One of the 20th century’s most iconic power couples, Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton made 11 classic films together, including The Taming of the Shrew and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? But more than that, they created a sensation everywhere they went. In the definitive book about Liz and Dick, Furious Love: Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton, and the Marriage of the Century, Sam Kashner and Nancy Schoenberger document the couple’s torrid beginnings and their extravagant life as “doomed nomads,” drinking their way through three continents, charming and challenging everyone they met—especially each other.
“When you are in love and lust like that,” Taylor would say in 1973, “you just grab it with both hands and ride out the storm.” Ride it out they did, through years of excess, turmoil, scandal, and bottles and bottles of booze. Antony and Cleopatra
The first time Burton saw Taylor, in 1953, he was a Welsh upstart actor attending a tony Hollywood party at the home of movie stars Jean Simmons and Stewart Granger. “A girl sitting on the other side of the pool lowered her book, took off her sunglasses and looked at me. She was so extraordinarily beautiful that I nearly laughed out loud,” he wrote in his diary. “She was unquestioningly gorgeous…She was a dark unyielding largess. She was, in short, too bloody much.”
According to Furious Love, Taylor, already a seasoned movie star at 21, found Burton “swaggering and vulgar,” and chose to ignore him. Nine years later, when she found out that Burton was to be her costar in the epic Cleopatra, she was determined not to be another notch in the now legendary lothario’s belt.
On January 22, 1962, the two met again in full costume and makeup on set. “Has anybody ever told you that you’re a very pretty girl?” he asked condescendingly.
In her 1965 memoir, Elizabeth Taylor, she recalled her surprise at his lame attempt at negging. “Oy gevalt,” she exclaimed to her girlfriends. “Here’s the great lover, the great wit, the great intellectual of Wales, and he comes out with a line like that.”
But on the first day of shooting together, Taylor found herself endeared to a painfully hungover Burton, who trembled and blew a line. “With my heart I ‘cwtched’ him—that’s Welsh for ‘hug.’” Sparks began flying, lighting fire during a love scene. According to Kashner and Schoenberger:
In their first deep kiss, in Cleopatra’s boudoir…Burton found himself caught up, almost drugged, in her presence. They repeated the scene several times, their kiss lasting longer with each take. Finally, [director Joseph] Mankiewicz shouted, “Print it”—but the scene continued. “Would you two mind if I say cut?” he asked again. And then, “Does it interest you that it is time for lunch?”
Later that day Burton dragged Taylor’s chair next to his. It would remain there for the next 13 years.Le Scandale
The couple’s obsessive affair, dubbed “le scandale” by Burton, soon consumed their respective marriages, the Roman set of Cleopatra, and the world. At one point Taylor’s fourth husband, the singer Eddie Fisher, called his home only for Burton to answer the phone. “What are you doing in my house?” he asked. “What do you think I’m doing?” Burton answered. “I’m fucking your wife.”
Fisher eventually overdosed, and there were rumors that Burton’s wife Sybil attempted suicide. Taylor also made two suicide attempts during Cleopatra’s filming, one in Burton’s presence. Another night she awoke to find Fisher standing over her bed with a gun. “Don’t worry, Elizabeth,” he said, per Furious Love, “I’m not going to kill you. You’re too beautiful.” (He later recovered sufficiently to perform with a dancer who sang the line, “I’m Cleo, the Nympho of the Nile.”)
Hounded by the legendary Italian paparazzi and titillated fans, Burton and Taylor holed up in a rented villa when not filming, drinking and playing endless rounds of Scrabble. (“When you get aroused playing Scrabble, that’s love, baby,” Taylor said.) According to gossip columnist Louella Parsons, the massive amount of publicity they received “ought to have killed them.”
Over the next few years, the crowds would only grow larger, eager to see the notorious “Dickenliz” as they jet-setted around the world, both despising and reveling in the attention. Actor Hume Cronyn recalled escaping a crowd with the couple in New York. Per Furious Love, “As the limousine picked up speed, Elizabeth sweetly smiled and waved to the crowd like royalty—all the while silently mouthing the words ‘Fuck you—and you—and you, dear!’”
An appalled Laurence Olivier (with whom Burton allegedly had a fling as a young actor, per Furious Love) telegrammed his old friend, “Make up your mind—do you want to be a great actor or a household word?”
Burton’s famous reply?
“Both.”The Age of Vulgarity
The Burtons’ extravagant spending would shock even the most jaded oligarch. Burton, who used a $1.25 million check as a bookmark, once bought a $960,000 jet plane on a whim, after they flew on it to Paris. The couple supported an army of charities, extended family, and staff. They bought property in Puerto Vallarta, Switzerland, and Ireland, and owned the Kalizma, their floating luxe palace. According to Furious Love, they also owned paintings by “Monet, Picasso…Renoir, Rouault, Pissarro, Degas, Augustus John, and Rembrandt.”
On one occasion Taylor bought Burton a Van Gogh at Sotheby’s, “which she lugged up the Dorchester elevator, kicked off her shoes, and hammering a nail into the wall, hung the painting over Burton’s penthouse fireplace herself.”
But their most lavish spending was on jewelry. Taylor had an insatiable love and desire for jewels. “I introduced Elizabeth to beer; she introduced me to Bulgari,” Burton joked. He would eventually be locked in several bidding wars with Greek tycoon Aristotle Onassis. According to Furious Love:
When Elizabeth discovered that Onassis had presented Mrs. Kennedy with “half a million pounds worth of rubies surrounded by diamonds,” keeping up with the Onassises became a mild obsession. “Now the battle of the Rubies is on,” Richard noted, “I wonder who’ll win. It will be a long war, and the idea has already been implanted that I shouldn’t let myself be outdone by a bloody Greek. I can be just as vulgar as he can.”
Burton presented Elizabeth with some of the most storied jewels in the world, including the 33.19-carat Krupp diamond and the fabled “La Peregrina” pearl, once owned by Spanish royalty and the Bonapartes. After Burton gave the pearl to her in the penthouse at Caesars Palace, a horrified Taylor discovered that it had fallen off the dainty chain around her neck. She began to frantically search for the pearl:
Out of the corner of her eye, she noticed their two Pekingese puppies at their feeding bowls. One of them was apparently gnawing on a bone, which was odd, because they never gave the puppies bones to chew on. When she investigated, she nearly shrieked with delight when she opened the puppy’s mouth to find La Peregrina—intact and unscratched.The Royal Circus
Too notorious and grand for the normal Hollywood crowd, the couple spent much of their marriage socializing with the European jet set. Though Taylor was comfortable with the aristocrats of the old world, Burton was often bemused and bored. To him Taylor’s old MGM friend Princess Grace of Monaco was “in the class of people who are ‘in a somewhat false position and know it’” and rather dull (even though she led the conga line at Taylor’s 40th birthday party).
Their relationship with another equally infamous, unsettled couple—the Duke and Duchess of Windsor—also led to many boring dinners for Burton. According to Furious Love:
He described the couple as resembling “Two tiny figures like Toto and Nanette that you keep on the mantelpiece. Chipped around the edges. Something you keep in the front room for Sundays only.” At one…soiree…he picked up the duchess and swung her around the room “like a dancing singing dervish.” … Furious with him, Elizabeth locked him in the spare bedroom that night, at the Plaza Athénée.
But Taylor could have a laugh at the Windsors as well, as when the duchess wore an outsize feather in her hair that kept “dipping into the soup… and smacking her host in the face.” She also had a long-standing competitive friendship with Princess Margaret, who asked to see Taylor’s famous Krupp diamond one evening:
“It’s so large! How very vulgar!” the princess remarked. “Yes,” Elizabeth answered. “Ain’t it great!” “Would you mind if I tried it on?” “Not at all!” Elizabeth slipped the ring onto Princess Margaret’s finger, and noted that the princess didn’t think the jewel so vulgar when she was wearing it.The Battling Burtons
The Burtons were infamous for their performative fights in both private and public. “Richard loses his temper with true enjoyment. It’s beautiful to watch,” Taylor once said. “Our fights are delightful screaming matches, and Richard is rather like a small atom bomb going off.” Burton agreed. “We live out, for the benefit of the mob, the sort of idiocies they’ve come to expect,” he told the Daily Mirror. “We will often pitch a battle purely for the exercise. I will accuse her of being ugly, she will accuse me of being a talentless son of a bitch, and this sort of frightens people…. I love arguing with Elizabeth, except when she is in the nude.”
So legendary were these battles that folks would pay to hear them fight. According to Furious Love:
Elizabeth learned about a couple staying at the Regency Hotel, who took the suite below theirs just so they could eavesdrop on the Burtons’ battles royale. They reportedly climbed up on chairs, placed empty glasses against the ceiling, and listened in. “Well, they got an earful,” said Elizabeth, “but what the poor schmoes didn’t know was that it was a vocal exercise.”
Over the course of their relationship, TVs were smashed, hotel rooms trashed. Though initially gleeful, these fights would become increasingly brutal over the years as alcohol and jealousy took their toll. During the filming of their 1973 TV movie, Divorce His, Divorce Hers, director Waris Hussein recalled in Furious Love, Burton invited a bit player to his dressing room. Suddenly Taylor jumped out from behind the sofa. “She reportedly jumped up, brandished a broken vodka bottle, and chased the terrified girl out of the room.”Home
Taylor’s addiction to pills, Burton’s late-stage alcoholism and his affair with the actor Nathalie Delon, and the couple’s frenetic lifestyle eventually tore the legendary lovers apart. They were divorced in 1974, only to remarry in 1975 and divorce again less than a year later. “I don’t want to be that much in love ever again.… I gave everything away…my soul, my being, everything,” an emotionally exhausted Taylor told a friend, per Furious Love.
But they would always be in contact, and frequently reunited—tied together by their past, their children, and Burton’s prolific, passionate letters. “In my heart, I will always believe we would have been married a third and final time,” Taylor told Kashner and Schoenberger. “From those first moments in Rome, we were always madly and powerfully in love.”
Taylor’s assertion is backed up by a letter Burton wrote her, which he sent to her home in Bel Air three days before he died in Switzerland on August 5, 1984. According to Furious Love:
It was waiting for Elizabeth when she returned from London, after attending Richard’s memorial service there. It was his final letter to her, the one he had slipped away to write in his study at Céligny, surrounded by his books. It was a love letter to Elizabeth, and in it he told her what he wanted. Home was where Elizabeth was, and he wanted to come home.