‘I bought Elizabeth the jet plane we flew in yesterday. It costs, brand new, $960,000. She was not displeased.’ This is the actor Richard Burton writing in his diary in 1967, at the height of his fame and in the early years of his first marriage to Elizabeth Taylor. The diaries, which span more than four decades though written rather sporadically, have just been published by Yale University Press.
Burton was born Richard Walter Jenkins into a large family in Pontrhydyfen, Wales, in 1925, but his mother died two years later, and he was brought up by a sister. He left school at 16, and soon joined the Air Training Corps as a cadet. There he met Philip Burton a former teacher of his who subsequently adopted him, helped him through further education, and encouraged his theatrical skills. The young Burton served two years in the RAF, between 1944 and 1947. Prior to his military service, though, he had already begun to work as an actor, and after his discharge he moved to London to further his career. He met his first wife, Sybil Williams, working on a film set. They had two daughters.
Burton found work easily enough, in films and narrating for the BBC, but a major turning point came in 1951 when he starred in two Shakespeare productions for Anthony Quayle at Stratford-upon-Avon and received excellent reviews. Several films in Hollywood followed (Desert Rat and The Robe), and then a major Shakespeare season at the Old Vic. When his fellow-Welshman and friend Dylan Thomas died, Burton performed the lead role in Dylan’s Under Milk Wood (to benefit Dylan’s family), which today remains one of the most celebrated radio drama productions of all time. Further Hollywood films followed, and with them the wealth that would lead him to relocate to tax-friendly Switzerland in 1957.
After performing on Broadway, Burton was brought in to star in Twentieth Century Fox’s troubled production, Cleopatra, a film which would become the most expensive ever made at the time, and which would usher in Burton’s most successful Hollywood period. On set, famously, he met Elizabeth Taylor who, like him, was married at the time. The affair was widely reported in the media, but the couple were not free to marry until their divorces in 1964. Together, they produced a number of memorable films, not least Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?. The fiery marriage lasted 10 years, but once they had divorced they soon remarried. Burton adopted Taylor’s daughter by a previous marriage (whose father had died); and together Burton and Taylor adopted a German child.
Burton’s output in later years was more prolific than admired as he often took mediocre work for financial reasons. He did have some success, though, with Equus (which he had played on stage to great acclaim) and The Wild Geese. From 1976 to 1982, he was married to Susan Hunt, and from 1983 to his death in 1984 to Sally Hay. He was only 58 when he died, but he had been a heavy smoker and drinker all his life. Further information is available from Wikipedia, the Richard Burton website, or Welcome to Wales.
Burton seems to have kept a diary intermittently through most of his life, and extracts from these were first used by Melvyn Bragg in his biography Rich: The Life of Richard Burton published by Hodder and Stoughton in 1988. In 2005, Burton’s widow, Sally, handed over the diaries - written between 1939 and 1983 - and other personal papers, known as the Richard Burton Collection, to Swansea University; and in 2010 the university formally opened its Richard Burton Archives facility. Now - in October 2012 - Yale University Press has published The Richard Burton Diaries, edited by Chris Williams. A generous number of pages can be read freely at Amazon.
The publisher claims: ‘In his personal diaries Richard Burton is a man quite different from the one we familiarly “know” as acclaimed actor, international film star, and jet-set celebrity. From his private, handwritten pages there emerges a different person - a family man, a father, a husband, a man often troubled and always keenly observing. Understood through his own words, day to day and year to year, Burton becomes a fully rounded human being who, with a wealth of talent and a surprising burden of insecurity, confronts the peculiar challenges of a life lived largely in the spotlight.’
‘At times,’ the promotional material continues, ‘Burton struggles to come to terms with the unfulfilled potential of his life and talent. In other entries, he crows over achievements and hungers for greater challenges. He may be watching his weight, watching his drinking, or watching other men watch his Elizabeth. Always he is articulate, opinionated, and fascinating. His diaries offer a rare and fresh perspective on his own life and career, Elizabeth Taylor's, and the glamorous world of film, theatre, and celebrity that they inhabited.’
The reviews of Burton’s diaries have generally been favourable. The Daily Express says: ‘These diaries are basically his autobiography and, luckily for us, the poetry-loving boyo from the Afan Valley was an articulate, insightful, and introspective man who wrote with much more style and wit than a diary requires.’ The Washington Times says the book makes ‘for utterly involving, fascinating reading, giving a rare insight into a complicated, gifted individual.’ Writing in the Camden New Journal, Gerald Isaaman, who edited the Ham & High for many years, charts Burton’s long association with Hampstead. ‘Professor Williams,’ he says, ‘puts the diaries in context, providing a biography of the boy wonder that gives an understanding of his madcap, star-dusted life of angst and contradiction, too much booze and too much beauty. He includes endless footnotes and references to ensure his intimate analysis is accurate and fair amid a saga of scandal and sensation, and gives us an understanding of restless Burton’s true value.’ This is South Wales has an article by the editor, Williams, on his experience of editing the diaries; and The Telegraph has a substantial number of extracts from the book.
Here are a few extracts culled from the sources mentioned above.
30 September 1967
‘At about 12 noon this same day I did something beyond outrage. I bought Elizabeth the jet plane we flew in yesterday. It costs, brand new, $960,000. She was not displeased.’
19 November 1968
‘Famed as we are, rich as we are, courted and insulted as we are, overpaid as we are, centre of a great deal of attention as we are, [we] are not bored or blasé. We are not envious. We are merely lucky. 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 wilful, 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!’
10 January 1969
‘The more I read about man and his maniacal ruthlessness and his murdering envious scatological soul, the more I realise that he will never change. Our stupidity is immortal, nothing will change it. The same mistakes, the same prejudices, the same injustice, the same lusts wheel endlessly around the parade-ground of the centuries. Immutable and ineluctable. I wish I could believe in a God of some kind but I simply cannot. My intelligence is too muscular and my imagination stops at the horizon. And I have an idea that the last sound to be heard on this lovely planet will be a man screaming. In fear and terror. It might be more.’
20 March 1969
‘The last six months have been a nightmare. I created one half and Elizabeth the other. We grated on each other to the point of separation. I had thought of going to live lone in some remote shack in a rainy place and E had thought of going to stay with Howard in Hawaii. It is of course quite impossible. We are bound together. Hoop-steeled. Whither thou goest. He said hopefully.’