It was the story of the decade, a scandalous love affair that was denounced by the Vatican and pushed astronaut John Glenn’s first orbit (for an American) around the Earth from the front pages. Their torrid and often tumultuous affair on the set eventually ended their marriages before they were married in 1964. A divorce a decade later was followed by a year-long second marriage in 1975. However, when Burton tried to flirt with Taylor for first time, years before Cleopatra, she was horrified and struck him down.
Burton arrived at a Hollywood party at the home of Jean Simmons and Stewart Granger in 1953 and immediately fell for Taylor.
He later described the moment: “A girl sitting on the other side of the pool put down her book, took off her sunglasses, and looked at me. She was so extraordinarily beautiful that I almost laughed out loud. She was unquestionably beautiful…she was so generous.” dark and uncompromising. She was, in short, too bloody.”
Taylor wasn’t impressed: “He’d flirt like crazy with me, with everyone, with any girl that was remotely pretty. I just thought, ‘Ohhh, boy, I’m not going to become a notch in his belt.'”
Nine years later, Burton was a late addition to the cast of Cleopatra, and their meeting ignited a passion that burned them, and everything and everyone around them.
When filming for Cleopatra began, Taylor was married to Eddie Fisher, whom she had “stole” 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 known for her numerous but fleeting sexual infidelities. He 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 lead to months of heartbreak in both marriages, as well as setting the pattern for the lovers’ turbulent relationship.
The two stars filmed their first scenes together in Rome in December 1961 with Taylor saying, “For the first scene, there was no dialogue, we just had to look at each other. And that was it, I was another level.”
Burton said he was nervous and hungover, and encouraged her to take care of him and even hold his shaky hands as he raised a cup of coffee to his lips.
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Fisher visited Sybil and then remembered; “I said, ‘You know, are they continuing their affair?’ And she said, ‘He’s had these affairs, and he always comes home with me.’ And I said, ‘But they’re still having his affair.’ And she went to the studio, and they closed [production] below. And that cost them $100,000. And the day I left Rome, it cost them another $100,000. Elizabeth screamed and continued. Work stopped that day. They had that in honor of me.”
When he found out about their spouses meeting, Burton angrily called Fisher, saying, “You, nothing, spleen. I’m going to go up there and kill you.” He would also taunt Fisher, saying, “You don’t know how to use it!” Or ask Taylor who she loved, in front of her husband.
For six months the affair was on and off, mostly because of Burton and Taylor’s fights. She was hospitalized twice after taking tablets, but later said that she never went to end her own life, simply to force a rest and recuperate in the hospital.
Burton was also having an on-set affair with a dancer, which led to further arguments with Taylor.
A romantic trip along the coast to Porto Santo at Easter was in all the newspapers in the world. It ended with more drama, when Taylor fled back to Rome. For the second time in four months she was admitted to the Salvator Mundi Hospital.
He also maintained that they tried to stop the affair out of respect for Sybil, although he admitted that his relationship with Fisher was over.
Both returned to their partners after filming ended in the summer of 1962. Taylor effectively separated from Fisher, but he did not grant her a divorce until March 1964. However, she had already reunited with Burton on another film, The VIPs. , where their affair was revived in early 1963.
Sybil filed for divorce on the grounds of “abandonment and cruel and inhumane treatment” in December. Three months later, Burton and Taylor were married in Montreal.
Burton died aged just 58 in 1984, with Taylor later saying, “I was still madly in love with him the day he died. I think he loved me too.”
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