- - Friday, October 19, 2012

Edited by Chris Williams
Yale University Press, $35, 693 pages

On the night of Aug. 5, 1984, Richard Burton set aside a volume of William Blake’s verse and closed his eyes for what would be the last time. On March 3, 2011, Elizabeth Taylor, the woman whom Burton deemed the love of his life, died. Now more than a year on, 670 pages of these quite remarkable diaries are available to the rest of the world. Meticulously edited by Welsh history professor Chris Williams, the diaries are, in a word, fascinating — indeed downright compelling — reading.

This version of the diaries that has been prepared in book form is shorter than the full version that will be made available online. An introductory note informs us that the total number of Burton’s own words has been reduced by one-quarter. All material removed, though, from the print edition will be found in the online edition, with the exception of a dozen entries that include material of a sensitive nature in respect to family members still living.

Richard Burton was born in 1925, the 12th child and sixth son in a collier’s family in Pontrhydyfen, Wales. The family name was Jenkins. He took the name of Burton when he was 21 to honor a teacher who was a true mentor and became his legal guardian.

The early diary entries are pretty typical of any teenage boy: “Saturday. Done all shopping. Had a haircut at Sandies. Had a bath in the afternoon. Went to the Regent in the night and saw Vernon and Irene Castle. Went to Joe’s and had hot milk.”

The diaries, properly speaking, really begin in January 1965, between the making of “The Sandpiper,” a film the Burtons both roundly despised. Their next joint film project was “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” that was to bring them considerable critical and popular success. Here I should mention that during this same period, I was theater and film critic for the International Herald Tribune, a time when I got to know the Burtons. I was out to the set of “The Sandpiper” every day. Burton would read my reviews, and would discuss them with me. In a short time, he would pass me the scripts he was receiving for my reactions. Elizabeth and I warmed up more slowly, but finding I also had a Richard in my life (my husband, Richard Grenier) who wrote, we soon were on “your Richard” and “my Richard” terms.

Burton could be blunt, to put it mildly. Consider this appraisal of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor: “E. (Elizabeth) just reminded me that at one point I said to the Duchess last night: ‘You are, without any question, the most vulgar woman I’ve ever met.’ At another moment apparently I picked up the Duchess and swung and swung her around like a dancing, singing dervish. Elizabeth was terrified that I’d drop her or fall down and kill her.”

And while he could be unkind, even cruel in speaking of Elizabeth, he could also speak of her in terms of deepest affection: “I have been inordinately lucky all my life, but the greatest luck of all has been Elizabeth. She has turned me into a moral man, but not a prig, she is a wildly exciting lover-mistress, she is shy and witty, she is nobody’s fool, she is a brilliant actress, she is beautiful beyond the dreams of pornography, she can be arrogant and willful, she is clement and loving, Dulcis Imperatrix, she is Sunday’s child, she can tolerate my impossibilities and my drunkenness, she is an ache in the stomach when I am away from her, and she loves me! “

In August 1969, Burton wails, “I loathe loathe loathe. Acting in studios. In England. I shudder at the thought of going to work with the same horror as a bank clerk must loathe that stinking tube-journey every morning and the rush-hour madness at night. I loathe it, hate it, despise, despise it.

“Well, that has managed to get a little spleen out of [my] system.”

Altogether, “The Diaries of Richard Burton” make for utterly involving, fascinating reading, giving a rare insight into a complicated, gifted individual.

Perhaps by the discretion of the editor, nothing is retained relating to his two subsequent marriages after his second marriage to Elizabeth. Nonetheless, the power and passion that often move through these pages make one regret that Burton never got himself to producing a full-length work. The talent was clearly there.

• Cynthia Grenier is a Washington writer.

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