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The Richard Burton Diaries Hardcover – October 23, 2012
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*Starred Review* Nearly three decades after his sudden death, Burton is experiencing a pop-cultural rebirth. Most people remember the Welsh-born actor as the heavy-drinking fifth (and sixth!) husband of Elizabeth Taylor, with whom he made several films (most memorably the 1966 classic Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and the expensive 1963 fiasco Cleopatra) and whose combustible, extravagant, and scandal-ridden relationship with her will be dramatized later this month in the Lifetime television movie Liz & Dick. His personal musings about Taylor (plus scorn and praise for a plethora of his Tinseltown peers) are sure to be the most talked about here, but these diaries also provide a rounded portrait of a smart, witty, and doting husband and father. Burton squandered his once brilliant acting career, taking mediocre paycheck roles in later years, and battled enough demons to fill several lifetimes. For a true glimpse into the heart and mind of this wildly talented yet conflicted man—who garnered no less than seven Academy Award nominations, with no wins—this mammoth, unsanitized, and handsomely presented collection of Burton’s innermost thoughts, along with the fascinating minutiae of a huge star’s day-to-day existence, should restore his reputation as one of the most original Hollywood stars of all time. --Chris Keech
“Fun, fascinating, and sad.”—Liz Smith
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Credit must be given to Burton's widow Sally. She generously donated the set of diaries to Swansea University and made this book possible. She knew how much of the content referred to her husband's (in)famous marriages to Elizabeth Taylor; a lesser woman might have destroyed the diaries out of jealousy. Sally receives the editor's highest praise for her donation and her "wonderfully supportive" assistance. Many members of the Jenkins-Burton-Taylor families are also credited, and the list shows what a work of love this book is.
Chris Williams, a professor of Welsh history and former director of the Richard Burton Centre for the Study of Wales, has taken on the mammoth task of making the diaries more accessible to the general reader. He footnotes the first mention of people, places and things, providing dates of birth (and death) and a brief line or two of biography; locations, full titles, dates of publication, translations, etc. Burton was extremely well read, and the footnotes provide detailed info about the books Burton casually refers to. Williams admits uncertainty in a few spots, but his devotion to the task is unquestionable. He usually corrects Burton's spelling, but there are a few very minor blips (e.g. Burton refers to "Barbara Streisand" in April of 1969 and Williams' footnote also has "Barbara"... Burton self-corrects to "Barbra" in April of 1970, and the index uses the correct "Barbra"; also a letter from Kate is in the index as a letter from Jessica). An extensive bibliography and index (together totaling almost 40 pages) are invaluable aids for a 654 page text.
The diaries are presented in chronological order (and may not be complete: there are several large gaps). They begin in late 1939 when 14 year-old Richard Jenkins (his birth name) notes the death of the wife of one of his older brothers. The early entries are dryer reading, mainly short mentions of football (rugby), jobs, school, daily life, etc. They pick up some charm when he mentions his family, learning to play Monopoly and Yahtzee, and collecting dung for resale. The dung stories lead to a sweet recollection years later when, as a rich and famous celebrity, Burton fondly recalls the happy childhood times spent with siblings evading local farmers and acquiring the profitable manure. The early diaries run through December 1940.
The second set picks up in January of 1960. "Jenkins" is now "Burton" and Burton is now married to first wife Sybil and has 2 daughters (Kate and Jessica). The entries for 1960 are brief and end in June.
The third set picks up in January of 1965 and runs through March of 1972. The fly-on-the-wall moments of the beginnings of his romance with Elizabeth Taylor have passed unrecorded (or lost), and Burton and Taylor are now the Golden Couple. The diaries covering the first Burton-Taylor marriage are, in many ways, the highlight/heart of the book (as well as comprising the largest number of pages). Burton has love (his thoughts about Elizabeth Taylor range from love struck to realistic but are always heartfelt), fame and family. He still has dark moments (drink, temper, his daughter Jessica's condition, his brother Ivor's tragic injury, Elizabeth's many illnesses/injuries) but many highs as well. Throughout Burton remains somewhat awed by his good fortune, and the great heights reached by a poor boy from Wales. His introspection at the height of his success makes up the soul of the book, and shows Burton at his best and worst.
Side note: At one point (in a valiant effort to cut down on alcohol) he decides to use red type or ink (to write the date) to signify "good" (low alcohol) days. Dates in red font in the book might have been a nice (but expensive) touch, but footnotes are used instead.
The fourth set picks up in April of 1975 and runs through November of 1975, and is mainly marked by the second marriage to Elizabeth Taylor. "Booze" is now a frequent (and sometimes only) entry. The marriage (more her idea than his) quickly fails. Apart from a stray entry for March of 1977 the dairies pause again.
The fifth set picks up in June of 1980 and runs through October of 1980. Burton is now married to Susan Hunt and is in a revival of Camelot. His health is becoming an issue.
The sixth set picks up in February of 1983 and runs through April of 1983. Burton's marriage to Susan Hunt has ended and he is now with Sally Hay. They marry in July 1983 and he dies in 1984.
Because the book is a series of journals you may easily read it at your leisure. It is a large book, and will take time to go through, but it has its treasures. Burton's opinions of the people he meets and the places he goes (and the movies he is in) are truly entertaining (and often insightful), but the high point for me was his obvious love of books and reading. The one constant in his life is his collection of books (there is a very humorous story of how he shoplifted books in his poor days and Elizabeth Taylor's response). Burton describes with joy and pride the gifts, esp. books and book related items, that his friends and family give him. His love of books, fancy hard covers or cheap paperbacks, anchors his life. His wives come and go (and sometimes come again), but his love for his children and family also remains true. A wonderful look at the thoughts of an extremely intelligent man who lived a life worth recording.
his commanding screen presence and voice demands our belief, making for fun at the movies.
Few will likely read this book, with perhaps just one or two reading this review, but so it goes.
Curiosity, not idolatry, brings Burton to life as he alone lived a life knowing the mindlessness of celebrity,
that accidents and sheer dumb luck, combined with his marriage to the only other movie icon of his
time, resulted in mind boggling wealth, access or demand for connection by all rich or famous, and which
contributed to If not coined concepts of the “jet setter” and the few who might be crowned “the beautiful people..” Behind that facade, which Burton recognized as phony to the point of nonstop mortification,
we are treated to pages of wit, insight and a battle never winnable to rise above it all as the son of a
Welsh coal miner..His love and obsession over Elizabeth channeled his energy into a welcome distraction
away from the nonsense of it all..He retreated to books as his second line of defense, thus maintaining his blindness from the maelstrom of adulation surrounding the two for over a decade, then for more.
Of course, Burton was a man like all filled with contradictions, embracing the lavish life of movie star,
scorning movie making as boring and tedious, with financial success of a picture beyond creative skill;
indulgence in food and drink beyond imagination, while disgusted by drunks and drunkenness, who were
plentiful within family and closest friends; impatience with snobbery while embracing mostly those most wealthy; demanding that he maintain his health, surely essential to the appearance of a screen idol,
while periodically going on the wagon and dieting to avoid the bloating he and Elizabeth fought daily.
Gossip is part of it all but not in abundance and surely not near any level to induce purchasing the book.
So, readership is limited to the curious, and only those willing to slog through 600 pages plus to assess
how Burton both handled and mishandled it all..Since Burton died before 60, he failed to master it all.
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so I stuck it through to the sad end.