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Tag: P. G. Wodehouse

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
ISBN: 9780300180107

Dorothy Parker: “Speeding bullets through the brains of the folk who give me pains”

I was once told by a friend that if Dorothy Parker was still alive she would buy me a big martini. I don’t know whether or not that’s true but I know that if I had the opportunity I’d buy her several. I discovered Parker very early on in my life and have returned to her writing time and again. A couple of months ago, I purchased her selected works in an Oxfam on High Street Kensington and have been meaning to flick through them since. Trying to review someone I admire as much as I do Parker is always somewhat daunting, but to hell with it I might as well impart my very own “Pig’s-Eye View”. Born in West End, New Jersey, on August 22nd,1893, Parker began her career at Vogue writing by-lines and captions, such as: “This little pink dress will win you a beau.” Irremeably bored with the corseted muliebrity of the editorial collective, she moved to Vanity Fair and took over from P. G. Wodehouse as a theatre critic before being sacked for panning a couple of plays. Later, speaking about the precarious start to her career she said: “Vanity Fair was a magazine of no opinion, but I had opinions. So I was fired.”

Parker signed nuptials twice; both of her husbands died. The first, Hartford dandy and Wall Street broker Edwin Pond Parker II, was often the butt of her jousting as a somewhat maladroit character forever falling down manholes and breaking his arm while sharpening pencils.  As was her second husband, screenwriter Alan Campbell, of whom she once noted: “Don’t worry about Alan.  Alan will always land on somebody’s feet.” Campbell was found dead in their home from a barbiturates overdose. When Parker was reportedly asked by a friend if there was anything she could do, the poetess replied: “Get me a new husband.” Parker’s facetious attitude to death was reflected as much in her personal life – one prematurely dead mother, two deceased husbands and a quartet of failed suicide attempts – as in her work. So much so, that in her early 20s she penned her own epitaph and brandished it with slipshod equanimity.  And later, in her senescence, when asked what she was going to do next she told an interviewer: “If I had any decency, I’d be dead. All my friends are.”

A consummate overachiever Parker defied society’s mandates by muzzling the misogynistic literati with quips as sharp as a needle-tip and vitriolic spitfire comebacks to rival those of Oscar Wilde. Recollecting her heyday, she once said: “A ‘smartcracker’ they called me, and that makes me sick and unhappy. There’s a hell of a distance between wisecracking and wit. Wit has truth in it; wisecracking is simply calisthenics with words. I didn’t mind so much when they were good, but for a long time anything that was called a crack was attributed to me…” She never quite managed to jilt her public person and her reputation as an Algonquin “smartcracker” preceded her, but unbeknownst to herself Parker was the greatest female wit in America. Her literary canon boasts an array of genres but my favourite has to be her poetry; grandiloquent, flippant, sagacious, nihilistic, hedonistic, unnerving, macabre, silly, and of a nonpareil Herculean capacity to leave the reader in a head-spin. There is nothing like the rhymes inked by this “pampered heir to Hell” with her emerald green eyes, her sable-like hair and a boa in her hat so imposingly baronial that it became a fire hazard around cigarettes. But the real hazard was, of course, Parker herself. She would perennially shock polite society with her caustic repartee, such as “One more drink and I’d have been under the host,” or remarking about a strapping but panurgic lover who had ditched her, “His body went to his head,” and speaking of another who died of tuberculosis, “I don’t see what else he could have done”. But the most infamous of her one liners, however, was directed toward a society lady, Clare Boothe Luce, who Parker encountered in a doorway at literary saloon. Luce suggested Parker go first, saying “Age before beauty,” to which Parker replied, “Pearls before swine.”

Under Prohibition, Parker would frequent bohemian speakeasies for preprandial drinking which would continue well into the night, resulting in missed deadlines and nonchalant excuses such as: “Someone else was using the pencil.” In her view, editors were “idiots” and the staff at Vanity Fair consisted of valetudinarian “young men who go to pieces easily. Even when they’re in the best of health, you have to stand on their insteps to keep them from flying away”.  She left the magazine in 1920, and became a household name as one of the members of the Algonquin Round Table, where along with Robert Benchley, Robert Sherwood, George S. Kaufman, Heywood Broun, Alexander Woollcott and Franklin P. Adams she lunched all day, imbibed martinis and honed her picric tongue. With a poodle under her oxter and a wide brimmed hat, Parker wrote her verses in classical form, but with a caustic, rueful note. Her work, gravid with cynicism, disillusion, and the disappointing quest for love, also features an abiding symbolic and metaphysical preoccupation with death.  Like the Romantics, she longed for the ecumenical ever-lasting amour, the true, the real, which she nevertheless attempted to denigrate at every opportunity with open disdain for her own emotions.  Themes of failure, abandonment, self-deprecation and death are isolated and interwoven together in Parker’s verse, and always remarked upon in sardonic tones. In Inventory for example she says, “Four be the things I’d been better without/Love, curiosity, freckles, and doubt”,  while in Pour Prendre Conge she records her hurt: “I’ll never again like a cub lick/My wounds while I squeal at the hurt/No more I’ll go walking in public/My heart hanging out of my shirt”, and similarly in “Little Words”,  “When you are gone, there is no bloom nor leaf/No singing sea at night, nor silver birds/And I can only stare and shape my grief/In little words/There is no mercy in the shifting year/No beauty wraps me tenderly about/I turn to little words – so you, my dear/Can spell them out”. In Cherry White her attention moves to the theme of suicide, “I never see that prettiest thing/A cherry bough gone white with Spring/But what I think ‘How gay`twould be/To hang me from a flowering tree”, later the theme is more overtly vocalised in Coda when the poetess declares: “There’s little in taking or giving/There’s little in water or wine/This living, this living, this living/Was never a project of mine.” Parker also dashed of many philippic little verses and limericks such as Godspeed (I’ll not be left in sorrow/So long as I have yesterday/Go take your damned tomorrow!), Frustration (If I had a shiny gun/I could have a world of fun/Speeding bullets through the brains/Of the folk who give me pains), News Item (Men seldom make passes/At girls who wear glasses), Oscar Wilde (If, with the literate, I am, Impelled to try an epigram/I never seek to take the credit/We all assume that Oscar said it) and Unfortunate Coincidence (By the time you swear you’re his/Shivering and sighing/And he vows his passion is/Infinite, undying/Lady, make a note of this/One of you is lying). My own favourite Parker poem, however, is Résumé which goes thus: “Razors pain you/Rivers are damp/Acids stain you/And drugs cause cramp/Guns aren’t lawful/Nooses give/Gas smells awful/You might as well live.” Indeed.

Speaking to Paris Review in her 70s Parker noted: “My verses are no damn good…terribly dated—as anything once fashionable is dreadful now.” She was of course right, at least in part, some of her work seems anachronistic, musty, but her ability to dispense with circumlocution and give naked emotion direct and with unparalleled wit is what makes her one of the greatest minds of her generation. A brutal emendator of her own work, she often threw away what others would have laboured over, and once prescribed that in order to write: “There must be courage, there must be no awe.  There must be criticism… There must be a disciplined eye and a wild mind.  There must be a magnificent disregard for your reader, for if he cannot follow you, there is nothing you can do about it.” She had all the “musts” in abundance, and as Ogden Nash once said Dorothy Parker’s “trick about her writing” was simply that “it wasn’t a trick”. She was just that good.

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