Their turbulent love story captivated the world, sparking the modern feeding frenzy for celebrity splits, writes John Daly
ON any stroll through the annals of Hollywood break-ups, Liz Taylor’s name crops up repeatedly — the grand dame of divorcees who single-handedly kick-started the modern feeding-frenzy around celebrity splits.
Fifty years ago, on March 6, 1964, she divorced her fourth husband, singer Eddie Fisher — only to marry Richard Burton nine days later. It made headline news across the world — a story so big it knocked astronaut John Glenn’s historic space flight off the front pages. Following a divorce with wife Sybil, the Welsh thespian became husband number five — and there followed a tempestuous union that lasted through a decade of excess, exuberance and frequent bouts of animosity, until the couple finally divorced in 1974. In a classic case of ‘unhappy together, unhappy apart’, the golden couple remarried again the following year, only to call it quits for good in 1976.
Compared to today’s stage managed unions where brigades of PR lackeys carefully siphon information into the 24-hour news cycle, the smouldering passion that was Taylor and Burton erupted spectacularly on the Roman set of Cleopatra and straight into the public eye — a real case of life imitating art as their love scenes bubbled over on the streets of the Eternal City.
“I don’t remember much about making the film,” Taylor deadpanned later. “There were a lot of things going on at the time.” While the world’s eyes were focused exclusively on the pair’s amorous exploits, the star who won an Oscar for Butterfield 8 four years previously broke the glass ceiling in Cleopatra by becoming the first actress to be paid $1 million for a starring role, plus a share of the profits. Years later when Julia Roberts became the first actress to make $20 million a movie, Taylor remarked, “I started that.”
Taylor’s affair with Burton was all the more scandalous, not just for the very public manner in which it unfolded in the gaze of the world’s press, but also because she’d been down this road before. When her second husband, Mike Todd, was killed in a plane crash, her married friends, Debbie Reynolds and Eddie Fisher, took her into their home at the height of her grief. The end result was the break-up of their marriage, with Liz stealing her best friend’s husband.
“I guess you felt Liz should always have a husband, even if it was yours,” Debbie said with typical understatement when Eddie fell headlong after Hollywood’s biggest star. Both women eventually mended their friendship many years later, with Debbie a regular visitor at Taylor’s Bel Air mansion in the weeks leading up to her death in March, 2011.
In her will, Taylor left her former rival a set of sapphire earrings, necklace and bracelet. Fisher, who went on to have relationships with Juliet Prowse, Kim Novak, Mia Farrow and Connie Stevens, often claimed that his marriage to Taylor had improved his sex life in the long term — with everyone assuming he must have had something special to have captured such a legendary beauty.
“Taylor stood apart, revelling in her ability to fascinate, to scandalise, to provoke,” wrote William J Mason, in his biography, How To Be A Movie Star: Elizabeth Taylor In Hollywood. “Swathed in mink, sailing aboard yachts, discarding husbands nearly as frequently as she changed her diamond earrings; rewriting the rules as she went along, inverting paradigms, defying conventions, beating expectations, and laying down the yardstick by which celebrity has been measured ever since.” Or, as Camille Paglia put it: “An electric, erotic charge vibrates in the space between her face and the lens. It is an extrasensory, pagan phenomenon.”
Comparisons were made between Taylor and Ingrid Bergman — “the fresh-faced girl, dignified and gracious,” who represented everything good that America loved, but whose affair with director Roberto Rossellini transformed her into “the foulest of sinners” condemned in churches, schools, and even on the floor of the US Senate. Such was the public outcry, Bergman was forced into exile for a decade.
Elizabeth Taylor had a different relationship with her fans. “I don’t pretend to be an ordinary housewife,” she once declared, crystallising the core of her appeal. While other Hollywood goddesses played the game of ‘being just like ordinary folk’, Liz was never, ever going down that road. For her, life would be extraordinary or nothing at all. Even at the height of her affair with Burton, she never opted to communicate through assistants, instead meeting the press head-on with only a smile and pearls as protection. “I try not to live a lie,” she told one reporter. “I can’t be hypocritical just to protect my public.”
Even when she agreed to pose for Playboy — one of the first Hollywood stars to do so — her fan base only loved her all the more, with academics later hailing such daring as one of the earliest shots fired in the sexual revolution, years ahead of Woodstock. As the filming on Cleopatra continued to drag, the frequent sightings of ‘Dick & Liz’, as they were now dubbed by the press, kept the world’s attention firmly focused on ‘America’s queen’ and ‘the greatest actor of his generation’.
One banner headline on the Los Angeles Herald screamed: ‘Liz and Burton Frolic in Rome — Kiss, Dance’ — and all during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Even Burton was staggered by the attention: “How did I know she was so f—-ing famous?” he once exclaimed. Even his marriage to Sybil, a union that had survived his philandering for years, couldn’t resist the force of nature that was Elizabeth Taylor. “I have been inordinately lucky all my life, but the greatest luck of all has been Elizabeth,” he wrote in his diary. “She is a wildly exciting lover-mistress, beautiful beyond the dreams of pornography, and I’ll love her till I die.” The attraction was mutual, if driven by different motors. “Richard is a very sexy man,” she told a reporter on the Cleopatra set. “He’s got that sort of jungle essence, and it’s the most wonderful thing that’s ever happened to me. Each day is better than the last.”
After the non-stop paparazzi attention, much of the pair’s subsequent decade together was punctuated by an impulse that defined much of Taylor’s life — diamonds. “Big girls need big diamonds,” she famously said, and Burton was only too pleased to deliver. When the 69-carat Cartier diamond went for auction in New York on October 23, 1969, there were only two real bidders — Aristotle Onassis and Richard Burton. As the bidding climbed closer to $1 million, each millionaire’s agent kept bidding it higher. Burton eventually won the pear-sized gem with a bid of $1.1 million — an unheard of price at the time. A year earlier, Burton had bought Liz the famous Krupp diamond, which she wore to a New York party for Princess Margaret. Aware that the Queen’s sister had privately described the gem as “the most vulgar thing I’ve ever seen”, Liz innocently asked the royal if she’d like to try it on. As the Princess slipped the ring on her finger, the Queen of Hollywood looked her in the eye and smiled: “Doesn’t look so vulgar now, does it?”