"I am forever punished by the gods for being given the fire and trying to put it out," Richard Burton, in Promethean temper, wrote to Elizabeth Taylor in an undated letter. "The fire, of course, is you."
So begins Furious Love, a five-alarm blaze of a biography that enthralls like an Olympian epic, an account of the affair and subsequent marriages — there were two — between the doomed Welshman with the soul-stirring voice and the Hollywood siren with the heart-stopping face.
In its sympathetic chronicle of a dazzling couple whose glitter gradually dulls and whose power struggle devolves into marital stalemate, the book by Sam Kashner and Nancy Schoenberger reads like F. Scott Fitzgerald's Tender Is the Night — but with oceans more booze and conspicuous consumption.
Burton, 27, first noticed Taylor, 21, sunbathing at a Hollywood pool party in 1953. "Her breasts were apocalyptic; they would topple empires," he noted in his diary. Certainly, they had that effect on his personal realm.
Fast forward nine years: In 1962, as the tabloids branded Taylor a home-wrecker (for breaking up Eddie Fisher's marriage to Debbie Reynolds), she took the title role in Joe Mankiewicz's Cleopatra. In it, her character serially lures Caesar (Rex Harrison) and then Antony (Burton) from their marital beds.
Taylor, as many have observed, is a drama queen who has lived her roles and acted her life instead of the other way around. Burton, a womanizer married to the supremely forgiving Sybil Williams, possibly regarded his co-star as the next cut on his much-notched belt.
The inevitable affair, which Burton dubbed "Le Scandale," would break up their marriages and make obsolete the morals clauses in Hollywood contracts. It also, as Kashner and Schoenberger write, would expand the cottage industry of gossip into an empire of "celebrity culture on a scale never before seen."
"Liz and Dick," as they were called in the tabloid headlines, were bigger than silent-film sweethearts Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks, bigger even than Brangelina. The Burton/Taylor binges and brawls and bijous were so epic that coverage of the pair moved from gossip pages to front pages. A letter to the Vatican weekly denounced Taylor for "erotic vagrancy." A U.S. congresswoman from Georgia with the colorful name Iris Blitch asked her colleagues to make Liz and Dick ineligible for re-entry to the United States on the grounds of immorality.
During the limbo between their affair and their eventual marriage, Laurence Olivier, whom Burton was expected to succeed as Britain's greatest actor and with whom he reportedly had a youthful affair, sent his protégé a telegram demanding, "Make up your mind — do you want to be a great actor or a household name?"
"Both," Burton answered, not without hubris. He was bewitched by Taylor's beauty and stardom; she was beguiled by his talent and erudition. They did some splendid work together — Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and The Taming of the Shrew. He did some great work solo: The Night of the Iguana, Becket and The Spy Who Came in From the Cold. In Liz and Dick's first act, his Hollywood career soared and her work was taken more seriously.
Theirs would seem to be a time-honored showbiz transaction: He gave her class and she gave him star quality. They lived on a scale envied by royalty and at a velocity that only race-car drivers enjoyed.
The authors make an excellent case that each deepened the other's craft. Stage-trained Burton learned the art of screen stillness from his bride; Hollywood-bred Taylor, whose voice was high-pitched, especially next to Burton's resonant instrument, learned to deepen her range and her timbre.
Their blended family was symbolized in the Kalizma, the yacht named after his daughter, Kate, her daughter, Liza, and their daughter, Maria. Even when the couple no longer took pleasure in each other, they enjoyed the kids and grandkids.
Magazine writers Kashner and Schoenberger, themselves married, provide a lively account of the compromises and struggles of marriage in general as well as a vivid portrait of this particular two-career marriage on steroids. Sexually, Burton and Taylor delighted in each other (his letters to Taylor are odes to lust and wonder). Professionally, they nursed a mutual jealousy. Despite his talent, Burton felt like a consort to the Hollywood queen (she had two Oscars, he was zero-for-seven). Despite her celebrity, the movies he made without her were far superior to those she made without him. (Although some Taylor films, including Boom! and X, Y, and Zee were miscalculations, Michael Caine, Taylor's co-star in the latter, observed that she "was the only actor I ever worked with who never flubbed a line.")
The couple's epic brawls earned them the epithet "the battling Burtons." Taylor explained, "We both let off steam by bawling at each other. But it means nothing. And we both feel so much better for it." Until they felt so much worse. Their relationship was too hot not to cool down.
Blame it on the alcohol? Privately, Burton did. He confided to a friend that Taylor "didn't exactly encourage me not to drink, but then she complained that I wouldn't stop." During the periods when he did, she continued imbibing with a vengeance. Before long, they began to resemble "two heavyweight champions who had fought each other to exhaustion but couldn't quit," as Burton biographer Melvyn Bragg colorfully put it.
The nadir was in 1972, during a televised interview with David Frost: Both were sozzled. The Liz and Dick show had been on for eight years and now was running on fumes. They couldn't live with each other. They divorced. They couldn't live without each other. They remarried. The first time was tragedy, the sequel a farce. They divorced a second time. Both would wed others.
But the passion — evidenced by Burton's poetic letters, the last written the afternoon of his death — continued to burn.