Liz and Dick. Few Hollywood romances captured the attention of the world with such whopping force as the glamorous, tumultuous, and, ultimately, genuine love affair and marriage between screen stars Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. The couple, who had a total of 11 spouses between them, were married for 12 years, from 1964–1976, with a brief divorce in 1974.
Throughout the relationship, and for two decades before and the decade after, Burton—celluloid icon of films including Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Cleopatra, and The Taming of the Shrew—kept diligent diaries. They are reproduced in their near entirety for the first time in a new collection, The Richard Burton Diaries. At more than 700 pages and spanning the years 1939 to 1983, the musings include not just innocuous details of an actor’s daily regimen (though there are a fair share of Facebook statuslike entries recalling what he had for lunch), but vivid anecdotes of life as one of Hollywood’s brightest stars and intimate details of its most intriguing marriage. Sex, booze, and gossip: here are the 13 juiciest bits.
His relationship with Liz Taylor was remarkably normal.
Burton and Taylor’s reputations precede them. There’s the opulence, the revolving door of spouses, and swirling rumors of salacious affairs (a juicy new tell-all touts anecdotes of Taylor’s teenage sexual encounter with Ronald Reagan and a threesome with John F. Kennedy and actor Robert Stack). But in Burton’s account, Dick and Liz lived like almost any other Dick and Jane. They ate dinner together, they played Yahtzee with their children at night, they bickered, made up, and spent a lot of time together. Burton’s musings about Taylor, called “E” throughout the diaries, range from very husbandly (“E has bangs. Can’t make up mind whether like or not.”) to candid (“Woke in foul temper … then went on to a rip and tear quarrel with no holds barred. Slept alone! Fools!) to especially humorous (“E works today so we shall go in together, which means I shall be late.”).
He loved Taylor a lot.
If there’s one through line of the 700 pages and four decades worth of diaries in this new book, it’s how much genuine affection Burton had for Taylor. “I have been inordinately lucky all my life but the greatest luck of all has been Elizabeth,” he writes. “She is shy and witty, she is nobody’s fool, she is a brilliant actress, she is beautiful beyond the dreams of pornography, she can be arrogant and willful, she is clement and loving, Dulcis Imperatrix, she is Sunday’s child, she can tolerate my impossibilities and my drunkenness, she is an ache in the stomach when I am away from her, and she loves me!” And that’s just a sampling of the sweet nothings whispered throughout the pages.
And he fought with Taylor a lot.
They loved hard, and fought harder. For every love letter to Taylor, there’s recollection of a bitter, often drunken fight. A typical tiff: “Elizabeth tried to lock me in the spare bedroom, and so I was constrained to try and kick the door down, and nearly succeeded which meant that I spent some time on my hands and knees this morning picking up the battered plaster in the hope that the waiters wouldn’t notice that the hotel had nearly lost a door in the middle of the night.” Nearly every episode, however, was followed with a note of regret. “What nerves and booze will do,” he writes. “I couldn’t go without her.”
Burton had harsh words for Taylor’s ex.
Before marrying Burton, Taylor was with her third husband, Eddie Fisher. Early on in their marriage, Taylor and Burton learned, via the press, that Fisher planned to sue Taylor for financial and property settlements and for custody of their daughter, Liza, of whom Burton was very fond. “Over my dead body—the latter,” Burton writes. Taylor was apparently “ashamed of herself for having married such an obvious fool,” he writes. “He really is beneath contempt—a gruesome little man and smug as a boot.”
Burton was well aware of his drinking problem.
Burton’s diaries double as the impeccable record of, by any account, a drunk. Entries on a near daily basis include lines like, “Drank too much, came home, and fell asleep before supper,” or “I have been more or less drunk for two days.” A series of entries made on each day between May 18 and May 23, 1975, are more to the point. Each simply reads, “Booze.”
And Taylor’s as well.
Burton barely disguises his disgust for Taylor’s excessive drinking throughout the diaries—that is, when he isn’t basking in the afterglow of wine-soaked dinner the two shared. But one incident was such a turnoff for him that it nearly got him off booze himself. According to Burton, following a surgery to remover her uterus, Taylor “with very few exceptions … has gone to bed not merely sizzled or tipsy but stoned.” He adds, “And I mean stoned, unfocused, unable to walk straight, talking in a slow meaningless baby voice utterly without reason like a demented child.” The phase, which happened in 1969, passed.
Taylor once tried to kill herself to demonstrate her love.
After one boozy evening of playing gin rummy in August 1971, Burton recalls, Taylor told him that she was prepared to kill herself for him. Out of self-pity, he responded, “No woman would kill herself for me.” Next thing he knew, she was standing over him with a bottle of sleeping pills, threatening to do it. After he said, “go ahead,” she “took a handful and swallowed them with gusto and no dramatics.” After realizing it wasn’t a joke, he tried to wake her and drove her to the hospital in the panic—where he was forced to navigate hordes of paparazzi.
Burton and Taylor had a healthy sex life.
Those hoping to be titillated by the bedroom activities of two of the most sexually appealing stars Hollywood has ever hosted will be mildly disappointed. Burton rarely enters Fifty Shades of Grey territory, but there are several tantalizing details. Early on in the diaries, Burton provides quite the lovely mental image: “I’m sitting on our balcony, with a pair of underpants on only, writing this.” He speaks about being constantly turned on by Taylor: “I can barely keep my hands off her.” There’s a seduction scene straight out of Butterfield 8, with Burton remembering an occasion when “suddenly the bedroom door opened and standing there in a near diaphanous nightgown with one shoulder slipped on to her arm was E.” The winking next sentence: “So I went back to bed for ten minutes.” He even explicitly brags about their voracious sex life, calling her his “eternal one night stand. And for those who ever wondered, “E is a receiver, a perpetual returner of the ball!”
He loved porn.
Miffed about a book he read in which the author disparages pornography, Burton goes on to defend it in one of his lengthiest diary entries. Against the argument that smut turns a man into a pervert, Burton writes, “I am I understand a potently sexy man but it hasn’t turned me into a sex fiend, a sex killer a sex sadist or a sex masochist and I’ve been reading the stuff for years.” And it’s come in handy, too, he says. “I myself have had in my time to make love in the dark to women by whom I was bored, desperately trying to imagine they were somebody else.”
He spoiled Taylor immensely.
“I bought Elizabeth the jet plane we flew in yesterday,” Burton writes matter-of-factly. “It costs, brand new, $960,000.” Another gift for which Taylor was not displeased? The famous 69.42-carat diamond ring he outbid Cartier for in 1969, which would go on to become the known as the “Taylor-Burton” diamond.
Movie stars are really mean to each other.
Having appeared in more than 70 films, spent a decade as one of Hollywood’s most bankable stars, and been one half of a supernova power couple unrivaled until the days of Brangelina, Burton hobnobbed with scores of screen legends—and he really didn’t like a lot of them. Lucille Ball? A “monster of staggering charmlessness and monumental lack of humour.” He called Lana Turner one of the only troublesome actresses he’s encountered on set, and called director John Huston a “simpleton” who “believes himself to be a genius. And a self aggrandizing liar. Cunning at it.” He loathed the success of Julie Andrews, who he says rode the coattails of “The Horrible Sound of Music” to an undeserved long career.
After a dinner with Natalie Wood in 1965, Burton commented that the actress appeared “emaciated and looks riddled with TB. Pekinese eyes. Sad case.” Even his faint praise was backhanded. His impression of Gore Vidal was that the playwright was a “tall dark and handsome fellow … Too handsome, I would have thought, to be a good writer which he is.” Recalling meeting Paul Newman in 1972, Burton writes he was “extraordinarily youthful looking with a complexion so peaches and cream that at first I thought he had make up on.” Of course, he clarifies, “I would hate to look like him. I did once before acne re-mapped my face and I hated it. I abhor mere prettiness.”
He was a celebrity gossip-monger.
A few months before Burton and Taylor’s film Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? hit theaters, Burton writes that Mia Farrow and the film’s director, Mike Nichols, “appear to be in love and register in hotels as Mr and Mrs N.” (The two never had an official relationship.) He relays a tangled web of romance in which director Tony Richardson left wife Vanessa Redgrave in 1966 after falling in love with French actress Jeanne Moreau. Moreau, however, actually pined over a Greek gigolo that was brought along on a trip with her and Richardson. A separate entry a year later embarrasses My Fair Lady actor Rex Harrison, who was insulted “sexually morally physically and in every way” by his wife, Rachel, while on holiday with Burton and Taylor. “She lay on the floor and barked like dog,” he writes. “At one time she started to masturbate her basset hound.”