Monday 18 November 2019

A diamond bigger than the Ritz: A look back at the volatile passion of Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton

Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton had a marriage - two, actually - played out in headlines, paparazzi flashbulbs, and gems, including one of the biggest diamonds in the world, that Burton bought for her 50 years ago this month

Elizabeth wears the dazzling Taylor-Burton diamond
Elizabeth wears the dazzling Taylor-Burton diamond

Emily Hourican

One of the many stories Elizabeth Taylor told about herself - each an ingenious mix of self-deprecating and legend-enhancing - is that, when born, she didn't open her eyes for eight days, and that when she finally did, the first thing she saw was an engagement ring, after which, "I was hooked".

Whatever the first bite, there is no doubting the effect. Hooked she was, racking up a collection of jewellery that set a world record when sold in December 2011. Most of it was gifted to her, by her seven husbands, with many of the most beautiful pieces given by husband number five, Richard Burton.

Burton gave her diamonds the way lesser men give flowers - casually, constantly, often on a whim, surprising the woman he described as "so extraordinarily beautiful that I nearly laughed out loud. She... [was] famine, fire, destruction and plague". The jewels cost millions.

So it is with the Taylor-Burton diamond, as it's known - reputedly a 241 carats diamond before it received a pear-shape cut - which sold at auction in New York on October 23 1969. Burton was in England at the time, and sent his lawyer to bid, setting a price of $1m. He outbid Aristotle Onassis, but the diamond reached the million-dollar mark, and his lawyer had no instruction to go further.

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The stone sold for $1.05m, to Cartier jewellers, and Burton, when he found out, went mad. "I wanted that diamond because it is incomparably lovely... and it should be on the loveliest woman in the world. I would have had a fit if it went to Jackie Kennedy or Sophia Loren or Mrs Huntingdon Misfit of Dallas, Texas," he later said. He sent his lawyer back with instructions to get the stone, at any cost. "I was going to get that diamond if it cost me my life or $2m whichever was the greater. For 24 hours the agony persisted and in the end I won. I got the bloody thing".

And really, who could blame him? Liz Taylor was, as well as a talented actor and great beauty, the perfect physical canvas for the kind of extravagant, showy jewels she favoured (one of which, a diamond and sapphire brooch, was sold by Sotheby's Hong Kong last week, estimated at between US$1.7m and $2.3m). Anyone else would have been utterly eclipsed by the sheer bling and dazzle of the huge stones she wore, but Taylor carried them off perfectly. No matter what kind of sparkle she wore, she herself sparkled more intensely.

By the time she died, in 2011 aged 79, she had lived through two very distinct eras. In fact, she was the last real link between old Hollywood, and modern celebrity. Famous across the world from the age of 12 when she made National Velvet, she was the ideal of old-style cinematic glamour as Rebecca in the studio classic Ivanhoe, morphing into something more modern in her portrayal of smouldering sexual maturity in Cat On A Hot Tin Roof, and ending with a cameo in daytime TV soap General Hospital, while updating fans on her health via Twitter in the last years of her life.

Unlike so many of her contemporaries, Taylor neither crashed and burned, nor did she dwindle. Probably, she should have been one of the many casualties of the studio system in which she started so young, and her own pushy mother (described by one Hollywood executive as "one of the most unbearable women it has been my displeasure to meet"). A Judy Garland or Greta Garbo. Somehow, she wasn't.

Something in her own make-up, the ability to be both supremely grand and sharply humourous, saved her. Asked some years before her death what she would like carved on her gravestone, she responded, "Here lies Elizabeth. She hated being called Liz. But she lived". It's almost a haiku, a funny little rendering of her life and fame, set within the proper context of an eternity in which all achievements are diminished.

By the time Elizabeth met Richard Burton, she was 30 years old, and had already been married four times. First, when she was 18 to 23-year-old playboy Conrad 'Nicky' Hilton (great-grandfather of Paris), in a whirlwind marriage that lasted just eight months, and looked very much like an escape route from the combined pressure of being America's sweetheart, her family's main earner, and the focus for her mother's frustrated ambitions.

She may have been looking to escape a tense and emotionally neglectful home life, but the young Elizabeth seems to have gone from frying pan to fire - citing cruelty, neglect and excessive drinking as the reasons for the marriage ending. There were even rumours that Nicky beat her so badly on their honeymoon that she lost the baby she was carrying.

After Nicky, she chose "the calm and quiet and security of friendship", marrying British actor Michael Wilding, who was 20 years older than her and with whom she had, she said, more of a brother-sister relationship. Even so, the couple had two boys, divorcing in 1956. Barely months later, she married film and theatre producer Mike Todd. When he died, after his private plane, the Lucky Liz, crashed with no survivors, she married - apparently in grief - his friend and best man at their wedding, Eddie Fisher, who, when they started their affair, was still married to actress and singer Debbie Reynolds.

That turned the public sour on Elizabeth, spinning her from sweetheart and grieving widow to homewrecker. Her film roles had changed dramatically by then, from the clear-eyed innocence of her childhood roles, to the kind of sultry, sexually voracious, grown-up parts she took on in Cat on A Hot Tin Roof and BUtterfield 8, in which she played a high-class call girl. Three years after marrying Fisher, Taylor was in Italy filming Cleopatra (for which she was paid $1m, in a deal that made her the highest-paid performer for a single film in the history of Hollywood to that date. Apparently, she said, "If someone's dumb enough to offer me $1m to make a picture, I'm certainly not dumb enough to turn it down"). By then she had married once for escape, once for security, once for fun and once in grief. Now, it was time for love.

The first time the couple met, briefly at a party some years before Cleopatra, Elizabeth ignored Burton, very deliberately. "He was rather full of himself," she said. "I seem to remember that he never stopped talking, and I had given him the cold fish eye."

At their second meeting, on set, Burton, playing Mark Antony and by then at the height of his fame and talent, asked her "Has anyone ever told you that you're a very pretty girl?". Taylor at first was unamused by the faintly sarcastic nature of his approach, but took pity on him a few minutes later when she saw how badly his hands were shaking - he was so hungover, he could barely hold a coffee cup. She helped steady the cup, and really, that was that. Their first onscreen kiss went on long after the cameras stopped rolling and the director shouted 'cut'. Many years later, after the second divorce, she said: "When I saw him on the set of Cleopatra, I fell in love and I have loved him ever since." He, most ungallantly, is reported to have once proclaimed in the men's makeup trailer, "Gentlemen, I've just f****d Elizabeth Taylor in the back of my Cadillac!"

Nevertheless - and despite the affair being condemned by the Vatican weekly paper for its "erotic vagrancy" - it seems to have been the first relationship in which Taylor was a person rather than a beautiful celebrity (Burton always said that she taught him more about screen acting than any coach).

She said: "Richard enriched my life in different ways, internal journeys into feelings and thoughts. He taught me poetry and literature, and introduced me to worlds of beauty. He made me laugh. He made me cry. He explored areas in me that I knew existed but which had never been touched. There was never a dull moment. I loved Richard through two marriages and until the day he died."

It was a curious kind of romance, at once absurd and earthy. Between them they had six children, and adopted one more together. He liked her to play wife and cook scrambled eggs for him, and yet they moved between homes in America, Ireland (Wicklow), Mexico, Switzerland, the Canary Islands and England, with a travelling roadshow of tutors, hairdressers, animals (including a bad-tempered turtle at one point) and various hangers-on. They had a fleet of Rolls Royces, a private jet, paintings by Picasso, Monet, Van Gogh and Rembrandt.

At one stage they bought a seven-bedroom yacht in an attempt to save money, but usually ended up staying in hotel suites anyway. They booked out entire floors, often ordering room service from different countries, including pork sausages from Fortnum & Mason in London while staying at the Ritz in Paris.

Taylor may have been brought up like royalty, but Burton emphatically was not.

He was born Richard Jenkins in 1925, 12th of 13 children, to a working-class, Welsh-speaking family. His father was a coal miner. 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, earning scraps of money by running messages and hauling horse manure. He was the first of his family to go to secondary school.

From youth theatre and school plays he progressed to small parts in fringe theatres, and then to film and larger stages. Of his Hollywood debut, critic Hedda Hopper said "the most exciting success story since Gregory Peck", and yet the troublesome dilemma of his career began early. Burton was a far better stage actor than film actor, but film was where the money was. As Humphrey Bogart said to him when Burton agonised over whether to return to London and play Hamlet at the Old Vic: "I never knew a man who played Hamlet who didn't die broke."

Money mattered to Burton, whose extravagance was legendary.

During the 1960s, Burton and Taylor between them earned a combined $88m causing Burton to quip that "They say we generate more business activity than one of the smaller African nations". They made a series of forgettable films together, and a couple of enduring classics, most notably Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

But the strain of compromising, and prostituting - so Burton felt - his talent, along with the heavy drinking both indulged in, and Taylor's increasing dependence on painkillers first prescribed after she fell from her horse while making National Velvet, began to play out in epic rows. These were, at first anyway, as much a part of the legendary passion as the displays of affection, but as the years went on, the rows became more bitter, less easily resolved, until in 1974, Taylor sadly told a Swiss divorce court "There were too many differences. I have tried everything".

Just over a year later, Taylor was warned she might have cancer after spots on her lungs were discovered during an x-ray. Through a long, dark night, she and Burton consoled and supported each other, whispering love and poetry together. In the morning, buoyed up by an all-clear, he proposed marriage again, and they re-took their vows by the banks of a river in Botswana. But second time wasn't a charm. All the old problems remained, and barely months later they separated again.

She went on to marry Republican politician John Warner, but political life in Washington bored her. She divorced him, then was briefly engaged to a Mexican lawyer and a New York businessman before meeting her seventh - and final - husband, construction worker Larry Fortensky, at the Betty Ford Center. They were married at Michael Jackson's Neverland Ranch in 1991.

By then, Burton was long dead. He died, in 1984, of a brain haemorrhage (the same thing that killed his father) aged 58. At that stage, and despite repeated efforts to dry out, he was drinking a reported three or four bottles of hard alcohol a day - "to burn up the flatness, the stale, empty, dull deadness that one feels when one goes offstage" - and smoking in excess of 60 cigarettes.

Elizabeth didn't go to the funeral. Instead she went to his grave quietly a few days later, alone, to honour the man with whom she was always "madly and powerfully in love". The two had spoken about being buried together, but Burton's widow Sally Hay (a month after his second divorce from Taylor, he married Suzy Miller, former wife of Formula 1 driver James Hunt, followed by make-up artist Sally), was rumoured to have speedily bought the plot next to Burton's and to have erected a large headstone across both, presumably to make sure Taylor wasn't buried there.

When Cleopatra, the film that brought the two together, was first released, Fox sued Burton and Taylor for allegedly damaging the film's prospects at the box office with their affair. The lawsuit was unsuccessful. And in fact, the counter argument could so easily have been made - that together, they were greater than the sum of parts; their impossible, undeniable love was enough to ensure iconic status beyond anything their careers alone could have brought them.


The Regent: Considered the purest and most beautiful of diamonds, this was found by an Indian slave in 1701, and weighed 410 carats in the rough. The slave apparently hid the stone and escaped with it, only to be robbed and killed by an English sea captain. Thomas Pitt, forbearer to two prime ministers, bought the diamond and smuggled it back to England. It was sold to the Duke of Orleans, named The Regent and set in the crown Louis XV wore at his coronation. After the French revolution, it was owned by Napoleon, who set it in the hilt of his sword. It is now in the Louvre.


The Blue Hope: Most notorious of diamonds, the Hope (a rare blue colour due to trace amounts of boron atoms) has a reputation for bringing bad luck to all who possess it. Once owned by Louis XIV, it was stolen during the French Revolution, turned up in London in 1830 and was bought by a London banker, Henry Philip Hope, after whom it is currently named. After buying the diamond, Hope lost all his money and his family died in poverty. The next owner, Edward McLean, died in a mental institution. The stone is now in the Smithsonian Institution in Washington.


The Koh-I-Noor: Otherwise known as the Mountain of Light, weighing 105.6 carats, this is another stone that carries tales of evil luck - if worn by a man. Which is why the diamond, now part of the British Crown Jewels, is only ever worn by female members of the family. It is on public display in the Jewel House at the Tower of London, but the governments of India and Pakistan have both claimed ownership.


The Great Moghul: The missing diamond. This was found around 1650 in southern India, given to Shah Jahan, the fifth Mughal emperor, then became part of the spoils of war when Mughal India was invaded by the Persian ruler Nadir Shah. Nadir Shah returned home with the stone but was assassinated in 1747 and the stone disappeared. It has only ever popped up since in Conan Doyle's novel The Sign of the Four.

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