Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor: Chaucerian Splendor

Tenn in Conversation
New Orleans

It has been said that most had a love/hate relationship with the Burtons--with Liz and Dick, as they were fulsomely addressed--but in my experience the hatred was short-lived, and it was fueled, primarily, by envy. These were two people who had been amply endowed--in every sense of the word--by their Creator, and who hid nothing, at any time, beneath any bush.

There was a Chaucerian splendor to their behavior. Demanding a particular sausage on a particular day at a particular time, and to watch as it was air-dropped in some outer region. Yes, it was insane: Fellini could not have done better, as some poor assistant was sent to an area to fetch sausage or chocolate or chili or a certain crocheted throw that would be of benefit to Elizabeth during a cold she was suffering. Out into a field or to a nearby tarmac they would go, and they would come back with the necessary goods.

But there was always incredible sharing as well, so right when everyone was locked in paralytic disdain, clucking over such waste, you would look and see that the sound stage had been stocked with salmon and Champagne; white chocolates; Coca-Cola, which could not be found in our particular region; cigarettes; and for one sad little production assistant, an array of American candies he missed, a fact known to Elizabeth only because she possessed extraordinary hearing abilities: She could hear Richard's zipper being pulled down across three continents.

It is easy to imagine that these are two people who magically and incredibly got everything they wanted--everything that everybody wanted--and are now hosts to this incredible inventory.

I am here to tell you that they share it all, and they do not merely dispense with gifts of food and money and jewelry, although all of those things have been handed to me.

Richard has always, I think, wanted to be recognized for his literary acumen, which is impressive. I was the recipient on many a night of his Herculean recitations of great poets, word-perfect, beautifully delivered, hours on end. Thrilling stuff. He reads perpetually, or he did. John Gielgud still states that his is the most protean talent of our time, but horribly wasted, spending all its time fetching sausages and chocolate and enormous diamonds for his lady.

John is entitled to his opinion.

Elizabeth will find a way to have my gaudy movie magazines shipped to me when I can't find them; she will have insanely expensive baskets of goods sent to me from London or France or Switzerland; she once had food--Southern food--shipped to me from a lovely, family-owned restaurant in Mississippi called The Dinner Bell, I believe, because I was desperate for the Proustian deliverance of biscuits and white gravy. How this small restaurant handled the phone calls and the limousine in the driveway and the boxing up of foodstuffs is something I wish I could have witnessed. I can smile myself into sleep imagining the telephone call that began the entire transaction.

It was considered a sin around these two people that there should be no music or laughter or food or poetry or games, and while they were both extraordinarily professional, never missing a call or a cue, the moment the work was over, the festivities began.

Once you were in their circle, once you had worked and loved and played with them, your card was perpetually punched, and you could count on the gifts and the calls and the outstretched arms. Elizabeth was unafraid to hug and to hold and to cry with you into the night. Richard was more reserved: He wouldn't hug you, but he would go into an hour of Dylan Thomas, then punch your shoulder, but in one harrowing moment of my life, he sat by my bed, reciting and consoling until I fell into a chemical calmness.

Both of them were there when I woke up, with breakfast and the admonition that it was time to get back to work.

I do not think that you can fake these things.

I think that they loved each other and that they loved many freely and richly.

So we made a film called Boom!, promptly renamed BOMB! by all of us involved. I bear the responsibility for this film, its failure, its existence. I still believe in The Milk Train Doesn't Stop Here Anymore, and I still believe in Flora Goforth and Chris Flanders, but I knew from the beginning that this film, with all of these otherwise wonderful people, would never work. It does work, I suppose, in a way like my chemical calmness works: forced and false and deadly. I am not bored by the film, merely amazed.

Everyone associated with the film worked demonically hard and well, but they were wrong for their parts and wrong in sentiment. Oh, well, the checks cleared and the gifts rained from the heavens, and, at various times, the ample generosities of the Burtons--Elizabeth and Richard, as I always billed them--were bestowed on many.

Theirs was a good run.


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