“Infamy! Infamy! They’ve all got it in for me!” squawks Julius Caesar (Kenneth Williams) in Carry On Cleo (1964), a low-budget lampoon of the $44 million epic Cleopatra, whose stars, Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, had an infamous off-screen affair. The line might serve as an epigraph for the “unappreciated and remaindered efforts” of Roger Lewis, who describes himself in the jeremiad Seasonal Suicide Notes: My Life as It Is Lived (2009) as “criminally underpaid and under-employed, laughed at by editors…derided by the critics…betrayed by friends.”

The Roger Lewis persona is an amalgam of music hall tradition, pantomime, and Restoration bawdy. It is a niche joke about an irate dinosaur Welshman doing battle with the London literati, which may not translate for an American readership. Feeding off what Dr. Johnson called the “buzz” of the theater, the role Lewis assumes in all his books is Embattled Everyman. His petty grievances, aired in Seasonal Suicide Notes, are legion: despite his brash and boastful performance pieces—The Life and Death of Peter Sellers (1994), Anthony Burgess (2003), and The Real Life of Laurence Olivier (2007)—Lewis has been turned down four times as a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature. “So there we are: I am officially the least recognised and most non-esteemed author in Britain, perhaps in Britain’s literary history going back to Chaucer and to The Mabinogion.”

Lewis is skeptical about cradle-to-grave biography, which turns “art (and artists) into mere formulaic exposition, a list of goings-on in daily life; statements; calculation; specification.” He dislikes the genre’s focus on facts, which lends biographers, he believes, a sense of superiority over their subject. Reading Hermione Lee, Lewis has said, is “as much fun as swimming upstream in mud”; John Carey’s life of William Golding is “as suffocating as a tombstone.” His complaints recall those of Lytton Strachey, whose satirical masterpiece Eminent Victorians was itself an attack on biographical dreariness. “Those two fat volumes,” Strachey writes,

with which it is our custom to commemorate the dead—who does not know them, with their ill-digested masses of material, their slipshod style, their tone of tedious panegyric, their lamentable lack of selection, of detachment, of design? They are as familiar as the cortege of the undertaker, and wear the same air of slow, funereal barbarism.

Virginia Woolf said that biography should combine the “granite-like solidity” of fact with the “rainbow-like intangibility” of imagination. Lewis’s Erotic Vagrancy, less a biography of Burton and Taylor than a portrait of his obsession with them, might be called over the rainbow. Pursuing his own infamy, Lewis begins at full throttle with a denunciation of the scholarly work of “lady academics” and “frightening feminists.” His first drafts, he says, were “too conventionally structured, too obvious. Nothing bloomed.” So he went back to “the spontaneity” of his notebooks, “where a scrawled rapture was to be found” in his reactions to Burton’s and Taylor’s films. A scrawled rapture is a better description of Erotic Vagrancy than his various terms for the art of biography, such as “hyper-reality,” “bricolage,” or “holography”: “The principal forms are there, Burton and Taylor, Taylor and Burton; they may even be three-dimensional, possessing perspective and becoming capable of movement. But they are zigzags of light, impossible to grasp.”

Built on rage, rhapsody, and opinionation, without shape or chronology, Erotic Vagrancy is about the strangeness of stardom (“stardom is extraterrestrial”), and Lewis is the star of the show. “What I have produced—and I have spent many years gathering my material and boiling it down, reducing it like a lobster sauce—is more in the way of a novel of manners.” There is no boiling down evident in these pages—the opposite in fact. The book is boiling over; instead of working toward the smooth consistency of a bisque, he keeps throwing in more lobster shells. Despite his aversion to granite, Lewis corrects the facts that other Burton and Taylor biographers have gotten wrong and loads us down with more. Turn to page 603 and discover that two hundred handbags, thirty pairs of cowboy boots, and hot pants embroidered with daisies were auctioned at Christie’s Rockefeller Center headquarters between December 13 and 16, 2011, while Taylor’s bound copy of the 1944 script for National Velvet, estimated at $2,000–$3,000, went for $170,500.

The book is divided into five parts, with diversionary footnotes, plus a prologue and epilogue that say much the same thing. Its broad thesis is that Burton and Taylor were “sheer fantasy figures”—to each other as well as to us—rather than inhabitants of the real world. Lewis finds little divide between the screen stars and the private figures; the films they costarred in—Cleopatra (1963), The V.I.P.s (1963), The Sandpiper (1965), Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966), The Taming of the Shrew (1967), Doctor Faustus (1967), The Comedians (1967), Boom! (1968), Under Milk Wood (1972), Hammersmith Is Out (1972), and Divorce His, Divorce Hers (1973)did not so much parallel as replace their lives. One year before Burton’s death in 1984, the couple gave their myth a final outing in the Broadway production of Noël Coward’s Private Lives, a comedy about a divorced couple honeymooning with their new spouses who find themselves in adjacent hotel rooms.


In the first part, “Wet Dreams,” Lewis free-associates on Taylor, whom he likes best as a Warhol screen print, blown up in pink smudges and blue smears, and as the wet dream of his hero, Burton. (“Your breasts jutting out from that half-asleep languid lingering body,” Burton wrote to Taylor, “the remote eyes, the parted lip.”) Taylor was a child star, which according to Lewis means that she had no childhood and also that she never grew up. A casting director, after a screen test when she was nine, reported, “Her eyes are too old. She doesn’t have the face of a child.”

From the age of twelve, when she starred in National Velvet, she inhabited a celluloid world. When it came to her seven husbands, Lewis suggests, she adapted herself to each new role. She was the virgin for Nicky Hilton, whom she married aged eighteen (to coincide with the release of Father of the Bride, 1950); the Fifties wife for Michael Wilding; the “broad” for Mike Todd, who was killed in a plane crash a year after their wedding; the “Jewess” for Eddie Fisher, whom she stole from Debbie Reynolds; the sorceress for Burton (“Bewitched,” he wrote in his diaries, “bewitched by her cunt and her cunning”); the trophy wife for Senator John Warner; and the fellow drug addict for her boy toy Larry Fortensky.

Onscreen, says Lewis, there was “something demonic and lethal about her,” a “paradoxical combination of self-delusion and scrupulous detachment, as if somehow it’s happening to someone else, perhaps an identical twin.” Burton, who had a similar detachment, performed his parts, but Taylor offered only a presence. Burton was baffled by her lack of reaction in their scenes in Cleopatra; it was only when he watched the rushes that he realized how well she knew the camera.

Lewis shows the same blindness toward Taylor as a mother, a role he overlooks because it was not performative and does not fit his tale of madness and mayhem. Taylor had two sons by Wilding, a daughter by Todd, and an adopted daughter who took Burton’s name. The family, which later included Burton’s eldest daughter, Kate, is described as dysfunctional by Lewis but by the children themselves as strong and sane. Taylor drew on her maternal instinct in the roles she chose. She played protective mothers in Giant and The Sandpiper, a motherless wife with a fantasy child in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, and Mia Farrow’s surrogate mother in Secret Ceremony. But Taylor was everyone’s surrogate mother. In The V.I.P.s she is Frances Andros, who leaves her lover and returns to her husband (played by Burton) because his need for her is greater. Her first words to Burton on the set of Cleopatra, when he arrived with a hangover, were “Oh, you poor baby!” Never has a man onscreen looked more in need of mothering, or in real life suffered more from father figures.

Lewis’s Taylor is all body, with an unconscious located in her illnesses. “My earliest memory is of pain,” said Taylor, who as a toddler put her hand in an electric fire. She later suffered from cysts, piles, a brain tumor, broken bones and fractured vertebrae, appendicitis, arrhythmia, candidiasis, tracheobronchitis, staphylococcal and/or fulminant pneumonia, thrombophlebitis, and a twisted lower intestine, among many other ailments; as an adult she was addicted to Percodan, Hycodan, Demerol, Dilaudid, morphine sulfate, and Halcion. It was as if, says Lewis, “she was moving in poisoned air.” Burton, on the other hand, who is the subject of the book’s second part, “Wild Jenk,” had no body. “He acted from the neck up, face and voice,” said the director John Boorman. The rest of him was “rigid.”

Lewis finds Burton in his voice, which Burton himself described as “the deep, dark answer” to the Welsh valleys. “I think our voices were born with coal-dust and rain and some sort of authentic mystery from those dark and tortured valleys,” he told an interviewer in 1974. For Lewis, Burton’s voice is “one of the twentieth century’s great noises,”

roaring, swelling, delicate and bombastic by turns, the articulation and diction very precise—and it’s what I hold most dear, what I find most engaging, about him, too, the inflections, nuances, elaborations and grain of his voice, the fire and the flint of things spoken. Everything one would want to know with Burton is present in the voice, which was rich and artificial, carrying a sense of fracture, of mournfulness.

Welsh was Burton’s first language, and it took years of elocution to iron out his vowels. “Unless you are Welsh,” he said of his friend Stanley Baker, “you couldn’t possibly understand him,” and the same is true of Burton. “He suffers from this intoxication with words,” Taylor said. “It’s Welsh verbal diarrhea.” “The Welsh are supreme at being actors and actresses,” explains Lewis, “because flamboyance is suppressed; it is the guilty secret, which bursts out now and again in lunatic ways, quick and fierce.”


Lewis’s access to Burton’s inner life comes from their shared Welshness and from The Richard Burton Diaries, which he compares, “as a human document,” to the Goncourt Journal. The entries he likes best are the actor’s own spontaneous raptures—the example offered by Lewis is “You stupid cow! Just show your big tits!”—rather than the self-conscious “I love you more than anything on the sad face of this raped earth.” In entries like this, Lewis writes, Burton comes across “as a broken-down Dylan Thomas.”

Richard Jenkins, as he was born in 1925, was the twelfth of thirteen children. His mother died of sepsis when he was two years old, after which he lived with his sister Cis and her husband, Elfed, whom Burton hated. In 1943 he moved in with his teacher Philip Burton, who gave him Shakespeare tutorials, purchased his clothes, and taught him how to hold his cutlery. Nine months later Richard became Philip Burton’s legal ward. The documents, described by Lewis as “an equivalent of the scrolls Faustus signs in blood, framed by Mephistopheles as a ‘deed of gift,’” stated that from then on Richard Jenkins would be Richard Burton, “and shall be held out to the world and in all respects treated as if he were in fact the child of the adopter Philip Burton who is childless and in good circumstances.”

Philip Burton was clearly the most important person in Richard Burton’s life; his significance far exceeded that of Taylor, the maternal figure with whom Burton tried to purge himself of his foster father. Lewis calls Philip a “paedophile” and compares him to “a snail or whelk coiled inside its shell.” “One can imagine him,” Lewis writes, “robbed and beaten to death by sailors he’d taken home.” Burton described their relationship as “hell.” Philip, he later revealed, “made a pass,” after which Richard erupted in boils (the pockmarks ruined his skin) and drank to cover the shame. When Philip found out about his son’s affair with Taylor, he got boils on his tongue and didn’t speak to Richard for two years. Nevertheless, the two remained in close contact until Richard died in Switzerland at the age of fifty-eight. Philip, who lived in Key West for fourteen years—“a far cry,” Lewis notes, “from Port Talbot”—died aged ninety in Haines City, Florida.

Lewis, the son of a butcher, knows the place where Burton, the son of a coal miner, escaped from; he knows the build of the people and the names of the streets where the women still wash the pavement. He understands that however far you rise you can never subtract yourself from Wales, and he recognizes that Burton was impressed by his marriage to Taylor: “The pair of them visited Pontrhydyfen inconspicuously in a Rolls.” Above all, he understands that Burton was ashamed of his need for the limelight. “Acting for a man—a really proper man,” Burton told Taylor, “is sissified and faintly ridiculous.” Proper men work underground, in the dark.

The book’s third part, devoted to Cleopatra, contains a fifty-four-page “calendar” compiling every detail Lewis can find about the making of the film, from its inception on December 13, 1951, to the day in January 1965 when Carry on Cleo was sued by Twentieth Century Fox for copyright infringement. The climax comes on January 22, 1962, when Taylor and Burton shoot their first scene together; their relationship is consummated five nights later; on February 13 Eddie Fisher, Taylor’s husband at the time, tells Sybil, Burton’s thoroughly decent wife and the mother of his daughters, about the affair; on February 15 the picture’s publicists describe Liz and Dick as “the hottest thing ever,” and soon afterward the Vatican newspaper, L’Osservatore della Domenica, predicts, “You will finish in an erotic vagrancy, without end or without a safe port.” On February 16 Taylor attempts suicide by trying to break through a glass door; on February 17 she takes an overdose of Seconal; on March 29 Eddie Fisher is in the Gracie Square psychiatric hospital; on April 7 Burton tells the press, “I think I may kill myself”; later that month Taylor overdoses in front of him, and again on April 23; on July 28 Sybil cuts her wrists (she survived); Cleopatra is for the moment derailed. His aim in the calendar, Lewis writes, is to create the “quality of farce—people running in and out of lots of doors, colliding, falling over, picking themselves up, falling over again.”

The focus (if that is the right word) of the book’s fourth and fifth parts, “The Age of Vulgarity” and “Separations,” is the “everything” promised in the subtitle, ranging from a consideration of the couple as a “Pop Art story” to their friendship with the Duke of Windsor and Wallis Simpson. What becomes clear is that Lewis, like D.H. Lawrence, has no idea where his talent lies. The book is at its best when he stops talking and sits silently in front of a film. “I am intent on seeing and discussing how they were when on screen together,” he writes, “how they affected each other, how they transformed each other,” and we could afford to see much more of this.

Erotic Vagrancy would certainly be a neater book without the final two parts, but that isn’t the point. Lewis’s aim is to describe what it was like to be Burton and Taylor, not to edit their mayhem to fit a biographical formula. None of us, he believes, sees our lives as the “narrative sequence” assumed by biographers, not least Taylor herself, who said after The V.I.P.s that “I’m never, never, never going to make any more plans ever for the rest of my life…At present I just feel one great big nothing.” Lewis sometimes sees the Burton and Taylor story as comedy and sometimes as tragedy, depending on how he feels at the time. Noting Taylor’s death in a March 2011 entry in What Am I Still Doing Here?, the sequel to Seasonal Suicide Notes, he could think of nothing to say about her at all. “She bored me slightly. Not much of an actress…. Watching Cleopatra you long for the asp. I can’t think what else she did…. She had horrible eyes.”

Lewis is electrified by Burton, but it is in his analysis of the actor’s tortured soul that the book’s central argument breaks down. Burton, who believed in his own damnation, shaped his life around the Faustus legend, and Lewis follows suit. “I have achieved a kind of diabolical fame,” Burton said in an interview in 1963. “I am the diabolically famous Richard Burton.” “Richard seemed to be prisoner of a fantasy of having sold his soul to the Devil,” said Mike Nichols, who directed him three years later in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Taylor bought into the narrative: her meeting Burton, she wrote in her memoirs, “was a little like damnation to everybody.” Burton first saw Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus performed in 1946; he then studied the play with Philip, “particularly,” he recalled, “the wonderful final soliloquy”: “The stars move still; time runs; the clock will strike;/The Devil will come, and Faustus must be damned.”

He played Faustus in 1966, with Taylor as Helen of Troy, in a production at the Oxford Playhouse that was later filmed in Rome, and in 1972 he starred with Taylor in Hammersmith Is Out, a spin on Doctor Faustus directed by Peter Ustinov. “It was the one play I didn’t have to do any work on,” Burton said of Faustus. “I am Faustus.” He had traded Sybil for a woman he called “beautiful beyond the dreams of pornography,” adding that “I’ll love her until I die.” Observers like Truman Capote held that he married Taylor not for love but “because he wanted to be a movie star. That was the career he wanted—money, money, money.”

Burton was fueled by guilt. His second daughter, Jessica, born in 1959, was later diagnosed with severe autism. She had just started to talk when he left his family for Taylor, at which point she retreated, says Burton’s brother David Jenkins, to her “own mysterious world, where she has remained ever since.” Jessica’s first and last coherent statement was apparently “Rich! Rich! Rich! Rich! Rich! Rich!,” the name her father went by at home. “I was mad with guilt—or just plain mad,” Burton said of the start of his affair. “It’s hopeless…quite hopeless,” he recorded in his diary in July 1969, adding the next month that “I generally shut Jess out of my mind but sometimes she re-enters with staggering agony.” In the autumn of 1969 he described his daughters in these words: “both of whom are alive and one of whom is dead.”

On and off the screen, Lewis says, Burton’s eyes always held “some combination of guilt, fear, misery.” Lewis also suggests that Burton was responsible for the paralysis and eventual death of his older brother Ifor, with whom he may or may not have had a drunken fight in 1968. Though he wasn’t the murderer Lewis accuses him of being, Burton clearly felt implicated.

Who is the Satan of the story? Lewis sees it as Philip, and Burton saw it sometimes as himself and sometimes as Taylor. “When a woman like Elizabeth loves you,” he said, “she is not happy until she owns your soul.” In The Sandpiper, Taylor plays the unmarried, bohemian mother of a boy who shoots a deer and is taken in hand by Burton, a married headmaster. The school becomes the boy’s legal guardian. The headmaster, who is also a priest, develops a sexual obsession with the mother, who is an atheist; in the pivotal scene they stand in front of a roaring red fire, he removes her red poncho and red bauble earrings, their lips meet, and he crosses the Rubicon. He has forsaken God for a godless woman, and his sainted wife—recalling the sainted Sybil—is played by Eva Marie Saint. The film might be one of Burton’s fever dreams.

Erotic Vagrancy is an infernal book, in both senses of the word. Taylor bores Lewis slightly, but she gets the best line. If Burton, she once said, were to have a lobotomy, “out would fly snakes, frogs, worms, tadpoles and bats.”