Liz and Dick.
Married, divorced, then married again and divorced once more, they were Hollywood’s greatest power couple since Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks, Sr.
Paparazzi followed their every move. Their lavish lifestyle made headlines across the globe. Richard Burton, the son of an alcoholic Welsh miner, and Elizabeth Taylor, Hollywood’s greatest star, made the marriage of the century.
They met and fell in love on the set of Cleopatra. Of course, both were married. Burton to Sybil Williams, a down-to-earth Welsh woman, who tolerated Richard’s numerous affairs, confident that he would always return to her and their two daughters, Kate and Jessica. Welshmen did not abandon their family. That was understood.
Taylor, raised not by her parents, but in the rarefied MGM bubble, was already on her fourth husband, crooner Eddie Fisher (born, Edwin John Tisch), whom, according to the press, Elizabeth stole from Debbie Reynolds, after the tragic death of Mike Todd, Taylor’s one true love.
Elizabeth Taylor said that Todd was a bit of a madman, admitting that she could “only be content with a man who’s a bit crazy.”
And Burton, a volatile mix of raw theatrical talent — he was a mediocre movie actor — romantic grandiosity, and self-loathing, was a perfect fit, Taylor-made, if you will: furiously crazy.
They enjoyed heaping insults upon one another. Burton called Elizabeth “my little Jewish tart.” Taylor had converted to Judaism to marry Avrom Hirsch Goldbogen, AKA Mike Todd.
Elizabeth ridiculed Burton’s pockmarked skin.
He made fun of her tendency to gain weight.
Elizabeth played to Burton’s incandescent jealousy: “There are countries where they like women with a little meat on them. If they hadn’t banned my films because I’m pro-Israel, those Arabs would be drooling over me. Just take care I don’t meet a rich sheik.”
This was foreplay. They would make up by making love and then giving each other extravagant gifts. He bought her diamonds fit for a queen. She bought him a Van Gogh or a Picasso, and with the sole of her high-heel pound a nail into the wall, hanging the masterpiece over their fireplace.
More than anything, it was her Jewishness which Burton loved to tease and taunt. When Mike Todd was killed in a plane crash, Elizabeth found comfort in Judaism. “I am absolutely Jewish now in my beliefs and feelings,” she said.
At her conversion, Elizabeth Taylor took the Jewish name Elisheva Rachel.
In the compulsively readable Furious Love, Sam Kashner and Nancy Schoenberger report on the serious fights Burton and Taylor had over Jewishness
“My great-grandfather,” Burton told a reporter, “was a Polish Jew named Jan Ysar, and that was the family name until they changed it to Jenkins. [Burton’s real name was Richard Walter Jenkins.] It’s true. I’m one-eighth Jewish. Elizabeth hasn’t a drop of Jewish blood. I’ve told her so. It makes her furious.” Earlier, during the making of The Night of the Iguana, in a thatched roof bar in Puerto Vallarta, a drunken Burton had announced, “I was born a Jew. I am perhaps the very oldest of the really ancient Jews.”
Of course, according to halacha, classical Jewish law, Judaism is determined through matrilineal descent or through a proper, halachic conversion. There is no such thing as Jewish blood.
But Burton, as much as he adored Taylor, was always in competition with her. She was a true star, and he was often referred to as, “Mr. Elizabeth Taylor.” Putting her down, diminishing her stature, was an obsession with Burton. After all, he was a classically trained actor who could recite Shakespeare backwards. Whereas Taylor had, according to Burton, no technique, and couldn’t tell Hamlet from Macbeth.
And yet, and yet, when he saw her on screen, he marveled at her stillness, her ability to do so much with the smallest gesture. She was, he knew, deep in his heart, a brilliant movie actress. The camera read her thoughts, while he shouted bug-eyed speeches.
Thus, it’s no surprise, that Burton picked at her Jewishness, for Judaism gave Elizabeth Taylor an identity beyond actress and notorious adulterer.
“You’re not Jewish at all,” he told Elizabeth in one of their very public fights—which members of their staff had taken to timing. “If there’s any Jew in this family, it’s me!”
“I am Jewish,” she answered. “And you can f**** off!”
When most Hollywood Jews were in full flight from their Judaism, changing their names, marrying non-Jewish partners, raising children alienated from Judaism, and heaping scorn on their observant brethren, it’s ironic, bizarrely amusing, if not something of a consolation, to see Burton and Taylor trying to, well, out-Jew each other.