Before Brangelina, TomKat, and—god help us!—Kimye, before the culture of celebrity became the instant wind-up machine it now unmistakably is, with supermarket sightings, up-close tweetings, and a glut of red-carpeted appearances, there was one acting couple whose name was synonymous with the ineffable magic dust of star power. They were Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, better known as LizandDick, preferably said in one breath the better to underline their ensorcelled liaison and combined wattage.
From the early sixties, when Burton and Taylor fell scandalously in love (breaking up both their marriages) while co-starring in the movie Cleopatra, on through their eight-year marriage and eventual divorce in 1974, short-lived remarriage and second divorce in 1976, they were the pair to watch. Their every move was dogged by paparazzi and crowds eager to catch a glimpse of them. They were unapologetically high-living and perennially tan, dashing between yachts and luxury hotels, socializing with the likes of Grace Kelly and Bobby Kennedy, buying up jewels and planes, art and houses. In the hands of another couple, their existence might have seemed fulsomely vainglorious, but there was something about their combined magnetism—and, no small thing, their always evident senses of humor about themselves—that kept their glamour and intrigue intact.
The real source of their hold on us undoubtedly lies in the fact that underneath the extravagant surface of their union lay their extravagant passion for each other, clearly visible in photos and documented in the haunting letters Burton wrote Taylor, a sampling of which were included in the 2010 biography Furious Love. Those letters, as well as snippets from his diaries, revealed a Burton who was word-struck as much as he was love-struck, equally passionate about language as he was about Taylor, whose breasts he called “apocalyptic” and whose beauty he termed “pornographic.” The publication of Burton’s diaries—still incomplete but weighing in at over 600 pages—furthers the impression of a man with great literary talent as well as an incisive and relentlessly curious mind. In a television interview with Barbara Walters, done some years after Burton’s death, Taylor referred to Burton as a “genius,” which, I would wager, will not strike anyone who immerses him or herself in these intoxicating journals as much of an overstatement.