Taylor, books and booze were the three loves of Burton's life, writes Sarah Crompton
Published 11/11/2012 | 06:00
The other day I turned on the radio and heard Richard Burton reading Under Milk Wood. It made me catch my breath. He had the kind of voice you want to listen to all day. And it is that voice -- musical but direct -- that sings from the pages of his diary.
When he was a boy called Richard Jenkins, the entries were brusque. "Did shopping. The snow is quite thick on the ground."
When he was a man, it was sometimes lyrical -- "Sitting on the poop deck with my infinitely beloved wife who has acquired an even greater weight of love" -- often melancholy and frequently funny. It is a voice to make you fall in love with the man.
Burton kept sporadic diaries from 1939, when he was 14, until April 1983, a year or so before his death. But the great run of them, and the joy of this wonderful book, is from 1965 to 1972, the years of his first marriage to Elizabeth Taylor, when the couple were more famous than anyone else in the world.
He fancied himself a writer -- "The DLitt (at Oxford) is the only honour I really covet," he wrote in 1972 -- but the entries are not polished like his published articles for newspapers and magazines.
Instead, they acted as a kind of aide-memoire of his day-to-day life and the words sail off the page: opinionated and lively, savagely honest about his own failings -- his lack of physical prowess, his vile behaviour to people he loves -- and scathingly rude about others; a record of interests in rugby, current affairs and food.
You sense the restlessness of the man and his mind. He reads -- "most days I read three books, today I read five" -- ranging from Kafka to thrillers, to vast histories and Baudelaire, devouring and analysing them with an intensity he rarely brought to his acting, as evidenced by one particularly virulent outbreak in the middle of filming Anne Of A Thousand Days in August 1969.
"I loathe loathe loathe acting. In studios. In England . . . I loathe it, hate it, despise, despise, for Christ's sake, it. Well that has managed to get a little spleen out of my system."
Two principal themes emerge. The first, naturally, is Taylor. "She is a prospectus that can never be entirely catalogued, an almanack for Poor Richard. And I'll love her till I die."
He chronicles her beauty, her little-girl pleasure in jewels and clothes, her moods, her sloven-liness, her kindness. He records his fears for her health, their happiness ("life is a waste without her") -- and their constant rows.
Their fights nearly always occur when he has been in thrall to the other great love of his life, drink. In September 1969, he writes: "We are fighting and have been fighting for a year now over everything and anything. I have always been a heavy drinker but during the last 15 months I have nearly killed myself with the stuff and so has Elizabeth."
He attempts to get on the wagon -- marking drink-free days in red -- but in the later diaries of 1975, after divorce from Taylor, endless days are marked by the word "booze".
Yet to concentrate on the demons that drove Burton is to miss the pleasure of the way he conjures, with such a good eye and ear, the charmed world in which he and Taylor moved, where paparazzi lurked in every bush and a trip to the dentist would be accompanied by applauding crowds.
It is a life of amazing luxury, of suites at the Ritz and jewels as big.
He buys his love the plane they fly in. "She was not displeased."
He talks communism with Tito, politics with Kissinger and love with Maria Callas. ("The Onassises have disappeared completely from the front pages. . . I told Elizabeth that they didn't have our stamina.")
He and Taylor are guests at a Rothschilds' ball where he discovers that a man who "looked like a cadaver when still and a failure of plastic surgery when he moved, which was seldom" was Andy Warhol.
He nearly strangles Princess Grace while trying to help her remove a necklace. "She was in bad trouble as the necklace got twisted up as a result of my inept handling of the clasp as the bloody thing was too tight in the first place."
Burton records his life like a gripping drama, where "tomorrow is always a surprise". You miss him when you put the book down. His is a voice that lingers.