NR Digital

Behind the Screen

by Florence King
The Richard Burton Diaries, edited by Chris Williams (Yale, 700 pp., $35)

Ever since diaries stopped being an art form sometime in the 19th century, they have been looked on as the desperate pastime of introverts who spend their lives alone. Such could hardly be said of Richard Burton. The twelfth of thirteen children of a Welsh coal miner, he was taken in as a toddler by his 22-year-old married sister when their mother died in childbirth at the age of 44. Yet he always kept something resembling a diary, from the pocket memo pads of his boyhood, to school notebooks, to university loose-leaf binders, and finally, good bond paper and portable typewriters — three of them, one for each luxurious pied-à-terre in his peripatetic movie star’s life.

Edited by Chris Williams, a history professor at Swansea University in Wales, this book is not a diary in the usual sense of a contained sequential account. Williams had access to the early diaries from Burton’s boyhood and teen years, but he includes only some of this material before moving on to the sections from the early 1960s, when Burton, by then famous, was close to 40 and frequently went for months not making any entries at all, or writing just single words that need no explanation, like Booze! The present volume concentrates on the steadier period from 1965 up to 1984, when Burton, 58, died in his sleep of a cerebral hemorrhage.

Burton was a compulsive diarist and he knew the reason for it, but it made him feel conflicted, so he would downplay it. “This diary is really no good to anyone but me. It forces me to keep my mind in some kind of untidy order and is better than nothing for my laziness.” If his rationalizations needed more punch, he called in the Bard: “‘I wasted time,’ said Richard the Second, ‘and now doth time waste me.’”

However much he compared himself to the weak and frittering Richard II, he had a greater affinity with another Shakespearean character whom he resembled far more and played so well: Coriolanus, the high-minded tough guy who said, “There is a world elsewhere.” For Burton, a world elsewhere was not the stage but the desk; if he had it to do over, he would be a writer, not an actor. His yearning for a different métier would come over him at odd times, as when he heard from a Vogue editor about a brief commentary he did for them. “Why do notices and things similar about what little writing I do thrill me and notices for acting leave me totally indifferent? I wanted to write because I sought for some kind of permanence, a cover-bound shot at immortality and not a rapidly dating film and acting match.”

He is a writer here. The Diaries is not a tell-all sexcapade by any means and contains no salacious details whatsoever about his scandalous affair with Elizabeth Taylor during the filming of Cleopatra. In one sense, it is a how-to book on writing containing flawless examples of the classic literary forms, such as this “profile” of Noel Coward:

He is a most generous man but sadly he is beginning to lose the fine edge of his wit or perhaps like me he repeats himself when tipsy. He moves like an old man but I suddenly remembered that he’s always moved like an old man. Stoop-shouldered non-necked he has the curved body of a very tall man but in actual fact he is no taller than I. He is now almost completely bald and the bags under his eyes have made his eyes even more asiatic than hitherto. He calls himself “the oldest Chinese character actress in the world.” Coming off the plane he was asked how his journey was and he said peering his way towards customs “My whole life has been an extravaganza.”

Burton calls Lucille Ball “a monster of staggering charmlessness and monumental lack of humour,” but rounds out his harsh opinion with a well-balanced analogy: “A machine of enormous energy, which driven by a stupid driver who has forgotten that a machine runs on oil as well as gasoline and who has neglected the former, is creaking badly towards a final convulsive seize-up.”

He can describe the indescribable well beyond the “y’know” of lesser imaginations: “A double ice cold vodka martini, the glass fogged with condensation, straight up and straight down and the warm flood the pain-killer hitting the stomach and then the brain and an hour of sweetly melancholy euphoria.” His one-liners are reminiscent of Mencken’s but lighter and more polished: Ted Kennedy is “a mere stripling of 48”; Marlon Brando “should have been born two generations before and acted in silent films”; “Jane Fonda talked of nothing but the black panthers and got $3,000 out of E and me”; “[Onassis] is pretty vulgar and one suspects him of orgies and other dubious things whereas the Kennedy woman seems, though I’ve never met her, to be a lady.” As for maxims, he could go up against La Rochefoucauld on the solid marriage of Liz’s mismatched parents: “That’s the criminal thing about having children — they keep incompatible people together.”

He knows how to pace an anecdote. One day an employee of Burton’s agent asked if one of his relatives could bring her small son around to recite Hamlet’s “To Be” speech, which he had memorized especially for him. Burton’s heart sank. He hated the speech because it reminded him of his own indecisiveness about acting and writing, but he didn’t want to hurt a child’s feelings so he agreed. The worshipful little boy arrived accompanied by his flattered mother and sister, all dressed in their best. He got through the speech with only one stumble, and Burton, warming to the occasion, was giving him a few pointers when suddenly the door burst open and Liz delivered a line she had improvised from The Taming of the Shrew. “Fie! Fie! You s.o.b.!” she screamed, whereupon the Hamlet party jumped out of their skins. The magic was gone.

Most celebrities are exposed as egotists when describing the price of fame, but Burton probes the psychology of the fan and decides that it’s the other way round. He likes to sit at a bar with a mirrored wall and watch the diners behind him in the restaurant as they recognize him and realize there is a celebrity in their midst. “It’s the other people who change — not me. . . . They begin to be self-conscious and start unconsciously to act. Women especially become arch or arrogant, simpering or ultra-sophisticated.” The real price of fame is paid by fans snubbing themselves.

His biggest fan problem was the many women who wanted to see for themselves whether Elizabeth was really as beautiful as her photographs. One such fan pursued them through the length of a train all the way to the dining car, coming to a halt beside their table as her winded husband panted, “Well, there she is. Are you satisfied now?” This particular woman was, but many others turned snarly and demanded, “What’s all the fuss about?” To them Burton had a stock reply: “If you married a hatchet you’d make a perfect match.”

The political Burton makes for a pleasant surprise. He professed to hate the Tory party, identified himself as a green long before it became the latest thing, and played a parlor game with Robert F. Kennedy to see who could quote the most Shakespeare sonnets, yet he was not the liberal he wished he was because he did not believe in Mankind with a capital “M”: “And nothing, but nothing at all can change that great amorphous mass.” His conviction that “human nature is unchanged and unchangeable” is the basis of that pessimistic realism that is the indelible mark of the conservative temperament.

The reader is also surprised by Burton as a husband who could be counted on. “Probably no woman sleeps with such childish beauty,” he mused of Taylor, yet she was also “the kind of person who turns a cold into near-death from double pneumonia. Take out a tooth and she’s laid up for a fortnight. Graze her knee and it suppurates for a month.” Although she survived him by 27 years to die at 79, she gave him some terrifying moments when they were alone and she had no one to turn to but him. One emergency involved hemorrhaging of a proctological nature, and Burton describes in the bluntest of terms what he had to do for her, but instead of faulting him for going into too much detail, we find ourselves remembering the line in the wedding ceremony that goes “in sickness and in health.”

He was also kind to Taylor’s various children by other husbands. He developed a bitter hatred for Tennessee Williams — he called Williams “a self-pitying pain in the neck” — because “he made a pass at my Chris when Chris was eight.” One of the two sons of Michael Wilding (Taylor’s second husband), Chris, along with his brother, lived off and on with the Burtons, as did Liza Todd, daughter of Mike Todd, Taylor’s third husband. Burton even took Eddie Fisher’s place in the adoption process for a little German girl that was ongoing when Taylor divorced Fisher. The Burtons got the child and she came aboard as well. If all this sounds like an imposition, it wasn’t. Nobody imposed on Richard Burton. It was simply that the domestically challenged households of his childhood made a census-taker’s fever dreams seem normal.

This book is so good that even the footnotes are good. I haven’t been able to say that since I reviewed the letters of Evelyn Waugh and Nancy Mitford. Burton needs slews of footnotes because, like every compulsive writer, he was a compulsive reader. He read “everything,” as they say, and editor Chris Williams meticulously footnotes every book with its author and a brief description of its contents. He also knew “everybody,” as they say, and so we get thumbnail sketches galore, an education in itself.

My favorite footnote concerns Nelson Rockefeller, whose widow the Burtons met at a dinner party given by William F. Buckley Jr.: “Nelson Rockefeller (1908–79), U.S. Vice-President (1974–77), whose death in January 1979 from a heart attack was surrounded in controversy, there being a strong suspicion that he had died in intimate circumstances with a young female aide. Margaretta ‘Happy’ Rockefeller (1926–) was his second wife.”

– Florence King can be reached at P.O. Box 7113, Fredericksburg, VA 22404.

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