Taylor and Burton starring together in The VIPs, 1963. photo: EVERETT COLLECTION
Published: 18 October, 2012
by GERLAD ISAAMAN
One Nation prime minister Benjamin Disraeli may be Ed Miliband’s hero of the day as he revives Labour’s fortunes, but he could also have called on the Welsh magic of Richard Burton.
“My hatred of Tories is unabated by long-term membership of the rich class,” the Oscar-winning actor recalled as he waited for the results of the 1970 general election, when Edward Heath won a surprise victory over Harold Wilson.
“And I hope they howl in the wilderness another five years. No legislation they might enact could ever make up for their intolerable air of superiority over us lot in the years and years gone by. I hope they grovel for evermore.”
That’s not a bad denunciation from the sixth son of a miner and barmaid who had a family of 13 (his mother died, aged 44, six days after the final birth). Burton, born Richard Walter Jenkins in November 1925), rose from the ruin of the Ebbw valley’s brutally basic lifestyle to show off his true talent to the world – as well as his extravagant excesses amid the turmoil of his obsessive love for Elizabeth Taylor, the woman he married twice.
As Burton recalled on September 30, 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.”
And yet, on March 20 1969, he wrote: “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.”
The quotes come from the newly published and wondrous Richard Burton Diaries, almost 700 pages of personal revelations, brilliantly edited by Chris Williams, professor of Welsh history with other immaculate credentials that make the diaries’ first appearance in one volume a publishing sensation. Equally importantly, it is a poignant and lasting legacy of a man who tasted all the best and worst of life – from a lad collecting and selling animal dung as garden fertiliser, to Hollywood stardom and winning over the women he adored.
Professor Williams 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.
“I came to like and respect him,” Professor Williams told me. “In the diaries he is remarkably honest, frank and without pomposity. Perhaps because he was writing for himself there is no posturing, no grandstanding.
“He writes about his wives, his children, his brothers and sisters, about the film or other creative project on which he was engaged, about the books he was reading or the places and people that he was seeing.
“He comes across, most of the time, as an ordinary, likeable man, albeit one living in an extraordinary world.”
But, as you might expect, there is a story within the story, and for us it is the fact that Hampstead played such a vital part in his life and love for Cleopatra – otherwise Elizabeth Taylor, the dazzling actress born at No 8 Wildwood Road, Hampstead Garden Suburb – and in his early success on the London stage.
Moreover, the Hampstead link goes back to Ramsay MacDonald, the MP in Burton’s native Wales who formed Labour’s first cabinet in Howitt Road, Hampstead, to the flat at No 6 Lyndhurst Road he and his first wife Sybil Williams, bought in after they married in 1949, and which was to be their home until 1956.
I too lived in Lyndhurst Road, three doors away, but, alas, not at the same time. Yet that frenzy of celebrity touches all, the more so when neighbours talked of Burton declaiming in the garden as he learned his lines and earning enough to buy himself a Jaguar.
Though he departed for Celigny, in Switzerland, where he died in 1984, aged 58, Burton maintained a Hampstead address, buying the cottage at No 3 Squires Mount, opposite the Heath, as a hideaway home, and one next door for his brother Ivor.
When he was far away Burton allowed friends to enjoy No 3, which was where I interviewed Christopher Isherwood during my years as editor of the Ham & High.
In that time there was the occasion in the 1960s when Burton and Taylor were spotted walking up Heath Street hand-in-hand one lunchtime and our photographer was missing.
I grabbed a Rollei off the shelf, run up the road and took a few shots as Burton, a so-called enemy of vulgarity, let fly with a few expletives, then a shot of them from behind. We published it on the front page, asking: Who’s this walking up Heath Street?
Professor Williams believes from all his research – the diaries were written between 1939 and 1983 – that Burton lost control of himself at times, his power to seduce and squander his genius exposing his desperate frailties and restlessness.
Yet his chapel-based upbringing in the Jenkins family gave him that desire to educate himself, work hard and strive to lift himself out his background. History was one of the essential keys.
As Burton wrote on January 10, 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.”
We’re all in it together, as David Cameron – and others – might say.
• The Richard Burton Diaries. By Richard Burton. Edited by Chris Williams. Yale University Press, £25