My first awareness of Elizabeth Taylor was in the 80′s. She had perfumes. She was friends with Michael Jackson. She had been married a lot. Sometimes she was on talk shows. She had that over-tucked, over-dyed, plastic look that makes older celebrities look really scary. I didn’t really know who she was beyond that. It wasn’t until I saw Cat on a Hot Tin Roof for the first time, sometime in my twenties, that I started to get it. In addition to her incredible beauty – what real person has purple eyes? – she was a serious actor. You couldn’t take your eyes off her when she was on screen.
Over these past few days since her death, I find the more I read about her the more I like her. She was one of the first big Hollywood names to throw themselves behind the AIDS movement, long before it was a popular cause. She also seems to have had a real sense of humor – evidenced from even beyond the grave as at her funeral this week, she arranged to have her coffin show up 15 minutes late.
What I find most interesting, though, about Elizabeth Taylor, was her relationship with Richard Burton. He was her husband, twice, and their relationship was passionate and tumultuous and, as they were some of the biggest stars in the world, very public. Last year, Vanity Fair excerpted a book about them, and the resulting article included a number of letter Burton wrote to Taylor. They are so beautifully written that I read them once, and then went back and read them all again. I find them deliciously romantic in their presentation of the layers of a relationship. And being that she inspired these words, they seemed to me the most fitting tribute to Taylor I could publish here.
Continued with the same gifted pen. It’s no use pretending that you are an ordinary woman. Quite clearly, like this pen, you are not. I don’t mean, for a second, that you are in any way comparable with a pen. And yet you are, like this divine pen you are heavy and light at the same time.… How [to] watch the puritanical face relax into slow lust? How to watch that watch catch its breath, and, for a speck of a speck of a millionth of a second, become the animal that all men seek for in their women? And since we’re talking of pens and you, how [to] watch the ink splurge out of the pen … reach[ing] out from the inner depth of the divine body. Will you, incidentally, permit me to fuck you this afternoon? Yours truly (you have just come into the room), R.B.
The last day of March
My darling Sleeping Child, …I am oddly shy about you. I still regard you as an … inviolate presence. You are as secret as the mysterious processes of the womb. I’m not being fancy … I have treated women, generally, very badly and used them as an exercise for my contempt except in your case. I have fought like a fool to treat you in the same way and failed. One of these days I will wake up—which I think I have done already—and realize to myself that I really do love. I find it very difficult to allow my whole life to rest on the existence of another creature. I find it equally difficult, because of my innate arrogance, to believe in the idea of love. There is no such thing, I say to myself. There is lust, of course, and usage, and jealousy, and desire and spent powers, but no such thing as the idiocy oflove.
Who invented that concept? I have wracked my shabby brains and can find no answer. But when people die … those who are taken away from us can never come back. Never, never, never, never, never (Lear about Cordelia). We are such doomed fools. Unfortunately, we know it. So I have decided that for a second or two, the precious potential of you in the next room is the only thing in the world worth living for. After your death there shall only be one other and that will be mine. Or I possibly think, vice versa.
And loving Rich
Written on the back of a script:
Dear Twit Twaddle etc.,
I have the shakes so badly that it would be fatal for me to come out to the studio. There is no power failure here so I am warm but still shaking. So come here tonight. I’m afraid that I had one drink but will drink no more until you come home. Try and make it early as we can then see the Cassius Clay fight together.… Also I love you and long to see you but I don’t want to shame you. I may even do—with trembling hands—some work. How about that? I love you and miss you and I think you to be the most desirable woman in the world and remember, NO KISSING WITH OPEN MOUTHS or breathless excitement and all that stuff. Otherwise, I will be down at the studio and certain girls will have a very rough time with certain husbands. I love you my little Twitch. —Husbs.
June 25, 1973, Beverly Hills
So My Lumps,
You’re off, by God! I can barely believe it since I am so unaccustomed to anybody leaving me. But reflectively I wonder why nobody did so before. All I care about—honest to God—is that you are happy and I don’t much care who you’ll find happiness with. I mean as long as he’s a friendly bloke and treats you nice and kind. If he doesn’t I’ll come at him with a hammer and clinker. God’s eye may be on the sparrow but my eye will always be on you. Never forget your strange virtues. Never forget that underneath that veneer of raucous language is a remarkable and puritanical LADY. I am a smashing bore and why you’ve stuck by me so long is an indication of your loyalty. I shall miss you with passion and wild regret.…
You may rest assured that I will not have affairs with any other female.… I shall gloom a lot and stare morosely into unimaginable distances and act a bit—probably on the stage—to keep me in booze and butter, but chiefly and above all I shall write. Not about you, I hasten to add. No Millerinski Me, with a double M [Arthur Miller and Marilyn Monroe]. There are many other and ludicrous and human comedies to constitute my shroud.
I’ll leave it to you to announce the parting of the ways while I shall never say or write one word except this valedictory note to you. Try and look after yourself. Much love. Don’t forget that you are probably the greatest actress in the world.… I wish I could borrow a minute portion of your passion and commitment, but there you are—cold is cold as ice is ice …
I love you, lovely woman. If anybody hurts you, just send me a line saying something like “Need” or “Necessary” or just the one magic word “Elizabeth,” and I will be there somewhat faster than sound. You must know, of course, how much I love you. You must know, of course, how badly I treat you. But the fundamental and most vicious, swinish, murderous, and unchangeable fact is that we totally misunderstand each other … we operate on alien wavelengths. You are as distant as Venus—planet, I mean—and I am tone-deaf to the music of the spheres. But how-so-be-it nevertheless. (A cliché among Welsh politicians.) I love you and I always will.… Come back to me as soon as you can …
Letter from Venice
You asked me to write the truth about us.… I suffer from a severe case of “hubris,” an overweening pride. Prometheus was punished by the gods forever and is still suffering in all of us for inventing fire and stealing it from the gods. I am forever punished by the gods for being given the fire and trying to put it out. The fire, of course, is you.…
You are probably the best actress in the world, which, combined with your extraordinary beauty, makes you unique. Only perhaps Duse could match you (Garbo and Bernhardt make me laugh). When, as an actress, you want to be funny, you are funnier than W. C. Fields; when, as an actress, you are meant to be tragic, you are tragic.…
The belligerence that has developed between us is inexplicable.… Love, however (however much I deride it) is an overwhelming factor. It is something that will live with me forever with or without you.… But if for e.g. I happen to come across a snap of you in a nightclub laughing with another nameless group of people, I shall add some more pain to my already pained mind.
Letter from Rome
Well, first of all, you must realize that I worship you. Second of all, at the expense of seeming repetitive, I love you. Thirdly, and here I go again with my enormous command of language, I can’t live without you. Thirdly, I mean fourthly, you have an enormous responsibility because if you leave me I shall have to kill myself. There is no life without you, I’m afraid. And I am afraid. Afeared. In terms of my life, scared. Lost. Alone. Dull. Dumb. (That will be the day.) And fifthly, and I hope I will never repeat myself, I fancy you. I bet that you would be alright if you loved me and stuff like that. Sixthly, I bet if you could persuade me to stop acting, which is a practice I’ve always deplored, I could work out a way whereby I could stay alive until I’m fifty-five …
Richard Burton died of a brain hemorrhage at the age of 58. The night he died, he mailed a letter to Elizabeth Taylor. In it, he said that he had always been happiest with her. Could he come home again? She received the letter after returning home from his funeral. She kept it in a drawer by her bed for the rest of her life.