She knew who he was — and she was well aware of his reputation as a womanizer. But when Elizabeth Taylor first kissed Richard Burton while filming a love scene for Cleopatra in 1962, she abandoned her skepticism and surrendered to a passion so palpable, it quickly became the talk of the set — and the world. “When you are in love and lust like that,” Elizabeth would later recall, “you just grab it with both hands and ride out the storm.”
And what a storm! She and Richard were both married when they filmed Cleopatra (she to Eddie Fisher, he to Sybil Christopher), but the chemistry between them proved all-consuming, resulting in both of their divorces and a tumultuous 13-year relationship that included an 11-year marriage, followed by a divorce, a remarriage and another divorce less than a year later. “Their passion was so strong that it … became almost destruction,” Elizabeth’s longtime photographer Gianni Bozzacchi, author of My Life in Focus, A Photographer’s Journey with Elizabeth Taylor and the Hollywood Jet Set, exclusively tells Closer. “It was difficult.”
SO MUCH DRAMA
That’s an understatement. Twice during the filming of Cleopatra, Elizabeth attempted suicide — once in Richard’s presence — and her self-destructive behavior didn’t stop there. Richard was already known as a heavy drinker, and Elizabeth soon developed a habit to match his, fueling a headline-making relationship that seemed equal parts romance and drama. “Our fights are delightful screaming matches,” she once quipped, “and Richard is rather like a small atom bomb going off.”
They made up in equally excessive ways. “I introduced her to beer, she introduced me to Bulgari,” Richard said of his jewel-obsessed wife. And he happily indulged her, gifting the actress with a slew of extravagant gems, including the 33.1-carat Krupp diamond. They also splurged on designer clothes, decorated with paintings from the old masters, and bought a yacht and a private jet. Behind all the glamour and theatrics, though, was a love that Gianni says was “very real” but too fragile to survive the spotlight. “They were so famous that they couldn’t really have a private life,” he notes, adding that being “the most important couple in the world,” they were constantly hounded by paparazzi.
Both continued to drink heavily, and Richard’s wandering eye led to explosive arguments that were no longer “delightful.” The pair could be jealous, competitive and demanding. After their second divorce, Elizabeth reportedly told a friend, “I don’t want to be that much in love ever again. I gave everything away … my soul, my being, everything.”
Yet Elizabeth never stopped loving Richard. “I’m never without it,” she said of the Krupp diamond just weeks after marrying her seventh husband, Larry Fortensky. “I think of Richard every time I look at it.” In 2009, Richard’s niece Sian Owen visited Elizabeth at her Bel Air home and remarked that 25 years after his death, the actress still kept a picture of him at her bedside. “[They were] soulmates,” she said.
— Alison Gaylin, with reporting by Katie Bruno