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Wednesday, Oct. 20, 2010

Liz Taylor, Richard Burton’s Roller-Coaster Romance

New book explores ‘The Marriage of the Century’

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Officials at 20th Century Fox didn’t know what was in store for them when they signedElizabeth Taylor as Cleopatra in a mammoth production intended to shore up the studio’s declining profits. At 29 she wasacknowledged as one of the mostbeautiful women in the world.Yet soon into filming, Fox was beside itself. Its star developed pneumonia in the damp English climate, resulting ina famously publicized tracheotomy. With costs spiraling out of control, the entire production was scrapped and newly reassembled in Rome with its irreplaceable star. Among the many changes: Richard Burton would play Marc Antony.

Burton had appeared in several British films and starred on Broadway in Camelot, but was not in the same celebrity league as Taylor. She had been a notoriously self-indulgent, pampered child star. He was the 12th of 13 children of a Welsh coal miner (his mother died after giving birth to the couple’s 13th child). A heavy-drinking man with brusque manners, Burton was well known for seducing his leading ladies. He initially regarded Taylor as an upward career step; she thought him boorish.But on the first day of shooting, when he stumbled onto the set so hung over that he couldn’t lift his shaking coffee cup, she laughingly helped him. That’s how it began.

In the carefully documented, painstakingly researched Furious Love: Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton and the Marriage of the Century (HarperCollins), Sam Kashner and Nancy Schoenberger(with help from Dame Elizabeth herself)describe in lavish detail but cautiously objective prose a romantic odyssey of love and marriage that fascinated a global audience for decades. A new term, “paparazzi,” emerged to describe the fanatical pursuitof the world’s most notorious couple. They were dubbed “Liz and Dick”;interest in le scandaleonly intensified after theyfinally obtained divorces from their former spouses and married in 1964.

Their life together resembled a royal progressso hedonistic it would have made Renaissance princes envious. They had villas in Puerto Vallarta, a resort soon made famous by their presence, and in Gstaad, Switzerland, to name a few. Their lavish yacht, the Kalizma, became a floating palace rivaling Cleopatra’s barge and was expedient for making stops in tourist ports to avoid residency taxes. Taylor alwaysbrought her children on her travels, alongwith a menagerie of pets, servants, secretaries and hairdressers. Burton bought herworld-famous jewelry, including the Taj Mahal diamond and the La Peregrina pearl that once belonged to Mary Tudor. He outbid Onassis for the million-dollar Cartier diamond.

They made only a few movies together. None matched the glamour ofCleopatra, although the remarkableWho’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? was stunningly highlighted by a superb performance by Taylor, who hid her famous beauty under the guise ofadowdy,middle-aged harridan. Taylor won every award in sight while continuallybolstering Burton’s ego, encouraging him to do Hamlet on Broadway and undertakesuch fine films as Becket and Night of the Iguana.

Despite their notorious rocky moments, they truly loved each other. A line from their first film perhaps best captured their relationship. “How love can sting the heart,” Taylor declares in Cleopatra, radiating a transcendent glow that wasn’t the product of the makeup table.

They both drank, but Burton could consume three bottles of vodka daily. They divorced in 1974, remarried in 1975 and divorced again after 10 months. But they never seemed happy in other marriages. The authors were given access to every letter Burton wrote to Taylor exceptfor one, which she keeps at her bedside to this day.