In the grand tradition of celebrity marriage, Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton hold a special place. Not only did they get hitched twice—the second time in Africa with a couple of hippos in attendance—but their stormy relationship gave full employment to legions of paparazzi, moralists and distilleries. In “Furious Love,” Sam Kashner, a contributing editor at Vanity Fair, and his wife, Nancy Schoenberger, a poet and biographer, provide an entertaining, blow-by-blow account of the life and times of an epic Hollywood couple.
They met in 1953. He was 28; she was 21. He was deeply smitten; she, less so: She thought that he was full of himself. Their paths would not cross again for another nine years, at which time she was on her third marriage (widowed once) and he was hitched to his long-suffering first wife, Sybil, to whom he had not exactly been a faithful companion. Love, perhaps aided by significant lust, took its course and the blossoming romance between the two married movie stars became known as Le Scandale.
Celebrity-watchers were in deep clover, but others were bothered by the double adultery. A letter in a Vatican publication condemned Ms. Taylor’s “erotic vagrancy.” In the same spirit, Rep. Iris Faircloth Blitch of Georgia wanted the two stars, then traveling outside the country, to be denied re-entry into the U.S. “on the grounds of undesirability.” The fun ended when Burton and Ms. Taylor shed their spouses and married in March 1964, tying the knot in Montreal under the auspices of a Unitarian minister.
The Burtons had several talents, including acting. She called Burton a “great actor” and “the Frank Sinatra of Shakespeare” (his “Hamlet” in 1964 was a sensation) while dismissing herself as a mere “broad.” In fact, she could be great, too—for instance, in “Butterfield 8″ (1960) or, in one of her first adult roles, “A Place in the Sun” (1951). Over the years, notoriously, they both lent their talents to some fairly lame pictures. As for the films in which they appeared together, the one that will stand the test of time is probably not “Cleopatra” (1963), a movie whose budget was a scandal in itself, but “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” (1966).
But to read “Furious Love” is to grasp that, for these stars, acting was something to do when they were not fighting and drinking, two of their other major talents. Mr. Kashner and Ms. Schoenberger chronicle many drinking bouts, including a session during which Burton downed 23 shots of tequila washed down by a couple of beers. He was just warming up. He would eventually drink three bottles of vodka a day, which among other things rewarded him with a persistent hand tremor. Amazingly, drink never caused him to put on weight, nor did it dull his memory.
Not so with Ms. Taylor, who could drink Burton under the table, the authors tell us, but who also experienced significant weight fluctuations. In a memorable put-down a director told Ms. Taylor that it “looks like you’ve got bags of dead mice under your arms.” She eventually augmented alcohol with various drugs, including Seconal, which Burton himself would use to steady himself during his frequent attempts to stop drinking.
There is no shortage of saucy anecdotes in “Furious Love,” including Burton’s reported trysts with Laurence Olivier and John Gielgud. (Burton later told Dick Cavett that homosexuality “didn’t take.”) On the set of “Bluebeard” (1972), Liz reportedly smacked a Burton co-star for putting too much sex in her love scene with him.
Far more interesting are the tales of life among the A-listers, none more riveting than a drunken party during which, according to Burton, Rachel Roberts abused her husband, Rex Harrison, “sexually, morally, physically and in every other way.” As something of a grand finale to the evening, Roberts set upon her dog. Guest Tennessee Williams, who had a high tolerance for louche behavior, asked to leave. “Let’s face it,” Ms. Taylor once said, “a lot of my life has lacked dignity.”
The couple tried to keep up with a changing Hollywood in which films such as “Midnight Cowboy” (1969) overtook costume dramas and politics shifted as well. During one party Jane Fonda chatted the Burtons up about the Black Panthers and came “away with a donation of $6,000.” Hoping to prevent more grousing about the couple’s conspicuous consumption, Burton wrote a check for $45,000 after one especially lavish blow-out and gave it to Unicef.
The fabled marriage lasted almost a decade, after which both stars would graze in many pastures. Ms. Taylor hooked up with a used-car salesmen and later an advertising executive while Burton played a wider field, including an apparent tumble with an 18-year-old waitress identified as “the former Miss Pepsi of Butte County” by a regional paper.
Yet true love, or something, brought them back together for a remarriage ceremony in Botswana in October 1975, performed by an official from a local tribe. The second time around, however, lasted only 10 months. Burton would later marry a model, while Liz’s conquests would include John Warner, whom she helped elect to the Senate.
Burton died in 1984, at age 58, from a cerebral hemorrhage. Readers are likely to feel a residual sadness. “All my life,” he said, “I think that I have been secretly ashamed of being an actor.” Ms. Taylor is still very much with us and even now, at age 78, can radiate a raw glamour. As their friends often noted, she was the tougher of the two.
Mr. Shiflett posts his journalism and original music at Daveshiflett.com.
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