Actor and world celebrity, twice husband of Liz Taylor, Richard Burton was also a prolific diarist. His diaries were published this past fall, and I recently got the book out of the library. It makes for interesting intermittent (or intermittently interesting) reading—a combination gossip column (its largest portion), chronicle of the self-destructive downward spiral of a gifted and intelligent man, and well-expressed commentary on literature and life.
It’s easy to forget how incredibly big the Burtons were in their heyday. They were among the first worldwide jet-age media megastars, and certainly the biggest among their contemporaries (Brangelina are pikers compared to them). I never quite understood the enormity of it, although I was aware of their considerable charms.
Burton not only had one of the most sonorous voices ever, but if the diaries are any evidence (and they are) he was extremely well-read and loved words and the thoughts behind them. He despised acting—and, to a certain extent, himself:
I have this marvellous reputation as an actor of incredible potential who has lazed his talent away. A reputation which I enjoy, but which I acquired even when I was at the Old Vic those many years ago [Burton was 45 at the time he wrote this].
And unless I go back to England or the National Theatre in Cardiff etc. and slog away at the classics for a decade, that is the reputation I shall die with. “Will you ever go back to your first love, the theatre?” they ask all the time. “It’s not my first love,” I snap. The theatre, apart from the meretricious excitement of the first night and the sometimes interesting rehearsals has always bored me and reading scripts has always bored me…I do not wish to compete with Olivier or Gielgud and Scofield and Redgrave etc. as they are too ‘actory’ for my liking. Apart from occasional performances, few and far between, I don’t believe a word they say…They have splendid presences and are very hard-working and genuinely love their jobs. I cannot match the two latter qualities. And do not wish to.
What was the source of his angst? I don’t think anyone knew; as this TNR article about the diaries points out:
As Lee Marvin, his co-star on the wretched The Klansman, said: “The man’s suffering. Who knows what it is.”
Burton himself certainly didn’t seem to know; he notes in his diaries that although he drinks too much, he doesn’t even like drinking and doesn’t know why he does it. One clue might be in the fact that his father—a Welsh miner after whom the son was named (Richard Burton’s birth name was Richard Walter Jenkins; Burton was the twelfth of thirteen children)—was an alcoholic. Here’s a photo of them together, in Wales:
It’s hard to believe that the taller Burton (who was very handsome in his younger years) came from the loins of that particular father, although I’m not suggesting otherwise. Burton himself noted a tremendous resemblance, although I don’t see one:
[Burton’s] father, Richard Walter Jenkins, was a short, robust coal miner, a “twelve-pints-a-day man” who sometimes went off on drinking and gambling sprees for weeks. Burton later claimed, by family telling, that “He looked very much like me…That is, he was pockmarked, devious, and smiled a great deal when he was in trouble. He was, also, a man of extraordinary eloquence, tremendous passion, great violence.”
Perhaps Burton was right about the resemblance after all.
It was the music of Wales that people heard in Burton’s voice—that, and his love for language: