FURIOUS LOVE: Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton, and the Marriage of the Century, by Sam Kashner and Nancy Schoenberger. Harper, 500 pp., $27.99What was in that last letter Richard Burton wrote to ex-wife Elizabeth Taylor on Aug. 2, 1984, just three days before his death? Taylor isn't telling, but it's the only one of 40 letters from Burton that she didn't share with Sam Kashner and Nancy Schoenberger for "Furious Love," their own hefty love letter to the tempestuous Hollywood couple whose tabloid-ready antics make Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie seem about as exciting as the farm couple from "American Gothic."
Entries from Burton's diary also are peppered throughout the book, starting with the first time he laid eyes on La Liz at a party in 1953: "She was so extraordinarily beautiful that I nearly laughed out loud. . . . She was unquestionably gorgeous. . . . She was lavish. She was a dark unyielding largess [sic]. She was, in short, too bloody much, and not only that, she was totally ignoring me."
For a womanizer like Burton, Taylor presented a challenge. The next time they met was on the set of "Cleopatra" in 1962, where she couldn't help but notice him. In Rome they began a fire that burned far longer than the one that had Nero fiddling. Their scandalous affair - Burton had a wife, Sybil, and Taylor was still married to fading crooner Eddie Fisher - became a paparazzi circus, as photographers followed them everywhere but the bedroom.
Even after their subsequent marriage - and divorce, remarriage and second divorce - they attracted crowds wherever they went, usually with an entourage of at least 30 people (children, servants, friends) and beasts (Taylor had dogs, cats and even a bush baby). Their backgrounds were decidedly different: Burton grew up in Wales, the son of an alcoholic coal miner, while much of Taylor's childhood was spent on movie sets.
Their passions, however, were very much alike. Taylor, the epitome of femininity and elegance in films like the 1951 drama "A Place in the Sun," was Burton's equal when it came to drinking, swearing and sex. The authors neatly boil down the essence of their relationship: "When there wasn't acting, there was drinking. When there wasn't drinking, there was fighting. And when there wasn't fighting, there was lovemaking."
Their 11 film pairings now seem like a window into their real lives - the illicit love of "Cleopatra," the battle of the sexes in "The Taming of the Shrew" (1967) and, most telling, the boozing and brawling in "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" (1966).
Ultimately, Burton's alcoholism, and the verbal abuse that resulted, proved the biggest obstacle in their two marriages. The saddest part of "Furious Love" is seeing Burton's health and his career deteriorate as his drinking escalates. (He made many attempts at sobriety, but Taylor's constant drinking made it a losing battle, until Suzy Hunt, the woman he left Taylor for, came along.) Yet even after their divorces and marriages to others, there was a fire between Taylor and Burton that no one else could put out.