Written by Sam Kashner and Nancy Schoenberger, "Furious Love" takes a look at the life and love of Hollywood icons Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton.
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The first time Richard Burton laid eyes on Elizabeth Taylor, he nearly laughed out loud.
It was 1953, and Burton had been plucked from the London stage where he was being hailed as the great successor to Sir John Gielgud and Sir Laurence Olivier, to make three dramas for 20th Century-Fox—My Cousin Rachel, The Robe, and The Desert Rats. He had swooped into Hollywood with his Welsh wife, Sybil, and had cut a swath through willing Hollywood wives, earning a reputation as an irresistible lover, a great raconteur, a rough and randy Welshman, a powerful drinker. At a party at Stewart Granger and Jean Simmons's house in Bel Air, the twenty-eight-year-old actor outdid himself in drinking and storytelling. It was the Welsh actor's first time in California, and his first visit to "a swank house," where he was agog at the suntanned beauties lounging around the largest swimming pool he had ever seen. The hot desert air was cooled by the sound of ice clinking in glasses, and Bloody Marys, boilermakers, and ice-cold beer kept the party well lubricated. "It had been a hell of a year," Burton would later write in his frank and colorful notebooks, his diary entries recorded for a possible autobiography. "Three big movies; drinking with Bogie; flirting with Garbo . . ." He recalled,
I was enjoying this small social triumph, but then a girl sitting on the other side of the pool lowered her book, took off her sunglasses and looked at me. She was so extraordinarily beautiful that I nearly laughed out loud . . . she was unquestioningly gorgeous . . . She was lavish. She was a dark unyielding largess. She was, in short, too bloody much, and not only that, she was totally ignoring me.
Well, not "totally." That cool look took in a man she considered, at the time, swaggering and vulgar. She would have none of it. Besides, she was a year into her second marriage, to English actor Michael Wilding, a close friend of the Grangers. (Elizabeth, for her part, would recall that first meeting as having taken place at her and Michael's home in the Hollywood Hills; in her memory, she was nineteen at the time.) But Burton was already, let's say, intrigued. Reliving that first glimpse of twenty-one-year-old Elizabeth Taylor, he later described her as "the most astonishingly self-contained, pulchritudinous, remote, removed, inaccessible woman I had ever seen. . . . Was she merely sullen? I thought not. There was no trace of sulkiness in that divine face." And later still: "Her breasts were apocalyptic, they would topple empires . . ." They would also topple Burton.
He would not meet her again for another nine years.
By the time they met in 1962 on the set of Cleopatra—after the production's lengthy, expensive delays, a costly move from London's Pinewood Studios to Rome's Cinecittà, and a shuffling of studio heads, producers, directors, writers, and actors—Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton had already lived several lives. Elizabeth had survived child stardom, with all its demands and excesses. Having been wrenched from a bucolic childhood in Hampstead, England (complete with a pony), resettled in Los Angeles by her doting parents to escape the gathering storm of World War II, and thrust into filmdom by her ambitious mother, the former stage actress Sara Sothern Taylor, Elizabeth found herself famous at the tender age of ten, the diminutive costar of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer's Lassie Come Home, and National Velvet the following year. (She would always have a fondness for animals, especially horses; since the age of three, she could jump without a saddle.) She learned early the value of her preternaturally beautiful, eerily adult face, though she treated her beauty cavalierly and had almost no personal vanity. She learned how the business worked: the fussing over by wardrobe and makeup and hair stylists and studio publicity agents, the constant fawning, the power struggles, the peaks and valleys of popularity. She became used to, and came to require, an entourage of helpers that would sink most ships. (Her even more beautiful brother, Howard, had wanted no part of it, so at fifteen he shaved his head the day before being hauled into Universal Studios to be tested for a boy-with-horse Western, thus assuring his escape into normalcy.) Elizabeth's rewards—fame, money, attention, studio animals to play with—balanced out her punishment: putting up with relentless control by her mother and her directors and tyrannical studio chief Louis B. Mayer, and a complete lack of privacy and independence. "I was so totally chaperoned," she recalled, "that I couldn't go to the bathroom alone." She was taught how to look and to speak and to walk and to stand and to breathe. But through it all, she learned about power: who had it, how to get it, how to keep it. When Louis B. Mayer once swore at Elizabeth's mother in a fit of rage, eleven-year-old Elizabeth shouted back, "You and your studio can go to hell!" She refused to apologize, and—amazingly—Mayer didn't fire her on the spot. Truly, at that moment, a diva was born.
Excerpt from Furious Love by Sam Kashner and Nancy Schoenberger copyright HarperCollins Publishers, 2010.