Book Review-- Furious Love: Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton, and the Marriage of the Century

[We are] a lovely charming decadent hopeless couple. –Richard Burton

I don’t want to be that much in love ever again. . .I didn’t reserve anything. I gave everything away. . .my soul, my being, everything. –Elizabeth Taylor

I shall miss you with passion and wild regret. –Richard Burton

Maybe we loved each other too much. . . .Pray for us. –Elizabeth Taylor

Richard and I lived life to the fullest, but we also paid our dues. –Elizabeth Taylor

Elizabeth Taylor Furious Love: Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton, and the Marriage of the Century
Sam Kashner and Nancy Schoenberger
Harper Collins 2010

The two decade love story of Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor was so eventful that it took a book the size of a full biography to cover it. This is as definitive a story of that affair that we are likely to get. Taylor and Burton’s widow gave the authors unprecedented access to their letters and Burton’s journals and other writings from the years they were together. These pieces bring the story of the couple close, with details of their passion, pleasure, shame and frustration. Interviews with several people who were close to them, including their children, fill out the portrait nicely.

The action begins quickly, which is always a treat with a biography. There’s a brief mention of their first, uneventful meeting at a pool party. Then it is on to the filming of Cleopatra on location in Rome in 1962, and Le Scandale, as Richard Burton called it. The guilt the pair felt over their public adultery and the betrayals it involved stayed with them, and haunted Burton in particular.

Still, Taylor and Burton were hopelessly drawn to each other, and while they couldn’t always live together, they remained in love until Burton died of a cerebral hemorrhage in 1984. In their years together, they lived a nomadic life, camping out in fancy European hotels and sailing around the continent in their yacht, the Kalizma. That boat seems often to have been the only escape the pair had from the overwhelming, and sometimes physically dangerous, attention they received from their public. Even when their movies stopped making money, public fascination over the pair never died.

Their life together was always tumultuous. Wild, though not always vicious, fights were a regular part of their lives, and as some noted, a sort of foreplay. Taylor liked strong forceful men and would sometimes start a battle just for the excitement. Burton had a temper, and a dark streak of Welsh melancholy. They indulged in jewels, furs, food and, above all drink. Their extravagance thrilled and eventually disgusted their public as the sixties gave birth to the counterculture.

There were two parts to their indulgence. For one, they were simply larger than life, and took advantage of having the means to live in luxury. There were also darker reasons for their escape into extravagance. Always haunted that he had abandoned his family for Taylor, Burton also felt guilty that he had dropped his father’s name for that of a mentor who sponsored his education and helped him to escape Welsh mining life. Taylor fought to break free from the bonds of her Hollywood child star youth.

Though they always stayed in each other’s lives, their lifestyle was too unhealthy for them to remain together. Burton could not stay sober when he was with Taylor; drinking was what they did. Taylor encouraged and even demanded that Burton drink, until she realized it was driving him to his death. Despite her constant health troubles, Elizabeth was stronger, both mentally and physically.

Despite their dangerous passions, the pair mostly comes off well in the book. Burton and Taylor inspired admiration in the people they knew. They seemed to adore everyone from the queen of a nation to the lowest paid employee on a movie set, and they opened their hearts to all. Thought they always inspired controversy, they were professional, serious about their work and never content to just be movie stars.

While the book does pay tribute to the care they took in developing their craft, it’s also packed with gobs of sex, booze and tales of indulgence. It’s a well-told biography, but also very juicy. It never feels exploitive either. This was simply how they lived.

They were never out of touch. Even when they were eventually married to other people, they spoke on the phone constantly, sharing every detail of their lives. Their romantic partners knew they couldn’t compete, and the ones who lasted didn’t try.

As wildly successful as they were in the eyes of those around them, they often wondered what their lives would have been like if they had settled down together in a university town. It’s hard to imagine Taylor being a homey wife to Burton’s tweedy college professor, but the burden of fame got them to dreaming.

Burton was always disturbed by his unfulfilled ambitions, which included his desire to win an Academy Award (he was nominated six times) and to publish a book. Aside from a few stories and poems, Burton’s journals are the closest he got to writing that book. As excerpted in the book, they reveal a couple who always saw themselves as Elizabeth and Richard, while the rest of the world idolized and mocked them as Liz and Dick.

2 comments:

thingy said...

Thanks, I'll have to check my library. I never knew they stayed in touch with each other. Love, it's a strange thing.

KC said...

thingy--The fact that they were still so close was one of the things that surprised me the most about this book. I think they probably would have kept marrying and divorcing each other if he'd lived longer. Or maybe they'd get tired and just decide to stay married.

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