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7 November 2023

The madness of Burton and Taylor

Roger Lewis’s book about the lives of the married actors isn’t really a biography – it’s a fever dream.

By Tanya Gold

Roger Lewis’s ideal reader will not have heard of Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor: it is part of his sense of possession. The couple will be “beings… whom I have entirely imagined, as a by-product of insomnia, anxiety, lowered oxygen and benign prostatic hyperplasia”. Isn’t that, he asks, what they were all along? This is the opening of this deranged biography, which isn’t really a biography but a fever dream. Reading it is like being presented with a series of offcuts of forgotten (or invented) films in words.

Lewis began the book drugged in a Cornish hospital, which suits his subjects – Burton was usually drunk, Taylor usually high. They don’t need another chronology, Lewis insists: and most biographies are all wrong. (He has a long section dealing with rivals’ errors, which compound the unreality.) He wants, rather, to isolate Burton and Taylor, “culturally, as carnal and fantasy figures who floated about in a world of child stars, faded grandeur, alcoholism, promiscuity and Lassie”. Lewis interacts with them and loves them tidally (Burton especially: they are both Welsh). Lewis is as present as his subjects and he is honest enough to acknowledge it. A typical line is: “I’d give a lot to have seen Humphrey Bogart and Frankie Howerd encountering each other,” and, since the thought is planted, the reader would too. Lewis should also be there. He thinks he is.

It does have a structure – five acts. He opens with Taylor, “a public baby” and creature of “savagery and pride” who was best at “characters, personalities, who can’t be reached”. She was a child star at MGM studios. “Zero childhood or perpetual childhood?” he asks: she had both. She was a supernatural creature who “had the power to turn the milk, foul the sugar, raise storms, spoil crops, dance with the devil and send furniture splitting and flying about a room”. She was “openly feral”, a friend to animals who lived in her bed. “What does it feel like to be in love with a horse?” she was asked in National Velvet. According to Lewis, she took it to heart.

The writer’s best material is on Taylor’s adopted pet chipmunk, Nibbles, who is immortalised in a book called Nibbles and Me (1946) and was later squashed by a door. “Nibbles is a North American rodent with a striped pelt,” Lewis writes, “and you long to squash him with a boot or knock the little f***er sharply on the head with a stick.” But he was also “an allegory or premonition of any of Taylor’s husbands, the way she coos over his antics, weeps over accidents and disasters”. Lewis thinks there were, all in all, eight Nibbleses. Is that, he asks, “how Nicky [Hilton], Mike Wilding, Mike Todd, Eddie, Burton, Senator Warner, and Larry Fortensky… reckoned they were treated? Alternately pushed around and pampered, at least until the time came to put them in the wrong?” I wish Nibbles had appeared in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Read Lewis’s narcotic prose for long enough, and you will believe he did.

Taylor thrived by being selfish: being a child star will kill you. She married too often to be defined by men, Lewis says. She was the “bright-eyed virginal toy bride for Nicky Hilton, the Fifties little woman for Michael Wilding, the broad for Mike Todd, the Jewess for Eddie Fisher, each other’s idea of fun for Burton, the politician’s consort for John Warner, the fellow redneck drug-addict wearing white fringed cowboy boots for Larry Fortensky”. She constantly feigned sickness (Marlene Dietrich called it “a manifestation of her tyranny”). Perhaps this is why my favourite Taylor performance is Helen in the 1943 film of Jane Eyre: she died of tuberculosis brilliantly.

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[See also: How women were left out of the story of evolution]

When reading in Burton’s diaries of her “round belly and the exquisite softness of the inside of your thighs” Lewis sees “a smirking, heaving Gloucestershire Old Spot sow… When it comes to explicit sexual description, a little goes a long way.” This is disingenuous. This book is all about sex and drugs, and drugged sex (with their films playing on a distant TV).

Its title is Erotic Vagrancy, a quote from L’Osservatore Romano della Domenica, the Vatican newspaper that issued a public rebuke to Burton and Taylor, after their extramarital affair – which began in 1962 on the set of Cleopatra in Rome – became an international scandal: “You will finish in an erotic vagrancy, without end or without a safe port.” At his most fetid Lewis writes that Taylor liked “meaty cocks”. Like Burton, he seems to both desire and hate her. Lewis calls her the last of the great silent movie actresses. Would he have preferred she kept her mouth shut?

Burton is more interesting than Taylor, and more gifted: who is better at evoking unease? He was born Richard Jenkins in 1925, the son of a Welsh drunk. His mother died when he was an infant, and he was raised by his sister. In 1943 he was adopted by Philip Burton, a teacher: his real father was paid £50 to sign the legal documents. “This is my sixtieth film,” Richard Burton told John Boorman, the director of The Heretic (1977), a sequel to The Exorcist in which Burton, as in many of his later films, acts mostly from a bed. “I’ve never seen any of them except the first two. I was shocked. I was looking at my father’s face. Unbearable.”

Lewis senses, but can’t prove, that Philip Burton was a paedophile: “drab and creepy, like a snail or whelk coiled inside its shell”. Stanley Baker, another Welsh actor, described Philip as “Richard’s adopted father who wanted to be much more”. Philip said that “he [Richard] courted me”. Richard called living with Philip “hell”; he told a girlfriend Philip “made a pass”.

Lewis sees Richard Burton as an exile: from his family; his language; his Welshness. He “had a puritan conscience, but a libertine’s tastes”. He pursued schoolgirls in their uniforms – one later went to the abortionist – and “the cast of Camelot”. He summoned destruction, like the devil he played in The Medusa Touch (As a child I watched this film – which was directed by my uncle – stunned at the agony on Burton’s face). Burton left his wife and daughters for Taylor: he didn’t see the youngest, Jessica, after the age of six.

Lewis also believes that Burton killed his older brother Ivor though, again, he cannot prove it. In 1968 Ivor fell and was paralysed: he later died from his injuries. Lewis thinks Ivor fell because Burton hit him. “Ivor’s fall was an accident, or was it?” Burton wrote in his diary. Burton was secretive, Lewis adds: that’s why he was best at playing spies, or the devil.

Lewis takes joy in digressions. My favourite is about Rachel Roberts, a similarly cursed and alcoholic Welsh actor – Burton’s unacknowledged female twin. Roberts killed herself in 1980 by drinking weedkiller but being female, and less pretty than Burton, she was not lionised for it. (She is the mistress in Saturday Night and Sunday Morning.) “Poor Richard Jenkins – snap!,” Roberts had written, noting their similarities. Burton hated her. Of course he did. Lewis quotes her: “I still have emotional power, but it is locked up inside me, devastatingly, eating me alive.” Lewis adds: “I’m not dissimilar.”

Cleopatra the film production reads like farce. The horses wouldn’t work with the elephants and Lewis takes pleasure in writing that the props were recycled for Carry on Cleo. Sid James, Lewis points out, was the comical version of Burton. Lewis’s chronology of Cleopatra is as exhausting as the film. He moves from chiding biographers to chiding Burton himself. “Burton appears in the make-up trailer at Cinecittà and announces in his Old Vic voice, ‘Gentlemen, last night I screwed [f***ed, nailed – sources differ] Miss Elizabeth Taylor in the back of my Cadillac.’” Yet, “he didn’t have a Cadillac,” Lewis adds beadily: at times like this he sounds like a stalker with a PhD. “He had a black-and-white Lincoln.” He doesn’t think they ever left that film, which was ancient Rome set in 1962. Perhaps it represented an eternal power struggle, and death loop. When Taylor screams “Antony!” at Burton I think of Carmela Soprano shouting at her son.

[See also: The horrors of the Upskirt Decade]

Together Burton and Taylor were insane, and absurd: easy to project on, since they were flying apart. “Our way of life,” said Burton, “was a first-class recipe for organised suicide.” They fed each other’s vanity: his for fame, hers for talent. For my part, I think Taylor really loved him or thought she did, which amounts to the same thing: my evidence is she got fat. (He called her “a beautiful doughnut covered in diamonds and paint”.) They had matching $120,000 Kojah mink coats and befriended tyrants (tyrants don’t ask for autographs). Even so, she ruined his Hamlet by giving him Dexamyl (was it jealousy?) and told him he was boring when sober. Even so, Burton was called “the Frank Sinatra of Shakespeare”. (Lewis asks: “What does that make me? The Frank Sinatra of biography?”) There is a pitiful anecdote about Baroness Rothschild: too vain to wear spectacles, she didn’t recognise Burton, and he had to say, “It is I, Hamlet the Dane” for an audience of one. Burton and Taylor were so detached from reality they tried to buy the Sardinian clifftop villa built for Boom! They were told: it’s only a set.

They made a single masterpiece together: Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, a film about marriage so bitter I cannot watch it. They were the first toxic celebrities, a study in nothingness and glut. “I’ve been scraping off the paint or rubbing at charcoal marks,” Lewis writes of his biography, “to get rid of excrescences, whilst no doubt adding to others.” By the end of the book, I am more interested in Lewis than in either of them. 

“Celebrity,” he writes, “is available to anyone. Stardom is extra-terrestrial” – and it’s all a long way from Wales. Taylor ended as a perfume mogul – delivered, Lewis says, by atomiser, and this book is much the same. It’s more novel than biography – what are biographies but novels without ambition? – and, as he did with The Life and Death of Peter Sellers, Lewis leaves the competition looking hopelessly literal. Are they understudies? He adds that he wishes Burton had played Falstaff, but erotic vagrants have no home, not even a stage. Roger Lewis has summoned devils here. It gave me nightmares.

Erotic Vagrancy: Everything About Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor
Roger Lewis
Riverrun, 656pp, £30

[See also: Why we chose Benjamin Myers’s Cuddy as the 2023 Goldsmiths Prize winner]

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This article appears in the 08 Nov 2023 issue of the New Statesman, The Age of Fury