Richard Burton: An actor with a scholarly appetite for learning
In November 1966, Richard Burton turned 41. “I don’t seem to feel physically any older and tend to think ‘well thank God’ that’s another year gone,” he wrote a couple of days after his birthday, “I’ll change my refrain later when I’m 60. If I reach that age.” Sadly, Burton died in 1984 aged 58. But he did leave behind 450,000 handwritten words in a series of notebooks and journals, which have been meticulously gathered together into a single definitive volume of Diaries spanning from 1939 to 1983. The majority of these collected musings, which commence in earnest in the 1960s, chronicle his passionate but destructive relationship with Elizabeth Taylor, following their adulterous whirlwind romance on the set of Cleopatra (1963). Occasionally, the entries are annotated by Taylor herself and even when they’re not she’s ever-present on the page and in Burton’s everyday thoughts and contemplations. His diaries provide a very candid look at the couple’s volatile married and professional lives as well as their travels, interests, passions and temperaments. They also comprise frank and spirited accounts of Burton’s carousing, his ambivalent feelings toward his own talent, his caustic impressions of the film industry and its personalities, his role as a doting father, his scholarly appetite for learning and avid interest in literature.
Burton was born Richard Walter Jenkins on 10th November 1925 in a small village of Pontrhydyfen, Neath Port Talbot, Wales, to a coal miner father and a barmaid mother. He was the twelfth of thirteen children and grew up in a working class Welsh-speaking household. “I have been inordinately lucky all my life,” Burton wrote at the peak of his career, “but the greatest luck of all has been Elizabeth”. Shortly after the couple’s scandalous romance began Burton divorced his wife at the time, Sybil Williams, and Taylor ended her marriage to Eddie Fisher (“a gruesome little man and smug as a boot,” according to Burton). The couple tied the knot nine days after Taylor’s divorce was finalised in 1964. For the next 10 years, they jetted around the globe “surrounded by publicity and paparazzi” celebrating their love and their glamorous lifestyle. In his most tender moments, Burton lavished Taylor with boundless love, affection and gifts. “She is a wildly exciting lover-mistress,” he wrote early on in their marriage, “she is shy and witty, she is nobody’s fool, she is a brilliant actress, she is beautiful beyond the dreams of pornography…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 my stomach when I am away from her, and she loves me!” But he also recorded the violent clashes of their discordant tempers and their explosive rows, which would arise at any given moment in public and in private. “In the middle of the early night Elizabeth and I exchanged insults,” Burton wrote on 2nd August 1967, “in which I said she was not a ‘woman but a man’ and in which she called me ‘little girl’. A couple of months later Burton raged: “Am in a violent temper. E, as usual, has to combat everything I do or say in front of the children.” And even a couple of years later in 1971 while on a visit to Rome, Burton wrote: “I had a quarrel with E so vivacious that I went for a long walk to cool my anger.”
The ups and downs of their relationship were many and frequent, and eventually led to divorce in 1974, remarriage in 1975 and another divorce in the following year. Judging by Burton’s diaries, however, he could never quite believe his luck when it came to Taylor. “My God she’s a beauty,” he wrote after an evening out in 1968, “sometimes even now, after nearly 8 years of marriage I look at her when she’s asleep at the first light of grey dawn and wonder at her.” There was also a playful element to their relationship, which the diaries auspiciously chart. “E anxious that I write about her here so here goes,” Burton teased in 1967, “She is a nice fat girl who loves mosquitos and hates pustular carbuncular Welshmen, loathes boats and loves planes, has tiny blackcurrant eyes and minute breasts and no sense of humour. She is prudish, priggish and painfully self-conscious.” One of many ways Taylor would retaliate would be by telling Burton in graphic detail the delights of over-eating kippers, for example, and the joy of their repeating. “She is the only person, certainly the only woman who will tell you, details of the internal working of her body,” Burton wrote in September 1971, “She knows it appals me which is why perversely she enjoys telling me. Liz la Perverse.” The diaries reveal Burton’s impeccable observation skills and an abundant interest in books, places and people. The intimacy of the medium allows him to emerge as a fully rounded human being – and a man quite different from his public persona – who readily confronts the challenges of life lived in the public eye. Burton disliked the spotlight and never fully grasped the fascination with celebrity. “Why do they do it?” he once wondered after being accosted by fans, “I never gaped at anybody in my life and much as I admire certain famed people, Churchill and various writers – R. S Gwyn and Dylan Thomas, T.S Eliot, Spender, Greene, MacNeice etc etc I have never asked for an autograph.”
As the above suggests, Burton was a voracious reader and spent a lot of his free time immersed in a book. “I read P.G Wodehouse’s’ latest Do Butlers Burgle Banks? in one sitting,” he noted in an early entry, “it’s exactly the same as all the others. He’s still mining the same vein of gold, but it’s as effortlessly entertaining as ever.” A little later in life, Burton developed an appreciation of poetry, boasting that it was “a magnificent thing to discover poetry in middle age”. He took a particular interest in Dylan Thomas and W.H Auden, with whom he was once invited to read. He later remarked: “Auden has a remarkable face and an equally remarkable intelligence.” Burton wrote of his fellow actors with equal shrewdness. “Marlon’s immorality, his attitude to it is honest and clean,” he notes of Brando, for example, “he is a genuinely good man I suspect and he is intelligent. He has depth…Very little misses him as I’ve noticed.” Amid numerous pages of descriptions of writers, actors, politicians and people in general, Burton comments on important world events – the UK general elections, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin’s landing on the moon, Jackie Kennedy’s marriage to Aristotle Onassis, Russian spy Oleg Lyalin defection, the disgraceful death of Nelson Rockefeller and so on. Most of the entries, however, are of a more personal nature and document Burton’s insecurities, vanities, disappointments, drinking and eating habits which he tried to curtail and control throughout his life. “Being (relatively) sober for the last three or four days I have learned a great deal,” Burton wrote in July 1969, “drink, for instance, is a great anodyne. I had forgotten how boring people are. I’d forgotten how afraid people are. I’d forgotten how boring I am. And how all of us lead lives of quiet desperation, and bugger you Thoreau.”
There is no artifice with Burton – a true Welshman – but occasionally his frankness is somewhat unpalatable as it is, for example, when he documents Taylor’s intimate medical ailments. There is a fine balance between openness and indiscretion and occasionally – even if very occasionally – Burton misses the mark. But his love for Taylor never comes into question, as even in their later years after numerous suspected infidelities, brutal cattiness and decades of turbulence Burton remains firm in his feelings, confessing on paper in late 70s that he loves her still, “mindlessly and hopelessly”. The later entries in the volume are sparse and laconic and bear little resemblance to Burton’s intelligent, revelatory, witty and fascinating ruminations of his heyday. Surprisingly, it seems that much of his unhappiness was a result of his profession. “Very edgy and cantankerous” he wrote in 1966, “no doubt the prospect of working tomorrow is the reason. Always the same before I start a job.” This sense of anxiety and insecurity plagued him throughout his career. “Off to work,” he wrote in 1971, “in case I hadn’t mentioned it before I hate my work.” This was reportedly due to the fact that he felt he had wasted his talent by working for Hollywood rather treading the boards in London. “My lack of interest in my own career, past present or future is almost total,” he declared in August 1971, “all my life I think I have been secretly ashamed of being an actor and the older I get the more ashamed I get.” Burton’s Diaries were bequeathed to his last wife, Sally Hay, whom he married in 1983, a year before his death. She gifted them to Swansea University in 2005. They have been thoughtfully compiled and edited by Professor Chris Williams, and give a rare and exclusive look into the life of Richard Burton – the man.
Publisher: Yale Books
Publication Date: September 2012
Hardback: 704 pages