Erotic Vagrancy: Everything About Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor review – an epic hymn to a ‘joyously vulgar’ pair
This is the tale of a wild shared delusion, or a deadly dance in which both individuals were tragically doomed to survive. While Roger Lewis’s biography may not deliver on the promise of covering “everything” about Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, it certainly contains more information than one could ever desire. “I offer no apologies for this being a visionary book,” he declares with gravitas, and the reader often hears a distinct voice at work – brave, humorous, challenging, perceptive, and persistent. However, it can also be exhausting. Lewis, who is Welsh, recognizes his own propensity for “talkativeness”. As Taylor was once overheard saying about her husband, who would often dominate evenings with drunken recitals and lectures on Dylan Thomas: “Does the man ever stop talking?”
Possibly only a large book could fully comprehend the abundance, “the grandiose bad taste and greed and wealth” that defined the Burton-Taylor partnership. Lewis, rejecting traditional biographies as “fake” and “a matter of ghosts”, takes a playful, even comical approach – jumping between time periods, focusing on minor characters, and speculating about gaps and confusion in the official narrative. His perspective on Taylor is that the former child actor from MGM never grew up; she was petulant, needy, and selfish, making a spectacle of her frequent illnesses and manipulating doctors to give her whatever she wanted (she took so many pills she must have sounded like a rattle). She was essentially a “bundle of desires” – a collector of clothes, shoes, husbands, pets, gifts, and precious trinkets. As her fourth husband, Eddie Fisher, remarked: “Just a small $50,000 diamond would make everything perfect for up to four days.” Her constant need to be in the spotlight was incurable: even during a surgical procedure for her “benign” brain tumor (which was the only part of her that was), she insisted on having it photographed for Life magazine.
Burton had a difficult upbringing – he was the twelfth of thirteen children born to a father who struggled with alcohol, Richard Jenkins, and a mother who passed away when he was only two years old. He was raised by his older sister and her husband, a miner, in a suburb of Port Talbot. It was there that he caught the attention of Philip Burton, a local schoolmaster who became his mentor and trained him for a career in acting. However, Lewis reveals a tumultuous relationship between mentor and mentee – one that Burton himself described as “Hell”. Lewis also makes a bold accusation against Philip, claiming that he was a paedophile. It is suggested that Burton’s later promiscuity may have been a cover for his own insecurities about his sexuality, which were exacerbated by his heavy drinking, self-hatred, and fits of anger. Despite these flaws, Burton’s voice remains his greatest gift – described by Lewis as “one of the most magnificent sounds of the 20th century”. Lewis paints a vivid picture of Burton’s fiery and passionate nature, comparing him to “floating fire” and “coals”. Even his wife, Claire Bloom, described their sexual encounters as being like “a flame with an astonishing brightness”. Burton’s voice is further likened to a “smoky fire” and the remnants of a “primeval Welsh forest”, with the constant presence of cigarette smoke emanating from his nostrils due to his heavy smoking habit.
The production of Cleopatra (1963) was a disastrous affair, as described in this diary-style account. The extravagant spending of $120,000 per day, the lavish sets and costumes, and the tumultuous relationships between the stars Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton all contributed to the chaos. Taylor and Burton’s passionate and possessive love was compared to that of Antony and Cleopatra, adding to the drama. Their behavior caused humiliation for their respective spouses, Sybil Burton and Eddie Fisher, and even drew criticism from the Vatican. The film itself became a source of jokes for years to come, with one comedian quipping that if Taylor were to film Cleopatra today, they would have to widen the Nile. The grand sets were later used for the parody film Carry on Cleo (1964), with some of the costumes even being reused. The first time as a historical epic, the second time as a comedic farce.
Lewis ponders if Burton and Taylor ever truly left the world of their infamous film, becoming synonymous with excessive showiness and reckless acquisition. After splurging on yachts and Rolls-Royces in 1967, they purchased a luxurious twin-engine jet which Taylor personally decorated in an elaborate Regency style. When Burton asked where to place the fireplace, Taylor didn’t even realize he was joking. Their tumultuous relationship became its own ongoing news story, marked by frequent walkouts and confrontations. These fights, fueled by alcohol and drugs, often turned physical as Taylor had a tendency towards violence. Screenwriter Ernest Lehman reported that she would frequently hit and punch Burton on the set of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966), a film which Lewis believes encapsulates their entire marriage. The ugliness of their dynamic is almost unbearable to watch, yet it also carries a certain aggressive humor. Burton himself was known for his confrontational attitude, which turned deadly in 1968 when he drunkenly got into a fight with his older brother Ivor, resulting in Ivor’s death from a broken neck four years later. According to Lewis, it was Burton’s fatal push that ultimately caused his brother’s demise, adding fratricide to their already lengthy list of transgressions.
On page 595, there is a surprising change of stance: Lewis writes, “I absolutely refuse to disapprove of them,” after spending a considerable amount of time criticizing and dismantling them. He has taken us on a journey through foolish and almost barbaric behavior that would make even the most open-minded reader disapprove, only to then redeem them as “joyously vulgar.” Unlike his previous biographical subjects, such as Peter Sellers and Anthony Burgess, Lewis says he developed a great fondness for them. How is this possible? I suspect that during the 13-year period he spent writing (while also dealing with an illness), Lewis decided at some point to change his approach and lighten things up. It’s not like he is incapable of writing concisely – his brilliant portrayal of Charles Hawtrey (The Man Who Was Private Widdle) is only around 100 pages. However, Erotic Vagrancy goes beyond the appropriate length. At times, I found myself unable to remember my life before reading this book. Nevertheless, we must acknowledge that Lewis has put in the effort, collected all the anecdotes, and sifted through them for the best. For example, there is this gem from Frankie Howerd, who said backstage at Stratford one night while Burton was performing, “I can hear Shakespeare clapping his hands… over his ears.”