Days after he died, she opened up his last letter with trembling hands: ’I still long to come home’
Two marriages, two divorces and a love riven by jealousy and betrayal until the very end
cancer. For 24 hours, she was terrified.
When she got the report that the shadow on her lung was caused by old scar tissue from having had a mild case of tuberculosis as a child, she was ecstatic.
That’s when Richard got down on one knee and proposed remarriage. Of course, she accepted. She later recalled: ‘We sent everyone out of the room, including the children, and we got stoned.’ All their old habits were waiting for them, which is what, perhaps, Richard had wanted to avoid. He went out that night and got drunk.
On October 10, 1975, the Burtons remarried on the banks of the Chobe River i n Botswana. An African district commissioner from the Tswana tribe performed the 20minute ceremony, in which they were asked if they ‘understood the consequences of marriage’. There was perhaps no other couple on earth who better understood those consequences.
The ceremony over, they piled into a waiting Range Rover and began their safari honeymoon. Elizabeth was ecstatic. She wrote a little note to Richard: ‘Dearest Hubs — How about that! You really are my husband again, and I have news for thee, there bloody will be no more marriages — or divorces either.
‘We are stuck like chicken feathers to tar — for lovely always. Do you realise we shall grow old together, and I know the best is yet to be! Yours truly, Wife’
On November 10, Elizabeth threw Richard a 50th birthday party in the Orchid Room of the Dorchester Hotel back in London. Burton was the only one sipping mineral water among the 250 guests.
But within weeks of their marriage, he would begin drinking again. Alcohol was the fuel that had always propelled his life with Elizabeth, and unless she stopped drinking, Richard could not stay sober.
The difference was, Elizabeth could handle alcohol, but it was killing Richard.
Before long, they were back to their familiar pattern of fighting and making up.
When Elizabeth went back into hospital for recurrent back and neck pain, she insisted that Richard stay with her.
This time, he didn’t want to. He felt pressured and harangued, and, given his attempts to stay sober, t he pressure was becoming unbearable.
In December, they returned to Elizabeth’s chalet in Gstaad for the Christmas holidays. Chafing under Elizabeth’s possessiveness, Richard
Alcohol was the fuel that propelled life with Elizabeth
managed to slip away to the nearby ski slopes for a rare outing.
On the piste, he noticed a tall, stunning woman who took his breath away. She was a green-eyed, 27-year-old former model named Suzy Hunt, who was in the process of divorcing the celebrated Formula One driver James Hunt. She was totally different from the doe-eyed, raven-haired Elizabeth and she struck Richard with all the force of a new beginning.
Elizabeth didn’t know it yet, but Richard had just met his future.
By January 1976, Richard and Elizabeth were sleeping in separate bedrooms. Richard took on a new agent who managed to secure him the lead role in Equus — the new play by Peter Shaffer being staged on Broadway.
He left Gstaad for New York and, unbeknown to Elizabeth, Suzy Hunt was with him.
Richard had discovered that Suzy, who had been educated at a convent, was quite straight when it came to any kind of intoxicant.
The daughter of a brigadier solicitor used to the huge crowds that had cheered her ex-husband, she appeared up to the challenge of taking on this world-famous actor and removing him from Elizabeth’s influence, and making sure he would never again drink himself to the brink of death.
Indeed, the more time Richard spent with Suzy, the more he felt that she was the right woman for him, at the right time.
Angered and humiliated by her husband’s departure, Elizabeth briefly took up with a 37-year-old advertising executive from Malta named Peter Darmanin, whom she had met in a discotheque in Gstaad.
She also made plans to sell the beautiful, $1 million, 25-carat pink diamond ring that Richard had given to her to commemorate their remarriage. She intended to use the proceeds to set up a hospital in Botswana. But when she got word from
Richard that he wanted to see her, she became suddenly hopeful. ‘Please come. I need you,’ he told her. ‘ When?’ she asked. ‘ Now,’ he replied. Perhaps, for a third time, they would patch things up. Richard met Eli z abeth at Kennedy Airport just before previews for Equus were to begin. She was bundled up in a fur coat and wearing dark sunglasses.
They were photographed greeting each other with a big kiss, but she could tell right away that something was not quite right. He seemed distant and tentative. After arriving at his hotel, he told her that he wanted a divorce.
‘Why the hell did you have me come all the way here to tell me that?’ Elizabeth wailed.
She then discovered that Suzy Hunt had been with Richard all along. Although Elizabeth attended his preview performance, where a big mob of fans were awaiting her, she left New York the next day.
Less than six months after their wedding, their second marriage was over. When Burton’s Equus opened on February 23, it was Suzy Hunt and not Elizabeth sitting i n the audience, for what many would describe as a theatrical triumph. The audience adored Richard and gave him a standing ovation; all his performances quickly sold out. Suddenly, the sun was shining on Richard Burton again.
On that opening night, Suzy Hunt had gone to Richard’s dressing room to congratulate him and found a surprise awaiting her: a message from Elizabeth.
After the preview performance, Elizabeth had gone to congratulate Richard. When she had found his dressing room empty, she’d taken an eyebrow pencil out of her handbag and had written on his mirror: ‘You were fantastic, love.’ How long had that message from Elizabeth been there? And why hadn’t Burton wiped it off? For the f i rst time, Suzy realised that Elizabeth would remain a force to be reckoned with and, in some way, would always remain a part of Richard’s life.
Elizabeth and Richard divorced for the second and final time in July 1976. Richard wed Suzy three weeks later.
Throughout their six-year marriage, he managed to stay mostly sober. Meanwhile, Elizabeth married a wealthy Virginia Republican, John Warner, who, with her help, was elected to the U. S. Senate. They divorced after four years.
In late 1981, rumours of a possible Taylor-Burton reunion began flying around after Elizabeth came to London to star in the play The Little Foxes, and Richard arrived in the capital for a reading of Dylan Thomas’s Under Milk Wood.
In February 1982, Elizabeth celebrated her 50th birthday with a gala celebration at Legends nightclub — arriving arm in arm with her former husband. That night, the two of them danced together and billed and cooed.
Richard drove her back in his Daimler to her rented townhouse at 22 Cheyne Walk, Kensington.
She invited him inside and they talked together, as they had over the previous four years over the phone, about their children:
Their adopted daughter Maria, who had grown up to be tall, coltish, and beautiful; their grandchildren — on her side, not yet on his.
And brilliant, bilingual daughter Kate, who had graduated Brown University with a degree in international relations, but who decided to go into the family business, after all. And the beguiling, boisterous Wilding brothers, Michael and Christopher, who finally seemed to be finding their way, to Burton’s great relief.
The following night, Richard revisited his favourite radio play Under Milk Wood at a public reading at the Duke of York’s Theatre to raise funds for a memorial stone for Dylan Thomas in Westminster Abbey’s Poets’ Corner.
While he was reciting to a rapt audience, Elizabeth quietly entered the theatre and slipped on to the stage, standing behind him.
The audience was thrilled at the sight of her and Burton wondered what the excitement was all about. She then whispered to Richard, in perfect Welsh: ‘I love you.’
‘Say it again, once more, my petal. Say it louder,’ Burton answered. Elizabeth, now addressing the audience, repeated the words: ‘ Rwy’n dy garu di.’ It brought down the house.
Afterwards, Richard took Elizabeth to dinner at the Garrick Club. The liveried waiters served Jack Daniel’s whiskey on the rocks to Elizabeth and poured two double vodkas for Richard. He then drove her home — and this time he stayed the night.
Within weeks, Elizabeth had talked Richard into working with her in a stage production of Noel Coward’s Private Lives. The rehearsals started well, but in his diary Richard recorded his frustrations. ‘E... drinking. Also, has not yet read the play! That’s my girl! This is going to be a long seven months.’
When the play opened, the reviews were the worst either of them had ever received. One night, they both drank heavily and the following day Elizabeth failed to show up. Richard was forced to appear on stage with an understudy and, furious, he abandoned Elizabeth for his 34-year-old Australian assistant Sally Hay.
Richard and Sally were married in July 1983. A year later, they were at Richard’s home i n Celigny, Switzerland, when the actor John Hurt, who was working in Geneva, came for dinner and to stay in their guest cottage.
Hurt remembers thinking that Richard was still in the grip of an obsession with Elizabeth and that it would never be over.
During their conversation, Burton whispered to his friend, sotto voce so that Sally wouldn’t overhear: ‘She still fascinates, you know.’
Although Richard had been sober for a long time, he and Hurt later went out drinking. The following morning, August 4, 1984, Sally drove Hurt back to Geneva. When she returned, Richard was complaining of an excruciating headache. He took some aspirin and went to bed around 10pm. When he woke in the morning, Sally found him breathing with difficulty. She had him rushed to hospital, where doctors worked furiously to try to save him, but he died on the operating table. At the age of 58, he had suffered a massive cerebral haemorrhage.
Elizabeth did not attend Richard’s funeral — Sally refused to invite her, for fear that her presence would turn the event into a media circus. But a few days after his death, a letter arrived at Elizabeth’s Bel Air home.
Richard had written it in his study at Celigny, surrounded by his beloved books. It was postmarked August 2. Elizabeth opened it with a trembling hand and wept as she read his familiar handwriting.
In the letter, Burton said he was happiest when he was with her and that he wanted to ‘come home’. He wrote that no one else could know what their lives had been together and asked if it was possible there could be another chance for them.
It was his final love letter to her — and as she absorbed his words, she could hear his voice loud and clear.
She’s kept that letter at her bedside ever since.
Abridged extract from Furious Love: Elizabeth Taylor And Richard Burton And The Marriage Of The Century by Sam Kashner and Nancy Schoenberger, to be published by JR Books on July 1 at £20. © 2010, Sam Kashner and Nancy Schoenberger. To pre-order a copy for £16.99 (p&p free), call 0845 155 0720.
Passionate love: Richard and Elizabeth in Gstaad, Switzerland, in 1966