Elizabeth Taylor: Why Richard Burton Was Her Greatest Love

By Martin Brown and Josie Brown

On January 22, 1962, the lead actors in Joseph Mankiewicz’ epic Cleopatra—legendary film beauty Elizabeth Taylor, Cleopatra, and England’s premiere actor Richard Burton as Marc Anthony—meet for their first rehearsal, and soon begin a 16-year love affair that captured the imagination of a world not yet saturated by celebrities in lust and  love.

Despite his eleven-year marriage to the apparently very tolerant Welsh actress Sybil Williams, the thirty-six year-old actor, considered, “England’s Brando,” was a renowned womanizer. His paramours included actresses Claire Bloom, Tammy Grimes, Jean Simmons, Susan Strasberg, and Zsa Zsa Gabor. Teased about making Taylor his next conquest, Burton replied, “no, Luv, she’s dark….dark—I think she probably shaves.”

Nor did he did make much of a first impression on four-time bride Taylor. At their first rehearsal, his pick-up line was anything but witty: “Has anybody told you what a pretty girl you are?…You’re much too fat, love, but you do have a pretty little face.”

Although that sent her scurrying into the arms of then-husband Eddie Fisher, it would be the last time that Taylor would choose Fisher over Burton.

Paradoxically, it was Burton’s vulnerability while intoxicated that first captured Taylor’s empathy, and subsequently her heart. At the run-through, Burton was so drunk that he could barely hold his coffee mug. Taylor took it upon herself to steady his hand so that he could take a sip. This gesture, she claims, initiated the bond between them.

It was not long before the two had the movie set on fire, both onstage and off. Producer Walter Wanger warned Mankiewicz that they were “sitting on a volcano.”

He was right. Whereas the $40 million spectacle—the most expensive movie to be made up until that time—fizzled at the box office, the romance would last through sixteen years, eleven movies (nine as husband and wife) and two marriages.

Their first go-round at marriage was doomed by their addictions—hers to painkillers, his to alcohol—and celebrity excesses, which was scrutinized at every angle by the international paparazzi.

After break-ups, their make-ups were celebrated with purchases of diamonds and other gems, the bigger the better, including the 33.19-carag Krupp diamond, the La Peregrina pearl, and a 40-carat sapphire brooch. Their most celebrated acquisition was a 69.42 carat-diamond purchased for $1.1 million—the highest price to be paid for a diamond to that date.

Diamonds may have been Taylor’s best friends, but marriage to Burton was not. Appalled with the abuse that was part and parcel of his drinking problem, Taylor did little to hide her disdain of her husband in public. While dining with director Franco Zeffirelli,  Taylor berated Burton as a “worthless lazy son of a bitch.”

Burton retaliated with various affairs. “Once I started being attracted to other women, I knew—the game’s up,” lamented Burton.

Their divorce was final on June 26, 1974.

But on October 10, 1975, they married again—this time for a mere seven weeks. Reporting on the second marriage, which took place on an African river bank, the Boston Globe wrote: “Sturm has remarried Drang and all is right in the world.”

Well, for a little while, anyway. Despite his peace offering of a rare 25-carat pink diamond, worth $1 million, the same problems—his drinking and womanizing, her neediness, haranguing and counter-affairs—would finally, and irreparably, tear them apart.

“Our affair lasted seven weeks,” lamented Burton, “ but it was like seven months—no, seven years—because we were with each other every moment.  That is the only way you can be with Elizabeth. She needs that kind of loving…”

Both would go on to marry again, Burton once, and Taylor three more times.Near the end of his life, Burton relayed this anecdote to a close friend: “Do you know what I heard the other day? That I’ve never found a part as good as playing the husband of Elizabeth Taylor.”

Excerpted from The World’s Greatest Love Stories by Martin Brown and Josie Brown.

Copyright 2011 by Martin Brown and Josie Brown. Published by Signal Press. All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.