- The Washington Times - Friday, August 13, 2010

By Sam Kashner and Nancy Schoenberger
Harper, $27.99 500 pages

This 500-page book purports to tell, as the subtitle has it, “Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton, and the Marriage of the Century.” Much of their story, alas, is told much in the language of fan magazines and tabloids of the late ‘50s and early ‘60s. No question but that Miss Taylor and Burton were iconic figures of their age almost from the very moment Richard Burton was cast to play Marc Antony opposite Elizabeth Taylor’s Cleopatra.

He was a distinguished Shakespearean actor, married with two small daughters. She, at 28, was four times married, once widowed, with three children and one Academy Award. For two years, their adulterous affair filled the gossip columns and blackened the front pages of the international press. By March 1964, the two were finally divorced from their respective spouses and married in Montreal. The marriage endured 12 tortured, tortuous years punctuated by diamonds, yachts, high peaks of success and lamentable professional failures, and above all by drunkenness, weight gain and mutual self-destruction. Still, it seems to have remained a very genuine passion.

In the interest of full revelation, I should note that in 1964 I got to know the Burtons while they, for tax reasons, were making “The Sandpiper” in Paris, instead of California. At that time, I was writing a three-times-a-week column for the International Herald Tribune while working on the set of the film out in Billancourt, a Paris suburb. Burton read my columns, seemed to like them and soon was passing me scripts that he was receiving practically every day from Hollywood for my evaluation.

It took a few weeks for Elizabeth to open up, but soon we were merrily referring to our spouses as “my Richard” and “your Richard.” The two Richards hit it off as well, even though my Richard was not a drinker; Elizabeth’s Richard, great drinker though he was, never made an issue of it. They were great company then.

Burton read and gave my Richard a fine jacket blurb for his first novel, “Yes And Back Again” : “A wonderful book. Provocative. Evocative. Witty. Oddly and perversely moving.” It was Elizabeth, though, who made sure it got sent off to the publishers in time for publication. Elizabeth was - undoubtedly still is - all heart. She could fight, tussle, hold her own verbally with ferocity, but she also was all-forgiving, a quality Burton may have most certainly esteemed, but surely did not share. For Burton was a singularly mean man, capable of delivering home truths to people’s faces, no matter how savage or cruel.

The authors cite a couple of examples, but they are telling ones. At a dinner Burton gave in the last year of his life for Sir John Gielgud, Sir Ralph Richardson and Sir Laurence Olivier, he managed to insult each man, he told Olivier he was “a grotesque exaggeration of an actor,” made snide remarks about Gielgud’s homosexuality and told Richardson his fabled timing was just a result of poor memory. The authors lay this to his drinking, but years earlier driving us in his Rolls one morning in Ireland on his way to the studio where he was filming “The Spy Who Came in From the Cold,” Burton told us stories about Peter O’Toole, stories he really shouldn’t have been telling anyone about a friend.

But obviously so much of the viciousness he showered on others was a deflection of the intense self-hatred that drove him to drink in the first place. Elizabeth endured and forgave and forgave again. Eventually, Burton moved on to two more women, young and caring, who both seemed to understand the role Elizabeth played in his life. The authors don’t really attempt to analyze the passionate couple beyond the most superficial level.

This book seems in a way some sort of a memorial, a tribute of sorts to the better part of Burton, as Elizabeth opened to the authors passages she had removed from a 1965 autobiography and allowed them to quote from the many letters Burton had written to her over the years; not that they are particularly revealing, mainly showing him as being charming with a nice turn of expression.

Elizabeth, at 75, the authors say, has always considered herself married to Burton and has never changed the stipulation in her will that she be buried beside him. She still keeps in her bedside table the last letter he ever wrote her, not long before his death, a letter she did not permit her authors to read or paraphrase.

The tale of this “Furious Passion” is a tawdry and ultimately very sad one. It concludes all too fittingly with the printing of two poems Burton wrote in 1965, that his widow, Sally Hay Burton, released for publication in this book. Lines from “Portrait of a Man Drowning” capture perhaps best the anguished soul of the man whom Elizabeth Taylor loved and probably still loves.

Or does he live again the nightmare

Of all the same he suffered and made others to suffer,

The torn promise, the shattered word,

His red hand caught in the emotional till,

The things he had never done and never would do now,

Lost lovely things.

Cynthia Grenier is a Washington writer.

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