Couldn't live with fame, couldn't live without it


Michael Colganreviews The Richard Burton Diaries Edited by Chris Williams Yale University Press, 693pp, £25

The American poet EE Cummings wrote, “Progress is a comfortable disease.” On reading The Richard Burton Diaries you quickly come to realise that so too is celebrity. Throughout the book Burton continuously, and unconvincingly, reminds us of his loathing of fame while littering his journals with the celebration of that fame.

“Tomorrow we go to Rome, to accept Golden Masks, or Silver Masks or whatever, for being rich and infamous, I suppose. That’s a splendid fracturing bore to look forward to.” But, of course, they went, and the next day’s entry lists all the beautiful and the damned who were there, and how he and Elizabeth Taylor ended up drinking at their expensive hotel with Franco Zefferelli.

The Richard Burton Diaries, edited by Chris Williams, weigh in at a hefty 693 pages. In his introduction the editor tells us that he has left out more than a quarter of Burton’s words. I could have done with an even slimmer, more refined edit, and would have been especially happy to see the back of almost all the seemingly endless footnotes.

I certainly didn’t need to have it explained that Sorrento is an Italian resort, that Jack the Ripper was a serial killer or that “de Gaulle” might refer to Charles de Gaulle, former president of France. (Reviewer’s note: France is a country in Europe.) These cavils aside, I was fascinated to learn of the complicated and tortured life of a man who should have been the greatest classical stage actor. At the same time I was easily lured into wanting to be his friend.

Richard Burton was born Richard Jenkins, the son of a Welsh coal miner, in 1925. His mother, Edith, was a barmaid who died soon after giving birth to her 13th child. Richard was not yet two. He had not quite the silver spoon in his mouth, but what he had been gifted with was far better: a golden voice and, in time, extraordinary good looks.

What he described as his “daily scribble” in his diary was in fact something, rather typically, of an on-off relationship. His first attempts were in 1939 and 1940, when he was but a teenager: “Started school today. Played football in the yard. Went to school in the afternoon. Had an easy day. Stayed in tonight and started to read Martin Chuzzlewit by Dickens.”

Then he had a brief flirtation with 1960, followed by the main event, the period from 1965 to 1975. Here we find it all: the drinking, the spending, the loving, the hating, the self-loathing and the sheer torment of being Richard Burton, the lad from the valleys who loved literature and reading but was led into a life of adulation and excess because of the accident of those twin gifts. The young actor excited by the stage, the tired actor bored with film and, finally, the celebrated actor who didn’t want to act. “I loathe loathe loathe acting . . . I shudder at the thought of going to work with the same horror as a bank-clerk must loathe that stinking tube-journey every morning. I loathe it, hate it, despise, despise, for Christ’s sake, it.”

But he always went back to it, sometimes, as he freely admitted, to satisfy his need to show off and, more times, to get the loot to support the extravagant lifestyle he had taken on when his world collided with Taylor.

That was on the set of the troubled Cleopatra, in September 1961. Burton was 35 and a rising star, she, the world’s leading actress, was only 28, and already in the third year of her fourth marriage. It was the perfect storm. Sadly, the diary does not cover their meeting or, as it became known, le scandale, but everybody else did. Overnight they became the most famous couple in the world.

Booze and bickering

In 1965, when the diaries take up their story, they are still helplessly and, at times, embarrassingly in love. As if with pride he reveals each new pet name, among them Burt, Old Snapshot, Quicktake, Booby and, heaven forefend, Lumpy. With disarming honesty he continuously reminds how he is overwhelmed by her. “What could life possibly be without her? Where would I go? What would I do?”

And, as if in a confessional, we learn of his increasing dependence on the booze. “I have been more or less drunk for two days. I don’t know why, but I enjoyed it thoroughly.” From his teenage years Burton had mastered the art of holding his drink, and it would seem that Taylor was no slouch either. And with the drink, you can be sure, came the bickering. “We drank Sambuca and said nasty things to each other.”

As the diaries progress and the drink flows, the reader drowns in their whirlwind of break-ups and make-ups, premieres and galas, film stars and gossip. And all the while Burton becomes more and more disgruntled, his only release a diet of reading and vodka, often two books a day, often a bottle a book. Their new friends, more famous than their last, would eventually and inevitably disappoint. “John Huston is a simpleton but believes himself to be a genius,” or, “I sound like that fool, Richard Harris.”

As you read you can hear the thunder in the distance. The actors and directors are replaced by statesmen and royalty. “E just reminded me that at one point I said to the Duchess [of Windsor], ‘You are, without question, the most vulgar woman I’ve ever met.’ She had just told me that we were the only people at the dinner party who didn’t have titles.” Good man, Richard.

But as the book continues it becomes impossible not to like him. He was articulate, funny, surprisingly honest and surprisingly insecure. But, on the downside, you can understand why he ended up with these people, because Richard and E had, as a matter of course, dismissed the talent and friendship of almost all their fellow actors. No one was spared: John Gielgud, Lawrence Olivier, Rex Harrison, Marlon Brando; the list is endless. “Marlon has yet to learn to speak . . . He should have been born two generations before and acted in silent films.” Did it all go to his head?

He wrote, “I suppose that deep down I am a proper actor, and the parts I play do affect me slightly. Playing a King . . . has accentuated my natural assumption of superior means.” Perhaps it had: “It was a charity performance for the Nuffield Hospital, and therefore a nurse presented E with a bouquet of flowers, and if you please, curtsied. E and I were delighted.”

What was this coal miner’s son with his love of Shakespeare, rugby and solitude doing accepting curtsies? Why was this innately intelligent man announcing with pride that he had entered the “Battle of the Rubies” and would outbid, if it killed him, Aristotle Onassis? How could he be proud to have bought his wife a diamond for the equivalent, in today’s money, of almost €6 million and a plane for €5 million? In 2011 Taylor’s personal jewellery sold at auction for €90 million.

What he was doing was being Richard Burton, and one can’t say that he didn’t have a good time. But as you read his words, from November 1939 to April 1983, covering 93 months, spread over 44 years, there is a certain seepage, and from that I yearned for the other Richard Burton, the one that might choose his films more carefully, spend more time on the stage and be a little less influenced by the fee. But who am I to say?

April 11th, 1969: “Last night as I lay reading in bed and E was around the corner of the room I asked: ‘What are you doing Lumpy?’ She said like a little girl, and quite seriously: ‘Playing with my jewels.’ ”

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