exquisite softness of the inside of your thighs and your baby-bottom and your giving lips.”
Years later, he had not cooled down. “My blind eyes are desperately waiting for the sight of you. You don’t realise of course, EB, how fascinatingly beautiful you have always been, and how strangely you have acquired an added and special and dangerous loveliness. Your breasts jutting out from that half-asleep languid lingering body, the remote eyes, the parted lips.”
He often signed himself “Husbs”. They had a catalogue of pet names and insults for each other: Scrupelshrumpilstilskin, My Lumps, Old Shoot, Twit Twaddle, Snapshot, Charlie Charm. They teased each other and poked their foibles. Burton never forgot that Taylor was the bigger star, commanding bigger pay cheques and higher billing. His barbs about her fluctuating weight grew increasingly pointed. She lost patience with his drinking. Their rows were frequent and legendary. One couple booked the suite below theirs at the Regency in New York just to eavesdrop.
They bought a yacht, a de Havilland jet, a fleet of Rolls Royces, property, Picassos, Van Goghs and jewels. Yet they lived mostly in hotels, with Taylor’s retinue of un-house-trained pets. They were world nomads, making films back to back, their every move a news story. In 1968, Burton’s brother Ifor fell and broke his neck after the two of them had been on a bender. The injury left him paralysed from the neck down. Overwhelmed with guilt, Burton drank even more.
Meanwhile, his wife, her over-ripe sexuality out of tune with the times, was the leading lady no more. In 1970, in LA for the Oscars, Burton observed in his diary: “I’m afraid we are temporarily out in the cold, and fallen stars. What is remarkable is that we have stayed up there for so long.”
He rolled on and off the wagon. In London in 1970, where Taylor was filming Zee and Co with Michael Caine, his tremors were so bad he could not accompany her to the studio. He lurked in the hotel, jealous of Caine, pouring his heart out instead of pouring another drink. “I love you and miss you and I think you to be the most desirable woman in the world and remember, NO KISSING WITH OPEN MOUTHS or breathless excitement and all that stuff,” he wrote while she was out shooting. “Otherwise, I will be down at the studio and certain girls will have a very rough time with certain husbands.”
It was Ifor’s death, in 1973, that saw Burton abandon all attempts at sobriety. His drinking was out of control, he was cheating on Taylor, carousing, leaving his wife then writing her wretched letters begging her to return. She filed for divorce in 1974.
Had they drawn the line under it there, the Burton-Taylor romance would have remained a torrid episode between two people with a talent for excess. But despite everything they put each other through, their connection refused to die. When they met again in the summer of 1975, ostensibly to sort out family finances, it burst back into flames. He was sober and handsome, she was slim and tanned. In the throes of what Taylor called her “pure animal lust” for Burton, they remarried that October.
On honeymoon in South Africa she wrote: “Dearest Hubs – How about that! You really are my husband again, and I have news for thee, there bloody will be no more marriages – or divorces either. We are stuck like chicken feathers to tar – for lovely always.”
Within weeks the honeymoon was over in every way, with Burton boozing and the old pattern of fighting and making up was back. Then, on a Christmas skiing holiday in Gstaad, Burton met Suzy Hunt. He abandoned Taylor in under six months.
And yet, it was never over. Burton accompanied Taylor to her 50th birthday party in London. Together they plotted to star in a west end version of Noel Coward’s Private Lives, about a divorced couple thrown back together on holiday. The production proceeded amid lurid speculation, but if Taylor thought it would lead to wedding number three, it backfired spectacularly. The show collapsed and Burton married his Australian personal assistant Sally Hay.
Three days before he died, in 1984, aged 58, of a cerebral haemorrhage, Burton wrote Taylor the last of a lifetime’s letters. She did not receive it until after his death. In it, he asked her to “come home”.
Taylor kept that letter by her bedside until her death in 2011. It was buried with her, the final talisman of what she described as “my love for you, of my fear, my delight, my pure animal pleasure of you, my jealousy, my pride, my anger at you, at times.”
Booze could not drown it, pills could not deaden it, separation served only to make it stronger. Having found each other, everyone else was dreary and inadequate. They could choose anyone in the world, but in the end, they only wanted each other. «