April 17, 1989 12:00 PM

by Melvyn Bragg

Burton, says Bragg, perhaps had “the devil in him, certainly a terrible power.” That often seems an apt judgment of the Welsh miner’s son who soared to fame—and to the notoriety world-class scandals bring.

Bragg, a British novelist and journalist, dutifully covers the highlights of the actor’s life. There are the great stage triumphs of Hamlet and Camelot and the films—among them Cleopatra, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Equus—that earned him millions (plus seven Oscar nominations, though never a win). And there are the love affairs—Claire Bloom, Jean Simmons, et al.—and five marriages, two the public spectacles with Elizabeth Taylor. The Burton-Taylor lovemaking, brawls, partings and reconciliations are intimately reported, as is the grueling saga of Burton’s battles with arthritis, boredom and booze.

But while Burton loved the English language, his biographer mangles it. Overwrought sentences tangle and lose their way; dopey observations (“It was at this time that whole roomfuls of young matrons were reported to be ‘hot’ for him”) and chaotic images abound. And in a present-tense summary of hectic days after Taylor’s rectal surgery: “Elizabeth’s every bowel movement is a cliff-hanger.”

Poor Elizabeth! Bragg pays tribute to her wit and beauty, as does Burton in the diaries made available to Bragg by the last Mrs. Burton. But Taylor, her privacy grossly invaded (which, for her, is saying a lot), emerges from this book as a titanic harpy—alcoholic, drug addicted, shrill.

The diaries, full of name-dropping—Churchill, Sinatra, Reagan—make lively reading, as in Burton’s account of Baron Guy de Rothschild’s Ball of the Century (Paris, 1971), attended by him with Taylor and Princess Grace. “The star turn according to E. and Grace was the Duchess [of Windsor] who…had an enormous feather in her hair which got into everything, the soup, the gravy, the ice-cream, and at every vivacious turn of her head…threatened to get stuck in Guy’s false mustache which was glued on.”

All in all, despite the confessions of drunken savagery, Burton’s own words suggest a man of intellect, warmth and charm. He died at 58—in 1984, of a cerebral hemorrhage—and this book’s main service may be to alert readers to the presence of those Burton diaries, generously excerpted but hardly exhausted here. (Little, Brown, $22.95)

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