We didn't need last names.
They were Liz and Dick. Dick and Liz.
Decades ago, Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton were Hollywood royalty for a generation of movie-goers and star-gazers. Their relationship oozed an abundance of every conceivable titillating ingredient, steamed frothy, and we lapped it up like kittens to milk: beauty and talent, distrust and betrayal, booze and barbiturates, unrepentant self-destruction, scandalous and pot-boiling passion.
You could say that Burton and Taylor waged a “Furious Love.”
That’s the ever-so-appropriate title of the new book by William & Mary English Professor and Director of Creative Writing Nancy Schoenberger and husband Sam Kashner, released on June 15 to reviews that glitter like Taylor's legendary diamonds.
Vanity Fair magazine promotes a lengthy inside story by devoting its July cover to one of Liz’s most famous photos, that of her in a low-cut white bathing suit sitting at the shore, water massaging her shapely, porcelain limbs.
People Magazine was impressed with the thoroughness of the work. Canada TV News calls the book “one of the biggest coups in publishing history,” and admires it for its “unsparing account of Hollywood’s first power couple.”
The New York Post called it a “riveting, heart-rending tome.” The Wall Street Journal referred to it as “an entertaining, blow-by-blow account of the life and times of an epic Hollywood couple.”
The tumultuous relationship between the boozy, brilliant, philandering Burton and pill-popping, self-servingly suicidal drama queen ushered in the paparazzi era that magazine and television executives are convinced we can’t get enough of.
Subtitled “Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton and the Marriage of the Century,” what propels this book light years beyond mere regurgitation of well-worn facts is the foundational use of scintillating and sweet exchanges between the foremost Shakespearean actor of his generation and the cinematic Siren some claim to have been the most beautiful ever to walk the earth.
When they began the project three years ago, Schoenberger and Kashner were skeptical regarding how much cooperation – if any – they would receive from the ailing, aging Taylor. She didn’t give interviews, and she maintained a deep-rooted distrust of journalists. But after the authors’ chance encounter with a theatre student was recounted to Taylor, decades-long hurdles were cleared.
During a conversation with said student -- not from W&M Schoenberger hastily adds -- Schoenberger and Kashner mentioned that they were working on a book “on Liz Taylor and her marriage to Burton.”
“ ‘Oh, wow,’ “ came the reply, “ ‘I never knew Elizabeth Taylor was married to Tim Burton.’ ”
“No offense to Tim Burton, who’s a fine director,” Schoenberger said, “but when that story was relayed to Dame Elizabeth, she was horrified. She realized that Burton’s legacy was in danger of being forgotten by whole generations of people so she wanted the world to be reminded of not only what a great stage and screen actor he was, but how much depth he had as a human being and how meaningful that relationship was to her.
“We consider this her final gift to him, because she always said she would never talk about that relationship . . . she didn’t feel like she had to share it with the public.”
Taylor allowed them to read almost 40 love letters the suave Welshman wrote to her, as well as some of his poetry, and to quote from them. Only one letter, which she received on the day she returned from his funeral in 1984, was embargoed.
“These letters show you the depth and heart and passion and intelligence of Richard Burton,” Schoenberger said. “She’s helping bring him back to the public mind and to remind people that this was a full human being and a meaningful, real marriage.”
Liz and Dick actually were married twice – from March 1964 to June 1974, and from October 1975 through July 1976. They met on the set of “Cleopatra” in 1963, at which time Burton, 27, was married to actress Sybil Williams, while Taylor, just 31 and a mega-star, was wed to singer Eddie Fisher. The two began an affair that ended those marriages and led them down the aisle a year later.
The couple made 11 films together during the 13 years they were married. Some were forgettable. Two, however, continue to stand out, and serve as metaphors for their lives together.
The first, and best, is the 1966 version of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? The second, a year later, was The Taming of the Shrew. Taylor won an Oscar for her boisterous, soused portrayal of Martha in ‘Who’s Afraid?” Burton played her younger, equally cantankerous, husband.
“The way I look at it is that ‘Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?’ is the tragic look at a couple who can only express their love through vitriol and anger and hatred, fighting,” Schoenberger explained, describing the hallmark of the Burton-Taylor marriages. “ 'The Taming of the Shrew' is the comedic version of that same dynamic. Burton and Taylor had a real sense of who they were, what their public image was, and they played to it.”
Ultimately and reluctantly, they moved on to other relationships, but only after each carried on extra-marital affairs. Each married twice more, though late in his life Burton makes it painfully clear that he considers his home to be where Taylor is, and yearns for a reconciliation.
“It’s a star-crossed love story, like Romeo and Juliet,” Schoenberger said, “a story for the ages. In the mid-1960s, that love affair was ballyhooed internationally. It’s the most famous example we have had of a widely condemned affair, in an era more socially conservative than ours, in which divorce was considered a moral failing. Even when they divorced and re-married, the interest never went away. They were such amazingly powerful personalities.”
The lesson Schoenberger hopes the book teaches her W&M students is the most basic a young journalist can learn.
“Persevere, don’t assume someone’s not going to talk to you,” she said. “Go and find out. You have to talk to people. Don’t make any conclusions until you have talked to as many people as you can and have done as much research as you can. You’ll be surprised sometimes with what you end up discovering.
"I was proudest of finding and publishing two of Richard Burton's poems, which are quite good. He was a serious student of poetry and an admirer of the Welsh poet Dylan Thomas, his friend and countryman. Burton's narration of Thomas's verse radio play, 'Under Milk Wood,' is scintillating.
"Burton once angered Elizabeth Taylor by announcing, 'I love language more than anything.' "