Who’s afraid of the toxic diaries?

Suzanne Harrington reads Richard Burton’s just published diaries — and reveals what they expose about one of Hollywood’s most notorious marriages.

Who’s afraid of the toxic diaries?

SOME private diaries might best be kept private, and the actor Richard Burton’s is one of them. Like the man himself — an alcoholic who smoked 100 cigarettes a day — they are decidedly toxic.

Published this month by his fourth wife almost 30 years after his death in 1984 from a brain haemorrhage aged 57, the diaries are acidic — which is why they are receiving so much attention. The writings, or bitchfest, began when Burton was 14, and continued until his death. But gossip aside, perhaps their merit lies in the writing — Burton may have famously come from an unpatrician Welsh background, but both his intellect and talent for self expression — via the written and spoken word — were enormous. He was not always kind, however.

Laurence Olivier, wrote Burton to himself, was ‘a shallow little man with a mediocre intelligence’, while Marlon Brando was ‘a sober self-indulgent obese fart’. Maria Callas was a ‘bore’ and Lucille Ball ‘a monster of staggering charmlessness and monumental lack of humour’. Franco Zeffirelli was ‘a ruthless, selfish, multi-faced ego-mad coward’, and the actor Anthony Quayle had ‘tiny button eyes in a great arse of a face’. Michael Parkinson ‘lost his talent as a promising writer’ and the photographer Terry O’Neill was ‘very little, very scruffy’. He told Wallis Simpson to her face that she was ‘the most vulgar woman I have ever met’. Princess Margaret’s social circle were ‘a snob-ridden load of shits’ and Wallis Simpson’s husband, the Duke of Windsor, was ‘gaga’.

It goes on. He wasn’t keen on the wives of Rex Harrison — at a party, one ‘lay on the floor and barked like a dog’ while another was ‘not just a harumscarum shouter and bawler but a devious minx on the make’ who ‘looked ugly with dissipation’. Which is ironic coming from an actor whose ugliness in dissipation was equalled only by his despair:

“I don’t know why I drink. I don’t even like it.” One biographer, Michael Munn, suggests in his 2008 book Richard Burton: Prince Of Players that Burton drank to drown out his latent homosexuality. Another biographer, Paul Ferris, quoted Burton directly, about his sexuality: “We cover it up with drink.” Who knows.

Obviously, the bits of the Burton diaries people are interested in most are the references to his relationship with Elizabeth Taylor. So entwined are the two names that his could never stand alone once it had been linked with hers; two passionate addicts destructively addicted to each other, playing out their amour fou in public over and over again. The public glamorised the couple further, imagining them to be the kind of perfect lovers they could never be in reality.

The diaries, therefore, are not always nice about Burton’s former wife whom he married and divorced twice. Early on, of course, they were crazy in love, here is an entry from 1968:

“I have been inordinately lucky all my life but the greatest luck of all has been Elizabeth. She has turned me into a moral man but not a prig, she is a wildly exciting lover-mistress, she is shy and witty, she is nobody’s fool, she is a brilliant actress, she is beautiful beyond the dreams of pornography, she can be arrogant and willful, she is clement and loving, Dulcis Imperatrix, she is Sunday’s child, she can tolerate my impossibilities and my drunkenness, she is an ache in the stomach when I am away from her, and she loves me!”

His previous marriage and long term relationships are dismissed, his exes ‘as alien as strangers’, as he continues to be blinded by Taylor:

“What an extraordinary world it is……Elizabeth is an eternal one night stand. She is my private and personal bought mistress. And lascivious with it. It is impossible to tell you what is consisted in the act of love. Well I’ll tell you, E is a receiver, a perpetual returner of the ball! I don’t write about sex very often, because it embarrasses me, but, but…”

Perhaps it was the weariness of living in the shadow of her husband’s former wife which prompted Sally Hay — the last wife — to publish the diaries.

When asked why she did so, she replied to the Telegraph: “What was I going to do — burn them? It would be incorrect to have rid the world of them just because they centre on Elizabeth — I can’t deny that the relationship happened or that it was a very important part of Richard’s life. But I am very confident of my relationship with Richard. Very confident.”

Hay never remarried after Burton’s death, despite being 35 when he died (she’s 64 now). She barely gets a mention in the diaries. This is because as far as the public were concerned, Burton only ever had one wife worth talking about.

Taylor was married to Burton from 1964 to 1974, and from 1975 to 1976, he had previously been married to Sybil Williams from 1949 to 1963, and married model Susan Hunt in 1976, a month after his second divorce from Taylor. They too divorced in 1982, a year before he married Sally Hay. Clearly, he was a man who disliked being alone.

Burton and Taylor were the great screen couple of the mid twentieth century, their stormy relationship mirrored in perhaps their greatest acting collaboration — no, not Cleopatra — the classic Edward Albee play Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf about a married couple, permanently either drunk or half drunk, locked in a love-hate relationship which neither feels able to exit.

In real life, the couple finally parted after their second attempt at marriage failed, but they continued to work together, even as Burton married Sally Hay, his make up artist. The three of them toured America together in 1983, for a production of Noel Coward’s Private Lives. By then Burton’s diary entries were disdainful of Taylor: “ET impossibly sloshed all day long. So much so she couldn’t even read the lines.” Even at the height of their relationship, he remained hyper critical of her appearance — in the midst of his adoration of her in 1968, he was writing about how she needed to lose weight to be even more attractive to him. Nor did he regard her as the most beautiful woman in the world — her eyes were nice, he acknowledged, but she was a bit short and stumpy. His descriptions of her physical self are critically clinical to the point of unpleasantness.

So by the time Burton, Taylor and Hay were on what must have been a surreal theatre tour of the US, the shine of Taylor’s attraction had worn off Burton completely.

“ET lost a cap off her teeth,” he wrote. “That makes four teeth lost in the last five-six months.”

Hay told the Telegraph how Burton took refuge with her, exasperated by Taylor, although the way the fourth Mrs Burton describes her role, it is more personal assistant with benefits than any passionate love affair. She did his make up, heard his lines, waited backstage while he performed with his ex, then cooked his dinner. For that, she said, he was grateful. He was fed up of all the alcoholic drama, despite his inability to stay away from the vodka himself. Nor had Taylor yet found sobriety.

Hay has not always been so confident about her relationship with Burton. Caught unawares by a reporter last year [unsourced in the Telegraph piece], she snapped, “I get pissed off with all the talk of a great love story. Yes they were in love, but they got divorced twice. That meant their marriage didn’t work.”

No, but it was one of the greatest on-screen/off-screen chemical explosions ever seen in Hollywood, which is more than can be said for any of the actor’s other marriages.

Which makes you wonder once again at the motivation behind their publication. Revenge? The last word? Or laying of two brilliant, passionate, drunken ghosts to rest?

More in this section

Lifestyle
Newsletter

The best food, health, entertainment and lifestyle content from the Irish Examiner, direct to your inbox.

Sign up