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.”