A furious kind of love: She married eight times but only Liz Taylor's relationship with Richard Burton truly defined her
By J. RANDY TARABORRELLI
Last updated at 10:44 AM on 28th March 2011
Even at his peak, Richard Burton seemed an unlikely object of desire. Despite his musical voice, he was just 5ft 9in, with pock-marked skin and a tendency towards belligerence.
When he was drunk — which was often — he was capable of great cruelty even to his closest friends. When he was sober, he was often maudlin.
Yet he managed to seduce one actress after another — from Claire Bloom to Zsa Zsa Gabor. And he made little effort to hide these short‑lived and grubby affairs from his wife Sibyl, by whom he had two daughters.
Besotted: Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton's tumultuous romance seemed doomed to failure right from the outset. She said of Burton: 'I knew what I was doing, loving Richard, was wrong, but I couldn't help it. It was a fact I couldn't evade'
By contrast, Eddie Fisher, the husband of Elizabeth Taylor — who died last week — was a clean-cut pop singer whose foxy features and easy smile had already helped shift eight million records.
A man of genuine sweetness, he adored his young wife, spending days and nights at Elizabeth’s side when she was hospitalised with pneumonia.
Sadly, his devotion was not reciprocated. Indeed, Elizabeth had known within months that her fourth marriage had been a catastrophic mistake.
Fisher’s great failing? For all his popularity as a teen idol, he lacked the swaggering machismo of her third husband, Mike Todd, who’d died in a plane crash and left her half-crazed with grief.
In public, the couple kept up the pretence that they were happy by putting on passionate displays of affection; but in private, Elizabeth often treated Fisher with withering scorn.
As with all her other husbands — and there were to be seven in total before she gave up on matrimony — she wanted, above all, to get a rise out of him. It wasn’t enough that he clearly worshipped her; he needed to prove to her satisfaction that he was a ‘real’ man.
Rocks and frocks: Elizabeth Taylor flaunts the gigantic diamonds the utterly besotted Burton lavished on her
But instead of engaging in battle, Fisher was unfailingly mild and gentle, which infuriated Elizabeth all the more.
Sometimes, when she’d been particularly vicious, the poor man — who’d left his previous wife, the actress Debbie Reynolds, for her — would retire to his bed and draw the blankets over his head. ‘Wimp!’ she’d yell.
For all her aggressive displays of anger, though, Elizabeth was in emotional tumult. Her most recent movie, Butterfield 8, had been a stinker — despite winning her an Oscar — and she felt adrift without a strong guiding hand.
‘There was something deeply desperate inside me,’ she revealed later. ‘My despair became so black that [sometimes] I just couldn’t face waking up any more.’
Into this cauldron of powerful emotions stepped Burton, then aged 36.
When they were both cast in the epic film Cleopatra, Elizabeth was fully aware of the Welsh actor’s reputation and had no intention of becoming, as she put it, ‘another notch on his belt’.
Burton, for his part, was equally determined that she should. Even before arriving on set in Rome, he’d confirmed his reputation as a cad by boasting to colleagues that he was going to have sex with the 29-year-old English-born star.
‘I just need two days with her,’ he said. ‘It’s guaranteed.’
As it turned out, he was wrong; it took five. Afterwards, Burton announced to everyone in the Cleopatra make-up van: ‘Gentlemen, last night I screwed Miss Elizabeth Taylor in the back seat of my Cadillac.’
As news of the affair spread around the globe, he turned on Elizabeth’s cuckolded husband with equal crudeness.
'I just need two days with her,' boasted Burton. As it turned out, he was wrong; it took five
One night, Burton showed up unexpectedly at a dinner party at Elizabeth’s villa. ‘Why don’t you just go home to your own wife?’ shouted Eddie Fisher. ‘Elizabeth is mine.’
Burton, who’d been drinking and could barely stand, spouted back: ‘Oh yeah? Well, guess what? They’re both my women.’
Then he confronted Elizabeth with the words: ‘Are you my woman? Well, are you? If so, then come over here and stick your tongue down my throat and prove it.’
Happier times: For a couple of years, Elizabeth was blissfully happy. Friends also remarked that the couple shared a ribald sense of humour that was rare in Hollywood circles.
Elizabeth stood motionless for a moment, her eyes locked on Burton. Then she moved slowly towards him, and shocked all the guests by pressing her lips firmly against his.
Feeling utterly humiliated, Fisher stepped outside. ‘Keep her warm for me, won’t you?’ Burton said to him casually as he left.
To Elizabeth, her lover’s callousness was merely further evidence of his irresistible manliness. Yet, in Rome, people took a dim view of the love affair, yelling out ‘homewrecker’, ‘whore’ and ‘unfit mother’ whenever she appeared in public.
For a star more used to adulation, this was extremely hard to take. Far worse, however, was Burton’s sudden decision — fuelled by self-loathing — to return to his long-suffering wife.
The next day, Elizabeth dramatically took an overdose of sleeping pills and had to have her stomach pumped. Even her friends were stunned that she’d been prepared to leave her four children — including a recently adopted little girl — without a mother for the sake of a man she’d known for only six weeks.
'Good Lord, I left a good woman to be with a lunatic'. As she reached for her bottle of pills, he swatted the container from her hand and then started pummelling her
‘I knew what I was doing, loving Richard, was wrong,’ said Elizabeth. ‘But I couldn’t help it. It was a fact I couldn’t evade.’
Burton seemed to feel the same: soon enough, they were back together. But, a few months later, during an Easter break at Porto Santo Stefano in 1962, Elizabeth learned about a side of her lover that she hadn’t suspected: like her first husband Nicky Hilton, he, too, could be brutally violent under the influence of alcohol.
According to Burton, they’d retreated to their rented room to drink and have wild sex. Somehow — he could not remember exactly how or why — they began talking about love and death, and Elizabeth announced that she was prepared to kill herself for him.
‘Here and now,’ she said, slurring her words, ‘I’ll do it, Richard. That’s how deeply I love you.’
Richard laughed. ‘Good Lord,’ he said, ‘I left a perfectly good woman to be with a lunatic!’
As she reached for her bottle of pills, he swatted the container from her hand and then started pummelling her. He recalled nothing else.
The next morning, when he came to, he was unable to wake Elizabeth. Once again, she was rushed to hospital to have her stomach pumped. Her face was swollen beyond recognition and it took three weeks for the bruises to fade sufficiently for filming to resume.
The final humiliation was that Cleopatra, which opened 632 days after the first scenes were shot, was a critical dud — despite being the most expensive movie ever made. Even the scenes between the lovers were strangely lacklustre and flat. When Elizabeth was forced to sit through a screening, she only just made it to a lavatory before vomiting.
With filming over, the spell that Burton had cast over her began to weaken. Soon afterwards, following a huge row, she left a note on his pillow telling him that the affair was over because they were ‘destroying too many lives’. He didn’t argue; he just quietly slipped out of her life.
As the days turned into weeks, Elizabeth — now holed up at a chalet she owned in Switzerland — became morbidly sad. ‘I’d never seen her like that,’ said a woman who knew her very well at this time.
Then, one day, Richard called out of the blue, and they arranged to have lunch. For once, Elizabeth realised when they met, he was stone-cold sober.
‘I love you, but what scares me about you is that I think you’re too selfish to be in a real marriage,’ he told her. ‘I’m a selfish b******. I’ve always been my own greatest concern, and I’ve never been able to abandon that notion, and neither can you, dear.’
Elizabeth was stung. ‘But I would do it for you, Richard,’ she said. And, almost incredibly, that is exactly what she did.
She vowed to make herself available whenever he wanted, to have sex whenever he chose and not to object if he wanted to be with his wife.
So when the Burton/Taylor show moved to England, where they were starring together in a film called The V.I.P.s, he spent weekends with his wife Sybil and their daughters, and returned to Elizabeth at the Dorchester Hotel for the weekdays. He even told more than one reporter that he had no intention of leaving his wife.
It was a lunatic arrangement, and it couldn’t last. Finally, in the spring of 1963, Burton decided his marriage was over.
Over the next couple of years, Elizabeth was blissfully content. And, according to his brother Graham Jenkins, Burton ‘began to fall for her in a way that he hadn’t before’. Friends also remarked that the couple shared a ribald sense of humour that was rare in Hollywood circles.
Still, by the time they married on March 15, 1964, most of their friends and family were exhausted by the continual ups and downs of their tempestuous romance.
To begin with, Elizabeth all but gave up her career for Burton, though they went on to make several more films together, including the acclaimed Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, in which they starred as a warring husband and wife. Their roles in this movie, it must be said, were not far removed from reality. ‘Even our fights are fun — nothing placidly bovine about us,’ she recalled.
‘Richard loses his temper with true enjoyment. It’s beautiful to watch. Our fights are delightful screaming matches, and Richard is rather like a small atom bomb going off — sparks fly, walls shake, floors vibrate.’
At Christmas that year, which they spent in Gstaad, Switzerland, Richard met a willowy blonde English divorcee called Suzy Hunt. She was only 27, but he callously informed his wife that he was going to pursue her
Others recall their exchanges as rather more venomous. One woman who witnessed an off-set row saw Elizabeth hurl a vase at Burton in his dressing-room. When he ducked, she grabbed a jug and threw that, too, yelling: ‘You b******!’
Fifteen minutes later, the Burtons emerged holding hands.
The rocket fuel for those incendiary rows was always alcohol. Burton would have cognac in the morning, vodka in the afternoon and Scotch and vodka at night — and Elizabeth wasn’t lagging far behind. In addition, she was increasingly dependent on painkillers because of back problems.
As the Sixties flew by, their lifestyle became increasingly extravagant, with butlers, maids and Rolls-Royces — not to mention the extraordinary jewels, such as the 33.19 carat Krupp diamond, that Burton regularly lavished on his wife.
To pay the bills, they both made a series of mediocre films unworthy of their talent. However, many decades later, Elizabeth Taylor would look back on this time with nostalgia.
‘I’m glad that I knew the wildness, glamour and excitement when I was in my prime: the parties, the yachts, and the private jets and the jewellery. It was a great time to be young, alive and attractive and to have all those goodies.’
Iconic: Elizabeth Taylor with Richard Burton in Cleoptra. He was the love of her life and she was to marry him twice
There were growing problems, nonetheless. Richard clearly hated the Hollywood ethos that Elizabeth represented as one of its biggest stars, yet was growing increasingly depressed at his failure to land an Oscar. He also had problems with fame, feeling that people were staring at them ‘as if we are prize animals’.
Moreover, the couple’s drinking was now even more seriously out of control, leading to frequent temper tantrums. Typically, one would demand something of the other, not get it and then throw a fit, maybe a fist, and, at the very least, a glass of liquor. Once, Burton even damaged his wife’s eardrum after punching her in the head.
In truth, there were so many levels of psychological chaos at work within Burton that he would have needed to be married to a psychiatrist, not a movie star, to have been understood fully.
Finally, on July 4, 1973, Elizabeth announced that they had decided to separate. ‘Maybe we loved each other too much — I never believed such a thing was possible,’ she said in an emotional statement that ended: ‘Pray for us.’
At the same time, Richard held a press conference in New York, while drinking from a bottle of vodka.
‘You know,’ he said, ‘when two very volatile people keep hacking constantly at each other with fierce oratory, and then occasionally engage in a go of it with physical force, well, it’s like I said: it’s bound to happen.’
Elizabeth defiantly found herself a new boyfriend — a handsome used-car salesman called Henry Wynberg — and flaunted their affair. Not long after it started, though, she was taken to a Californian hospital with agonising stomach pains and told she might well have cancer.
She immediately called Burton — then filming in Italy — to tell him tearfully: ‘I don’t want to die alone. Please, can I come home?’
Within days, Wynberg had been turfed out, Elizabeth had a new 38-carat heart-shaped diamond necklace and the Burton/Taylor melodrama was back on with a vengeance. But not for long: they spent their tenth anniversary fighting and drinking, and soon afterwards decided to divorce.
Elizabeth went back to the long-suffering Wynberg, but still continued to talk to Burton on the phone at least two or three times a week. Then, when the ink was barely dry on the divorce papers, she saw him again at a dinner party in Switzerland.
Elizabeth, never one to hide her feelings, rushed straight into Burton’s arms, her face awash with tears. The next day, Wynberg was on a plane back to the United States, clutching a ‘retirement’ present of $50,000 and a gold watch.
Richard would later recall: ‘Then, for two days, [Elizabeth and I] circled each other — very wary, very polite. On the third day, we had a fight. Then we knew we were ourselves again.’
Two months later, on October 10, 1975, Elizabeth went through her sixth marriage — to her fifth husband.
Burton was sober at the time, but his skin had turned a terrible shade of yellow and his health was clearly beginning to fail.
‘I didn’t think then that their second marriage would last ten minutes,’ recalled their personal bodyguard Brian Haynes. ‘But I could also see that they seemed to need each other. When he was there, she seemed to hate him. When he was away, she couldn’t bear to be without him.’
At Christmas that year, which they spent in Gstaad, Switzerland, Richard met a willowy blonde English divorcee called Suzy Hunt. She was only 27, but he callously informed his wife that he was going to pursue her.
This decision, while unutterably cruel, may actually have saved his life. Elizabeth was by then drinking enough for the two of them, while Suzy was determined to keep her new lover off the booze and nurse him back to health.
Coming face-to-face one day with her rival, Elizabeth told her in a world-weary tone: ‘My dear, you’ll last only six months with Richard. That I can guarantee.’
It wasn’t so much a threat as a prediction based on years of experience. She was too exhausted to be mad at a mere girl who didn’t have a clue about what she was getting herself into with a man old enough to be her father.
‘Well, perhaps you’re right,’ said Suzy. ‘But, my, what a six months it shall be.’
Elizabeth forced a smile before responding: ‘Oh, certainly, dear — for all of us
When Burton left Switzerland for New York to begin rehearsals for the play Equus, he asked Suzy Hunt to join him. He also told friends that now he was sober, he couldn’t imagine why he’d decided to remarry Elizabeth.
His wife, for her part, tried to exact revenge by seducing a 37-year-old advertising man called Peter Darmanin at a Swiss disco called The Cave.
She’d sashayed over to him, swaying to the music, and apparently decided, ‘This one will do just fine.’ Then, without interrupting her dance of seduction, she’d kissed him, before taking him home to her lair.
She obviously wasn’t over Burton, though, and still spoke to him constantly on the phone. Finally, he summoned her over to see him, and told her bluntly that the marriage was over.
On July 29, 1976, less than ten months after they’d wed for a second time, Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton were granted their second divorce.
‘I love Richard with every fibre of my soul,’ she said, before delivering one of the great understatements of her life. ‘But we can’t be together. We’re too mutually self-destructive.’
Her obsession with the Welsh actor would continue, however, through two more marriages to other men. It would lead to heartbreak and personal humiliation.
But never once did she waver from the belief that ‘Dick & Liz’ had been — in her words — ‘the greatest goddamned couple of all time’.
Extracted from Elizabeth by J. Randy Taraborrelli, published by Pan at £8.99. © 2006 J Randy Taraborrelli
^ Thank you- a great piece! He was a force of nature, one of the greatest actors of all time, and she wasn't bad either; but both of them could be absolutely despicable people in their personal lives...
Elizabeth Taylor takes Richard Burton's 'affirmation of love' to the grave after being buried with his last ever love letter to her
They were Hollywood's golden couple who were married twice and she always declared him to be the love of her life.
But Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton's heartbreaking romantic reconciliation will always remain a secret after she was buried with his last ever love letter to her.
Taylor, who passed away last week, received the letter from Burton just before his unexpected death aged 58 in 1984.
According to reports from New York, having kept the letter safely stored next to her bed for the past 27 years, she was granted her wish to be buried with it, when she was laid to rest in Los Angeles last Thursday.
The screen siren, who was 79 when she died from congestive heart failure last Wednesday, has always refused to reveal exactly what her fifth husband wrote to her.
However, she did reveal a small part of the letter to her biographers Sam Kashner and Nancy Schoenberger:
She told them: 'In it he told [me] what he wanted. Home was where Elizabeth was, and he wanted to come home.'
Burton and Taylor were married between 1964 and 1974 and then again in 1975 for another year.
She received his final love letter, which he sent on August 2 1984, three days before his death, as she returned to her home in Bel Air, Los Angeles, from his memorial service and promptly burst into tears after she recognised his handwriting.
Burton wrote many love letter to Taylor, more than 40 of which she had published in a the biography Furious Love: Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton and the Marriage of the Century.
The letters, many written when the couple were no longer together, contain repeated declarations of love.
He wrote: 'I love you, lovely woman. If anybody hurts you, just send me a line saying something like 'Need' or 'Necessary' or just the one magic word 'Elizabeth', and I will be there somewhat faster than sound.
'You must know, of course, how much I love you. You must know, of course, how badly I treat you. But the fundamental and most vicious, swinish, murderous and unchangeable fact is that we totally misunderstand each other.
'You are as distant as Venus - planet, I mean - and I am tone deaf to the music of the spheres. I love you and I always will. Come back to me as soon as you can.'
The couple made 11 movies together including 1963's Cleopatra, where the couple met, and 1966's Whose Afraid Of Virginia Woolf?.
When asked if Burton was her favourite husband, Dame Elizabeth joked: "Lets put it this way - he's the only one I married twice.
'Attentive, loving - that was Richard - from those first moments in Rome we were always madly and powerfully in love. We had more time but not enough.
'[When I met him] Richard came on the set and sort of sidled over to me and said: "Has anybody ever told you that you're a very pretty girl?" 'I thought, Oy gevalt, the great lover, the great wit, the great Welsh intellectual, and he comes out with a corny line like that!'
British actor Richard Burton in Rome in 1971
^ Thanks again! This is a long shot, but: Way back in the late 60s, there was a very short new fashion of wearing white, silk turtlenecks under a tuxedo! And the only people I remember seeing wearing them were Robert Kennedy and Richard...has anyone ever seen a picture of him in that outfit??
Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor at the Donatello David Awards on 01/07/1972.