Look Back on Burton

Richard Burton: A Life

by Melvyn Bragg
Little, Brown, 533 pp., $22.95

On the other side of the Atlantic, my side that is, “biography” is the current subject of one of those arcane literary debates that weave their way through the weekend feature pages of the posher newspapers and journals, then fade away unnoticed when all interested parties have had their say. Biography: is there too much of it; has it become too intimate, too salacious; are publishers repeating themselves; what do we really need to know? And how much? About whom?

Melvyn Bragg’s Richard Burton: A Life raises all these rather recondite questions and I, for one, certainly don’t know the answers, except that this is not so much the authorized version as the widow’s version, for she it was who entrusted Bragg with Burton’s unpublished notebooks and made clear her ideas of how her late, brief husband should be respected and represented. Wives number one and four have always remained discreetly silent about marriage to Boyo Burton. Wife number two and three—the extraterrestrial Elizabeth (or ET as wife number five refers to her)—was apparently not approached by the author. He decided, rightly or wrongly, that nothing further could be gleaned from that source than had already surfaced in other biographies of Burton, biographies of Miss Taylor herself, the numberless interviews they both gave, and, most importantly, the notebooks themselves.

These notebooks begin in earnest in 1966 and continue with varying regularity and length until the spring of 1983, some sixteen months before the actor’s death at the age of fifty-eight. They are, Bragg believes, Burton’s draft, rehearsal if you like, for his autobiography—the authorized version—and furnish the kernel of this, the widow’s version. (Another of Burton’s executors has claimed that he never intended them to be made public. Who knows? In the best of families, not only the richest, Willz Meanz Troublz.) Anyhow, they are the raison d’être for another saunter down the rollicking, rambling, and often cloud-ridden road of one of the most publicized lives in twentieth-century celluloid history. They make revelatory, if sometimes squeamish-making, reading. At one point, Mr. Bragg describes me, kindly I think and hope, as “fastidious,” and I admit that after a possibly spinsterish reading of the more intimate descriptions of Miss Taylor’s most frequent illnesses, I am not entirely surprised that Wife mark 2 and 3 was reportedly yet again in sedation soon after the book’s publication in England.

Richard Burton is not, of course it is not, given the author’s curriculum vitae, in any sense at all an everyday story of showbiz folk and, in any case, whatever the accumulating glitz and hype, there was always more to Burton than that. It may be helpful for American readers to know that Bragg has written some outstanding fiction, much of it set in his native Cumberland, is a respected—if refreshingly maverick—member of the British (i.e., London) literary establishment, and presents and edits a regular television …

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