ActivePaper Archive Richard Burton was the only man for screen icon Elizabeth - Irish Independent 1905-current, 24/03/2011

Richard Burton was the only man for screen icon Elizabeth

The Liz I knew


by Peter Evans

Elizabeth Taylor, who died yesterday aged 79, was married eight times – twice to the only man who really knew her, Richard Burton.

I FIRST met Elizabeth Taylor in 1960, when she began filming Cleopatra in London – a production that was abandoned, and later moved to Rome, after she nearly died of pneumonia.

Survival, she liked to say, was her middle name.

In 30 years, she had more than 37 operations, including the removal of a benign brain tumour, congestive heart failure, and hip-joint replacements.

She could be difficult when a leading man, a script or anything else displeased her; she provoked nervous breakdowns in hostesses whose dinners were spoiled by her habitual lateness; producers regularly counted the cost of the delays she caused.


But those who knew her well admired her courage. Her loyalty to old friends was staunch and often puzzling. She stuck by Michael Jackson at the height of his scandal. She did the first big charity show for AIDS when it was still a forbidden topic of conversation in polite circles.

But it was her two marriages to Welsh actor Richard Burton that most people remember, and which will always define her.

They first met on the set of ‘Cleopatra’ in Rome in 1962. “Richard came on the set and sort of sidled over to me and said: ‘Has anyone ever told you that you’re a very pretty girl?’” she recalled of their first encounter. “I thought, ‘Oy, Elizabeth pictured attending a benefit in 2009.

gevalt’,” – she had been married to Mike Todd, the brash Jewish-American showman, whose religion and vernacular she had adopted – “the great lover, the great wit, the great Welsh intellectual, and he comes out with a corny line like that!”

But then she noticed that his hands were shaking, “He was obviously terrified of me. I just took pity on him. I realised he really was human. That was the beginning of our affair.”

From their first screen embrace, it was plain that she and Burton were more than just good friends.

Their affair broke up each other’s marriage – his to former Welsh actress Sybil Williams; Elizabeth’s to the crooner Eddie Fisher. The scandal almost bankrupted the studio 20th Century Fox – though it made Taylor and Burton the hottest couple in Hollywood.

They were still going through the process of their divorces when I caught up with Elizabeth in Mexico, where Burton was making ‘Night of the Iguana’. It was 1963. He was now the top-notch star he had always wanted to be.

Aged 31, with four marriages behind her – the first to hotel heir Nicky Hilton, followed by English actor Michael Wilding, then Mike Todd, and Eddie Fisher – she contemplated marriage to Burton with an equanimity that astonished me. Wasn’t she apprehensive?

“Richard knows me better than any man I’ve known,” she said. “I feel I’m in safe hands.”

The most difficult problem for any actress is trying to understand the difference between reality and make-believe.

“Richard has given me a sense of reality. I’m now, above and beyond anything else, a woman. That’s his gift to me.”

She married Burton in 1964, but it was a tempestuous relationship as well as an enriching one. Together they made 11 films – including the memorable ‘Who’s afraid of Virginia Woolf ?’ – and achieved a kind of corporate notoriety. Privately, and increasingly publicly, too, they were never less than competitive. Only Burton had the temerity to laugh at some of the foolish things she said. Only Elizabeth had the feistiness to ridicule his sexual braggadocio.


In 1974, they divorced. But their addiction to each other remained unchanged. The following year they remarried. One year later they divorced again.

She wed twice more – to US senator John Warner, and to Larry Fortensky, a builder – but neither marriage lasted.

The happiest and most exhilarating years of her life, which began and ended with Richard Burton, were over.

Burton seemed to be speaking for both of them when he told me: “There is an emptiness in my life that only Elizabeth can make less empty. A love affair like ours is never ended – only temporarily abandoned.”

She was increasingly frail in her last years, and only seen in a wheelchair. “I never imagined there’d be such a price to pay for the fun we had,” she said the last time I saw her.

Last year, 25 years after his death, Elizabeth Taylor was asked if she would marry Burton again if that were possible. “In a heartbeat,” she said. I’m told that she died with a picture of Burton by her bedside. (© Daily Telegraph, London)


Stars pay tribute to a great friend and one of the last Hollywood icons

“ELIZABETH’S legacy will live on in many people around the world whose lives will be longer and better because of her work and the ongoing efforts of those she inspired.” – Bill Clinton and Hillary Rodham Clinton

“I don't know what was more impressive, her magnitude as a star or her magnitude as a friend. Her talent for friendship was unmatched.” – Shirley MacLaine

“She was a true star because she not only had beauty and notoriety, Elizabeth Taylor had talent. I'll miss her for the rest of my life, but I was so lucky to have known her.” – Liza Minnelli

“She was the last of the true Hollywood icons, a great beauty, a great actress and fascinating throughout her tumultuous life and career.” – Joan Collins

”She earned our adoration for her stunning beauty and for being the very essence of glamorous movie stardom. And she earned our enduring love and respect for her compassion and her courage in standing up and speaking out about AIDS when others preferred to bury their heads in the sand.” – Elton John

“It's the end of an era. It wasn't just her beauty or her stardom. It was her humanitarianism. She put a face on HIV/AIDS. She was funny. She was generous. She made her life count.” – Barbra Streisand

“Elizabeth Taylor was the last of the Hollywood greats, and a fantastically charming woman.” – George Michael

“She was witty and self-deprecating, which I found surprising and delightful. She loved to laugh.” – Kylie Minogue

“She was just a magnificent woman. She was a great broad and a good friend.” – Whoopi Goldberg

From left: Elizabeth Taylor during filming for ‘National Velvet’ in 1944; in a still from the film ‘Butterfield 8’; pictured holding the Best Actress Oscar for that film in 1960; with first husband Conrad Nicky Hilton; with husband Richard Burton.