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The Diaries of Richard Burton, Published November 2012

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The Diaries of Richard Burton, Published in November 2012
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The Diaries of Richard Burton, Published in November 2012

  • Feb 16, 2013
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Note: I tried to delete the underlining in the following post, but was unable to do so.-Ron Price, Tasmania

The Diaries of Richard Burton:
FOLLOWING MY LIFE THROUGH RICHARD BURTON’S DIARIES
 
Part 1:
 
Readers here will find below my 4000+ word, 9 page-font 14, overview of some of Elizabeth Taylor’s and Richard Burton’s lives. I integrate my own life into theirs and this process, this literary-mix, may annoy some readers.  If that is the case I encourage readers to either skim and scan the following text or just stop reading now.  This is the longest post I've placed here at Lunch: Reviews and, if moderators find my post outside the conventions of the input from writers, they can let me know and I'm happy to reduce the size of this addition to the mix of my posts at Lunch: Reviews The occasion for my writing this essay is the publication last month of The Diaries of Richard Burton.
 
The personalities of celebrities have, until my retirement after a 50 year student and working life, 1949 to 1999,  always been far out on the periphery of my life. My daily life during that half-century was immersed in so many other things, things that kept my mental-set fully occupied.  Except for a short time in the late 60s and early 70s when the world of some famous folk and rock musicians occupied a central place in the empyrean of my interests and activities, the lives of celebrities have never gained much of a foothold in my interest inventory. Indeed I hardly knew anything about them.
 
Daphne Merkin a staff writer for The New Yorker and currently a contributing writer for The New York Times Magazine and Elle writes in her review of The Diaries of Richard Burton,1that “before the culture of celebrity became the instant wind-up machine it now unmistakably is, with supermarket sightings, up-close tweetings, and a glut of red-carpeted appearances, there was one acting couple whose name was synonymous with the ineffable magic dust of star power.”1 They were Richard Burton(1925-1984) and Elizabeth Taylor(1932-2011) who between them had 11 spouses, and appeared in some 70 films.
 
They are “better known as Liz-and-Dick”, continues Merkin, “and this is preferably said in one breath in order to better  underline their ensorcelled liaison and combined wattage.”1  Liz and Dick were among the most famous of those celebrities who occupied a place far out on the perimeter, the edge, of the known galaxies which occupied a place in my universe.
 
Western culture has not lost its need to be titillated, and I’m sure Burton’s diaries will sell well appealing as they do to that titillation need, although I won’t be buying a copy. I rarely buy books anymore due to having a pension as my main source of income, and the internet as my main provider of more print than I can ever consume on any one day.  In that crucial period between 1961 and 1965---when Burton burst into the superstar heavens by falling in reciprocated love with Taylor another superstar who had already burst from those same heavens---there are no diary entries. I, too, had burst onto the scene in those years, but not in any superstar heaven, just in the simple space of university, the only person in my family ever to go to university. 
 
Still, Burton and Taylor were always like stars in the heaven of the movies for me but, as with all the stars, I knew little about them since my main diet of print back in both the ‘50s and ‘60s was the social sciences and humanities, just surviving, in the process, to get through from grade to grade and then into university and into paid employment.  I saw some of their movies back in those years of growing up and early adulthood, but I did not yearn to find out about their public and private lives when I got home from the movies and returned to my world of: sport and school, work and having fun, as well as my young involvement in a new world faith which claimed to be the latest of the Abrahamic religions---the Baha'i Faith.
 
More recently, at least during these my retirement years from FT, PT and most casual-volunteer work, 2009-2012, and on an old-age pension, I have added the physical, biological and applied sciences to my former intellectual and reading tastes. I don’t think I’ve ever bought a magazine about celebrities, those magazines that pervasively fill the interstices of our commodity culture at the cash register in super-markets and grocery stores, corner-stores and newsagents; nor have I read a book about any celebrity, although I remember dabbling now-and-then among the many books that became available in the last several decades about some celebrity or other: Clint Eastwood and Marilyn Monroe come to mind.  In writing this piece I have dabbled and scrolled, surfed as they say, through cyberspace and learned more about these two celebrities in the last 24 hours than I’ve known about any celebrity in my life.
 
This piece, this essay or article of mine, is a bit of a cut-and-paste exercise partly due to my interest in some of the myriad of celebrities that dot the print and electronic media day after day and week after week, as well as my interest in diaries, an interest sparked by the writing of my own diary in some five volumes over the last 30 years. I heard about Burton’s diaries in the middle of the night on my wife’s radio about 48 hours ago.
 
My wife listens to the radio at night in order to help her get through her hours in bed and because she has a genuine interest in much of the media output. I also think she has an addiction to sound; whereas I have an addiction to silence. But she and I have learned to tolerate and accept most of each other’s interests and eccentricities in the 38 years of our relationship which looks like going the distance into our old age, to the last syllable of our recorded time on this mortal coil.
 
Part 2:
 
Richard Burton was a Welsh actor so Wikipedia informs me in its opening paragraph about him and in its long account of his life from cradle to grave.  He was nominated seven times for an Academy Award.  Six of these nominations were for Best Actor in a Leading Role without ever winning.  He was also a recipient of BAFTA, Golden Globe and Tony Awards for Best Actor. Although never trained as an actor Burton was, at one time, back when I was at university in the '60s and into the first years of my life as a teacher, the highest-paid actor in Hollywood.
 
He remains closely associated in the public consciousness with his second wife, actress Elizabeth Taylor; that couple's turbulent relationship was rarely out of the news. Even for me, back in those 1960s, when I was immersed in more books than I had bargained for at university, and engaged in dealing with my own life’s turbulence due to the rigors of a bipolar disorder(BPD), Burton and Taylor managed to get through from the mass media into my overloaded consciousness and visual emporium as I struggled from late adolescence into early adulthood.
 
I recently read that Elizabeth Taylor’s first movie was National Velvet which was released the year I was born, 1944. Taylor went on in her long life as an actress to be nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actress. She was nominated four years in a row for: Raintree County (1957) opposite Montgomery Clift, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958) opposite Paul Newman, Suddenly, Last Summer (1959) with Montgomery Clift and Katharine Hepburn---before finally winning for Butterfield 8 (1960). Again, I thank Wikipedia for these details of Taylor's life.
 
I went from primary school to high school during those years and saw some of Taylor on the big screen in my adolescent and adult years.  In 1959, at age 27, Wikipedia informs me that “after nine months of study, Taylor converted from Christian Science to Judaism”.  I had converted to the Baha’i Faith in that same year after going to meetings from the age of about 9 to 15. Taylor and I had separate but unusual religious propensities and these propensities lasted all our lives, until her death in 2011, and me even now as I head for 70 in 2014.
 
Burton’s love of language, a Welsh trait, was paramount as he famously stated years later, with a tearful Elizabeth Taylor at his side, "The only thing in life is language. Not love. Not anything else.”  I, too, have a Welsh ancestry. My father was born in Wales in 1890, and that Welsh love of language seems to have been in my blood from an early age, although it manifested itself in a wide variety of ways, and slowly by sensible and insensible degrees over the last seven decades.  My own diaries or memoirs, my autobiographical-literary impulse was first in evidence the year Burton died, 1984.
 
That diaristic impulse exploded in cyberspace, as the 21st century made its entry a decade or so ago in 2001.  These memoirs, this autobiography, I tend to use these terms interchangeably, now fill some 2600 pages, and another several thousand pages if I include my 7000+ pieces of prose-poetry. Some say that this writing passion of mine is due to BPD. Perhaps they are right. I’m not sure just where this writing passion originates. Perhaps, like Burton's, it has something to do with that Welsh love of language.
 
Burton played in many films throughout the 1950s and 1960s.  These were the first two decades when films came into my life in abundance especially during the time I had a job at a local theatre and got into all the movies free.  Burton played Mark Antony in 1963 in the production Cleopatra, the same year I entered an arts course at McMaster university, at the age of 19, in the lunch-pail city of Hamilton Ontario.
 
Burton's basic reading of Hamlet in a 1964 production was of a complex bipolar personality.  The character of Hamlet is, arguably, the most famous of all literary characters in the western intellectual tradition.During the long run of Hamlet on Broadway from 9 April through 8 August 1964 Burton varied his performance considerably as a self-challenge, to keep his acting fresh, and to be consistent with his interpretation of the complex person that was Shakespeare's Hamlet. The internet has much to say about Hamlet for readers here who would like to get 'into' the old Bard.
 
 
By September of 1964 I was 20 and in my second year of university in an honours history and philosophy program. My own bipolar personality had begun to surface by 1964, although I did not get a formal psychiatric diagnosis of BPD until May 1980 when I was living in back in Tasmania and was employed as a probation and parole officer.  In 1992, the year that marked my auspicious rush into the writing of poetry, after a hiatus of three decades since I wrote my first poem in 1962, I was an English literature teacher in Perth Western Australia. I read, studied, and taught Hamlet that year and gained, in the process, an insight into my own personality, its BPD, and its many eccentricies.
 
Part 3:
 
Twentieth Century-Fox's future appeared to hinge on that 1963 production of Cleopatra. The film was released in June 1963, the same month that I had 4 summer jobs: a milkman, a Colliers encyclopedia salesman and a driver's assistant for a soft-drink company. I finally settled by the end of June on employment in the data processing department of the Firestone Tire and Rubber Company in that same lunch-pail city of Hamilton where I was born 19 years before and where I attended university.
 
Cleopatrabecame the most expensive movie ever made up until then, reaching almost $40 million. The film was long-on-spectacle and was dominated by the two hottest stars in Hollywood: Burton and Taylor. Their private lives turned out to be an endless source of curiosity for the media and their marriage, on 15 March 1964, was also the start of their series of on-screen collaborations.  I was just completing my first year of university in March 1964, and preparing for my final exams. My BPD mood swings had begun in earnest in the months preceding the assassination of JFK on 22/11/’63 and they continued until a final crack, a manic-hit while I was teaching on Baffin Island.
 
Those four years to May 1968 were an up-and-down affair until I experienced a full-blown manic attack, an attack which changed me from a BPD 2 into a BPD 1---by far the most extreme form of BPD.  My years at university were characterized by what Stephen Fry calls bipolar-light or cyclothymic disorder. This is a mild form of BPD in which a person has mood swings over a period of years, swings that go from depression to emotional highs, but the person does not have a full manic-attack. My full manic-attack did not occur until I was living on Baffin island and teaching Inuit children.
 
In the end, that 1963 film did well enough to recoup its 40 million cost. The film also proved to be the start of Burton's most successful period in Hollywood; he would remain among the top 10 box-office earners for the next four years while my mood swings went from mild BPD to right-off-the-planet and into psychiatric institutions.  
 
Richard Burton's performance in the 1964 film The Night of the Iguana is seen by some as his finest hour on the screen. Edward Albee play Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? opened on Broadway at the midst of the Cuban Missile Crisis, 13 October 1962, as I was beginning the most demanding year of my academic life, grade 13 and its nine subjects, and as the world got as close as it has ever got to nuclear war.
 
That Albee play was adapted into a film and released in June 1966 as I was about to start my summer job as an ice-cream salesman for the Good Humour Company. That summer job preceded teachers’ college, and for two months I working more than 80 hours a week.  During those years, 1963 to 1967, I finished my matriculation and university. Burton had been part of my cinema life in the 1950s and 1960s but, as a personality, he was far out in the periphery of my psycho-emotional-intellectual life, as all celebrities have been all my life.
 
Part 4:
 
The 1988 biography of Burton by Melvyn Bragg appeared just as I was beginning my last decade as a teacher and FT lecturer in Western Australia’s technical and further education system: 1988 to mid-1999. Burton spent six weeks in a clinic to recuperate from a period during which he had been drinking three bottles of vodka a day. He was also a regular smoker, with an intake of between three and five packs a day for most of his adult life. Health issues continued to plague him until his death of a stroke at the age of 58. I leave it to readers to learn about the litany of Burton's health problems.(2) 
 
As I survey Burton’s life and all its turbulence, I don’t think my personal turbulence was anything as extensive as his. My turbulence was, for the most part, due to BPD and my life benefitted from the stabilizing effects of pharmacology, a reasonably harmonious marital life with only two spouses over more than 45 years, a consistent philosophical-religious base, and none of the problems brought on by fame and wealth. I did smoke one pack of cigarettes a day for 30 years, giving up some 20 years ago.  Due to my religion, the Baha’i Faith, I am a teetotaller and have never been into drugs except for my BPD.  I’m happy to be in my own skin and would not have wanted Burton’s life even with all its fame and wealth, glory and celebrity status.
 
Burton kept sporadic diaries for two decades before his relationship with Taylor. He started his diaries about the time my parents met in 1939 when he was 14 as WW2 was breaking out.  The diaries end in April 1983, a year or so before his death at the age of 58.  But the great mass of diary entries, and “the joy of this wonderful book”, says one reviewer, is from 1965 to 1972, the years of his first marriage to Elizabeth Taylor when the couple were more famous than anyone else in the world. “The voice in the diaries”, that reviewer continues, “is intimate in the way of the best diarists, crackling with vigorous observations and writerly notations.”
 
By 1972 I was living in Australia. I’d had my stint of 5 months in a series of hospitalizations, two in psychiatric wards of general hospitals, and two in large psychiatric institutions. I was enjoying a decade between BPD episodes, just beginning my two years as a high school teacher in South Australia, and completing the last two years of my first marriage. In 1974 I started my career in post-secondary education, a career that paid the bills for my life in a second long term relationship and marriage(1974-2012) raising, as that marriage did, three kids who are now 46, 42 and 35. They all have children of their own now, making me a grandfather several times over.
 
Burton fancied himself a writer. “The DLitt at Oxford is the only honour I really covet,” he wrote in 1972 as I was coveting my job in a high school which was so much better than my previous primary school jobs.  Indeed, as I look back on my teaching career, I see 1972 as the year it began to take off with some success.
 
The entries in Burton's diaries are not polished like his many published articles for newspapers and magazines.  His diary entries acted as a kind of aide-mémoire of his day-to-day life, and the words sail off the page: opinionated and lively, savagely honest about his own failings----his acne, his lack of physical prowess, his vile behaviour to people he loved---his scathing rudeness to others; his record of interests in rugby, current affairs and food.2
 
Carrie Rickey, in the online magazine SF Gate, refers to this 700 page diary as “an epic act of erudition.”  Burton’s diaries double as the impeccable record of, by any account, a drunk, although in Burton’s case a highly literate one.  In one place he calls his diaries: “the confessions of a drunk”. There is not much of specifically erotic disclosure in these diaries; for such a randy and articulate character, Burton has been touchingly shy about bedroom details, as are most people literate and otherwise; indeed, as am I in my own diaries.
 
Burton was a great reader. “Most days I read 3 books, today I read 5”  The books range from Kafka to thrillers, to vast histories and Baudelaire. He devours and analyses them with an intensity he rarely brought to his acting. In one particularly virulent outbreak in the middle of filming Anne of a Thousand Days in August 1969, the only month in my 50 years of a driving life I was charged with reckless driving, he wrote: “I loathe, loathe, loathe, acting. In studios, in England, wherever; I loathe it, hate it, despise, despise, for Christ’s sake, it. Well that has managed to get a little spleen out of my system.”2
 
Part 5:
 
“Two principle themes emerge in the diaries”, writes one reviewer of the diaries. The first and the main theme is Taylor herself. “She is a prospectus that can never be entirely catalogued…..and I’ll love her till I die,” Burton writes. That same reviewer writes, “He chronicles her beauty, her little-girl pleasure in jewels and clothes, her moods, her slovenliness, her kindness. He records his fears for her health, her piles and their great gouts of blood which were frightening to behold, their happiness: "life is a waste without her", he writes – and their constant rows.  I’ve had a few rows myself in my 45 years of marriage, 1967 to 2012, but I’m not in Burton’s league. Even with my BPD, my marital life has been a quiet backwater compared to the turbulent sea that was Burton’s marital lives.
 
Their fights nearly always occur when he has been in thrall to the other great love of his life, drink. Alcohol would have been a disaster for me. People who have BPD and mix their meds with booze double or triple whatever turbulence there is in their daily life. More than half of the marriages of those with BPD end in divorce. In September 1969, when I was just starting to teach grade 6 in Prince Edward County in southern Ontario and two months after the moon landing, Burton writes: “We are fighting and have been fighting for a year now over everything and anything.  I have always been a heavy drinker but during the last 15 months I have nearly killed myself with the stuff and so has Elizabeth.” He attempts to get on the wagon as they say, that is, totally off alcohol; he marks drink-free days in red on his calendar. In the later diaries of 1975, after his divorce from Taylor, endless days are marked only by the word “booze”.
 
Yet to concentrate only on the demons that drove Burton to drink, to depression, to anger and to violence, and into and out of his many marriages, is to miss the pleasure of the way he conjures with such a good eye and ear the charmed world in which he and Taylor moved, at least for some of their years together. Paparazzi lurked in every bush, and a trip to the dentist would be accompanied by applauding crowds. His life was one of amazing luxury, of suites at the Ritz, and jewels as big. He buys his love the plane they fly in: “She was not displeased.” As much as I have enjoyed the comforts of life, I have never had a big desire for retail therapy. Without much money to play with, anyway, as a married teacher with kids, whatever my needs and wants were, my life of buying things in shops was kept to a minimum by the short supply of money that came in from the fortnightly pay-cheque.
 
Burton is palsy-walsy with many big-wigs. He talks communism with Tito, politics with Kissinger and love with Maria Callas. “The Onassises have disappeared completely from the front pages; I told Elizabeth that they didn’t have our stamina.” He and Taylor are guests at a Rothschild’s ball where he discovers that a man “who looked like a cadaver when still and a failure of plastic surgery when he moved which was seldom” was Andy Warhol. He nearly strangles Princess Grace while trying to help her remove a necklace. “For a moment she was in bad trouble as the necklace got twisted up as a result of my inept handling of the clasp as the bloody thing was too tight in the first place.”  
 
Part 6:
 
Burton “records his life like a gripping drama”, continues another reviewer, “where tomorrow is always a surprise. You miss him when you put the book down. His is a voice that lingers.” Never, it seems, was there more interest in such a tumultuous love affair. As the world’s population went from about 1.5 billion when Burton and Taylor were children to 7.5 billion by the time these diaries were published, there will probably be more people than ever for whom these celebrities are all the rage, as they say.
 
Lindsay Lohan is starring as Taylor and Grant Bowler as Burton in the much-hyped Lifetime biopic Liz & Dick. This TV movie has just debuted in November in Canada and Australia.  It’s a timely biopic to go with the diaries. Liz & Dick is how Taylor and Burton were known in The Tabloids.
 
Taylor's haunting letters to Burton were included in a 2010 biography Furious Love. Those letters, as well as snippets from Burton’s diaries, revealed a man who was word-struck as much as he was love-struck, equally passionate about language as he was about Taylor, whose breasts he called “apocalyptic” and whose beauty he termed “pornographic.” In a television interview with Barbara Walters, done some years after Burton’s death when I had moved to Western Australia in another hot place, Taylor referred to Burton as a genius. “This term will not strike those who immerse themselves in these intoxicating journals as much of an overstatement”, wrote one reviewer of the diaries.
 
For those interested in the details of the couple's 13-year liaison these newly-published diaries, The Richard Burton Diaries are just made for you.  The diaries are put together in the form of 400,000 words, words found in Burton’s pocket notebooks, desk diaries and on loose paper, all written before he died in 1984 at the age of 58.  Most of the entries come from the late 1960s and early '70s when I was just starting out on my teaching career in my mid-to-late twenties.

The book, edited by Swansea University professor Christopher Williams in Wales, lays bare a passionate, a very hot, a turbulent, a destructive and yet, paradoxically, an endearing relationship. The pair were married twice, from 1964 to 1974 and 1975 to 1976. Both times they divorced. I’ll conclude this essay with a part 7, with five top revelations from Burton's diaries, revelations about their larger-than-life romance. These entries come from the first ten months of 1969. I had just been released from 5 months of mental hospitals and was making a come-back into the real world. This romantic pair existed back then in some parallel universe where they have existed all my life. It is a universe I rarely travel in, but I have travelled in it to write this essay and have enjoyed ever minute of the literary journey.
 
Part 7:
 
Taylor Could Hit the Bottle Hard
  January 13, 1969: For the last month, with very few exceptions, Elizabeth has gone to bed not merely sozzled or tipsy but stoned. And I mean stoned: unfocused, unable to walk straight, talking in a slow, meaningless baby voice like a demented child. The boredom, unless I'm drunk, too, of being in the presence of someone to whom you have to repeat everything twice is like a physical pain in the stomach. If it was anyone else, I'd head for the hills -- but this woman is my life. I tried to imagine life without her, but couldn't. We're bound together. Hoop-steeled. Whither thou go-est. He said hopefully.
 
Burton Liked to Take Stock of Liz's, Err….Assets
  March 29, 1969: Looking as critically as I could at E yesterday, I could detect no sign of ageing. The skin is as smooth and youthful and unwrinkled as ever. The breasts, despite their largeness and considerable weight, sag very slightly but no more than they did ten years ago. Her bottom is firm and round. She needs weight off her stomach.
 
Their Passion Ran Deep
  May 25, 1969: Elizabeth is an eternal one-night stand. She is my private and personal bought mistress. And lascivious with it. It is impossible to tell you what is consisted in the act of love. Well, I'll tell you: E is a receiver, a perpetual returner of the ball!
 
Their Notorious Fights Sometimes Got Physical Sept. 9, 1969: Well, I went mad, which ended up with Elizabeth smashing me around the head with her ringed fingers. If any man had done that, I'd have killed him. I still boil with fury when I think about it.4

FOOTNOTES

Ron Price with thanks to 1Daphne Merkin, 3/11/’12, The Daily Beast, 2Wikipedia, 24/11/’12, 3Carrie Rickey, “The Richard Burton Diaries”, in SF Gate, 4Sarah Crompton, “The Richard Burton Diaries”, 28 October 2012, The Telegraph, and to 5Luchina Fisher, ABC News, 20 November 2012.

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February 19, 2013
With appreciation to all those who have read this essay, and commented on it in their evaluation.-Ron
 
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