Burton’s First Encounter with Taylor

I recently stumbled across this fascinating description of Richard Burton’s first meeting with Elizabeth Taylor written by Burton himself and borrowed from his book Meeting Mrs. Jenkins (1966). I enjoyed reading it so much that I just had to share it. Not only is it an amazing read but it’s also a great showcase for Burton’s wicked sense of humor and his wonderful way with words. Besides acting, directing and producing, Richard Burton was also an avid writer and he kept journals for most of his adult life.

“It was my first time in California and my first visit to a swank house. There were quite a lot of people in and around the pool, all suntanned and all drinking the Sunday morning liveners – Bloody Marys, boilermakers, highballs, iced beer. I knew some of the people and was introduced to the others. Wet brown arms reached out of the pool and shook my hand. The people were all friendly, and they called me Dick immediately. I asked if they would please call me Richard – Dick, I said, made me feel like a symbol of some kind. They laughed, some of them. It was, of course, Sunday morning and I was nervous.

I was enjoying this small social triumph, but then a girl sitting on the other side of the pool lowered her book, took off her sunglasses and looked at me. She was so extraordinarily beautiful that I nearly laughed out loud. I didn’t, of course, which was just as well. The girl was not, and, quite clearly, was not going to be laughing back. I had an idea that, finding nothing of interest, she was looking right through me and was examining the texture of the wall behind. If there was a flaw in the sandstone, I knew she’d find it and probe it right to the pith. I fancied that if she chose so, the house would eventually collapse.

I smiled at her and, after a long moment, just as I felt my own smile turning into a cross-eyed grimace, she started slightly and smiled back. There was little friendliness in the smile. A new ice cube formed of its own accord in my Scotch-on-the-rocks.

She sipped some beer and went back to her book. I affected to become social with the others but out of the corner of my mind – while I played for the others the part of a poor miner’s son who was puzzled, but delighted by the attention these lovely people paid to him – I had her under close observation. She was, I decided, the most astonishingly self-contained, pulchritudinous, remote, removed, inaccessible woman I had ever seen. She spoke to no one. She looked at no one. She steadily kept on reading her book. Was she merely sullen? I wondered. I thought not. There was no trace of sulkiness in the divine face. She was a Mona Lisa type, I thought. In my business everyone is a type. She is older than the deck chair on which she sits, I thought headily, and she is famine, fire, destruction, and plague, she is the Dark Lady of the Sonnets, the on lie true begetter. She is a secret wrapped in an enigma inside a mystery, I thought with a mental man-to-man nod to Churchill. Her breasts were apocalyptic, they would topple empires down before they withered. Indeed, her body was a miracle of construction and the work of an engineer of genius. It needed nothing but itself. It was true art, I thought, executed in terms of itself. It was smitten by its own passion. I used to think things like that. I was not long down from Oxford and Walter Pater was still talked of and I read the art reviews in the quality weeklies without much caring about the art itself, and it was a Sunday morning in Bel Air, and I was nervous, and there was the Scotch-on-the-rocks.

Like Miniver Cheevy I kept on drinking and, in the heady flow of the attention I was getting, told story after story as the day boozed slowly on. I went in swimming once or twice. So did she, but, lamentably, always after I’d come out. She swam easily and gracefully as an Englishwoman would and not with the masculine drive and kick of most American girls. She was unquestionably gorgeous. I can think of no other word to describe a combination of plentitude, frugality, abundance, tightness. She was lavish. She was a dark unyielding largesse. She was, in short, too bloody much, and not only that, she was totally ignoring me. I became frustrated almost to screaming when I had finished a well-received and humorous story about the death of my grandfather and found that she was turned away in deep conversation with another woman. I think I tried to eavesdrop but was stayed by words like – Tony and Janet and Marlon and Sammy. She was not, obviously, talking about me.

Eventually, with half-seas-ed cunning and with all the nonchalance of a traffic jam, I worked my way to her side of the pool. She was describing – in words not normally written – what she thought of a producer at M.G.M. This was my first encounter with freedom of speech in the U.S.A., and it took my breath away. My brain throbbed; I almost sobered up. I was profoundly shocked. It was ripe stuff. I checked her again. There was no question about it. She was female. In America the women apparently had not only got the vote – they’d got the words to go with it.

I was somewhat puzzled and disturbed by the half-look she gave me as she uttered the enormities. Was she deliberately trying to shock me? Those huge violet-blue eyes (the biggest I’ve ever seen, outside those who have glandular trouble – thyroid, et cetera) had an odd glint in them. You couldn’t describe it as a twinkle…. Searchlights can not twinkle, they turn on and off and probe the heavens and so on.

Still I couldn’t be left out. I had to join in and say something. I didn’t reckon on the Scotch though. I didn’t reckon that it had warped my judgment and my sense of timing, my choice of occasion. With all the studied frenzy of Dutch courage I waded into the depths of those perilous eyes.

In my best chiffon-and-cut-glass Oxford accent I said: “You have a remarkable command of Olde-Englishe.”

There was a pause in which I realized with brilliant clarity the relativity of time. Aeons passed, civilizations came and went, brave men and cowards died in battles not yet fought, while those cosmic headlights examined my flawed personality. Every pockmark on my face became a crater of the moon. I reached up with a casual hand to cover up the right-cheeked evidence of my acne’d youth. Halfway up I realized my hand was just as ugly as my face and decided to leave the bloody thing and die instead. But while contemplating the various ways of suicide and having sensibly decided, since I had a good start, to drink myself to death, I was saved by her voice which said, “Don’t you use words like that at the Old Vic?”

“They do,” I said, “but I don’t. I come from a family and an attitude that believe such words are an indication of weakness in vocabulary and emptiness of mind…. Despite Jones’s writing that in times of acute shared agony and fear, as in trench warfare, obscenities repeated in certain patterns can at times become almost liturgical, almost poetic….” I ran out of gas.

There was another pause; more empires fell. Captains and kings and counsellors arrived and departed. She said three four-letter words. These were, I think, “Well! Well! Well!”

Somebody laughed uneasily. The girl had turned away. I had been dismissed. I felt as lonely as a muezzin, as a reluctant piano lesson on a Saturday afternoon, as the Last Post played on a cracked bugle.

I went home and somebody asked, when I told them where I’d been, what she was like. “Dark. Dark. Dark. Dark. She probably,” I said, “shaves.” To nobody in particular I observed that the human body is eighty percent water.”

8 thoughts on “Burton’s First Encounter with Taylor

  1. Peter Nellhaus says:

    ” Her breasts were apocalyptic, they would topple empires down before they withered.”

    If this doesn’t inspire some of us to revisit Liz, nothing will. Apocalypse now!

  2. Vanwall says:

    Jaysus, give a guy a little warning, like “Nuclear Flaming Meltdown”, or “Danger: Mind Blowing in Process”, before posting this kinda stuff. Altho I certainly agree with Burton’s assessments – it’s the best and most eloquent description of Taylor I’ve ever read, or imagined, for that matter. Liz leaving Burton powerless and speechless, for prolly the only time in his life, just shows the real allure she had and her control of it. I had read a sentence or two of this passage in other publications, but this complete “remembrances of things that broke my will” just adds to my awe of her: she was able to humiliate one of the most controlling and dominating figures in popular culture – and one not afraid to use these traits in pursuit of devious ends, ask poor Susan Strasberg – and she does it almost effortlessly. Wow. Great Post.

  3. Tim Lucas says:

    Now we’ll all have to read the book to find out how he managed to storm her portcullis!

    I had read his words about her apocalyptic breasts somewhere else before, but separately from all this wonderful context. Why a man with Burton’s obvious command of language relied all his life on the words of playwrights is now a mystery to contemplate.

    She, of course, destroyed him.

  4. cinebeats says:

    I’m glad you all enjoyed it. I think Taylor sounds absolutely marvelous in his description. Reading a book at a swank party when she should be socializing. Drinking beer in the morning and swearing like a sailor about the producers at MGM. Most men would run far away but not Burton. Even though she was much younger than him at the time, she still managed to floor him. It’s no mystery why Taylor still loves him.

    Peter – That’s one of my favorite lines as well! A few other favorites include:

    “The people were all friendly, and they called me Dick immediately. I asked if they would please call me Richard – Dick, I said, made me feel like a symbol of some kind.”

    He and Tayler hated being called Dick and Liz.

    I also love the line:

    “In America the women apparently had not only got the vote – they’d got the words to go with it.” Ha!

    Vanwall – Well, I did say it was an “amazing” read but I wasn’t sure if anyone but myself would find it as interesting as I did. Do tell more about Susan Strasberg and Taylor! I know Burton had an affair with Strasberg (along with just about every actress working at the time) before he met Elizabeth but that’s all I know. I can remember reading bits of Strasberg’s book “Marilyn and Me” many many years ago but I don’t remember reading about Taylor in it. I’ve always had a mixed reaction to Strasberg’s writing since she often seemed prone to self-pity. I’m probably being too harsh though.

    Tim – I completely agree. Burton was a man of many talents and it’s a shame that he didn’t put more of them to better use. I know he had planned to publish all his journals after he died (he wanted them released some 50 years after his death or something so they wouldn’t tarnish anyone living) but he obviously could have wrote his own plays as well.

    I was struck by the line above:

    “But while contemplating the various ways of suicide and having sensibly decided, since I had a good start, to drink myself to death, I was saved by her voice which said, “Don’t you use words like that at the Old Vic?”

    It’s a shame that he couldn’t get a handle on his addiction to drinking and smoking before he died much to young thanks to both. I remember those interviews that Taylor did after she finally entered the Betty Ford clinic following Burton’s death and she lamented that she wasn’t able to now convince him to get some help too. It’s strange to think that it really wasn’t until the mid-80s (following the excesses of the ’60s and ’70s) that alcohol and drugs were widely considered to be deadly and addictive substances.

  5. Vanwall says:

    Strasberg and Burton is not a pretty story, possibly one of the worst ever in H’wood history, AFAIC. Susan Strasberg, without a doubt, deserves pity – pushed (or whored out!) into an affair when Susan was only 19 with Richard Burton by her own MOTHER – ack! mom thought being banged by a star was good for her – WTF? – and later married to Christopher Jones, – double ack! – whom the family despised; Jones married her pretty much as a form of revenge against Lee Strasberg’s dismissal of Jones’ potential – rightly, I might add.

    Both Burton and Jones were horribly abusive in ways that aren’t fit to print, literally, and there was element of revenge in Burton’s affair, also – Lee Strasberg was not one of Burton’s favorite people, either, so poor Susan suffered for her father’s art, not her own. This was one of Burton’s worst transgressions – it had an element of calculating, conscious evil to it, while Jones was just a dope addict who liked to beat women. Yeah, I know that it takes two to tango, but there’s always one of them in control, and Burton was most definitely a supreme manipulator – except with Liz, curiously.

    The story is around that during the Broadway run of “Time Remembered”, of a poor, shocked Helen Hayes having to listen on the other side of an adjoining hotel door to a rather loud, bloody, nasty incident when Burton was having his way with Susan, so much so she ended up in a hospital with stitches – and not from being hit, either. Disturbing beyond measure. Needless to say, this wasn’t in her book, as far as I remember. She must’ve had a masochistic streak, I think – Susan let Lee’s interest in Marilyn Monroe, (another Burton sexual connection – yipe!) subsume her place as a daughter and still stayed friends all around, (!!!) with a soupçon of sex object tossed into the mix – says something about their somewhat twisted 3-way relationship that is creepy as all get out to me. I sure liked Susan’s work, tho, and she was transcendently beautiful, but boy, did she let her family and lovers treat her like shit.

    Maybe Burton deserved those “brass knuckles” Liz swung so well.

  6. cinebeats says:

    Thanks for all the juicy gossip Vanwall! Burton and Taylor are figures larger than life so it’s become hard to separate facts from fiction at this point but I get a big kick out of reading this stuff.

  7. Keith says:

    That is awesome. They were always one of those great Hollywood couples. They couldn’t stay together, but they couldn’t stay apart either. Thanks for sharing this with us.

  8. Sandy says:

    Thanks so much for sharing Kimberley!!!
    I have been looking for this everywhere. I first read it in a paperback about Richard written by his brother. I was on a bus touring New Zealand and it brought me to tears. Years later I took the book out of the library to find the passage again. I searched whole book front to back. Then realized there are many editions of the book and also a book by another brother. Searching again today, I realized it must also be in the book ‘Meeting Mrs Jenkins’. That book is only 24 pages long. Unfortunately, I have seen it on sale for $100. What else is in it? Would love to read more of Burton’s writings.

    Thanks again!!

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