If you know Richard Burton at all you probably know him from his movies. My favorites are The Taming of the Shrew and Where Eagles Dare. (If you're viewing this blog in Explorer, you won't be able to see the videos posted below--get Chrome or Firefox--something besides Explorer!)
Richard Burton was born in 1925. He grew up in the Welsh coal mining country where the men worked hard and drank heavily. He always respected a hard working sort of person, though he didn't seem to care much for the "bourgeois." "Bourgeois" literally means "town dwellers," but these days it refers to the boring, socioeconomic group of people called "the middle class."
He was a diligent student memorizing great swaths of classic poetry only English students read now, poets like Yeats, Pound, Wordsworth and Shakespeare. He spoke Welsh and English as a youth and continued learning languages most of his life, French, Italian, Spanish and Serbo-Croat--or whatever it was they spoke in Yugoslavia when that place was a country and in his last years of life, German. For Richard Burton, a good pastime aboard a plane was to study with a Spanish grammar on his lap. He could memorize a script in minutes. He peppered his speech with quotes from literature, popular and literary. He did crossword puzzles for fun and rated the puzzles from the various newspapers based on their complexity. He loved to play Yahtzee and as a young man, Monopoly. He loved rugby. If he had chosen to go that route, he might have gone pro. He thought soccer was boring. He regularly played table tennis and loved to swim and sunbathe with a good book in his hands. For awhile he took up bicycling.
He was a boy when his family broke into pieces upon his mother's death. He went to live with his older sister and her husband, a boorish jerk. In the diaries from his teen years, he writes of attending church on Sundays all day, though he doesn't mentioned his denomination. Whatever denomination it was and whoever were the preachers and teachers, he didn't find Jesus. As an adult he rejected God, though in his diaries he slips up and says, "Thank God," or makes pleading prayers to God as so many of us thoughtlessly do, even those of us who should know better. Sometimes he catches himself and jokes about how absurd it is to evoke God when one doesn't believe in Him. He quoted hymns, once in praise to God and another time in grief. Chris Williams, the editor, explained that when Burton died he was buried in the Protestant cemetery in Celigny, Switzerland. Two days later a memorial service was held at the Bethel Baptist Chapel in Burton's hometown, Pontrhydfyen, Wales.
He was born Richard Jenkins, but when his drama teacher, Philip Burton became his guardian he adopted the name "Burton." Phil Burton helped launch him in the theater and was his first acting coach. Richard Burton had natural talent and presence, though he thought of himself as not particularly gifted at chatting. He lived large and wide. He dined with royalty, partied with the big names of the 60's, 70's and 80's. He often wrote brief and fascinating descriptions of many of the celebrities he was acquainted with in his diary.
From July 1970:
E (Elizabeth Taylor) made me as jealous as vengeance earlier on by saying that she'd called Marlon (Marlon Brando) on the phone and that they had talked for an hour and that he was very solicitous about me. He really is a smugly pompous little bastard and is cavalier about everybody except the Black Panthers and Indians. 'He's been keeping tabs on you,' said E. That infuriated me even more. That sober self-indulgent obese fart being solicitous about me. You can't get any of those surrounded-by-sycophants one-time-winners on the phone unless they want something from you. Sinatra is the same. Gods in their own mirrors. Distorted mirrors.From May 1970:
Lucille Ball...is a monster of staggering charmlessness and monumental lack of humour.For a time he was on a campaign to stop drinking and kept a record of what he drank in his diary, highlighting a day without drink by typing the heading in red. He noted that quitting drinking was good for his health, but the reader recognizes that his relationships with others also improved since he was a grouchy, mean drunk. No way of knowing, but if he hadn't started drinking again when his brother died, he and Elizabeth might not have divorced.
He loved food and described many of his meals. He also mentioned his efforts at dieting. He enjoyed living aboard the yacht he and Elizabeth Taylor purchased as it afforded them privacy when the paparazzi wanted to mob them. (He includes an interesting story of how the name "paparazzi" came into existence.) When they worked in Europe, the yacht was a handy base of operations. He bought the world's most stunning jewels for Elizabeth. (You can view some of them here: Elizabeth Taylor's Collection ) Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor purchased jets and Bentleys and homes in Mexico, Switzerland and elsewhere. He gave generously to family and friends and to charity.
Burton bought hundreds of books at a time. When he had a chance, he would read three or four books a day. Everything from paperback detective stories to works devoted to world history to entire encyclopedias. One of his most treasured gifts was an Oxford English Dictionary--unabridged--set in micro-print so that it took up less room complete with a magnifying glass in a built-in pocket. When traveling or working away from one of his homes, he viewed books as a necessary, like clothes or shampoo and would buy armloads of them to take on a trip. No home or yacht was complete without a library. He dreamed of writing a book. He did write articles from time to time and other short works of prose, but never the long works he fantasized about. His idea of an ideal day was to read for hours in his library with Elizabeth Taylor by his side, go for a walk at some point in a quiet countryside with one of his dogs, have some tea and a nice meal and read some more. This ideal never changed, though Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor divorced in the 1970's.
From November 1968:
I am reading two books at once: a political biography of de Gaulle and another of Pierre Laval. So far there seems little to choose between them, except height. Scheming, conniving, disloyal monomaniacal monsters, both protesting their love of la belle France. Of the two de Gaulle seems to be the bigger liar. But in politics all men are liars. The squalor of the latest Election campaign in the States has to be read to be disbelieved.I especially like the part about the "squalor of the latest Election in the States," it's still applicable.
His older brother, Ivor, was the rock in his life. When Ivor fell, hit his head and was paralyzed Burton blamed himself. Later, he wrote that he wished Ivor would die because he suffered so much and was so depressed in his infirmity, but when Ivor actually did die, Burton disintegrated. His marriage to Elizabeth went asunder and his career down the tubes. He never really recovered.
Chris Williams includes several pages devoted to the historical setting for Richard (Jenkins) Burton's life, a perspective on Wales during World War II I hadn't read about before. He also addresses the question, "Why write a diary?" I hadn't thought about that question at all. I'd only thought of a diary as a record of daily life for those who like to record those things, possibly to be passed down to children. Williams points out that a writer writes either for an existing audience or for an anticipated audience. Who is the audience for a diary or a journal? One's self? Burton mentions in his diaries that one day he would write a memoir and that may have been his underlying purpose, but as Williams points out, the things he leaves out of his diaries are as important as the things he includes.
If one reads one's own account of a particular day, it's not necessary to include all the bits, just a few hints and one can remember the rest. And for the sake of a future memoir that may be enough, but it is still interesting what a person chooses to record.
Burton might say that he had a row with someone, but he seldom specified what the argument was about. Normally he berated himself for blow outs and dust ups more than anyone else. He might critique Elizabeth's appearance, but he was always kinder to her than he was to himself, describing his face as "pockmarked." He called himself, "idiotically listenable." He did not include his thoughts on certain key events in his life, even if he were keeping the diary at the time, such as when Ivor died or how he felt about a marriage disintegrating--he simply ceased keeping the diary shortly after such incidents. (There were gaps when he was working hard, however, but in those cases, he would resume as soon as he had time again.)
Burton's teen diaries stop just as he finished school. The years while he was married to his first wife, Sybil, he wrote not a word. His diaries pick up again after he and Elizabeth's relationship is well established and stop at Ivor's death to be resumed shortly before he remarried Elizabeth and stopped again during the last year of his life.
Several entries in the diary just before he and Elizabeth remarry are simply one word: Booze.
He wrote about plans around his various film projects, things that went on during production, rated other actors' performances and wrote about the business of acting. He seemed to have a love/hate relationship with acting. In the later years, when he did more live performances, he might say something to the effect, "Well, we won't know if the director knew what he was talking about until the audience weighs in."
Once in awhile Burton delves into accounting--talking about what it cost to be Burton-Taylor. Expenditures to maintain their entourage, security details (often traveling with the most expensive and admired jewels in the world), desired accommodations and other requirements. Occasionally he comments on ordinary folk, usually with empathy. He often wrote about his children--he included Elizabeth's children as his own. He worried about their schooling, their friendships, their characters and their futures in the world. He mentioned his father only once and other siblings besides Ivor seldom. One sibling was interviewed for a biography which irritated Burton. He commented that the biographies were all bunk.
Sometimes, when I least expected it, Burton would exhibit flashes of great writing.
I love my wife. I love her dearly. Honest. Talk about the beauty, silent, bare.... Sitting on the Thames with the river imitating a blue-grey ghost. My God the very houses seem asleep. And all that mighty heart is lying still.Or:
Never take the sea for granted. She can change from the sweetest smoothest lady into a mad termagant in two minutesBurton played Yugoslavian dictator, Tito, in a biographical movie, "The Battle of Sutjeska,"1973. Helicopters took the actors and crew up to a mountain peak for filming. Burton and a handful of others were returning to their abodes for the night when without warning they were engulfed in a cloud. They had no visibility whatsoever.
On top of this it began to rain torrentially and the windscreen wipers whipped back and fore like insane crickets sharpening their legs.He mentioned the longest town name in Wales--which I'm not sure I could remember even if I were Welsh! (Below is a humorous video about that name.)
Three things I learned from reading Richard Burton's diaries. First, be kind to your spouse, even if you don't feel like it. Forgive! Overlook flaws. There were times in the portions written during the late 60's and early 70's when I wanted to reach back through time and grab Burton by the throat and say, "If you can't be kind to Elizabeth, keep your mouth shut! Can't you see you love her?"
Second, the old cliche, "Money can't buy happiness," is actually true. I also wanted to shout at Burton, "Stop looking at what's wrong and look at what's good and right for crying out loud!" Once he stopped drinking up until Ivor's death, he largely ceased being such a grouchy jerk and seemed to enjoy life more. His diary entries from his second wedding to Elizabeth until that marriage fell apart are filled with anxiety, as if he worried that it was too good to be true and would soon end. Which it did. Made me wonder if it were a self-fulfilling anxiety and a hold-over of grief from Ivor's death--a sort of, end-the-marriage-before-it-crashes-and-hurts-too-much-to-bear sort of attitude. He seemed so frantic!
The third lesson: There's no time like the present. At one point Burton recorded that his longing to write a book was so acute it was practically physically debilitating, but he couldn't seem to budge himself to do it. I can identify with that.
All the way through the book I was impressed with the man's vast talent, intellect and appetite for words, languages and learning. However, at one point he says that his mind was too "muscular" to believe in God and I felt incredibly sorry for him in that moment. His reading of human nature: history, literature and reference works was vast, but there is no mention of reading time devoted to answering the question, "Does God exist?" It is the great cosmic question upon which eternity rests and one a person should not even pretend to answer without serious research!
The last thing I learned from this book is a thing I already knew, but saw portrayed on a large scale in the life of this man, one of the first movie superstars in history, who could buy anything he wanted, associate with the glittering personalities of his time and travel anywhere in the world: one cannot base one's life on career, no matter how successful because it's temporary. One cannot base one's life on glamorous things; on wealth or any human being, no matter how marvelous, not even one's self. Things give pleasure in the moment; wealth cannot buy health or love and a human being will inevitably fail you, if only by dying and leaving you bereft if not by betraying or failing you utterly while alive. And a career, what does it matter if the work does not produce eternal results? When it's all finished up and the coffin is shut, only a life lived for the glory of God, whether bourgeois or not, will stand into eternity.
Marilyn W Lathrop
BBC News: Richard Burton Diaries Reveal Actor's Passion and Shame
John Simon review of "The Richard Burton Diaries" for the NY Times
David Thomson Review of the Richard Burton Diaries for the New Republic