Whatever else they were, the 1960s were the banquet years, when overabundance was in overabundance. And by their conspicuous consumption of food and drink, jewels, hotel rooms and each other, Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor represented the age. When Burton drunkenly roared her praises in crowded restaurants, when Liz nestled his spectacular gems against the amplitude of her breast, when they wrestled each other to a draw in The Taming of the Shrew, it was all just part of their self-assigned role: first citizens of the pleasure dome.
It was against a backdrop of excess that their momentous meeting took place, on the Rome set of the comically opulent and massively over-budget Cleopatra. Taylor was the star, with a record-breaking $1 million contract to prove it. Though just 30, she was already in her fourth marriage, this one a three-year-old union with the singer Eddie Fisher. Fresh from a Broadway triumph in Camelot, Burton was a celebrated stage actor, the Welsh coal miner’s son whose luscious baritone had made him one of the great Shakespearean actors, though the critics accused him of squandering his gifts in too many cheesy Hollywood productions. Despite numerous flings, at 36 he was still joined to his first wife, Sybil, the mother of his two young daughters.
Taylor told friends at first that Burton was a “duffer” who tried to flirt with a swinger’s line: “Has anybody told you what a pretty girl you are?” With his friends, Burton disparaged Taylor as “Miss Tits.” It was all a front, and it soon collapsed. During filming, the air between them was electric. To be on the set, said director Joe Mankiewicz, was “like being locked in a cage with two tigers.” Alerted by the press, Fisher flew to Rome to stand guard, but it was too late. When it appeared that Burton might return to his wife, Taylor attempted suicide with pills. She was denounced by members of Congress. The Vatican accused her of “erotic vagrancy.”
Once disentangled from their respective marriages, Burton and Taylor were married in Montreal in March 1964. In Boston, on their return from Canada, they got a taste of the crowd-and-media frenzy that would thereafter always surround them. “The police were literally knocked down by the crowd,” recalls their former publicist John Springer. “When we finally got to the elevator, Elizabeth had chunks of her hair torn off, one of her earrings was gone, and her ear was bloody. The whole sleeve was torn off Richard’s jacket.”
The Age of Liz and Dick had begun. They would be to romance—and to shopping!—what the Beatles were to music. She had never had a lover so literate. Attracted by her flawless features, he had respect as well for her talents. It was Taylor who taught him how to tone down his stage gestures for the cameras—and how to get top dollar from the studios. Between 1964 and ’72 they jointly earned $50 million. Burton bought Taylor a yacht and the 33.19-carat Krupp diamond, among many other sizable stones. But although their 10 pictures together included great ones like Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? the list was heavy with stinkers like Boom! and The Sandpiper.
As they rolled across continents from picture to picture, their marriage also became a portable riot. At hotels, they would rent suites above and below their own so other guests wouldn’t overhear their brawling. “Most of the time it was lovely to be in their company,” recalls Burton’s brother Graham Jenkins (Richard took the name of his mentor, Philip Burton, when he began acting). But when they were fighting, “he’d call on his tremendous command of the English language to conjure up the most devastating insults.” His pet name for Elizabeth was Twmpyn, Welsh for Big Lump. When they quarreled, she was “the fat tart.”
Their marriage could not survive their drinking. The son of an alcoholic father who had died in a bar, Burton could down a couple of bottles of vodka in a day by the mid-1960s. Taylor was all too ready to keep up with him. They both plunged into severe alcoholism. By 1972 the marriage was foundering. For most of it, Burton had curbed his womanizing. Now his eye was roving again. He had an affair with actress Nathalie Delon and a rumored attachment to Genevieve Bujold, his costar in Anne of the Thousand Days.
On Independence Day 1974, they announced their separation. Burton told reporters, “You can’t keep clapping a couple of dynamite sticks together without expecting them to blow up.” Always the tougher bargainer, in the divorce Liz got the jewels, the art and the house in Mexico. But they phoned each other several times a day, chewing over whether they had done the right thing. By 1975 she was eager to remarry. He had doubts. On a tour of Africa, she courted him through the press with one of her characteristic health crises, this one a 24-hour cancer scare, and via love letters to him that she leaked to reporters. In October they wed in Botswana. She made him promise to stop drinking. He binged on the honeymoon. Their rematch lasted four months.
That same year, Taylor wed Virginia Sen. John Warner. Their union lasted six years, until the peace and quiet he offered became more than she could bear. A ballooning alcohol-and-pill addict by that time, she would shortly after take the cure at the Betty Ford Center. Burton’s drinking was curbed by his own 1976 marriage to a watchful English fashion model, Susan Hunt, but his health was already compromised. And his break with Taylor was a pain he continued to feel. Nephew Guy Masterson remembers a 1981 trip when his uncle’s eyes welled up at her memory. “He would often tell her,” recalls Masterson, ” ‘Rwyn dy garu di’n fwy na’r byd ei hunan.’ It’s Welsh for ‘I love you more than the world itself.’ ” Their last fling was strictly theatrical, a tour in Private Lives, Noël Coward’s comedy about squabbling but devoted divorcés. Though it brought them each $70,000 a week, the reviews were awful. By that time, Burton had taken his fourth wife, Sally Hay. Then on Aug. 5, 1984, while asleep at home in Céligny, Switzerland, he suffered a fatal cerebral hemorrhage.
This was the kind of separation that even the formidable Liz could not undo. At the news of Burton’s death she became so hysterical that her then-fiancé, Mexican lawyer Victor Luna, ended their engagement. Hay edged Taylor out of the memorial service in Wales. At a second memorial in London, Taylor struck back, occupying the front pew with Burton’s Welsh siblings. To keep her from chasing them into the next world, Hay arranged to be buried next to Burton at his grave in Switzerland.
In the ’60s, Burton had told his diary, “The upshot is that I’ll die of drink, while she goes blithely on in her half world.” But he put it best before his death: “For some reason the world has always been amused by us two maniacs.” Amused, horrified, delighted. And like them, always a little bit in love with the idea of Liz and Dick.