He was one of the century’s greatest actors, considered, in his youth, the natural heir to Olivier’s crown. But Richard Burton’s life soon surpassed the drama of his art, creating a mystique that still endures. Four years after Burton’s death at age 58, his younger brother, Graham Jenkins, has recalled his sibling’s mercurial personality and life in a new book, Richard Burton, My Brother. Trying to show “the real Rich, warts and all,” Jenkins, 61, bluntly examines the alcoholism and womanizing that undermined Burton’s career, while evoking the poor, proud Welsh childhood they shared.
Graham and Richard (who changed his name at age 16, after becoming the ward of his drama teacher, Philip Burton, who had offered to help with his education) were the last of 13 children born to coal miner Richard Walter Jenkins. Their mother, Edith Maud, died when Graham was born. Shortly after, the brothers were sent off to live with different older siblings, although they remained close.
Jenkins, who attained some degree of fame himself as a producer with the BBC, here remembers his brother’s ambitions, triumphs, failures and his passionate derailment—by Elizabeth Taylor, the woman who, says Jenkins, inspired and tormented Burton until his death, of a cerebral hemorrhage, in 1984.
When I was 6 days old, I was taken in by my brother Tom and his wife, Cassie, in the village of Cwmafan. Richard had gone to our sister Cis about four miles away. I assumed I was the only child of Tom and Cassie, and that Richard, whom I saw on weekends, was my cousin. But when I was 6, Richard and I were playing down by the river on our summer holiday in Cwmafan and he said, “You mustn’t let the distance between the two villages separate us because, you know, you and I are brothers—blood brothers.” I was dumbfounded.
I always knew he was going to be a big star in the theater. He did almost everything better than most and certainly everything better than me—except singing. Yet once when we competed, he did a Rex Harrison—he talked his way through the music like in My Fair Lady. And since even as a young boy he had that timbre in his voice, he was applauded all the way back to the rostrum. But he came to me afterward—I was crying like a baby—and gave me the prize. He said, “You were the better singer. Perhaps I did more of the acting bit.”
Richard had to be the center of attention. When he was 10 and I was 8, he would go into an empty church, climb up to the pulpit and recite, in Welsh, “Though I speak with the tongues of men and angels, I have no charity.” He looked around as if he had an audience. He was a wicked bugger he was, but a great guy.
At 13, he’d walk across the school yard with a cigarette in his mouth. I’d watch in awe. He started drinking at 15. He was 5’9″ and could get into pubs, but he had to go to pubs in other towns because he was notorious even then. Dare I say that if he’d stuck to beer all his life, instead of vodka, he might have pulled through? But he wanted to show that he was larger than life.
Then there were the women. We weren’t aware that he was unfaithful to Sybil Williams [the Welsh actress he married in 1949 and the mother of his daughters Kate and Jessica] until I went to see him shooting Look Back in Anger. There was a bedroom scene where Mary Ure, his co-star, was devouring him. They said, “Cut,” and she looked at him and said, “We must finish this off together,” and he turned to me and said in Welsh, “Now you know what I’ve got to put up with.” It was only then that I thought, “Well, is he mucking around?” People say he would jump into bed with anybody. I don’t think so. But I can’t portray him as a virgin.
When Elizabeth came along, the family accepted her very reluctantly. We tried to dissuade him. There’d been no divorces in our family. Then there were his children, especially poor Jessica, who was autistic [Jessica is now 30 and in an institution in New York]. I know Jessica’s illness played on his mind and may have been one reason things weren’t well with him and Sybil. Of course, today we’ve known Elizabeth for nearly 27 years. I regard her very highly. Okay, she gets the big mighty star sometimes, but who wouldn’t? You think of this woman who has been a star since she was 12, how can she be normal? I’ll tell you one great attribute she has—she’s an honest lady. In the first manuscript of my book, for which she wrote the introduction, I said she had been a heavy drinker. She roared. She said I should call her an alcoholic.
The first time I met her, on the set of The VIPs, I was pinching myself, she was so beautiful. She came up and kissed me and put a glass of champagne in my hand. It was about 10 o’clock in the morning, and she looked as if 25 hairdressers had done her hair. She had on this beautiful nightdress. Big cleavage and all that. I deliberately looked at her eyes, for her not to think I was being rude. I was captivated.
I think Richard and Elizabeth were made for each other sexually. I would be lying to say that Elizabeth was on the same stratosphere intellectually, but on the other hand she was no nitwit. One thing that Richard would generally fall out with Elizabeth about was her timekeeping. It used to drive him barmy. He said she could probably never be a great stage actress because it would be difficult for her to stick to the scheduling. Sometimes she was deliberately late because he had been a naughty boy. Once, after she had a fight with Richard, Elizabeth kept Princess Grace of Monaco waiting two or three hours.
I’m not sure whether he was faithful to her. I really believe she was faithful to him. What was remarkable was that he could get Elizabeth to forgive him.
I think Richard became an alcoholic in the ’60s. He always had to have a drink before he went onstage—he was very high-strung—but it never affected his performances. Then Elizabeth became an alcoholic. She certainly was not an alcoholic when I first knew her, although she used to like her Jack Daniel’s. By the time they were making Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf in 1966, they were both alcoholics. It must have been a Virginia Woolf situation in real life.
Richard’s breakfast was a large glass of vodka with some tomato juice, Worcestershire sauce and lemon, always referred to as “my three-course breakfast.” In London in 1981, a doctor showed me an X ray of Richard’s liver, and it was three times the size of a normal liver. Early one morning in the Dorchester hotel, I found him pouring vodka. I said in Welsh, “You’re killing yourself.” He answered in Welsh, “So be it.” He said he felt that he’d already done everything in his professional work and there was so little left to do. But he was angry and drunk and as usual saying things he didn’t mean.
The only things he regretted were the bad movies. One of the worst Richard ever made was Bluebeard . There was a film I remember Richard rated as one of the best—Staircase , where he and Rex Harrison played homosexual barbers. I would rate Equus, which he did on Broadway in 1976, as good too, considering that by that time he was dying. There’s a sad story about Equus.
Richard was asked to replace Anthony Perkins in a Saturday matinee, and when they announced it, he got a standing ovation. Then he made a mess of it. He was supposed to know his part, but had been on a binge. It was horrendous. He forgot his lines. You could hear the prompter more than you could hear Richard. They threatened him and said he would never work onstage again, not only in New York but in London. He said, “Look, ask them to give me another chance,” and they did. Equus got a Tony.
His last wife, Sally Hay, got the attention when he died and she got the money, but I must give credit to Susan Hunt [whom Burton married in 1976, after his second marriage to Elizabeth]. There was no booze in the house. She’d say, “If you’re coming over, please don’t ask for a glass of wine.” We never did.
But there is no question that Elizabeth dominated his life. I saw Richard at the Dorchester about six weeks before he died. He kept talking about Elizabeth as if she were there. Or he’d say, “I was speaking to Elizabeth on the phone today. Never a day goes by. She’s a remarkable woman. I must tell you she’s forgotten more about screen acting than I’ll ever learn, but I think I can show her a thing or two onstage.” The next thing, he’d say, “Elizabeth, fill Graham’s glass,” and I’d whisper to him, “That’s Sally.” And he’d swear to himself in Welsh. He said, “I’m always doing that.”
I think Sally went into the marriage knowing there was a fascinating understanding with Elizabeth. I have no doubt that if Richard had lived, he would have met up with her again. It’s been confirmed to me in a funny sort of way by Elizabeth. She didn’t deny it when she saw it in my manuscript.
Part of Richard was always with Elizabeth. He used to hold hands with her under the table when Sally and Victor Luna [Taylor’s fiancé in 1983] were there. If Sally had one single purpose, it was to shake off the other woman. She didn’t want Elizabeth at Richard’s funeral in Switzerland or at the memorial service in Wales. I’ve never heard Elizabeth say a nasty word about Sally. The only thing she said to me was, “I would have liked to have come to the funeral.” I think it’s one of the great love stories of all time.