The first day that Elizabeth Taylor saw the handsome Welsh actor Richard Burton on the set of Cleopatra he walked over to her and whispered, “Has anybody ever told you that you’re a very pretty girl?” It was not a great pickup-line by anyone’s standards, especially since Elizabeth, who was on the cusp of 30 and at the height of her smoldering sensuality, was already the most famous star of the twentieth century known for her raven hair and legendary blue eyes that some swore were an otherworldly shade of violet. “Here’s the great lover,” she joked, “the great wit, the great intellectual of Wales, and he comes out with a line like that.” Plus, Richard’s reputation as a married man with a penchant for seducing his leading ladies had preceded him.
But her feelings changed on January 22, 1962, when they filmed their first scene together. Elizabeth starred as Cleopatra, the woman who had conquered empires, and Richard played Marc Antony, the powerful Roman general who became Cleopatra’s lover. Richard, then thirty-six, had gone on a bender the night before, drinking everything he could get his hands on. It was five o’clock in the afternoon, and he had not slept for two nights. He got a cup of coffee, but he could not bring the cup to his lips because his hands were shaking so badly. He asked Elizabeth for help. “Hold this, love, will you hold it to my mouth?” She held the cup up to his mouth and started to giggle.
“He was such a slob,” she said later, “he was such a mess, and I looked into those green eyes that were twinkling and smiling at me and he drank the whole mug and we kept staring at each other.” She remembered, being so close to him, seeing the grog blossoms—the burst blood vessels on the face of a heavy drinker—and strangely falling for him in that moment. He was not the arrogant stage actor she had imagined, instead he was achingly vulnerable.
The feeling was mutual. “I fell in love at once,” Richard said later. “She was like a mirage of beauty of the ages, irresistible like the pull of gravity.”
The problem was that both of them were married, Elizabeth to singer Eddie Fisher and Richard to the actress Sybil Burton, with whom he shared two daughters. Fisher stopped coming to the set when Richard and Elizabeth had a scene together; their flirtation was too obvious and too humiliating. Sybil believed that her husband’s affair with Elizabeth would be no different than all the others.
But there was no way to ignore them once they became a global phenomenon – Richard called it “Le Scandale” - a love affair that marked the beginning of the world’s obsession with celebrity. Long before “Brangelina,” “Bennifer,” and “Kimye,” “Liz and Dick” practically invented the paparazzi. Images of them kissing on yachts in the Mediterranean and walking along Rome’s fashionable Via Veneto knocked John Glenn’s orbit of the Earth in 1962 off the front pages. “I’ve had affairs before,” Richard told a publicist working on Cleopatra . “How did I know the woman was so fucking famous? She knocks Khrushchev off the front page.”
Their affair was such enormous news that even the Vatican was paying attention. In an open letter in Vatican City’s weekly newspaper, Elizabeth was charged with “erotic vagrancy” because she was sleeping with Burton while still married to Fisher (never mind that Richard was cheating on his wife too). The Vatican decried “this insult to the nobility of the hearth.”
Elizabeth and Richard didn’t let the moralizing stop them. Richard ended one note to Elizabeth with: “Would you, incidentally, permit me to fuck you this afternoon?” In another, he wrote: “I love you badly like a disease. I dream of you curled up asleep. I’m even jealous of the bed. . . .”
Eventually, they each got divorced and they were married in Montreal on March 15, 1964. Elizabeth was thirty-two and Richard was thirty-eight, he was her fifth husband and she became his second wife. The minister started the ceremony by saying, “You have gone through great travail in your love for each other.” They had been hounded and harassed, pilloried and praised. They stayed up talking, laughing, and crying until 7:00 a.m. the next morning. “I’m so happy you can’t believe it,” Elizabeth gushed.
John Springer was Elizabeth’s publicist during this period of her life and he had also represented Marilyn Monroe. “One thing Marilyn could do and Elizabeth can’t do is walk on the street by herself,” he said. “Marilyn could put on dark glasses or a dark wig or something, she could walk on the street.” Elizabeth and Richard could not even leave their hotel room without being mobbed, which made them miserable.
Some time, Elizabeth dreamed, when they were older, they would put an end to their frenetic lifestyle. Richard would become a writer like he always wanted to and she would stop acting and take care of their home. She lit up at the mere idea of it; it gave her such pleasure to think of what it would be like to live a quiet life. In the end, it was a beautiful fantasy.
They found solace in each other. In 1969 Elizabeth wrote:
“As long as he loves her everything is O.K. pimples, stupid hips, double chins, and all—She loved him more than her life and always will.—Wife.”
They starred in films together and made millions. But they possessed and craved each other one minute and could not bear the sight of each other the next. “We were like magnets,” Elizabeth said, “alternately pulling toward each other and, inexorably, pushing away.” For their 1966 masterpiece Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Elizabeth won an Oscar for her incredible transformation as Martha and he did not. “Maybe I’m jealous of her power or something, I don’t know,” Richard once admitted.
It was a love too all-consuming to last. So many of Richard’s letters to Elizabeth include apologies for whatever alcohol-fueled fight had taken place the night before. “I shall be good today and surprise you,” he wrote on October 9, 1972. “Thank you for taking care of me yesterday.”
After one particularly rough night Elizabeth wrote:
There have been times that I have loved you more than my
more than my children.
Something must be very wrong with the two of us if I’m put
in the position of having to take sides—having
to choose between
you or my kids.
Your behavior tonight has sickened me and I think made my
children not like you very much—not
that you give a fuck. But they
do care about each other and I care about them.
Sorry about you.”
“Liz and Dick” soon became the “Battling Burtons.” We were “mutually self-destructive,” Elizabeth said. “Maybe we have loved each other too much.”
To mark their tenth wedding anniversary in 1974, Elizabeth wrote:
My darling (my still) my husband, I wish I could tell you of my love for you, of my fear, my delight, my pure animal pleasure of you—(with you)—my jealousy, my pride, my anger at you, at times. Most of all my love for you, and whatever love you can dole out to me—I wish I could write about it but I can’t. I can only “boil and bubble” inside and hope you understand how I really feel.
Anyway I lust thee, your (still) wife. P.S. O’Love, let us never take each other for granted again! P.P.S. How about that—ten years!
A month later they announced that they would be getting a divorce. But they could not stay away from each other for long. On October 10, 1975, they married for the second time in a secret ceremony on the banks of a river in Botswana. She wrote in a diary entry: “We exchanged rings, fathomless looks, and were married once again, back where we belonged. Always belonged.” Letters they wrote to each other after the ceremony reveal how much they wanted to start a new life together.
How about that! You really are my husband again and I have news for you, there will be bloody no more marriages—or divorces.
We are stuck like chicken feathers to tar—for lovely always.
Do you realize that we shall grow old together and I know the best is yet to be!
Anyway, my little big one I love you and have a deep tranquility in my heart and the tug of love is over and we are one once more. I’m happy, I hope you are,
But on July 29, 1976, less than ten months after they married for a second time, Elizabeth and Richard were granted their second divorce. “I love Richard with every fiber of my soul,” Elizabeth said, “but we can’t be together.” She was forty-four years old and alone, but she was determined to follow her own advice: “Pour yourself a drink,” she famously advised the heartbroken, “put on some lipstick, and pull yourself together.” She knew another love was waiting around the corner—and she was right.