The year is 1967. Taormina, Sicily. Two of Hollywood’s biggest stars of the moment, Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, attend the film festival that takes place on the island. They’re coming to accept the David di Donatello award for best foreign actors. Both of them. There are photos of the duo enjoying a few days in the area: in the train station, in a restaurant, taking a walk, and of course, accepting their awards. But Burton and Taylor are not just the stars of the moment, they are the couple of the moment. In the chronology of their relationship, by the time they got to Taormina, they had been together for five years, ever since they met during the filming of Cleopatra, when both were married — he to Sybil Williams, she to Eddie Fisher. In 1964, after she got her divorce, Taylor and Burton got married for the first time. “Elizabeth Burton and I are very, very happy,” he related in a press statement. Nothing else needed to be said, the images of them from around the world told the whole story: yachts, jewels, high-end dinners, haute couture, cigarettes and gigantic sunglasses built the reputation and legend of the early power couple, before the concept of a power couple even existed. Now a new book on the pair, Erotic Vagrancy, Everything About Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, written by Roger Lewis, reveals that the image projected by the two stars was never left to chance, but rather the work of a vast team that included secretaries, make-up artists, housekeepers, personal photographers, bodyguards, nurses, chauffeurs, butlers and even staff who were in charge of packing and unpacking their suitcases. Not surprisingly, according to the book, they did not travel light. When they alit upon Taormina, they arrived with 156 pieces of luggage between them.
One word perfectly defines the couple: excess. We knew that Burton and Taylor drank to excess (according to The Love and the Fury, another biography on the pair, they started drinking at breakfast and didn’t stop until they went to bed). We know, too, that they spent money in excess. In particular, on the glittering gems that Burton gave his wife, such as the Krupp yellow diamond, the Peregrine pearl (which had belonged to Spain’s Philip II and appears in works by Velázquez) and the 69-carat Taylor-Burton diamond. We knew that they loved each other in excess, even marrying twice. Now, we know more about their very own dolce vita, down to its details: at the Parisian Lancaster Hotel, they occupied a total of 21 rooms. Their dogs accompanied them to its restaurants, and were fed from the menu, according to Erotic Vagrancy. On other occasions, the glamourous couple reserved empty rooms in cities they would never visit.
Their belongings were also a reflection of this excess. According to the author, in 1967 they bought a luxury yacht, which they baptized Kalizma, that featured “seven cabins with double berths, three bathrooms and an armory containing machine guns.” The actors outfitted it with Chippendale furniture and carpets that had to be replaced every six months because the pets relieved themselves on them. Not only did their dogs eat from restaurant menus, they also had their own boat. In 1968, while the couple was in London for one of Burton’s shoots, they decided to install their pets in a boat that was moored near Tower Bridge, at a cost of 1,000 pounds a week, to circumvent the canine quarantine restrictions that existed at the time in the United Kingdom. Both were aware of their specific needs and, according to the writer, constantly joked about them. “I introduced Elizabeth to beer. She introduced me to Bulgari,” said Burton.
The book is not the only cultural artifact that recalls the life of Taylor, already inseparable from that of Burton, the man who was known as the love of her life. Another lover of excess has signed on to revisit to the star’s world. A few days ago, it became public knowledge that Kim Kardashian will be the executive producer, in addition to one of the narrators, of a new BBC documentary about the actress that aims, to a certain extent, to dismantle part of the exact legend propagated by Erotic Vagrancy. “For too long the story of Elizabeth Taylor has been told as a soap opera,” explains the description of the documentary, which is entitled Elizabeth Taylor: Rebel Superstar. It will be divided into three parts: “The eight marriages, the diamonds, the addictions. This series gives Elizabeth Taylor the significance she richly deserves, in all her incarnations: as an actor, rebel, business mogul, and activist — to reveal how Taylor created the blueprint for modern celebrity.” It will analyze her work as an actress and “how she reinvented the nature of fame, even as she smashed the glass ceiling in Hollywood, before going on to become a billion-dollar businesswoman, activist and advocate.” Kardashian’s involvement is far from casual. According to what has been revealed by publications like Variety and The Hollywood Reporter, the reality television star and multimillionaire businesswoman was the last person to interview the actress, who died in March 2011 at 79 years old.
Thirteen years after her death, Taylor is still making headlines: from Bulgari collections that celebrate her legacy to news of her last romances (specifically, with Irish actor Colin Farrell). Perhaps this is the best reflection of how she “reinvented the nature of fame.” But her work and her characters also endure. There’s Gloria, the sex worker protagonist of BUTtterfield 8; Martha, the alcoholic wife she brought to life in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?; and Maggie, in the unforgettable Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, a movie that the #MeToo movement has revindicated from a feminist lens. 2024 will bring her back, once again, in all her excess and faults.
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