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Richard Burton's Diaries: Book Review

Richard Burton Diaries Cover - H 2012

The Bottom Line

An almost unbearably depressing account from a man who seemed to have it all.

Richard Burton

"Some days the only entry is the word 'booze'": insight into the actor's inexorable alcoholic death march -- and Elizabeth Taylor too.

Richard Burton’s diaries are almost unbearably depressing. In the 1960s and 70s, the Welsh actor seemed to have everything—money, critical acclaim, and not one but two marriages to Elizabeth Taylor, widely thought the most beautiful woman in the world.

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He had escaped the bleak coal country of his childhood, and traded his father’s surname—Jenkins—for the surname of his high-school mentor, Burton. His diaries unfold in places one associates with glossy travel magazines--Positano, Rome, Portofino, Montreux, Gstaad, Monte Carlo, Cortina d’Ampezzo.  Forgoing hotels, he and Taylor often camped on their yacht, the Kalizma, which was not exactly a dingy.  Its décor, however, would not have endeared him to art conservators concerned about the ravages of marine air: “The Monet is the living room or salon, the Picasso and the Van Gogh are in the dining room.,” he writes. “The Epstein bust of Churchill is brooding over the salon and there is a Vlaminck of the wall of the stairwell to the kids’ cabins.”  Recognizing at least that salt air damaged books, he stocked the boat with paperbacks.

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Yet none of this could banish Burton’s despair, which churns like a rip tide beneath the glassy surface of his public life.  In Rome during pre-production for The Taming of the Shrew, he laments, “I worry enormously about the fact that we have no money.  I worry that I will not be able to look after my wife and children after I’m dead.” Two months later, in May 1966, he endures an “awful unaccountable” day of  “savage-ill humor…I snarled at everyone, everything, and every idea.”  The despair wells up cyclically, but sometimes it’s worse than usual: “For the past three days I have been going through one of my bouts of melancholy, black as a dirge,” [200] he writes in October 1968.

Briefly, he controls despair with alcohol, until the alcohol starts controlling him: “I became very drunk and abused people a great deal and insulted E a lot on the telephone when I arrived,” he writes in December 1968. “One might call the last few days ‘The Diary of a Dipsomaniac.’” [240] When he is too sloshed to write, he abandons his journal.  “There are days in some years,” explains Christopher Wilson, the professor of Welsh history who edited the diaries, “when the only entry is the word ‘booze.’” 

According to F. Scott Fitzgerald, “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.”  By this definition, Burton is a first-rate intelligence: He balances a film career and Jet-Set social life with an inexorable alcoholic death march.

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One could, I suppose, argue that every biography is a death march.  All lives end.  Readers should savor the gossip and tender moments that surface along the way.

One such moment is his wry account of Taylor and her “cornucopian ‘make-up case’,” which contains “eyebrow pencils, pens, the usual make-up things and deodorants and perfumes and what seems to be pills for any disease and malaises and balms and elixirs…It may even contain spare parts for the Rolls.”  Another sheds light on the unlikely problems celebrities can face: “Prince Ranier and Grace and Grace’s sister and a friend are coming to lunch today and Rainier is bringing either a tiger or a panther as a present for E.” [336]

His and Taylor’s children both delight and repel him.  “I have developed a love for that child that is in danger of becoming obsessive,” [219] he writes in November 1968 about Elizabeth’s daughter, Liza Todd. A month later, however, he’s ready to send the kids back to boarding school: “Almost all children, including my own, bore me after a time.  Maybe I’m basically selfish.”  [243] Although he only logged a few months at Oxford University, he is a passionate autodidact—commenting on books by Proust, Baudelaire, Waugh and Hesse in his journals. He warns his daughter, Kate Burton, against the “pitfall’ of a “half-baked education.” [232] She apparently took heed, graduating from Brown University and the Yale School of Drama.

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Reading Burton, I realize I have minimal aptitude for holding opposing ideas in my head concurrently.  When he expresses money worries, for instance, I wonder:  Does he really need the yacht? The jewelry? The private jet plane that, he boasts, cost $960,000 retail?  (If this plane is the Hawker-Siddeley de Havilland 125 Twin Jet he mentions in October 1967, I hope he at least haggled with the salesman.  The name “De Havilland” had a stigma attached to it from its Comet, a jet it made in the 1950s, which tended to rip-apart in mid-air because of metal fatigue.)

In 1965, Burton read Constantine Fitzgibbon’s biography of Dylan Thomas, which, he observed, “I am enjoying if an account of so desperate a life can be enjoyable.” [89] As I weathered Burton’s final diary entries, a similar thought crossed my mind.

 

M.G. Lord is the author of The Accidental Feminist: How Elizabeth Taylor Raised Our Consciousness and We Were Too Distracted by Her Beauty to Notice, forthcoming from Walker/Bloomsbury USA. She teaches in the master of professional writing program at USC.