richard burton and elizabeth taylor

Well, the election is over. Now we can begin worrying about whether Lindsay Lohan is going to fuck up Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor‘s epic love story in the upcoming “biographical television film” Liz and Dick. I mean, this is all I am going to worry about for the next two weeks. Seriously.

I’ve been thinking about the couple a lot. Mostly because I saw Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf on Broadway last week and, while the play was beautifully performed, I could not stop feeling that Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor somehow owned those roles.  I do not feel that way about many other actors – though I suppose, it would be very disconcerting to see anyone but Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman in a remake of Casablanca. Somehow, with Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, I feel there is rather terrifying insight into how life was in the Burton household.

After all, wasn’t the anger and meanness shown between George and Martha also part of the Burton/Taylor dynamic? Loving one another and also attempting to destroy one another because they felt so many feelings and did not know what to do with them? As I explained to my boyfriend afterwards – the show was a perfect vehicle for Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor because they were those roles.

I mean, this:


But then, I thought, Jennifer, really, why do you think that? Because some voice-over has announced to you, “They drink, they fight, they fornicate?”


Maybe they were actually a pleasant couple, who had some fights, like every couple do, and the media just blew everything really, really out of proportion because they were incredibly famous. That would make sense, actually. So I read up about them.


I was going to say, not at the beginning because everything is good at the start of a love affair, right? No. No, it was odd and off-putting  – especially the beginning.

The couple met on the set of  movie Cleopatra.

They were both married at the time, Richard Burton to Sybil Burton, a former actress who was more or less universally liked. Even Taylor later admitted she was a “wonderful woman.”  Here’s a picture:

sybil burton

Elizabeth was on her fourth marriage by then. She had first married the playboy millionaire Nicky Hilton, when she was 19. That marriage ended in a matter of months. Nicky Hilton claimed that he couldn’t handle her fame. On their wedding day, one of the photographers barked, “Hey Mac, get out of the way, I want to snap a picture.” Nicky’s ego would never be able to manage the “husband of celebrity” life.

Next she married Mike Wilding, twenty years her senior, who she seemingly found too passive. Apparently one morning she grabbed the crossword puzzle out of his hands and yelled “Go on, hit me! Why don’t you!” Wilding pointed out that he was just doing his crossword, and he would not like to hurt her.

14 across is "Wilding sounds pretty reasonable."

But that marriage did last five years. Then Elizabeth divorced him, confessing, “I gave him rather a rough time, sort of henpecked him and probably wasn’t mature enough for him.”

And she hated crosswords.

Then she married the producer Mike Todd, who was known to be more of a man’s man. He gave her a 27-carat diamond thus beginning her love affair with jewelry. Life seemed great until Mike’s plane, Lucky Liz, went down. He died in the crash. Elizabeth was devastated. She turned to Mike’s best friend, Eddie Fisher, for comfort.

Now, at the time, Eddie Fisher was married to America’s sweetheart, Debbie Reynolds. Here they all are together:

elizabeth taylor eddie fisher debbie reynolds

Eddie and Elizabeth began an affair. Everyone in the world sympathized with Debbie Reynolds for being a jilted wife.

Everyone. Ever. In the world.

Debbie Reynolds didn’t do much to stop the affair. Perhaps because her marriage to Eddie was said to have been orchestrated by the studio to promote their careers. Perhaps because, as Oscar Levant remarked, that in spite of her girlish image Debbie was “as wistful as an iron foundry.”

This situation was Brad and Angelina at a time when people were much more puritanical. Jackie Kennedy was quoted in Esquire, in the midst of a dispute with some book publishers, as saying “Anyone who is against me will look like a rat, unless I run off with Eddie Fisher.” A newspaper headline read “Blood Thirsty Widow Liz Vampires Eddie” which . . . is an awfully bold title for a newspaper if that paper is not the New York Post. (Doesn’t that headline kind of make it seem cool, because, in addition to a less puritanical age, we live in an age where we fucking love vampires?) Really – it was BAD. Elizabeth and Eddie received 7,000 pieces of hate-mail a week. There was a strong sense that they would never work again.

Eddie Fisher’s career collapsed. Partly because he was best known for songs like Oh! My Pa-Pa and the 1950s were turning into the 1960s. Elizabeth, who went on to win a Academy Award for Best Actress for her portrayal of a . . . fun person . . . in Butterfield 8, was fine. (She’s a prostitute in Butterfield 8, right? It’s one of those movies like Breakfast at Tiffany’s where the answer seems to be “kind of”.) She was fine. Of course she was. And she became bored with poor Eddie really quickly.

And then THEY met.

Richard Burton wasn’t particularly excited to be playing Anthony in Cleopatra, referring to it as a “tits and sand epic.” Meanwhile, Elizabeth wasn’t keen on the idea of sleeping with Richard Burton, who was said to have bedded every one of his female co-stars (except Julie Andrews, who played opposite him in Camelot, because, well, Julie Andrews had morals, I guess). She also said that she initially found him arrogant and “rather full of himself”, which I sometimes believe is a woman’s code for “someone I will probably sleep with, eventually.”

One account of their first meeting runs that Burton told Elizabeth that she was too fat to play Cleopatra.


Like a beached whale


He later claimed that he said it because she looked “so bloody marvelous” he wanted to take her down a peg.

So, Richard Burton’s technique was to neg women.

Elizabeth recalled the meeting differently, saying that he came up to her and said, “Has anyone ever told you you’re a very pretty girl?” Personally, I think that’s hilarious, because, goodness, it was Elizabeth Taylor. You would think she’d appreciate the fact that everyone had told her that, but she wasn’t amused. She said in her autobiography that she “couldn’t wait to get back to the dressing room where all the girls were and tell them ‘Oy gevalt! Here’s the great lover, the great wit, the great intellectual of Wales, and he comes out with a line like that.’ ”

I mean, I like that line more than “you look fat.”

By the way, the fat thing keeps cropping up. When they were performing in Taming of the Shrew, they had a public fight where Burton called Taylor a “baby.”

“A golden baby!” she replied.

golden baby

Like this, inexplicably

“Well, you certainly like gold, and you’re as plump as a baby” he retorted.

I’m going to say it’s generally not a good idea to stay with people who call you fat, you know?

Eddie Fisher, perhaps understandably, really didn’t like Burton, claiming, “Even if he hadn’t destroyed my marriage, I wouldn’t have liked him. I thought he was an arrogant slob . . . he could grow orchids under his fingernails.”

This is Eddie Fisher singing a sad song:


So, anyhow, Elizabeth really liked the fact that Richard Burton kept saying not very nice things to her, so they began having an affair. On the movie set. Maybe it was also his short tunic costume. Or the fact that they were acting in a love story. With tits. And sand.

This state of affairs did not go over well with Fisher. One day, he called his wife and Burton picked up the phone. “What are you doing there?” Eddie demanded.

“What do you think I’m doing?” Burton replied. “I’m fucking your wife.”

(Unfortunately, even though Richard Burton seems to kind of suck, he throws out some good lines. I imagine, like Taylor, I’d find him “rather full of himself.”)

Another time, when they were all out together in public, Burton goaded Taylor into confessing her love for him – while she was with Eddie – by sitting at the table and reciting over and over, “Elizabeth, who do you looooovvvveeee?”

Look. He had a really Welsh voice. It probably wasn’t as completely junior-high ridiculous as I just made it seem.


So, Eddie got a gun. And Elizabeth finally moved out when she woke up one night and found him pointing that gun at her, saying, “I won’t kill you, Elizabeth. You’re too beautiful.”

She should have stuck with the crossword puzzle guy, maybe.

But Richard Burton said he would never leave his wife Sybil. And Elizabeth agreed that their affair was making “too many people unhappy.” So they attempted to stay away from one another.

Elizabeth recalled that on her 30th birthday Eddie sent her yellow diamond pendant earrings and a matching brooch and ring, and all she wanted was a bouquet of flowers from Richard, which never arrived.

Been there. 

 However, Richard called her soon afterwards, and they ran away to a chateau on Lake Geneva. While they were there, Richard’s wife Sybil, tried to commit suicide. Everyone seemed to agree that this act was really surprising, because Sybil was extremely grounded. But her daughter had just been diagnosed with severe mental retardation, and her husband was having a very public affair with Elizabeth Taylor, and, perhaps most inexplicably, Eddie Fisher kept calling her in a drunken rage – so it’s understandable that anyone’s grip could slip in such a situation.

So Richard Burton returned to Sybil once more. And Elizabeth, again, tried to stay away. But then the twosome began working together on The V.I.P.s. God knows why. I mean, I cannot imagine why they would work together.

Oh. Wait. Loooovvvvvveeeee.

Okay. So, they resumed their affair.

And Burton finally decided to divorce Sybil, who never again talked to him. She did alright for herself, though. She opened a nightclub named “Arthur”, so named because of the line in A Hard Day’s Night where a reporter asks George what he calls his haircut, and he replies, “Arthur.” No one really expected a disco opened by an aging divorcee to be a massive hit, but it was.  Newspapers reported: “When Arthur opened last month, people fought to get past the doorman. New York is full of discothéques, but everybody wants to go to Sybil’s.”

Arthur Sybil Burton

That is Sybil on top!

Andy Warhol was a club regular and wrote:

“It was all dark brightness… Sybil was an upbeat, outgoing woman – everything was fun! Witty! A ball! The energetic English type who wants everybody to have fun.  I met so many stars at Arthur – Sophia Loren, Bette Davis – everybody but Liz Taylor Burton.”

And, at 36, Sybil married a 24 year old rock star, Jordan Christopher of  Wild Ones. The band frequently played at Arthur.

While she never spoke to Richard again, she and Elizabeth did meet once, at the deathbed of their mutual friend Roddy McDowell. There, 34 years after they first met, they agreed their feud no longer mattered.

I can’t say anything nearly as nice about Eddie Fisher. His career collapsed in the 1960s. He had a brief affair with the actress/singer/dancerAnn Margret, but she elected to go off with JFK. Elected! Hah. Hah.

Then Eddie Fisher started doing a lot of coke. Less hah.

He married the songwriter Connie Stevens and had two children with her, but ultimately left her for a 21 year old. His drug addiction intensified. The Daily Mail noted:

“Condemned to taking jobs in small venues to fund his habit, he found himself unable to remember the words of songs.”

Even if he did hold a gun to Elizabeth Taylor’s head, this is really sad.

Wait. Also:

His first wife, Debbie Reynolds, never forgave him for abandoning her and their children. She eventually became friends with Liz Taylor and her daughter Carrie wrote a film for the pair called These Old Broads in which the characters vilified a common ex-husband.

Fisher considered this unforgivable and devoted his last years to setting the record straight. He released a new, searing version of his earlier book, in which he ungallantly called Reynolds ‘self-centred, totally driven, insecure, untruthful and phony’.

He claimed that he only went on to marry Liz Taylor as she had pursued him so relentlessly and was more of a nursemaid than husband.

You know, I actually don’t feel so bad about Eddie Fisher’s career falling apart, now.

And Elizabeth and Richard married. And appeared in a number of films together, most notably, certainly, Taming of the Shrew and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? And they divorced, largely because they both struggled with alcohol addiction. And they married again. In between, they wrote one another letters and stayed in touch by phone.

Burton continued to be obsessed with her weight and whether or not she was getting fat, which still seems irritating. He said in his diary, some years later:

“Elizabeth is now looking ravishingly sun-tanned though the lazy little b—— ought to lose a few pounds to look at her absolute best.”


“Had a good row with [Elizabeth Taylor] and accused her, among other things, of lousy taste. She accused me among other things of snobbery. I said the only thing we had in common was Yahtsee. I forgot some other things.”

He didn’t like her hands much, either, claiming:

Elizabeth, knowing I was in a state of nastiness said to me: “Come on, Richard, hold my hand.” Me: “I do not wish to touch your hands. They are large and ugly and red and masculine.”

You know, he did write some nice things about her, though. This:

We worked from seven last night to approx four this morning. [. . .] Elizabeth has gone off to work and “test” costumes. She should be back before I leave I hope. After seven or is it eight years I still miss her if she goes to the bathroom.

Or this:

Famed as we are, rich as we are, courted and insulted as we are, overpaid as we are, centre of a great deal of attention as we are, [we] are not bored or blasé. We are not envious. We are merely lucky.

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 wilful, 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!

Or, I guess, this:

Elizabeth is an eternal one night stand. She is my private and personal bought mistress. And lascivious with it. It is impossible to tell you what is consisted in the act of  love. Well I’ll tell you, E is a receiver, a perpetual returner of the ball! I don’t write about sex very often, because it embarrasses me, but, but . . .

Oh, fine. I get it. Despite all the stuff about her weight and the negging and the affair and the suicides, they were in loooooovvvvvvveee.

elizabeth taylor richard burton

Richard died first.

He wrote Elizabeth a letter a few days before he died saying that home was wherever she was, and that he wanted to go home. Elizabeth kept it on her bedside table until the end of her life.

She did not attend his funeral, at the request of his children, but she visited his grave the next day. She was able to avoid the paparazzi and described it as “one of the few occasions ever that Richard and I were alone.”

She never talked about their love affair. Once, on Larry King’s television show, she was asked about it, and she replied, “Those are my memories.”

She married a few more times, but claimed, “After Richard, all the men in my life were just there to hold the coat and open doors. All the men were just company, really.”

She is buried next to him.

Picture via AP, Wikipedia, Cleopatra, ArtInfo, This is Glamorous,

Additional Reading:

Furious Love: Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton and the Marriage of the Centry by Sam Kashner

Eddie Fisher: The Man Who Put A Gun To Elizabeth’s Head

This Is Glamorous: Great Love Stories – Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton

A Love Too Big To Last, Vanity Fair