In l976, I asked Richard Burton to tell me why he fell in love with Elizabeth Taylor and if he could explain their tempestuous relationship. He first married her in l964, then divorced her 10 years later. They made several movies together and, to the world’s amazement, remarried in l975, only to re-divorce a year later.
I spent a week with Burton in Tshipise, a remote region of South Africa, where Burton was making a low-budget adventure movie, The Wild Geese. Burton’s wife at the time, Suzy Hunt, was feeding her husband Cadbury milk chocolate bars and warm coca cola ( a recipe, she said, to ward off cravings of alcohol) and Burton — even stone cold sober — was still firing on all pistons.
“Liz was impossible to live with,” he warmly growled, “and impossible to live without.”
The media has been flooded with memories of Taylor following the legendary star’s death at the age of 79 last week, referencing her prolific career, two Oscars (Butterfield 8 and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf) and the often lurid chronicles of her headline-packed life and loves.
The last time I saw her in person was some two years ago: she was being wheeled into the restaurant at the Kahala Hotel in Honolulu, looking frail but friendly and acknowledging other diners, who were stunned to see her.
Throughout her career, I interviewed her several times: First, on the set of the l965 movie The Sandpiper, which was shot in Big Sur. Then again, a year later when she teamed up with Burton again for Virginia Woolf. In l987, I went to a fake Western town in Arizona, where George Hamilton had persuaded her to play the title role in a small TV movie, Poker Alice.
She was always a good subject and surprisingly outspoken, but the best interview I ever had with her was in l991, when I accompanied her on the road as she “performed” in upscale department stores in Texas and the Midwest to promote her White Diamonds perfume.
This was Taylor remarkably unvarnished. The former child star who had grown up to be bigger than Angelina, Madonna and Lady Gaga all rolled into one, was playing to an audience she adored. They were the women of middle America who yearned to be Elizabeth Taylor and sort of spoke her language. Taylor enjoyed taking questions from the mostly female crowd that was familiar with her high-profile journey. She was comfortable and honest with them, so at times it felt as though she was in their living room just shooting the breeze.
Not surprisingly, questions inevitably strayed from her new scent to common sense about marriage, men and movies.
Why had she married so many times?
Taylor admitted that while the world might see her as a beautiful screen goddess, she was cranky and ribald — and surprise, surprise — naïve and old-fashioned.
“I was too inexperienced to know the right man from the wrong,” she said of her many marriages.
She told me that growing up as she did, whenever she had a relationship with a man, “You just didn’t go out and sleep with him — you got married. Plain and simple. Those were the rules.”
At the same time, she admitted that even in the case of the tortured and talented Burton, she was always a bigger star than the men she married, “and many of the men in my life didn’t want to compete with my fame. It was impossible for them.”
She admitted that looking back at her own life, filled with all those real-life bridal roles, tragedy and movies (most she loved, some she hated), stretched credibility. “I’m a lucky lady,” she said, “but I have paid for that luck with disasters. I’m a survivor.
“Most women can make their mistakes in private,” she said, “but for as long as I can remember, my life was always part of the public domain.”