When Elizabeth Taylor met Richard Burton
When Elizabeth Taylor met Richard Burton, it heralded the start of one of Hollywood’s most romantic and enduring love stories.
Their turbulent and passionate relationship was described by Taylor as being a mixture of “love and lust”, as they jetted around the world, charming legions of fans wherever they went.
Fabulously rich, they were known for their extravagant lifestyle, with Burton reportedly using a cheque made out for $1.25 million as a bookmark. They also bought a $960,000 private jet “on a whim” – apparently because they had flown to Paris on it and enjoyed the experience so much.
After 12 years of tumultuous marriage, which included divorcing each other and remarrying a year later, the golden couple finally parted ways in 1976. However, Taylor reportedly said Burton had been the “love of her life”.
The twelfth of thirteen children, Burton was born in November 1925 in Pontrhydyfen, Glamorgan. His father was a coal miner and his mother a bar worker. Attending Port Talbot Secondary School, he became very interested in poetry and Welsh and English literature.
He joined the Taibach Youth Centre youth drama group, where he learned the fundamentals of acting. After leaving school in 1941, he became a miner at the age of 16. However, after winning a role in the BBC Radio play, Youth at the Helm, in 1942, he returned to school later that year to improve his academic knowledge and hone his acting skills.
His performance in a school play, Pygmalion, in the lead role of Prof Henry Higgins, led to Burton being noticed by the Welsh writer and actor Emlyn Williams, who offered him a small role in his play, The Druid’s Rest.
Burton continued his acting while attending Oxford University, but his ambition at that point was to be an RAF pilot. However, he served as a navigator for three years, as his eyesight wasn’t good enough to be a pilot. On leaving the RAF, he moved to London at age 23.
His screen career began when he successfully screen-tested for a film, The Last Days of Dolwyn, in 1949. Successfully making the transition to Hollywood in 1952; he starred in the Gothic romance, My Cousin Rachel, opposite Olivia de Havilland, later that year.
Born in London in 1932, Taylor had dual British-American citizenship, as her parents were both US citizens, who had moved to the UK from Arkansas City in 1929 to pursue their dream of opening an art gallery on Bond Street. They returned to the US in 1939, fearing the impending war in Europe. They settled in Beverley Hills.
Taylor’s stunning good looks, and especially her violet-blue eyes, earned her plenty of compliments, including suggestions she should audition for movies. In 1941, aged nine, she successfully auditioned for Universal Pictures.
Differing from the other child stars of the day, such as Shirley Temple, Taylor wasn’t a success and her contract was terminated after a year. However, she was snapped up by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, where her role in Lassie Come Home in 1943 led to her initial three month contract being extended to seven years.
This launched her long and highly successful movie career, which included the rapturous success of her role as a female jockey in National Velvet in 1944, alongside major star Mickey Rooney. In 1950, aged 18, Taylor was cultivated as an adult actress and successfully made the transition.
The first time Burton saw Taylor was in 1953, at a Hollywood party hosted by the A-list film stars, Stewart Granger and Jean Simmons. According to Sam Kashner and Nancy Schoenberger, co-authors of the biography, Furious Love, Burton was just a “Welsh upstart actor” at the time.
Later, he wrote in his diary how “a girl sitting on the other side of the pool lowered her book, took off her sunglasses and looked at me”. He said the young Taylor was “so extraordinarily beautiful” that he almost laughed out loud!
Taylor was already a successful movie star. Burton thought she was “unquestioningly gorgeous” – but she didn’t hold such a high opinion of him. She reportedly found him to be “swaggering and vulgar” and ignored him!
It was another nine years before their paths crossed professionally. This time, they were chosen to co-star in the epic film, Cleopatra, in 1962. By this time, Burton had a reputation as a ladies’ man and Taylor was determined not to be one of his conquests.
At their first meeting on the set, on 22nd January 1962, Burton told her she was a “very pretty girl” in a way that she found condescending. Later, she reportedly spoke scathingly about him to her girlfriends.
However, on their first day of filming together, she was drawn to Burton, who was apparently hungover and blew his lines. Taylor gave him a hug and sparks began flying, especially during a love scene, according to Kashner and Schoenberger. Their first screen kiss turned into a real one, as they repeated the scene several times. Even after the director shouted, “Cut!” the kiss continued.
Media speculation began that they were involved romantically, despite Taylor being married to Eddie Fisher and Burton being married to Sybil Williams. There was a public scandal, as this was the first era when film stars found it hard to separate their public life from their private life.
Burton and Williams divorced on 5th December 1963 and Taylor and Fisher divorced on 6th March 1964. Only days later, on 15th March 1964, Hollywood’s newest golden couple, Burton and Taylor, married. They were hounded by the press and hid out in a villa in Italy to try and escape the public eye.
According to their biography, the couple were very much in love but lived a wild lifestyle when not filming. Described as “nomads”, they travelled around different continents, partying, charming everyone they met and embracing the jet-set lifestyle.
They became media darlings and ended up making 11 classic films together including Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf and The Taming of the Shrew. Their relationship was described as the “marriage of the century” and they were the first truly iconic power couple of the modern era.
Sadly, their frantic lifestyle eventually tore their marriage apart. Afterwards, an emotionally exhausted Taylor reportedly told a friend, “I don’t ever want to be that much in love again.”
They met often, even after their divorce. Burton wrote frequently to Taylor, but sadly, he died suddenly, at the age of only 58, as a result of an intracerebral haemorrhage. A distraught Taylor later said, “In my heart, I will always believe we would have been married a third and final time.”
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