Richard Burton
Richard Burton; drawing by David Levine

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this is not so much the authorized version as the widow’s version, for she it was who entrusted Bragg with Burton’s unpublished notebooks and made clear her ideas of how her late, brief husband should be respected and represented.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 arts program, which is not only serious but a highly successful long-runner. He is, in my acquaintance at least, generous and loyal in his enthusiasms, appreciative of lightheartedness and gravitas, with a nose for excellence and a sharp eye on the shoddy. No man’s fool and a friend to many.

Why, then, Richard Burton? Why a megastar rather than a literary totem? Why an intelligent actor who blasphemed against his talent and his body rather than an artist of more obviously heroic achievement? Well, why not?

Anyway, in the course of writing the Life, Bragg, to his confessed self-surprise, became a fan, and a defender of the memory. This is not as surprising as it may seem. He, too, was born in less than luxury in another remote and fiercely independent (though less militant) region of Great Britain. He, too, made it to grammar school and Oxford. Then London and the BBC, radio and television, film scripts, novels. Not a life that parallels Burton’s in any exact way and, God knows, certainly not financially, but, at the nub of it, a boy from the sticks whose aspirations, dream maybe, to get up, out, and away have come true. It may, rather crudely I admit, explain his impassioned and insistent defense of the often sheer fickleness of Burton’s life and career.

Take this, for instance:

If Richard Burton was lucky in his background it was because he made his luck. Hundreds of thousands the industrialised world over barely rose above the daily survival—hard enough in many cases. To get out was a considerable achievement: to go on to etch his own personality on the world was so rare as to be wonderful: but to do it on his own terms, in his own way, and to do exactly as he wanted was astounding.

There is criticism of Burton’s work, his behavior, his ruthlessness and carelessness, but it somehow smacks of apologia, of gentle analysis from a couch on another shore. Bragg may occasionally be bemused by his new-found hero, but he is behind him, rooting for him on all the redoubts from the Valleys to the cemetery in Céligny—“a Welsh hero fallen in battle on a foreign field.”


The shape of the biography is basically chronological and the route familiar, I imagine, to the general reader. It calls for some rather strenuous plumping up on Bragg’s part to stimulate our attention. So, we begin with Richard—later Burton—one of eleven children of “Ni,” Richard Walter Jenkins, “a twelve pints a day man,” and his wife, Edith, who died of puerperal fever when the prodigy was two. It was the first tragedy of his life and, although he had no memory of it, perhaps a major one.

Bragg positively sings for the Welsh:

Grim glory, matchless strength, and the wit to confuse, the charms to transform any invader. Heroes all. Down the pit, on the rugby football field, in the pub, telling stories, singing anthems as if they were war songs, and finding poetry…in the country of the Red Dragon…. The men were granite figures, fearless in the primitive and dangerous under-earth world of coal: the women were half way to heaven—and in command. And all of this world woven into the Welshness because only Welsh men were so hard; only Welsh women so beautiful. And only the Welsh had such stories. Nobody like them.

I admit a certain queasiness, shame even, when confronted with the glorification of Welsh nationalism. I am myself half Welsh, and it’s the half I most regret: suffering, often unexpectedly as Burton did, from “hiraeth,” the curse of melancholy, loathing, with a blood-chilling abhorrence, the macho beer-swilling, jokes-with-the-lads, hell-raising “heroics”—“I would rather have played for Wales at Cardiff Arms Park,” roars Burton the Celt, “than Hamlet at the Old Vic”—and the sour, kill-joy stoicism of the women. “Well, that’s another Christmas over then,” my grandmother would say annually with grim satisfaction as she wiped the final crumb of plum cake from her upper lip. My schoolboy heart sank. It still does. Hard times, hard lives, of course (and Burton’s mother and father were the first in either family to sign the marriage registry with more than a cross), but behind the epic myths and the rugby football, the male voice choirs and the boozy sentimentality, a cold race, as I’ve always thought. “Fun,” “generous,” “a man’s man”: Bragg’s testifiers are well-nigh unanimous. But behind all that I observed a Black Dog Celtic remove and caution that he hoped profligacy might dissipate.

Burton’s juvenile stretch over the gallops is, again, already well documented. After his mother’s death he moved away to live with his married sister Cis, whom he claimed he searched for ever after and finally found in Elizabeth Taylor. He worshiped his brother, Ifor, nineteen years his senior, coal miner and football hero. “Ifor,” says Bragg, “was the chieftain brother, indomitable protector in the rough and wreckage of those valleys.” Years later Ifor was to become another major figure of tragedy when, opening up Burton’s house in Switzerland, he fell, broke his neck, and was paralyzed ever after. Guilt, then, to add to the Black Dog. The Oscar-winning crown of the young boy’s life was the scholarship to secondary school in Port Talbot. The family idolized him for it.

But already, in adolescence, the real tragedy of Burton’s life was making itself manifest: boredom. There was a void inside which the early, endless chapel attendance could not fill or, later, the voracious reading, the thirst for language and languages, nor yet money, women, or fame. Bragg puts it more romantically:

He was driven by a devil that he never knew but he never stopped fighting, a maker of his own myths, Celtic, Faustian, an Icarus and a Don Juan, coming out from his beloved Wales like a mystical warrior to rove the world for conquests, forever unsettled, forever daring.

The erstwhile boy soprano took to the streets, girls, and beer. Bored, he dropped out of school, took a boring job in the local co-op store and indulged in a spot of petty wartime pilfering. The clucking brood of an already awestruck family was horrified at the wonder boy’s recklessness. His luck held: three remarkable teachers pulled him from the brink of oblivion, back to school and into acting.

The most tenacious of these was Philip Burton, with whom Bragg forged a trusty relationship. His notebooks too, the basis of his own abandoned autobiography, were put at the author’s disposal. Burton, Philip, has always seemed to me a slightly chilly figure. He was thirty-eight when he first met Richard and was apparently feared locally as a buttoned-up loner, who told his landlady that “a cultured person” (damning phrase) is never lonely. He may not have been Richard Jenkins’s Svengali but he was certainly his Pygmalion. P. Burton took R. Jenkins into his lodgings: he became his legal guardian, he changed his name. The chaste bachelor took on the mesmerizingly attractive miner’s son; in the rented parlor he put him through the paces of the Psalms and Shakespeare. “Pure hell…the hardest work I ever did in my life,” the student remembered. Philip-Pygmalion admits to “the increasing extravagance of his devotion and the growing bond of his love.” A few tongues would wag today, and maybe a few did then, as the reclusive schoolmaster sprinkled sugar over the wild boy’s breakfast cereal.


Philip Burton is a pivotal figure, in soft focus, throughout the book. His self-satisfaction can bring you up abruptly: “He always referred to me as his father. He told me that, when he heard in 1957 that his father was dead, his immediate reaction was ‘Which?’ ” Poor old Daddy Ni then. Later, his self-assurance must have been bane in the blood of directors as Richard arrived at first rehearsal, word perfect and part-primed—“sewn on him like a skin”—having been closeted with his mentor for weeks. It happened when he played Prince Hal in 1951 at Stratford, directed by Anthony Quayle, who was also playing Falstaff, and had his own ideas about the production. It was still happening in 1964 when he was playing Hamlet in New York, directed by John Gielgud, no less. Philip was hanging in there, years later, the fading years, at the revival of Camelot, almost craven by this time: “After a two performance day, Richard usually stayed in bed until noon, but not this time, he was up at nine. Apart from the excellent meals which she provided for us, Susan left us alone and we talked almost all day,” Wise wife, mark 4.

Burton—Richard’s—next lucky break was his meeting with the Welsh author and actor, Emlyn Williams. Williams himself had a teacher who pitched him up and out of the valleys, portrayed most famously in his prewar play, The Corn Is Green. Of Burton she observed: “He’s like you: but he has the devil in him. You haven’t.” Before his wartime stint in the RAF, Burton appeared in Williams’s play The Druid’s Rest. He achieved his first review (“In a wretched part, Richard Burton showed exceptional ability”), the first accolades from fellow actors (Gladys Henson remembers, “He was the most beautiful boy I’d ever seen”), and the attention of the homosexual mafia that then dominated the West End.

By the time he was eighteen, Burton had played Angelo in Measure for Measure in Oxford (during an anomalous stretch of his RAF training course). Robert Hardy, a lifelong actor friend, who met him there, recalls, “There were moments when he totally commanded the audience by this stillness. And the voice which would sing like a violin and with a bass which could shake the floor.” He adds, “He roared into the University apparently ready for anybody…. He had more ‘size,’ more originality than anyone I had ever encountered…. Drinking produced a vein of brilliance in him.” Drink was for ever after to keep the boredom at bay.

After this came an inactive—and doubtless truly boring—tag-end of the war as a navigator. (Another actor, Warren Mitchell, testifies that Burton’s heart was not in it: “I heard him over the intercom once…up in the clouds—saying, ‘sorry, Oggy, forgot my ruler!’ Forgets his bloody ruler and he’s the navigator!” Hollywood’s gain was clearly not the RAF’s loss.) Then, after some hesitation, Burton, who had been dithering about acting as a serious career, made up his mind. He had taken part in a radio play with Dylan Thomas, his poet-hero and afternoon drinking companion. If the actor’s life was good enough for Thomas, it was good enough for Burton. So began the golden years.

The testaments to his youthful magnetism come mainly from his professional peers. “He was Prince Hal,” Peter Hall remembers. John Gielgud: “He was very sunny, no vanity, so confident. He boasted now and then, but in a pub way, you know, a Welsh way, for fun. He was a real pub boy. Loved to talk; never boring. Highly intelligent—read a great deal. Had a great stable of ladies.” One of those, Claire Bloom, observed, “He was already a star. A fact he didn’t question.” “Burton,” wrote Kenneth Tynan, “is first and last an animal actor.”

John Neville, with whom Burton alternated Othello and Iago at the Old Vic in 1956 (billed in the trade as the Welsh Wizard and the Willesden Wonder) recalls: “He was a STAR. And the Old Vic proved it beyond all question. It was unmistakable. He just had to walk on to the stage. Nothing can take that away.” His “magnificent head and shoulders” were noticed by Alec Guinness. “He came from nowhere,” adds Gielgud. “Very rare.” There were very few dissenting voices at this time. One of them was another Welshman, actor William Squire, who talks about Burton’s lack of craft, his lack of tricks and knowledge. “He was what he was and that was it. When it worked of course—and it did, many times—he was marvellous. But although he talked of acting as a craft, he took no trouble over it.” Another warning of this slapdash approach to his gift was given, again, by Tynan: “Within this actor there is always something reserved, a rooted solitude which his Welsh blood tinges with mystery. Within these limits he is a master…. Beyond them he has much to learn.”

At this time, the years of eulogy, Burton himself appears to have been magically immune to self-doubt. In 1950, playing in The Boy with a Cart, he felt the hairs on his neck stand on end and knew for the first time the power he could have over an audience. “I don’t know where it comes from. I don’t know what it is…. Just a knack.” Bragg intervenes: “He could never believe his luck, just as he could never explain his talent.” He also adds, more darkly, “And it might go away if he didn’t listen keenly, feed it perhaps with the energy of his life, stoke it up with risks to his health and even to his sanity.”

But, then, with the promise of kingdoms before him, he did not have to confront his demons—not even boredom. There were queues of schoolgirls around the Old Vic; he had been hailed as the successor to Olivier and Gielgud; he was married to Sybil, living in Hampstead—“precisely the sort of girl he would have married had he stayed at home”—who kept her head as affairs came and went. There were men’s men to drink with even if his hands were already shaking. And Hollywood was on the hot line. He was already an addict, to drink, to women, and to money. When he told me around this time that he had made a million, I asked him, “What’s next then?” “Another million,” he replied. I’d asked an effete and damn-fool question.

Elizabeth Taylor was not the first serious threat to Sybil, although at the time of Cleopatra they were living a more gentle life in Switzerland (to escape the punitive British tax laws) and had two daughters. Burton accepted the role of Mark Antony for the money. He also hoped it might be intellectually more respectable than his first epic, The Robe, in which he played Marcellus, and craps with Victor Mature, and which included the immortal line: “We gotta find out where He holes up at night.” As it was, in both films much of Burton’s footage remained on the cutting room floor. But, as they say, the rest is history. “La Scandale,” as Burton referred to it, had begun.

“These two people were subject to seductive and ravishing opportunities,” says Bragg about the stellar coupling of Taffy (as she called him) and Ocean (as he called her). “To strains beyond the comprehension of most, to temptations of the flesh, the press, the purse…. The primitive and the sophisticated are constantly colliding.”

Perhaps the best description of these pressures comes, again, from John Gielgud, when he was directing Burton in Hamlet in New York in 1964.

That sort of celebrity is so very hard to cope with. They had to exercise the dogs on the roof. There was a man with a machine gun in the corridor outside their room. All very unusual and it made them very hard to get hold of. And impossible to entertain. They always entertained you. One night I did take them out to a nice bistro—lots of champagne. The manager wouldn’t give me a bill! He said that there had been four or five hundred people outside—in sub zero temperatures—just waiting for a glimpse of them. So you see! But he was wonderfully respectful to me and frightfully nice to the company and they adored him. And her. They never pushed themselves forward. Nor did he in the part. Never vain. And it went on to be the most enormous success, you know: broke my own record in New York—rather upset me.

Taffy and Ocean, however, were less reticent to the press. “Since being with her I have never wanted another woman and I’ve never had another woman,” “Richard is a very sexy man. He’s got that jungle essence.” “If you don’t know what a woman such as this is like, you have missed a great deal in life.” Meanwhile, back in the suite at the Dorchester Hotel the dogs were romping incontinently over the carpet and Richard, son of Ni, the twelve pints a day man, was throwing up in the foyer.

There were attempts at a change of pace in the Burton-Taylor traveling circus, when he retreated to write and she played at domesticity. “Both Elizabeth and I agreed solemnly that we never want to work again but simply loll our lives away on a sort of eternal Sunday. Quite right too. We are both bone lazy. And enjoy it.” Later: “Last night as I lay reading in bed and E was around the corner of the room I asked: What are you doing, Lumpy? She said like a little girl and quite seriously: Playing with my jewels.”

But these periods were rare, short-lived, and stiflingly indulgent. As Bragg puts it, “The distinguishing aspect of his life with Elizabeth Taylor was that as it went on he drifted away from his roots—too many people around him, too much travel, baggage, booze.” The hired entourage excluded his friends and his extended “family” often irritated him. He was living in a raucous hothouse. Mike Nichols described him then as “the loneliest man I have ever met.” In the notebooks Burton writes: “Except when we were alone we have bickered and quarrelled endlessly, and we have hardly ever been alone.” He made serious stabs at giving up drink, but drink was never far from his mind. “Jesus, it’s hard work when other people have had a few drinks and you haven’t, even when that people is someone you deeply love.”

The year 1970–1971 was a period of frenzied and often ill-judged film-making for both of them, but the dollars piled up. There was a yacht, a jet, the biggest rocks in the world, friendship with the Rothschilds, the Rainiers, the Windsors; a Paris boutique, casually bought, Impressionists snapped up like popcorn. We read: “A terrible day, frantically disorganised, thousands of bags all over the place, nine children, six adults all on one plane…incessant screaming, pre-film nerves, nine children, plane fear…. Nine children, the Kalizma [the yacht] hasn’t arrived, nobody at the airport to meet us, nine children…and hot and a small room and a multi-million dollar picture and I screamed ‘fuck’ out of drunkenness in the hotel lobby…. To scream fuck in the lobby was the only possible way to meet the justice of the day.” So, who does want to be a millionaire?

In 1972 his brother died. The Burtons separated. Richard went into hospital and was given two weeks to live. Six weeks later he limped out saying, “I intend to rove the globe searching for ravishing creatures.” There were to be more marriages, more battles with booze, with crippling illness, and with a genuine fear of death. He went back to the stage with Equus, Camelot (again), and a tempestuous gossip-touting tour of Private Lives with Taylor. But no more heights were scaled. Ironically, in his penultimate screen performance, in the title role of Wagner, some of his former glory, though ravaged, reemerged.

Perhaps he had some real peace in his last months. The notebooks had ceased, so we can’t know, but I suspect that the void was abiding and with it the paradoxes: the shrewdness and carelessness; the skinflint and the profligate; dog shit and diamonds.

It is not a story to raise the spirits; nor is it the epic tragedy that Bragg sets out to create. Burton’s life is infinitely less interesting than the mystery and memory of his gift—and this one needs to see and hear. That voice and the pock-marked power, the chemical magnetism on stage and, sometimes, on screen remain elusive. They are intangibles which the written word can rarely evoke however strenuous the attempt. Richard Burton: A Life, with clips and recordings, interviews with actors (Gielgud dropping a few bricks) and friends (Brook Williams with the store of jokes he took to Switzerland), readings from the notebooks and, I suppose, a Welsh Male Voice Choir would make a cracking good television program. Directed by Mr. Bragg, I’d hope.

This Issue

April 27, 1989