a bell in every tooth

by Megan Abbott

“I don’t want to be that much in love ever again.”                                —Elizabeth Taylor

I’m reading Furious Love (not to be confused with Furious Love), which recounts the tumultuous romance of Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. Prior to reading it, I had no burning interest in the pair but was drawn to it because it’s co-written by Sam Kashner, author of the vivid, gossipy Bad and the Beautiful: Hollywood in the Fifties, one of my favorite tinseltown books.

As I began, I suppose I expected the Liz-and-Dick relationship to be some kind of amalgam of Frank and Ava and Albee’s George and Martha. Both analogies have significant weight, but the depth of their connection to each other is woundingly touching, and the giddy, intense bond they had is kind of a heartbreaker as you see the increasing damage done by mind-numbing drink and other excess, career disappointments, Burton’s depression, family sorrows.

I have always loved Richard Burton and he shimmers in these pages. I think one of my favorite cinematic moments is a fleeting moment from Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf. After a night of epic drinking the beleaguered George, watching his wife tantalize another man on the dance floor with some ribald hip shakes, announces wearily—but with distinct admiration, “You have ugly talents, Martha.”

One of the gifts of Furious Love is the rich sense of Burton’s Welsh upbringing, which, to me, feels terrifically exotic and dramatic, with rich descriptions of the life of miners (Burton was the son and brother of miners), Burton’s love of “lava bread,” a Welsh concoction of a “froth of boiled seaweed “plunked down on the plate like a cow pat,” the way his brother’s face was “pocked with little blue marks,” from his years in the mines.

But my favorite part of the book might be the words offered up by Richard Burton himself, both from his various writings, diary entries and from his love letters to Taylor, which she permitted use of for the first time. Many are hopelessly romantic. Some are deliciously dirty, with Burton telling Taylor how he longs for  her “divine little money-box,” the “exquisite softness of the inside of [her] thighs,” and for the “half-hostile” look in her eyes when the pair is “deep in rut.”  That “half-hostile,” to me, is the mark of writerly (and perceptual) brilliance.

While Kashner and his coauthor Nancy Schoenberger are careful not to push the point, there’s a piece of Burton’s stormy past that seems to whisper in our ear constantly as we understand his connection to Taylor. His mother dead when he was only two, Burton was raised mostly by his sister, Cis, whom he viewed in saintly proportions and about whom he wrote lovingly:

I shone in the reflection of her green-eyed, black- haired, gypsy beauty. She sang at her work in a voice so pure that the local men said she had a bell in every tooth… She was naïve to the point of saintliness and wept a lot at the misery of others. She felt all tragedies except her own. I had read of the Knights of Chivalry and I knew that I had a bounden duty to protect her above all creatures. It wasn’t until 30 years later, when I saw her in another woman that I realized I had been searching for her all my life.

We’re always, in our relationships, looking to repeat, recapture past ones, aren’t we? And it isn’t always (or even mostly) a bad thing. Burton and Taylor saved each other for a while, until they couldn’t any longer. As Taylor wrote to Kashner, when releasing Burton’s letters to the biographer, “We had more time but not enough.”

16 Comments to “a bell in every tooth”

  1. One of the more interesting Hollywood marriages. The earthy Welshman and the seemingly delicate Hollywood princess. I believe he lent her the earthy quality he possessed. At least while they were together. This book is marked in my head after your review. I’m very fond of “Night of the Iguana”. I’ll bet Burton/Gardner would have produced some inspired “rutting”.

    • Russell, yes! One of the fascinating contrasts was their education. Taylor had never really been to school, but Burton was a natural academ e and could quote scrolls of poetry from the greats, even taught at the university level. They were truly ying-yang….

  2. I already couldn’t wait to read this book and now I’m even more on the edge of my seat. Beautiful piece, Megan!

  3. Well, Megan, you know how rarely I respond to anything but here you are writing about Liz&Dick and though I had no intention of reading the book you make it sound tempting. Being MUCH older than you I lived through L&D, the ups, down, scandals, movies, marriages, and I was sort of in love with Elizabeth with her tiny, tinny voice and voluptuous body and supposedly violet eyes, and when she was married to that Virginia senator, who’s name I know but prefer to ignore, I met her and she was sort of a big mess, short and stout with smeared eyebrow pencil, pretty enough though she reminded me of one of my mother’s card playing friends, and we had a nice little chat (she was hopeful that “A Little Night Music” would be a success, which it was not), and there was something both fierce and fragile about her (and her eyes were blue though bloodshot, which did make them slightly violet). Personally, I like her later, often failed films, “Reflections In a Golden Eye” (a John Houston classic, which was supposed to star Montgomery Clift, who died, though Brando is amazing), “Hammersmith Is out” (awful, but Liz is great and absurd as a WAITRESS!), ditto for “X,Y & Zee,” in which Liz reprises her Martha role but sexier, “Secret Ceremony,” a dreary art film, which I like, especially when Robert Mitchum tells Liz she’s fat, and her uncredited cameo in “Winter Kills” and more…
    The funny things about the book (I only know what I read in Vanity Fair) is that I always assumed she was madly addicted to Burton, but it appears as if it was the other way around. Go know.

    • Oh, Jonathan, what a treat to find you here! I think the addiction was utterly mutual, but Burton sure could write about it beautifully….you are SO making me want to see some of those late failures. Funnily enough, one of my favorites as a kid was Mirror Crack’d…..
      Of course, for Liz, my heart lies with PLACE IN THE SUN…

  4. I have trouble getting her out of the naughty places in my brain every time I watch “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof”.

  5. Yes, Megan, “A place In the Sun” is great, particularly when Liz & Monty kiss, mirror images, like brother and sister, but here’s my prob with the movie version of An American Tragedy: Who WOULDN’T dump Shelley Winters for the young Liz?! Imagine if they’d switched the roles…
    And you’ve got to see “Reflections In a Golden Eye,” Carson McCullers failed follow up to “Member of the Wedding” about army base misfits and pervs first filmed in sepia but it flopped so they reissued it in Technicolor (and it still flopped, but hey, when you’ve got Julie Harris talking about cutting off her nipples what do you expect?), and the Techicolor sorta ruins it but Liz as a nitwit southern beauty married to closet homosexual Brando is something to see.
    And Russell, Liz as Maggie the cat is certainly memorable, but how about in that see-through bathing suit in “Suddenly Last Summer?”

    • Suddenly Last Summer–yes!! God, now I’m going to have to go on a Liz binge….I only wish she/they had made more good movies!
      (Can you imagine Liz in a true film noir?? Of course, in a certain way, A Date With Judy…. not to mention Father of Bride)

      • Ok, so I’m a dope, but if you’ve never seen THE VIPS it’s a must. True Hollywood trash with L&D and a young Maggie Smith too boot! I’m not sure Liz ever had it to be noir-ish, though she seemed to do what the directors wanted/needed (ie Virginia Woolf), so perhaps in the hands of the right one, Fritz Lang perhaps or even better, Polanski.

    • It’s been too long, Jonathan. I must find that movie and look at her in her see-through bathing suit.. Meant to watch “Giant” on the day of her death, but never got around to it. I kinda wish she’d been in a Kazan picture, for some reason. I’d like to see what he’d have brought out of her. And your mentioning of Julie Harris and “Member of the Wedding” reminds me how hard it is to find that movie. Haven’t seen it for a long time, but Harris is pretty memorable, if my memory serves me well.

  6. I have no doubt with her noir capacity (cf: Suddenly Last Summer, A Place in the Sun). It’s just her bad luck to be trapped by MGM prestige! what a great bad girl she would have been!

  7. Great stuff Megan. I recall Burton once described her as “beyond the dreams of pornography”. I certainly agree. She could’ve handled any role. “Damn good actress” Paul Newman.

    • Yes! I almost quoted that too…later, when he praised Sophia Loren, he referred to her as “beautiful as erotic dreams,” this similarity in phrasing broke Elizabeth’s heart.

  8. Not just from their history together but looking at these photos it’s so obvious that Elizabeth absolutely adored Burton. I truly believe he was her great love.

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