Book review: Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton and the Marriage of the Century by Sam Kashner and Nancy Schoenberger

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It’s only weeks since Elizabeth Taylor died but already her life is under new scrutiny and not least the tempestuous years she spent with Richard Burton.

So was the famously stormy relationship between two screen icons one of the greatest love stories of all time...or just a dangerous infatuation that ended in drink and despair?

Kashner and Schoenberger take us as close as it’s possible to one of the most notorious, publicised, celebrated and vilified love affairs of the last century.

They were twice married and twice divorced but when they met, they were two ‘beautiful’ people; Taylor was one of the world’s most cosseted and glamorous women, Burton was a gritty, charismatic and powerfully attractive man.

She was born in England but raised as a precocious Hollywood child star and he was a rough and ready Welshman, the 12th of 13 children from a poor mining family.

She was an untrained but ‘natural’ screen star who had iconic status and the world at her feet; he was a ‘genuine actor’ – hailed as a successor to Gielgud and Olivier – with a prodigious talent and a love of crosswords, language and Shakespeare.

When they were teamed together on the film set of Cleopatra in Rome in 1962, she was 30, had three children and was married to her fourth husband, the American crooner Eddie Fisher; Burton was 36, married to his long-suffering and sensible wife Sybil, had two young daughters and a reputation as a hard-drinking womaniser.

So how did they end up falling so helplessly, and some would say disastrously, in love?

They had seen each other briefly in 1953 when Burton found Taylor so beautiful that she was unreal and Taylor thought he was ‘too full of himself’.

By 1962 and three marriages later, Taylor needed an ‘alpha male,’ someone who was tough enough to refuse her every demand.

Burton, intelligent, witty, soulfully masculine and yet unexpectedly vulnerable, was a man, she soon learned, who could say no.

For Burton, what started as an exciting conquest quickly deepened into an all-consuming thirst for this outrageously attractive, sexy and thrilling woman.

Once the press discovered the real-life love affair going on between ‘Cleopatra’ and ‘Mark Antony,’ Burton was transformed from a well-respected British actor into a world-renowned celebrity and he loved it - at first.

‘What he didn’t understand,’ said Taylor’s spurned husband Fisher, ‘was that he couldn’t turn off this fame when it was convenient to him.’

And so began 13 years of an intensely passionate, alcohol-fuelled and increasingly bitter relationship which scandalised the world and set in motion the whole cult of celebrity.

With access to Taylor’s private collection of letters and correspondence, Furious Love includes intimate and startling details about the sexual, romantic and even medical issues that plagued the couple throughout their life together.

Burton’s crippling alcoholism took its toll and he died aged 58 in 1984; Taylor suffered health problems throughout her life.

This is an exhilarating, emotional and exhaustive account of two people who loved each other almost literally to distraction.

In later years, Burton told Taylor: ‘I am forever punished by the gods for being given the fire and trying to put it out. The fire, of course, is you.’

(JR Books, paperback, £9.99)