Love is a condition of life that rewards all the virtues, except moderation.
Thus, our enduring fascination with the compelling and tumultuous relationship between Elizabeth Taylor and the late Richard Burton. Sam Kashner and Nancy Schoenberger are the latest in a lengthy line of writers and memoirists to assess Taylor and Burton’s epic romance, and the subtitle of their new book — “Furious Love: Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton, and the Marriage of the Century” — suggests their particular jumping-off point.
The authors make a good case that, from the time their love affair began on the set of “Cleopatra” (1963) in Rome, Taylor and Burton became the prototype personalities for our now-ubiquitous culture of celebrity. (The authors write that Federico Fellini actually coined the term paparazzi — literally “insects” — to describe the hordes of photographers perpetually swarming around the couple. How delicious is that?) The details of the couple’s affair, 10-year marriage, divorce, brief remarriage and second split are too well known to rehearse here. Most of this book’s narrative draws — with appropriate credit — on previously published sources, though Kashner and Schoenberger have had access to unpublished portions of Taylor’s autobiography and, more important, to 40 of the many love letters Burton sent her over the years. The latter, excerpted here, are remarkable: by turns, playful, elegant, heartbreakingly felt and wonderfully earthy. The letters’ quality makes one regret that Burton’s lifelong attempts at writing fiction never came to anything but notebook pages.
As the proud son of a Welsh coal miner, Burton never shrugged off the suspicion that acting was unmanly — in part, perhaps, because, according to the book, he carried a lifelong guilt about the flings he had with John Gielgud and Laurence Olivier early in his career. In one of the letters he sent Taylor during their 1973 separation, he wrote: “I have never quite got over the fact that I thought, and I’m afraid I still do think, that ‘acting’ for a man — a really proper man — is sissified and faintly ridiculous.…The French have a word for what I am and it’s called ‘manqué,’ meaning a failure of desire.… I am everything ‘manqué.’ An actor manqué, a philosopher manqué, a writer manqué, and consequently an intolerable bore. (Not manqué, I’m afraid.)”
The roots of his savage — ultimately fatal — drinking seem fairly clear. “My father was a drinker and I’m a drinker,” Burton once said. “The place I like to be best in the whole world is back in my village in Wales, down at the pub, standing with the miners drinking pints and telling stories. One drinks because life is big and it blinds you. Poetry and drink are the greatest things on earth. Besides women. There’s something to death and something to truth, and we’re after them all our beautiful lives on earth. Liquor helps.”
Taylor, a woman of wonderfully Rabelaisian appetites, drank for other reasons. “Elizabeth was proud of the fact that she could keep up with Burton — even drink him under the table,” the authors write. “She was truly a man’s woman, and she could drink, belch and swear with the best of them. It was, for her, an important antidote to her staggering beauty and hothouse upbringing. It made her human. It kept her real.”
Drinking, as Kashner and Schoenberger put it, “was a kind of third partner in their marriage, and when Burton gave it up, even for just a couple of weeks, a gaping hole appeared. Drinking with Richard had kept them in the same house of the spirits, cocooned from the sometimes unbearable pressures of celebrity. It was, quite simply, something they could do together.”
It also fueled the frequent quarrels from which both seemed to draw a profound sensual charge, particularly Taylor, for whom frequent demonstrations of a strong masculine presence were essential. “Richard loses his temper with true enjoyment. It’s beautiful to watch,” Taylor once said. “Our fights are delightful screaming matches, and Richard is rather like a small atom bomb going off.” Burton believed “a good shouting match was good for the soul, cathartic, emetic….”
Yet for all that, there was an epic — even Homeric — quality to their love because they were genuine artists who made works of real consequence, and their love made their art better. The best parts of “Furious Love” depict Taylor and Burton at work, or quote their conversations about acting, film and the stage. As unhappy as their love sometimes made them, they never seemed to be truly happy or to do their best work when apart.
One of the essential differences between Burton and Taylor and many of the denizens who infest the current culture of celebrity is that they were neither famous for being famous nor for the way they lived, but most essentially for what they did. When they found each other on the set of “Cleopatra,” he was arguably the finest stage actor of his generation and became a formidable film actor through the force of her example. Taylor was a film star who discovered a powerful dramatic persona in the penumbra of Burton’s influence.
Bereft of their partnership, both artists were somehow diminished. In 1984, the last year of his life, the 58-year-old Burton left his Swiss retreat and traveled to London to play the role of the party inquisitor who torments Winston Smith in a film adaptation of George Orwell’s “1984.” Director Michael Radford recalls that the actor was “like an old wounded lion … an old man. I got the impression that he just couldn’t wait to die, that life had seeped out of him in some strange kind of way. What was important to him in his life was gone.”
What was most important to him, of course, was thousands of miles away in America.
On Aug. 2 of that year, Burton was back in his beloved Swiss chalet in Céligny with his then-wife, Sally, but wrote a final love letter to Elizabeth in Los Angeles. Home, he said, was wherever she was, and he wanted to come home. The next day, his “1984" costar, John Hurt, arrived for a visit, and Burton broke a long period of sobriety to go out drinking with him. Always a quarrelsome drunk, he got into a bar fight and struck his head on the floor. The next evening he went to bed complaining of a headache. He never woke up and died of a cerebral hemorrhage.On the pad beside his bed, a last few lines of Shakespearean verse were scribbled in red ink:
The multitudinous seas incarnadine,
Making the green one red.…
Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow…
Our revels now are ended.…
Sally initially declined to invite Taylor to his funeral, then relented when it was too late for her to attend. Elizabeth visited Richard’s grave, then his extended family in Wales and, finally, a memorial service in the London church of St. Martin-in-the-Fields. When she returned to her home in Bel-Air, she found Burton’s last letter waiting for her. Now 78, she has kept it on her bedside table ever since.