‘You’re much too fat… but you DO have a pretty face’: First words Richard Burton spoke to Elizabeth Taylor on the set of Cleopatra – before their all-consuming affair knocked the Cuban missile crisis off the front pages, as revealed in riveting new book
Famously, the turbulent relationship between Hollywood star Elizabeth Taylor and the Welsh actor Richard Burton began in Rome while they were making the film epic Cleopatra.
At that point, she was married to her fourth husband, American crooner Eddie Fisher, and had three children. Burton had two by his Welsh wife, Sybil. What followed was a crazed mix of tragedy, farce and overwhelming erotic attraction.
January 22, 1962
Burton and Taylor’s first scene together. Taylor arrives on set with Eddie, two secretaries, two maids, make-up people and hairdressers. She is wearing a mink, which she ostentatiously lets drop to the floor.
‘You’re much too fat, but you do have a pretty face,’ are Burton’s opening words to her.
But the film’s producer, Walter Wanger, notes how the actress and actor are soon ‘intently talking… You could almost feel the electricity’. And Burton writes later about how Taylor’s ‘breasts [were] jutting out from that half-asleep languid lingering body’.
Famously, the turbulent relationship between Hollywood star Elizabeth Taylor and the Welsh actor Richard Burton began in Rome while they were making the film epic Cleopatra
Love triangle: Richard Burton (left) with Elizabeth Taylor and her fourth husband, Eddie Fisher
Look of love: Richard Burton and his first wife Sybil
January 26, 1962
Director of Cleopatra to the producer: ‘Liz and Burton are not just playing Antony and Cleopatra.’
January 27, 1962
Burton appears in the make-up trailer and announces in his Old Vic voice: ‘Gentlemen, last night I screwed [f***ed, nailed — sources differ] Miss Elizabeth Taylor in the back of my Cadillac.’
February 5, 1962
Burton assures the producer: ‘I will not allow anything to hurt my career or my marriage. And I won’t do anything to harm Liz, who is a wonderful person.’
But Wanger can appreciate her dangerous appeal: ‘The excitement Liz requires of life could be supplied by Burton because of his strength, experience and the dreams he opened up.’
February 13, 1962
Burton flies to Paris to appear as an RAF pilot in The Longest Day. Taylor’s husband Eddie Fisher breaks the Cuckold’s Code, which implicitly states the wronged husband must fume in silence, by speaking to Burton’s wife Sybil: ‘Your husband and my wife appear to be deeply involved. You know they’re continuing their affair?’
Sybil: ‘He’s had these affairs before — he always comes home.’
Elizabeth Taylor is pictured as Cleopatra in the 1963 film directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz
Richard Burton is pictured with his wife, actress Elizabeth Taylor in Sardinia, on the set of the film ‘Goforth’, later titled ‘Boom’, in August 1967
Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton attend a film premiere in London, circa 1970
Eddie: ‘You don’t know Elizabeth: this time he’s not coming back.’
Burton is furious with Eddie for daring to bring Sybil into it. When Taylor asks Eddie: ‘Why did you tell Sybil?’ he answers forlornly: ‘Because I love you and would do anything to keep you.’
February 14, 1962
Eddie leaves Rome ‘on business’. Burton takes Taylor out for the evening to the Via Veneto, Taylor wearing a leopard-skin coat and hat. (That’s a lot of leopards.)
February 15, 1962
According to Jack Brodsky and Nathan Weiss, publicists on the picture, Taylor and Burton are ‘the hottest thing ever’. Fox executives, however, fear the public ‘will crucify her and picket the theatres if she breaks up another family’.
In the event, there was no moral indignation, only an excited curiosity. Attitudes towards celebrity (and adultery) were changing.
February 16, 1962
Sybil escapes to New York. Taylor, fearing Burton will be affected by her dramatic departure, attempts suicide by ‘trying to break through a glass door and had to be restrained’, according to Wanger. Burton indeed tries to call it all off: ‘It was fun, while it lasted.’ To no avail.
February 17, 1962
Fearful Burton will choose Sybil over her, Taylor is taken to the Salvator Mundi Hospital to have her stomach pumped, after an overdose of barbiturates.
‘I needed the rest. I was hysterical and needed to get away,’ she says afterwards.
February 18, 1962
Eddie, still on his travels, phones the Roman villa he shares with Taylor. Burton answers. ‘What are you doing in my home?’ asks Eddie, unaware Burton has returned from Paris — and Taylor seems to have been speedily sprung from the clinic, too.
Burton: ‘What do you think I’m doing? I’m with my girl.’
Eddie: ‘She’s not your girl. She’s my wife.’
Burton: ‘Well, I’m f***ing your wife.’ Both men threaten to murder each other.
Elizabeth Taylor is pictured on Aspel and Company, with Michael Aspel, in 1988
Elizabeth Taylor is pictured wearing a white swimsuit sitting on a the sand with a beach ball in a studio portrait, with the sea and horizon in the background, circa 1955
Richard Burton kisses his beautiful actress-wife Elizabeth Taylor following their successful benefit performance of prose and poetry readings at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre
February 19, 1962
Burton makes a statement to the Press, saying the affair is ‘all bloody nonsense’.
February 20, 1962
Newspaper reporters and photographers invade Rome. Cameramen hide in trees and bushes. Journalists pretend to be priests collecting donations.
February 27, 1962
On what Taylor decides is ‘the most miserable day of my life’, Eddie organises a 30th birthday party. He gives her a $250,000 emerald necklace and a Bulgari mirror, in the shape of an asp, also encrusted with emeralds. He later spoils the munificence by sending Taylor the bill.
March 8, 1962
The newspapers all quote Burton saying he’d never leave Sybil. Taylor shoots the scene where Antony leaves Cleopatra in Alexandria, goes back to Rome and marries Octavian’s sister.
When she hears about it, Cleopatra stabs the bedclothes, mattress and Antony’s clothes. Taylor acts it out with such genuine fury, she dislocates her thumb.
March 10, 1962
Hollywood gossip columnist Louella Parsons tells her readers: ‘Elizabeth Taylor has fallen madly in love with Richard Burton.’ Eddie retorts: ‘The report is ridiculous.’
March 13, 1962
Burton and Taylor are now ‘so close you’d have to pour hot water on them to get them unstuck,’ Brodsky tells Weiss.
Taylor tells Eddie she loves Burton: ‘We can’t bear to be apart.’ Burton is confused. ‘I’m leaving Sybil and going off with Elizabeth’ alternates with ‘I’m not going to see Elizabeth any more.’
March 16, 1962
Sybil flies to London.
March 18, 1962
The weekly paper Gente prints telescopic-lens shots of Taylor and Burton embracing and leaving a Roman club at 3.30am.
March 19, 1962
Eddie says: ‘Elizabeth, I’m leaving,’ and she doesn’t see him for two years. According to rumours, he’s in a mental hospital.
Taylor’s parting shot to Eddie is: ‘No one walks out on me, fa**ot. I’m more famous than the Pope and the Queen of England.’
March 21, 1962
According to the production log, Taylor is ‘having great difficulty delivering dialogue’.
March 27, 1962
Sybil issues a denial: ‘I was furious about [the rumours]. Richard was furious, so was Elizabeth… Naturally, we’re all very friendly.’
March 29, 1962
Eddie issues a statement from his bed in a New York psychiatric hospital: ‘One thing is undeniable: I love Liz, and she loves me. The marriage is fine, just fine.’
The front page of today’s New York Daily News, dominated by the headline ‘Eddie Fisher Breaks Down: In Hospital Here; Liz in Rome’, is turned into a screen-print by Andy Warhol.
Elizabeth Taylor attends the 27th annual Macy’s Passport benefit at the Barker Hangar on September 24, 2009 in Santa Monica, California
Elizabeth Taylor is pictured sitting on a stack of pillows, wearing purple pants and a yellow shirt
March 30, 1962
Eddie holds a press conference, saying rumours of his wife’s involvement with Burton are ‘absolutely false’. In a transatlantic phone call, however, Taylor refuses to deny the rumours: ‘Eddie, I can’t do that because there’s some truth in the story.’
Eddie goes to see Frank Costello, consigliere to the Luciano crime family, who once said to him: ‘Anything you need, you come to me.’
But not even Eddie wants to be responsible for having a mobster’s goons break Burton’s legs.
April 1, 1962
Actor and fellow Welshman Emlyn Williams, visiting Rome on a mission of mercy for Sybil, leaves a note for Burton, saying of Taylor: ‘Look here, she’s just a third-rate chorus girl.’ When they meet, Burton states calmly, ‘I’m going to marry her’ — conveying his earnestness by saying it in Welsh.
April 2, 1962
Taylor and her three children, Michael, Christopher and Liza, are taken by Burton in his Lincoln to Corsetti’s Restaurant, where they eat lobster and ice-cream.
April 3, 1962
The Fishers announce their intention to divorce. Sybil collapses. Emlyn tells the Press: ‘I just can’t imagine that Richard would throw away his life like this.’
April 7, 1962
Burton flies to Paris for further work on The Longest Day. Forty Press photographers greet his arrival. He meets Sybil, but tells the press (jokingly): ‘I think I may kill myself.’ The romance with Taylor is pooh-poohed.
April 12, 1962
The Vatican issues an open letter in which Taylor and Burton are ticked off for displaying ‘the caprices of adult children’, and blamed for ‘this insult to the nobility of the hearth, which millions of married couples judge to be a beautiful and holy thing’.
Maria Callas, Elizabeth Taylor and Giuseppe di Stefano are pictured together in 1974
Elizabeth Taylor and her fourth husband, American singer and actor Eddie Fisher, attend a benefit for Cedars Sinai Hospital, Los Angeles, California, circa 1963
lizabeth Taylor arrives at the 14th Annual Britannia Awards at the Beverly Hilton Hotel on November 10, 2005 in Beverly Hills, California
Taylor is described as ‘an avaricious vamp who destroys families and devours husbands’.
‘Where are we all going to end up?’ asks the Pope rhetorically, before answering his own question: ‘In an erotic vagrancy without end or without safe port.’
April 21, 1962
Taylor and Burton go to Porto Santo Stefano for the Easter weekend, pursued by paparazzi. Burton says later he spent his time reading Aldous Huxley and ‘learning Hamlet in Italian’.
Taylor returns with a bruised face and can’t be photographed.
Taylor said, ‘I bumped my nose on an ashtray,’ when asleep on the back seat and the car hit a pot-hole. The president of Twentieth Century Fox later refers to ‘the beating Burton gave her… She got two black eyes, her nose was out of shape, and it took 22 days for her to recover enough in order to resume filming’.
Recalling that weekend in his journal, nearly a decade later, Burton said they ‘drank to the point of stupefaction and idiocy… For some reason E said she was prepared to kill herself for me.’
He distinctly remembered ‘Taylor standing over him with a box of pills in her hand, ‘saying she could do it… whereupon… she swallowed them with gusto…’
He had ‘vague memories of trying to get her awake’. There followed a ‘hair-raising drive’ back to Rome, 102 miles away, with Taylor dropped anonymously at the Salvator Mundi hospital.
April 23, 1962
Sybil returns to Rome. Paparazzi photos of Burton and Taylor smooching on the beach in Porto Santo Stefano have been published in the London papers, which even Sybil can’t pretend not to have seen. ‘Richard loves Elizabeth more than me,’ she tells her friend Roddy McDowall, earnestly hoping he’ll contradict her.
Taylor takes more pills and is back at the Salvator Mundi having her stomach pumped.
May 19, 1962
Sybil visits Burton. Taylor stays up crying all night and her eyes are too swollen to shoot.
June 9, 1962
The studio keeps an ambulance on standby in case Taylor does anything dramatic.
June 23, 1962
It’s 272 days since production began in Italy. Of her 228 days of shooting here, Taylor hasn’t turned up on 57 occasions.
July 11, 1962
Taylor leaves for her chalet in Gstaad, Switzerland. There are three lorries for her pets, six lorries for her ‘furnishings’ and the children’s toys, and four Rolls-Royces to convey herself and her staff.
Elizabeth Taylor attends the Macy’s Passport 2008 Gala held at Barker Hangar on September 26, 2008 in Santa Monica, California
Elizabeth Taylor and Fran Drescher are pictured in The Nanny in 1993
July 28, 1962
Production wraps, seven months late. Burton returns to his home in Céligny, Switzerland, but keeps nipping over to Gstaad to see Taylor. Sybil attempts suicide by cutting her wrists.
August 6, 1962
News of Marilyn Monroe’s death reaches Taylor, who believes it was an accidental overdose. ‘I was stunned. I thought it would have been me,’ she gasps melodramatically. ‘I felt so depressed and sad because I couldn’t reach her…’
It says a lot about Taylor that the death of Marilyn is a tragedy all about her.
October 16, 1962
Cuban Missile Crisis. The prospect of global annihilation is of less importance to the Press than what they are calling the scandal of ‘Dick and Liz’.
‘How did I know the woman was so f***ing famous,’ says Burton disingenuously. ‘She knocks Khrushchev off the front page.’
April 2, 1963
Burton tells actor Stanley Baker: ‘Nothing will change the way I feel about Sybil. Nothing will break our marriage.’ Sybil never sees or speaks to Burton again.
June 12, 1963
Taylor and Burton don’t attend the Cleopatra premiere in New York. ‘Everyone was insulted,’ said the film’s editor, Elmo Williams. ‘To make matters worse [they] sent their secretaries to occupy those two centre seats.’
Asked why he didn’t attend, Burton sighed: ‘We’d just had it with Cleopatra by then. It was years off my life.’ Asked about Rome, he said: ‘I never want to see the place again as long as I live.’
Elizabeth Taylor is pictured wearing a green sleeveless low-cut dress, circa 1950
August 2, 1967
Burton wrote in his diary: ‘All the bad things that have happened to me have almost always happened in Rome.’
It was where the egotism of a big love affair could have a backdrop — where Taylor and Burton had the illusion of behaving in an uncontrolled way. It was where the problems of their personal lives bubbled up like lava.
There were tranquil times, too. On May 5, 1966, filming The Taming Of The Shrew in Rome, Taylor and Burton found a roadside trattoria, near a church: ‘The voices of the choir drifted on the air like an invisible mist… We stopped eating… to listen. It was one of those moments which are nostalgic before they’re over.’
There were never, in fairness, many moments like that one. Mostly, Burton and Taylor were pulling each other to pieces — and that made them happy.
Erotic Vagrancy by Roger Lewis (Quercus Publishing, £30) to be published October 26. © Roger Lewis 2023. To order a copy for £27 (offer valid to 30/10/2023; UK P&P free on orders over £25) go to mailshop.co.uk/books or call 020 3176 2937.
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