Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, Hollywood's original couple, had a romance more tumultuous than that of any big-screen drama. They married each other twice and divorced each other twice, perhaps owing to her epic tantrums and his problems with alcoholism. But as newly released love letters from Burton to Taylor attest, despite 20 years of hair-pulling and name-calling, he loved her until the very end of his life.
"I am forever punished by the gods for being given the fire and trying to put it out," the actor wrote in 1973, around the time of their first separation. "The fire, of course, is you." In another letter, written after one of their splits, Burton admits that he hasn't been the perfect husband but suggests that love should triumph over their differences: "You must know, of course, how much I love you. You must know, of course, how badly I treat you. But the fundamental and most vicious, swinish, murderous, and unchangeable fact is that we totally misunderstand each other ... we operate on alien wavelengths ... I love you and I always will. Come back to me as soon as you can."
The couple, who met in Rome while filming the 1962 film Cleopatra, were both married when they launched into a torrid affair. The paparazzi pounced almost immediately, and the Vatican released a statement condemning their adultery. But even disapproval from the Pope couldn't stand in the way of their love, and Burton's letters frequently drip with passion. "If you leave me, I shall have to kill myself. There is no life without you," he wrote in one. Taylor, at times, turned Burton into a philosopher. "One of these days I will wake up — which I think I have done already — and realize to myself that I really do love," he wrote. "Who invented that concept? I have wracked my shabby brain and can find no answer."
Drinking with Richard had kept them in the same house of the spirits, cocooned from the sometimes unbearable pressures of celebrity. It was, quite simply, something they could do together."
It also fueled the frequent quarrels from which both seemed to draw a profound sensual charge, particularly Taylor, for whom frequent demonstrations of a strong masculine presence were essential. "Richard loses his temper with true enjoyment. It's beautiful to watch," Taylor once said. "Our fights are delightful screaming matches, and Richard is rather like a small atom bomb going off." Burton believed "a good shouting match was good for the soul, cathartic, emetic…."
Yet for all that, there was an epic — even Homeric — quality to their love because they were genuine artists who made works of real consequence, and their love made their art better.
If ever there was a couple about whom it could be said "they couldn't live with, or without, each other," it may very well have been Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton.
The sexual charge between them was so intense as to be practically visible; to Elizabeth, right to the end, he was "magnificent in every sense of the word... and in everything he did. He was magnificent on the stage, he was magnificent in film, he was magnificent at making love... at least to me", while he considered her "a true miracle of construction and the work of an engineer of genius", in particular those extraordinary "apocalyptic" breasts, as he called them. Even though he could be highly critical of her looks -- once saying "she has... a double chin and an overdeveloped chest, and she's rather short in the leg" -- his response to her sex appeal was an inevitable, irresistible capitulation.
Whether Burton did indeed write her a final letter, saying that he was happiest when with her, and that he wanted to "come home", as she later claimed -- a letter apparently buried with her -- can't be known. That theirs was a great and glorious love, as irreversible as it was impossible, is beyond doubt.
“There is an emptiness in my life that only Elizabeth can make less empty. For 13 years we were together constantly, compulsively. How can you end such a wild and perfect relationship? You can’t. A love affair like ours is never ended – only temporarily abandoned.” Richard Burton