Elizabeth Taylor: Dying To Love, Dying For Love

Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton

Elizabeth Taylor lived in a diamond encrusted bubble.

Hers was a life utterly devoid of any sense  of normalcy. From age twelve, when she became a child star in National Velvet, (1944) Elizabeth Taylor was thrust into an aberrant existence. Here was a young girl who never went through the ordinary rites of passage that create well-rounded, mature adults. Her school house was MGM. She never went to a prom, never shopped for groceries. Instead, she made love to adult men on-screen. While ordinary American teenagers did chores around the house and collected a weekly allowance, Elizabeth Taylor had an entourage of hair-dressers, clothing designers, and make-up men, while earning thousands of dollars a week.

In the hot house environment of the Hollywood studio, where other child stars, like Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland, burned the candle at both ends, Elizabeth never internalized the basic vocabulary of love and affection based on common values. All she knew of the world was learned in the movies. The high drama that fueled the narratives in which she starred became, for Elizabeth, the model for her life, most notably, her mad, passionate loves and marriages.

Condemned by the Vatican and denounced on the Senate floor, Elizabeth Taylor’s romance with Richard Burton was known as “Le Scandale.”

Emotionally fragile, Taylor suffered gloriously as she and Burton plunged into a reckless romance. He was married to Sybil, a good, down-to-earth Welsh woman. Elizabeth was married to Eddie Fisher, the popular crooner.

All this during the making of Cleopatra, (1963) still — counting for inflation — the most expensive movie ever made.

In the compulsively readable Furious Love, Sam Kashner amd Nancy Schoenberger, relate the following story:

Walter Wanger and Joseph L. Mankiewicz, the producer and director of Cleopatra were deeply concerned that the Taylor-Burton affair was proving massively disruptive to the already over-budget, out-of-control production. They came for lunch at the luxurious Villa Pappa intending to have a talk with Taylor and convince her to stay away from Burton. There they found Taylor…

…being tended to by a physician, Dr. Coen. She seemed unusually pale, Wanger thought, and after lunch she confided how terrible she felt about hurting Sybil. “I feel dreadful,” she’d said. “Sybil is such a wonderful woman.” Wanger had tried to comfort her by talking about how difficult it was to swim against the tides of life. “How funny you should say that,” Elizabeth said. “Richard calls me ‘Ocean.’ ” She then retired to her bedroom and slipped into a pale gray Christian Dior nightgown, claiming exhaustion. A few minutes later, when he checked on her, he was told that she took some sleeping pills. That’s when one of her entourage called an ambulance, and word got out to the press that Elizabeth had attempted suicide.

The Christian Dior nightgown was a nice, dramatic touch. The studio immediately concocted a story about food poisoning. And the cover-up worked. The Taylor-Burton affair resumed.

A few weeks later, Sybil left Burton. She never spoke to him again. Ever.  Fisher, a beaten man, flew back to New York, and saw his career crumble to ashes as the Beatles redefined popular music.

Taylor and Burton escaped to a villa outside Rome where they reveled in their “guilty paradise.”

Burton later recalled that mad weekend in his diary:

We drank to the point of stupefaction and idiocy. We couldn’t go outside. We were not married…. We tried to read. We failed. We couldn’t go out. We made a desperate kind of love. We played gin rummy. E. kept on winning and oddly  enough out of this silly game came the crisis. For some reason—who knows or remembers the conversation that led up to it?—E. said that she was prepared to kill herself for me. Easy to say, I said, but no woman would kill herself for me, etc. with oodlings of self pity… out of it all came E. standing over me with a bottle or box of sleeping pills in her hand, saying that she could do it. Go ahead, I said, or words along those lines, whereupon she took a handful and swallowed with gusto and no dramatics.

Burton assumed she had swallowed some vitamins. But when she went to sleep, Burton could not wake her. He dragged her into a car and sped to a hospital in Rome where, for the second time, Taylor had her stomach pumped.

Burton and Taylor claimed that they were in love. But it seems to this screenwriter that these two actors habitually blurred the line between movies and reality. The movie narrative is powered by conflict. Played out on the silver screen, mad love looks romantic, wonderfully tragic. But in real life this script becomes ugly and destructive, not only to the featured players, but reverberates to family, ex-spouses, parents and children, with often tragic consequences. The Burton-Taylor romance was suicide in slow motion.

If you enjoyed this post, you will want to read Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton Fight Over Judaism.

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  1. Larry
    Posted October 26, 2012 at 8:04 am | Permalink

    Amazing how expensive “Cleopatra” was. Search for “most expensive movie inflation adjusted” and you’ll find several lists. Most of them have “Cleopatra” in the top 5 depending on how recently they were calculated. Of course, most of them were probably adjusted using CPI, which is one of the most politically finagled & untrustworthy statistics used for evaluating inflation. Even so, “Cleopatra” has to be a record-holder no matter how adjusted. I remember the uproar about its cost back then.
    Back in 1963 or 1964 — don’t recall which year, but know it was before 1965 — I met Eddie Fisher when he was doing partial cantorial duty at my synagogue (in Hollywood) one night. He was all laughing and glad-handing at the time, but something about him that I don’t remember precisely now struck me then as rude and inconsiderate. Sometime before then I had seen on TV the movie “Bundle of Joy” — a poor remake of “Bachelor Mother” — and thought that he & my dad resembled each other. Meeting him in person, there was a resemblance, except my dad wasn’t rude or inconsiderate.

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  2. Posted October 26, 2012 at 7:50 am | Permalink

    It is very interesting to me when Robert posts about these 2 stars. I must confess, given my age, that I don’t know many of the works of these two. I’ve seen parts of National Velvet, Cleopatra and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf (years ago), but I was only 4 when Woolf was released!  I remember Taylor doing some supporting roles (The Flintstones) and soap operas, but her star had (in my estimation, anyway) faded considerably when I started going to the movies.
    Burton, on the other hand, was someone I remembered. When I was a kid, WW II movies and cowboy movies were still the bread and butter box office draws. Burton was in Where Eagles Dare with Clint Eastwood. One of my favorite movies when it first came out — part WW II and part spy movie. He was also in 2 war movies which (although they made earlier) I had seen: The Longest Day and The Desert Rats.
    I guess my point is that I “knew” they were big stars, but I haven’t been exposed to much of their works. Do you recommend anything in particular, Robert, or were they overrated in their acting talents? After all, they seem to be remembered for their fights and multiple marriages.

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    • Robert J. Avrech
      Posted October 29, 2012 at 10:31 am | Permalink

      Prophet Joe:

      In her prime, Elizabeth Taylor was a superb movie actress. See: National Velvet (1944), Conspirator (1949), Father of the Bride, (1950), A Place in the Sun (1951) Ivanhoe (1952).

      I believe Burton was a theater actor. His film work is mediocre, Montgomery Clift said it best when he characterized Burton as a “speechmaker.”

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  3. Jeremayakovka
    Posted October 25, 2012 at 11:58 am | Permalink

    Burton’s performance in Night of the Iguana was striking. The Taylor connection explains why, partially.

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    • Robert J. Avrech
      Posted October 25, 2012 at 3:02 pm | Permalink


      I confess that I do not admire Burton on film, except for his very last performance in “1984,” which is a subdued and tightly controlled performance. As for Tennessee Williams, I can think of no author—well, maybe Philip Roth—whose work makes me sick to my stomach.

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      • Miranda Rose Smith
        Posted October 26, 2012 at 1:41 am | Permalink

        Dear Robert: You don’t admire A Streetcar Named Desire?

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        • Miranda Rose Smith
          Posted October 26, 2012 at 1:43 am | Permalink

          Edward Albee and Samuel Beckett don’t make you sick?

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          • Robert J. Avrech
            Posted October 26, 2012 at 2:24 am | Permalink


            “Streetcar” strikes me as the perfect MAD magazine parody of a tediously serious Broadway play.

            I don’t go to the theater. Ever. In this way I have avoided Albee’s work. As for film, I walked out of the movie version of “Woolf, ” finding it pretentious, dopey and almost comical in its overwrought artiness. 

            Beckett does not make me sick. He merely puts me to sleep.

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            • Miranda Rose Smith
              Posted October 26, 2012 at 3:16 am | Permalink

              Dear Robert: Have you heard about the new play opening on Broadway? It’s a surrealistic, theater of the absurd play about a stormy Depression era union meeting. It’s called Waiting for Lefty Godot.:-)

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              • Miranda Rose Smith
                Posted October 28, 2012 at 1:36 am | Permalink

                Dear Robert: You want a MAD magazine parody of a tediously serious Broadway play? You try All My Sons or Tea and Sympathy or A Delicate Balance.

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  4. Bill Brandt
    Posted October 25, 2012 at 9:59 am | Permalink

    I did not know about her suicide attempts Robert. My mother worked for Bullocks Dept Store in the late 40s and remembers helping Taylor – then 15 or 16.
    Said you always remembered the eyes. 
    The older I have become I have come to realize – a lot through bad experiences – that there are many paths we can take in life – some beneficial – some destructive – and some paths – no matter how enticing – are best not taken. (doesn’t mean I am not occasionally enticed 😉 )
    Seems Taylor was flying blind when she met Burton.
    As an aside, I ran into someone on the Net – in one of my groups – who met Burton and Taylor at a restaurant during the 1967 Monterrey Jazz festival. The restaurant was crowded and the maitre’d cam up and asked if a couple could share his table.
    Imagine his surprise when the couple turned out to be Richard and Liz.
    Said they had a pleasant conversation and seemed “down to earth”.

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    • Posted October 25, 2012 at 12:15 pm | Permalink

      Celebs sharing a table with the common folk? Oh… 1967. That explains it. I can’t imagine it happening today!!

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    • Robert J. Avrech
      Posted October 25, 2012 at 3:07 pm | Permalink


      Everyone I’ve ever met in Hollywood who knew Taylor in her prime says that she was easily the most beautiful creature on the face of the earth. In fact, they said that she looked better sans make-up with her hair in a casual bun or pony tail. Taylor was aware of her beauty and often wore clothing that  highlighted the color of her eyes.

      When not drunk, Burton could be incredibly charming. When drunk, he was terribly abusive, cruel beyond imagination.

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