It was the story of the decade, a scandalous love that was denounced by the Vatican and pushed astronaut John Glenn’s first (for an American) orbit around the Earth from the front pages. Their torrid and frequently tumultuous affair on set eventually ended both their marriages before they tied the knot in 1964. A divorce a decade later was followed by a second year-long marriage in 1975. Yet, when Burton first tried to pick Taylor up, years before Cleopatra, she was horrified and shot him down.
Burton arrived at a Hollywood party at the home of Jean Simmons and Stewart Granger in 1953 and was immediately smitten with Taylor.
He later described the moment: “A girl sitting on the other side of the pool lowered her book, took off her sunglasses and looked at me. She was so extraordinarily beautiful that I nearly laughed out loud. She was unquestioningly gorgeous… she was a dark unyielding largess. She was, in short, too bloody much.”
Taylor was not impressed: “He flirted like mad with me, with everyone, with any girl who was even remotely pretty. I just thought, ‘Ohhh, boy – I’m not gonna become a notch on his belt.'”
Nine years later, Burton was a late addition to the Cleopatra cast and their reunion ignited a passion that burned through them, and everything and everyone around them.
When filming started on Cleopatra, Taylor was married to Eddie Fisher, who she had ‘stolen’ from her friend Debbie Reynolds in an emotional rebound after the death of her husband Mike Todd. Burton had been with his wife Sybil since 1949, but was notorious for his numerous but fleeting sexual infidelities. She preferred to look the other way, always sure that he would come home to her.
However, the chemistry was instant between Burton and Taylor the second time around and would result in months of anguish in both marriages, as well as set the pattern for the lovers’ own turbulent relationship.
The two stars filmed their first scenes together in Rome in December 1961 and Taylor said: “For the first scene, there was no dialogue – we had to just look at each other. And that was it – I was another notch.”
Burton said he was hungover and nervous, and encouraged her to look after him and even steady his shaking hands as he lifted a coffee cup to his lips.
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Fisher visited Sybil and later recalled; “I said, ‘You know, they’re continuing their affair?’ And she said, ‘He’s had these affairs, and he always comes home to me.’ And I said, ‘But they’re still having their affair.’ And she went to the studio, and they closed [production] down. And that cost them $100,000. And the day I left Rome, it cost them another $100,000. Elizabeth screamed and carried on. Work stopped that day. They had that in honor of me.”
When he heard about their spouses’ meeting, Burton furiously called Fisher and said: “You nothing, you spleen. I’m going to come up there and kill you.” He would also taunt Fisher, saying: “You don’t know how to use her!” Or ask Taylor who she loved, in front of her husband.
For six months the affair stopped and started, mainly due to Burton and Taylor’s own fighting. She was twice hospitalised after taking tablets, but later said it was never to end her own life, simply to force a break and recuperation in hospital.
Burton was also having an affair on set with a dancer, causing more arguments with Taylor.
A romantic trip down the coast to Porto Santo at Easter was splashed across the worlds’ papers. It ended with more drama, as Taylor fled back to Rome. For the second time in four months she was admitted to the Salvator Mundi Hospital.
She also maintained that they tried to halt the affair out of respect for Sybil, while admitting that her relationship with Fisher was over.
They both returned to their partners after the shoot wrapped in the summer of 1962. Taylor was effectively separated from Fisher but he wouldn’t grant her a divorce until March 1964. However, she had already been reunited with Burton on another film, The VIPs, where their affair reignited in early 1963.
Sybil petitioned for divorce on the grounds of “abandonment and cruel and inhumane treatment” in December. Three months later Burton and Taylor married in Montreal.
Burton died at just 58 in 1984, and Taylor later said: “I was still madly in love with him the day he died. I think he still loved me, too.”