The preface to ” Furious Love ‘ begins by recalling the time the gossip columnist Liz Smith was asked to name the five greatest love affairs of all time . She didn’t even have to think who would be atop the list .Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor. That might seem like a stretch to many of us but, nevertheless , we would be hardpressed to name a more famous pair of lovers. In the second half of the 20th century , at least , there was no more famous couple than ” Dick and Liz”.
Furious Love by Sam Kashner and Nancy Schoenberger is an account of the Burton -Taylor love affair from their first meeting on the sets of ” Cleopatra” ,right through their two marriages with their explosive quarrels and their innumerable reconciliations all the way to his premature death at age 58.It is a fascinating book , loaded with detail , and a must for movie fans. I am not much for movie star bios and I had only intended to skim the book but I quickly got absorbed in it and read it cover to cover.
The beginnings of the Taylor -Burton romance when they were filming “Cleopatra” are well known to all. In order to marry each other , they both had to ditch their respective spouses . The divorces were bitter in the extreme and Richard Burton was greatly affected by his split with Sybil Burton. They were both from Wales and his family adored her . Burton’s obsession with Elizabeth Taylor was too strong for him to resist but the guilt that he felt in divorcing Sybil continued to haunt him long afterwards.
The book then goes on to give us the backgrounds of the two principals . Richard Burton, it transpires , was actually born Richard Jenkins. We are told about his impoverished family : his father, ” Dic ” Jenkins who labored his whole life in the coal mines and was an inveterate drunk . His mother , Edith , who worked hard to put food on the table for her large brood and who died when Richard was only two. His beloved older sister Cis and his idolized older brother, Ifor. We learn of his childhood love of poetry and of the lilting Welsh tongue, how he cultivated his wonderful speaking voice and how ,at the age of 15, he was taken in by Philip Burton , a teacher , actor and director. P hilip Burton became his legal guardian, gave him his name , and nurtured the talent that was even then apparent. Though recognized as a consummate stage actor , Richard Burton ‘s movie career was not remarkable until the filming of ” Cleopatra ” when his screen romance with Elizabeth Taylor carried over into real life and electified the world.
Elizabeth Taylor’s childhood was quite different from that of Richard Burton. A household name as a child star ( think ” National Velvet” ) , she had led a pampered life and never wanted for anything. Everything she desired , she got . At the time ” Cleopatra ” was being filmed , she was still recovering from the death of her third husband , Mike Todd, a flamboyant personality who perished in an aircrash. She was attacted to forceful , domineering men in the image of Todd and she found one in the person of Richard Burton.
The book gives a detailed account of their romance , their peripatetic married life with her huge entourage in tow , their idyllic days in Puerto Vallarta during the shooting of Night of the Iguana , their out of control drinking bouts , the collapse of their careers and the abiding attraction between them which would not allow them to live happily together and yet precluded a life apart. It is painful to read of those years when they seemingly had everything only to see it all slip away. How could a relationship between two people who were so much in love ( or at least in lust ) break up so spectacularly ?
Sam Kashner , one of the authors of Furious Love , is a contributing editor at Vanity Fair and the book is written in true Vanity Fair style, offering a mass of detail and a plethora of anecdotes and allowing readers to come to their own conclusions.
It becomes clear that Dick and Liz , except for their twin obsessions of sex and drink , had not all that much in common. Burton was , in spite of his lack of a formal education , an intellectual and a serious student of the craft of acting. One of his great pleasures was to curl up with a good book . Liz , however , though a better , more natural actress than her detractors are willing to concede, was a spoiled , greedy , self-absorbed , shallow-minded beauty. In the limelight since her teenage years , she had learnt to be private in public , something which Richard hadn’t. Consequently she was able to handle the white-hot glare of publicity that was trained on them after their marriage .He wasn’t. One is appalled at the lengths that fans go to . Once , when they were in Boston , a frenzied mob of fans rushed them as they were about to check into the Copley Plaza Hotel. ” Fans grabbed at the couple’s clothing and tore hair from Elizabeth’s head … ( she ) was being pulled in opposite directions at the same time . People were tugging at each arm and even crushed her face against the wall when she attempted to free herself.” There is no doubt that the constant publicity played a part in wrecking their marriage . Jealousy, personal and professional , also seems to have been a contributing factor. For a long time , Richard seems to have chafed at the fact that his wife was more famous than he was and was earning more than him. For her part , Elizabeth was always suspicious and fearful that he might have a fling with one of his co-stars , a not unreasonable worry given that he was a notable cocksman with a roving eye. Less understandable is why he was so worried about her being promiscuous; she hadn’t given him any reason for concern in that regard. Perhaps it had to do with his perception that he was the junior partner in their marriage and the consequent feelings of inadequacy. If only he had won an Oscar , it might have augmented his self-worth but though he was nominated for an Oscar six times , he lost out each time , the last time to John Wayne in True Grit . John Wayne !!
When a marriage fails , both parties must bear some part of the blame . In the case of Dick and Liz , it seems to me that Liz must bear more of it than Dick. Though she undoubtedly loved him , she seems to have been curiously unsupportive when he was trying to cut down on his drinking , continuing to imbibe freely in his company rather than going on the wagon herself. Both of them had an astonishing capacity for drink. He once drank twenty-three shots of tequila in a single evening and, late in his career, was polishing off three bottles of vodka a day . She was able to handle drink better though she often matched him drink for drink. What is unfathomable is that while this was happening they didn’t see what it was doing to their careers and to their health.
The book is not only about Dick and Liz . There are a host of bit players in the story of their marriage and the authors tell us stories about Joe Mankiewicz who directed them in ” Cleopatra”, Mike Todd, Eddie Fisher, Debbie Reynolds,Ava Gardner, Montgomery Clift , Jack Warner, Rex Harrison and a host of others. There are also vignettes of the life the pair led aboard their luxurious yacht Kalizma and at their Swiss Chalet. It is fascinating to read about their excesses and the way in which they spent their money . One wishes however that the authors had been a bit more selective in their choice of detail . If the book had been a little less detailed , it could have been thirty or forty pages shorter and all the better for it .
Furious Love . By Sam Kasner and Nancy Schoenberger , Harper Collins , New York ( 2010). $27.99.