It was a love affair matched only in fiction. Heathcliff and Cathy, Romeo and Juliet, Taylor and Burton. She was the ultimate Hollywood star, he the greatest Shakespearian actor of his generation. Mesmerising apart, irresistible together.
Theirs was an affair spelled out in his remarkable, vivid letters and diary entries, and in jewels -- including the pear-shaped 69.42carat wonder known as the Taylor-Burton Diamond, now to be auctioned in New York on December 13, along with other treasures of her estate. First given by the Indian emperor who built the Taj Mahal to his young bride, and engraved with the message "Eternal Love Til Death", Richard Burton outbid Aristotle Onassis for what was then the largest, most expensive diamond in the world -- tangible proof of the love in which he invested so much.
The remarkable affair with Elizabeth Taylor was so all-consuming that it nearly did for them both, financially and physically. The long years of loving, fighting, drinking and partying took their toll, while proving beyond a doubt that, despite the intensity of feeling, this was a love that never worked as a marriage, although they tried it twice. Each time it foundered in domesticity, possibly unable to bear the inevitable grind of housekeeping, even where that involved an absurd extravaganza of hotel suites, yachts, old masters and couture. But, despite the recent snappy insistence by Burton's fourth wife, Sally Hay, that he never wrote the famous last letter to Liz, that love affair was the real deal, the kind of thing of which every teenage girl dreams.
Whether he wrote that last contentious letter or not (and Sally insists that at the time he was supposed to have penned it, he was already dying, nursed by her, and couldn't have), Burton was never slow or inarticulate in expressing his love for the woman he described, exuberantly, after their first meeting, as "so extraordinarily beautiful that I nearly laughed out loud. She... [was] famine, fire, destruction and plague... the only true begetter".
He wrote to her constantly during their years together -- sometimes even when she was asleep in the next room, bending all his instinctive understanding of poetry, drama and history to the business of describing the feelings she inspired in him. Along with the earthy expression of his desire -- "I lust after your smell ... and your round belly and the exquisite softness of the inside of your thighs and your baby-bottom and your giving lips & the half-hostile look in your eyes when you're deep in rut with your little Welsh stallion" -- is a far more poignant kind of adoration: "In my poor and tormented youth, I had always dreamed of this woman. And now, when this dream occasionally returns, I extend my arm, and she is here ... by my side. If you have not met or known her, you have lost much in life."
To the end, he could never quite believe -- despite all his worldly, financial and romantic success -- that this great Hollywood diva, a child star who effortlessly became a glorious adult, should love him.
Richard Burton was born Richard Jenkins, the 12th of 13 children, in 1925, to a working-class, Welsh-speaking family. His mother died less than two years later, giving birth to her 13th child, and Richard was largely brought up by his sister and her husband. His father, a coal miner, Richard later described as looking "much like me...That is, he was pockmarked, devious, and smiled a great deal when he was in trouble. He was, also, a man of extraordinary eloquence, tremendous passion, great violence".
By the time he was 12, Richard was smoking and drinking. Though bright and able at school, where he excelled at English, sport and singing, he left aged 16, in need of full-time work. He joined the Air Corps as a cadet. There he met a former teacher, Philip Burton, now squad commander, who later took on Richard as his ward, because he recognised his talent, because he longed for a protege to fulfil the acting ambitions he was never able to realise (although he was a successful writer, producer and director), and because his first protege, Owen Jones, was killed in the Battle of Britain. In Richard Jenkins, he saw scope for his frustrated dreams, and Richard, who took his name by deed poll, later said: "I owe him everything."
Philip worked Richard hard, teaching him a love of literature and drama that was to last his life -- he was rarely without a bag full of plays, poems and novels, and could recite by heart huge chunks of Shakespeare.
He also drummed into him a subtlety then lacking, despite the ferocious talent -- "You don't have to use a sledgehammer, a gentle tap will do the trick," was his refrain. He gave Richard the only elocution lessons, showing him how to soften the Welsh accent, yet still retain its force. The only breach in the friendship came when Richard left Sybil Williams, his first wife, an actress he met on the set of his first film, The Last Days of Dolwyn, for Elizabeth. The two did not speak for nearly four years and were reconciled only when Liz intervened.
The contrast between Richard's hand-to-mouth, self-reliant upbringing, and Elizabeth's tricky but pampered childhood -- riding wild ponies on her godfather's estate in Kent, moving to Hollywood before the outbreak of the Second World War, with her art-dealer father and former actress mother, a huge star by the age of 12 after National Velvet -- could not be more marked. But there was more in common than may be immediately apparent. Both were pushed hard by the adults around them (for Elizabeth it was her mother, who planned big for her daughter from very early on). Both struck financial independence very early -- Elizabeth was the family's main earner by her early teens -- and learned to face an uncertain life with guts and humour.
The fatal meeting -- on the set of Cleopatra -- was actually their second encounter. The first, at a party, was characterised by Taylor "totally ignoring" Burton, deliberately as it turned out.
"He was rather full of himself. I seem to remember that he never stopped talking, and I had given him the cold-fish eye," she recalled. He was already then hailed as the finest actor of his generation, his remarkable looks, vocal range and that ability to pour his soul into the parts he played, were recognised fully after his role as Prince Hal in Henry IV Part I, and he came to Hollywood as a star, although not one of the calibre of Elizabeth, who asked for $1m for her role in Cleopatra, and was amazed to get it.
"If someone's dumb enough to offer me a million dollars to make a picture, I'm certainly not dumb enough to turn it down," she said.
A quirk of fate cast them together -- Burton replaced Stephen Boyd as Mark Anthony -- and his legendary Welsh charm almost instantly captivated Elizabeth, even though she had promised herself she would not fall for him.
"Has anyone ever told you that you're a very pretty girl?" he asked her, with calculated audacity. To which her response was: "I said to myself, Oy gevalt, here's the great lover, the great wit, the great intellectual of Wales, and he comes out with a line like that." It was Burton's first day of shooting, and he was badly hungover. He ordered a cup of coffee but could not drink it, because his hands were trembling so badly. And so Elizabeth stepped in. "I had to help it to his mouth, and that just endeared him to me. I thought, well, he really is human ... so vulnerable and sweet and shaky and terribly giggly."
The chemistry happened in a flash -- their first screen kiss carried on considerably longer than the cameras rolled, and they were soon making love everywhere, in dressing rooms, boats, borrowed apartments, and a photographer's studio.
The sexual charge between them was so intense as to be practically visible; to Elizabeth, right to the end, he was "magnificent in every sense of the word... and in everything he did. He was magnificent on the stage, he was magnificent in film, he was magnificent at making love... at least to me", while he considered her "a true miracle of construction and the work of an engineer of genius", in particular those extraordinary "apocalyptic" breasts, as he called them. Even though he could be highly critical of her looks -- once saying "she has... a double chin and an overdeveloped chest, and she's rather short in the leg" -- his response to her sex appeal was an inevitable, irresistible capitulation.
Burton was still married to Sybil with whom he had three daughters, although he cheated constantly, often with several women a week, while Elizabeth was then on her fourth husband, Eddie Fisher, who was first married to actress and singer Debbie Reynolds (and father of Carrie Fisher, who recently said of Liz that she "regarded men more as donors of jewels than as sexual partners").
The annexing of Eddie from Debbie had already tarnished Elizabeth's image among the idealistic American movie-going public, and her affair with Burton tipped things right over the edge for a while. Ed Sullivan intoned on his TV show: "You can only trust that youngsters will not be persuaded that the sanctity of marriage has been invalidated by the appalling example of Mrs Taylor-Fisher and married man Burton." Certainly there were many -- even friends -- who were appalled by the recklessness of the affair.
Sybil never spoke to Burton again, although he continued to pay money to her and the girls, as well as a retinue of hangers-on and dependents, throughout his life (he once supported 42 people in one capacity or another).
But TV presenter Sullivan may as well have warned people away from watching the moon landings. The public's fascination with the Taylor-Burton affair was overwhelming. Whatever appeal each had separately was simply magnified by the combination. They were good for each other in many ways -- she learned a love of poetry and literature from him, a way to appreciate anew the world around her, while he claimed she taught him everything he knew about film acting. But they were also explosive and often destructive together, indulging in crazy spending sprees, long drinking bouts and epic rows, followed by just as noisy and public makings-up.
The couple married (for the first time) in Montreal in 1964, and spent a decade on a kind of worldwide travelling roadshow, transporting a retinue of children (they had seven between them, and one, Maria, they adopted together), badly trained animals (including a turtle), tutors, hairdressers and hangers-on.
They had a fleet of Rolls-Royces, a jet, paintings by Picasso, Monet, Van Gogh and Rembrandt, a horse farm, Ballycullen Lodge, in Wicklow, an estate in the Canary Islands, a villa in Mexico, and houses in Gstaad, Hampshire and Celigny. They bought a 130ft seven-bedroom yacht, Kalizma (which they delighted in mooring alongside Onassis's Cristina), but usually still chose to stay in hotel suites, booking out entire floors, and ordering room service from different countries; pork sausages from Fortnum & Mason in London while staying at the Ritz in Paris.
It was absurd and endearing in almost equal measure, largely because they were also generous to whatever causes caught their fancy -- giving large sums to charities including $1m in 1966 to establish a heart research foundation in memory of Montgomery Clift, Taylor's co-star in A Place in the Sun (who, though gay, said: "Liz is the only woman I have ever met who turns me on."). They also made films together, most very forgettable, but two classics. Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, for which Taylor won her second Oscar, finally harnessed the explosive energy between them, while Franco Zeffirelli's The Taming of the Shrew a few years later again provided the magic formula to exploit their chemistry.
But Burton's drinking and womanising, by then pretty compulsive, and extending to almost every woman he met, including the wives of friends, co-stars and even very young girls, was a relentless source of conflict. Elizabeth drank too -- and often boasted that she could drink her husband under the table -- but was never as badly affected by it as he was, nor was she as bothered by the downside of fame: the scrutiny, the headlines, the selling of stories. Burton was increasingly bitter about the film roles he felt forced to take in order to keep the show on the road, and the often-underwhelming performances he turned in. The insecurity made him vulnerable to flattery and desperate to prove his appeal with endless conquests, many of which he barely troubled to conceal, though he was invariably contrite when caught.
"I know I'm a terrible liar sometimes, but please believe that I have never betrayed either in word or deed the physical you or the mental you. I simply love you too much. I flatter and am flattered and both too easily. It's only a question of booze. I behaved like an idiot... I deserve all the injury that you can inflict, and I will take it as long as you stay with me -- Husbs (I hope)," he wrote after yet another betrayal.
The rows that had started almost in jest, as a kind of foreplay, became more frequent and more bitter. The teasing names they had for each other -- "my little Jewish tart," and "twit twaddle" for her, "old shoot" and "Charlie charm" for him -- were uttered more in earnest, with Burton in particular giving in to long, vicious booze-fuelled rants.
"There were too many differences. I have tried everything," Taylor sadly told a Swiss court in 1974, while filing for divorce. Burton continued to write to her, long, sometimes daily, letters, pouring out his heart, vowing love forever, begging her to come back -- "You have an enormous responsibility, because if you leave me I shall have to kill myself. There is no life without you, I'm afraid" -- while at the same time beginning affairs with several other woman, including an 18-year-old waitress, a mother-of-three whose husband threatened to shoot him, and Princess Elizabeth of Yugoslavia.
Barely a year later they met again, ostensibly to discuss the divorce settlement, and, both moved to tears by the reunion, literally fell into each other's arms again. The second marriage came after a long night of agony as Elizabeth waited for the results of an X-ray that seemed to show she had lung cancer. When morning brought good news, he went down on one knee in the joy of the moment and proposed. They allowed optimism to triumph over experience, and were married again on the banks of a river in Botswana, after which Elizabeth wrote one of her rare notes: "We are stuck like chicken feathers to tar -- for lovely always. Do you realise we shall grow old together, and I know the best is yet to be! Yours truly, Wife."
But of course it wasn't. In fact, nothing was resolved or changed. The love was there, but had always been there, and the other problems remained too. Burton continued to drink, to rant and to carouse, while Elizabeth suffered increasingly from the back and neck pain, as well as the addiction to painkillers, that were to dominate the rest of her life. Her career was floundering and her need for Richard became oppressive.
Just a few months into the second marriage, he met Suzy Hunt, then divorcing racing driver James Hunt. Tall, blonde and sporty, she was the total antithesis to Elizabeth, and in her Burton saw new possibilities, a new start, away from the destructive cycle of his relationship with Liz, in which drink fuelled rows, which in turn fuelled more drink, all increasingly bitter and pointless.
The second marriage didn't quite last a year. Within three weeks of the divorce, Burton married Suzy, while Liz later married Republican Senator John Warner. Both went on to marry again, Richard to Sally Hay, Elizabeth to construction worker Larry Fortensky, but the old magic between them remained, as well as the old antagonism. Whenever they met, as they continued to do sporadically, that spark would rapidly ignite, often visibly affecting those around them. Burton mostly gave up drinking, steadied by the influence first of Suzy and then Sally, but in 1984 a night out with John Hurt was followed by a cerebral haemorrhage. He died two days later, aged 58.
Taylor didn't attend the funeral -- she claimed it was because she didn't want to turn it into a media circus, although Sally Hay insists she did not invite her -- but turned up at the graveside alone, a few days later, to say farewell to the man of whom she later said: "In my heart, I will always believe we would have been married a third and final time... from those first moments in Rome we were always madly and powerfully in love."
Whether Burton did indeed write her a final letter, saying that he was happiest when with her, and that he wanted to "come home", as she later claimed -- a letter apparently buried with her -- can't be known. That theirs was a great and glorious love, as irreversible as it was impossible, is beyond doubt.
The Collection of Elizabeth Taylor Auction, December 13-16 , Christie's, New York