January, 1962. The most beautiful, most famous movie star in the world is about to meet her co-star, a rugged, fiery, brilliant young actor. The actress, Elizabeth Taylor. The actor, Richard Burton. The film, “Cleopatra.”
For the next 22 years, their tempestuous relationship would capture the imagination of millions of people and set the world abuzz at the mere possibility of a sighting of the pair. They would storm through their time together (and apart) as fellow actors, lovers, spouses, friends, and to the end, remain furiously and passionately in love.
The new book ”Furious Love,” a current NY Times best seller, is written by Professor of English and Director of Creative Writing at The College of William and Mary, Nancy Schoenberger and husband Sam Kashner, a contributing editor at Vanity Fair. It is a stunning portrait of the Dick and Liz phenomenon; a phenomenon so wild and tumultuous that it ushered in the beginning of the paparazzi era. (Paparazzi, meaning insects, is the reference originated by Federico Fellini when he first saw the frenzy of photographers and newshounds outside their villa in Rome.)
Elizabeth Taylor gave the authors unprecedented access to nearly 40 love letters and poems from Burton, personal photographs, and an unpublished first draft of her 1965 autobiography. Co-author, Mr. Kashner, met with Taylor who gave generously of her time, offering him information and insight not previously made public. The authors enjoyed access to the most private of writings and stories. They met with key players in the Burton/Taylor saga, obtaining first-hand, vivid accounts of their experiences with the dynamic duo.
During the highly publicized and difficult filming of “Cleopatra”, everything about Burton and Taylor became news. Their controversial love affair, marriages and divorces were called Le Scandale. Their destiny would be defined by all the colors between tragedy and joy, driven by the inextricable power of the love they shared.
I recently had the pleasure of speaking at length with author Nancy Schoenberger: Here is our conversation:
VR – I understand Elizabeth Taylor’s interest in getting involved with you on the book was triggered by something she heard a student say to you about Burton. What was that?
NS – Actually, we had already sold the book proposal and sometime afterwards, during a conversation with a student, we mentioned that we were working on a book about Elizabeth Taylor and her marriage to Burton. The student said “Oh, wow, I never knew Elizabeth Taylor was married to Tim Burton.”
Well, no offense to Tim Burton, who’s a fine director, but when that story was relayed to Elizabeth, she was horrified. She realized that Burton’s legacy was in danger of being forgotten by whole generations of people so she wanted the world to be reminded of not only what a great stage and screen actor he was, but how much depth and intelligence he had as a human being and how meaningful that relationship was to her. Elizabeth said “Oh this is terrible. We must not let Richard be forgotten.”
She helped us a great deal behind the scenes. She gave us access to Richard Burton’s love letters and poems which are really the heart and soul of the book. They give you a glimpse into what a complex and often suffering soul he was. She was also very forthcoming in sharing with us unpublished bits in her memoirs.
VR – So you wrote the book to help clarify and define Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor.
NS – Yes. Their stories are interesting because of their personalities and who they were. Richard Burton is this Dickensian character – he was the son of a Welsh coal miner, came from a rather poor, working-class family. He lost his mother when he was two. Richard had twelve siblings but two had died. Here’s this young Welshman, coming from a difficult, trouble-filled background, who wound up astride the world! His life from the early years onwards is quite an amazing tale. The book delves into why and how he became the most famous celebrity of his time and perhaps, the greatest actor of his generation. He was also a poet. A writer who loved language. We wanted to shine his image a little bit and bring him back into the public memory.
VR – You must have made many trips out to Los Angeles for the book’s research.
NS – Yes, we did. Sam met with Elizabeth and of course, we talked at length with her closest friends and associates.
VR – Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, the names still hold a certain magic, mystique, don’t they?
NS – Oh, absolutely. They hold an enduring fascination. Elizabeth still has an iconic stature even though she hasn’t been in the public eye as a performer for a few decades. Her work as humanitarian and activist has added to her stature in another meaningful way.
VR – Together, you and Sam have written the books “Hollywood Kryptonite”, which became the inspiration for the film “Hollywoodland”, and “A Talent for Genius”, a book about composer, pianist and personality Oscar Levant. Separately, you each have quite a body of fine work. But the entertainment world, the arts, seem to hold fascination for both of you. Is there a special reason for this?
NS – In a way, we kind of fell into it. Out first book, as you mentioned, was about Oscar Levant, a pianist and a leading interpreter of George Gershwin. He went to Hollywood, wrote and played music for films, ended up doing his own TV show. Levant excelled at everything he put his hand to but was plagued with all sorts of demons, addictive, emotional, barbiturate and neurotic.
To answer your question, I guess we’re drawn to people who have amazing stories. Oftentimes they happen to be in the entertainment field. My last book, before this one, was about a literary figure, heiress Caroline Blackwood called “Dangerous Muse.” She was a writer and married the painter Lucien Freud, poet Robert Lowell and composer Israel Citkowitz. Our subjects tend to be literary figures, actors, creative artists. One of the themes that runs through our books is the exploration of troubled souls, geniuses in their own right. People who have led extraordinary lives. Someone said “Is there any genius but a troubled genius?”
VR – It goes with the territory.
NS – Yes.
VR – In doing research for the book, what are some of the most revealing, surprising things you learned about Burton?
NS – We were both surprised by the extent to which Richard Burton loved, needed and adored Elizabeth Taylor. Back then there was the perception that he might have attached himself to her just to boost his career. There’s a W. H. Auden line – “If equal affection cannot be, let the more loving one be me.” It was always assumed that Taylor was the more loving one. But his letters and poems reveal the depth of his love and passion for her. After they announced their first separation, he said that “even if you do leave me, I don’t want to live.” His letters are also playful, even bawdy. Elegant, heartbreakingly felt, earthy. Shakespearean. He wrote her “I am forever punished by the gods for being given the fire and trying to put it out. The fire, of course, is you.”
VR – Some notices of “Furious Love” sound as though they enjoy “reliving” the Burton/Taylor saga. What I mean is, the reviewers are taking delight in recounting the stories, escapades, scandals, juicy bits, etc. you reveal in the book.
NS – Well, we don’t think of it as a celebrity book. We think of it as an interesting story of two people who led very complicated lives. We get behind the story – how much Richard Burton is a classic, tragic figure of immense talent not just as an actor – a huge soul with great self doubt and who suffered greatly. They had an amazing story separately and together. They were also victims of their own excesses. From the age of ten, Elizabeth was already a star and everyone did everything she wanted. It wasn’t necessarily her fault but I think that was one of the reasons she loved fighting with Richard so much – she goaded him into it because she wanted people to stand up to her. He could and did.
VR – Are you currently on a book tour?
NS – Yes, and we just did an extensive interview with the BBC, a documentary on Richard Burton because, of course, Burton is one of their own and the book is coming out soon in the UK.
VR – I’ve very much enjoyed our talk and will be on the lookout for any news about the rumors that a film based on the book is in the offing. I know you won’t/can’t comment but Entertainment Tonight announced that the names Mike Nichols, Angelina Jolie, Colin Farrell, Russell Crowe are being discussed.
NS – Thanks. And yes, no comment.
Save the Date! On September 20th, in the Williamsburg Regional Library Theatre, you are invited to hear and meet the authors of “Furious Love” in an on-stage event that I will be hosting. We hope to present it in a format similar to “Inside the Actors’ Studio.” (It will be the Williamsburg version.) Also, The College Bookstore Barnes and Noble is arranging a special signing at the event.
In addition, starting September 1 and continuing on the 15th, 22nd, and 29th, the Library will be showing four films the Burtons made together. More on that later.