It started in January 1962 on the set of Cleopatra. Two stars acted out their scene, sparks ignited, and all thoughts of marital fidelity vanished. As Vanity Fair reported, “There was more going on than just electricity.”
They were already famous. Elizabeth Taylor, she of the violet eyes and raven hair, the child actress who blossomed into the most beautiful woman in the world and won multiple Academy Awards and Golden Globes, played the seductive Egyptian queen. Cast as dashing Roman General Marc Antony, Richard Burton was a braggartly sexy Welshman and Shakespearean actor with perfect elocution and a philandering heart.
In 1962, divorce meant disgrace and affairs were taboo. The newly invented birth control pill was outlawed in many states, the media was not celebrity-obsessed, and the internet was science fiction. In that prudish atmosphere, the stars poked a hornet’s nest of public attitudes as cameras focused on their Manhattan, Europe, Africa, and Long Island romance.
HELL BREAKS LOOSE
Like the real Cleopatra and Antony, Taylor and Burton littered their path with broken alliances. Taylor, 29, many times married, was branded a homewrecker for stealing crooner Eddie Fisher away from her best friend, actress Debbie Reynolds, in 1958. Debbie and Eddie had the perfect marriage with two kids (including actress Carrie Fisher) and were dubbed “America’s Sweethearts.” Taylor persisted, though, marrying Eddie Fisher in 1959. They vacationed off Fire Island on their yacht, but things soured by 1961. Enter Burton.
“From those first moments in Rome we were always madly and powerfully in love,” Taylor said, in Furious Love: Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton, and the Marriage of the Century. After their scene, Burton boasted that he would bed Taylor within two days. It reportedly took five days. He bragged to others about his conquest.
Burton, 34, had won a Tony Award for his portrayal of King Arthur in Broadway’s Camelot. He had been married for 12 years to actress Sybil Williams but had casual affairs. Beguiled by Taylor, he fell into an un-casual romance.
All hell broke loose: The scandal was leaked in February 1962 and Fisher fled. Sybil Burton found out and fled. Twentieth-Century Fox halted production for days at a daily cost of $100,000.
Then-U.S. Rep. Michael A. Feighan (D-Ohio), calling the tryst “a public outrage,” lobbied to revoke Burton’s visa, saying Burton’s presence would be “detrimental to the morals of the youth of the nation.” An “open letter” from the Vatican accused Taylor of “erotic vagrancy.” Pursued by paparazzi, vilified by the Vatican, Taylor divorced Fisher and married Burton in Montreal in March 1964.
LONG ISLAND IDYLL
The couple retreated to LI. In 1964, she and Burton honeymooned for a weekend at a waterside guesthouse at Pembroke, a since-demolished Glen Cove estate.
They made 11 movies together including Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf in 1966, for which Taylor won the Best Actress Oscar. They were observed dining at Rothmann’s in East Norwich and having a bite with a local liquor store owner while sitting on stools at the Quogue Fountain of Youth soda shop.
They stayed in a Quogue carriage house at the Shinnecock Road estate of Aaron Frosch, their attorney and business manager. They visited Hamptons galleries and played tennis at the Quogue Field Club during the summer of 1967. Taylor shopped at the A&P on Montauk Highway.
“Quogies were dazzled by the couple at the height of their stardom,” reported the Quogue Blogue.
THE BATTLING BURTONS
Neighbors heard the couple arguing, over Burton’s temper, or alcoholism, or cheating, or Taylor’s anger, drug addiction, alcoholism. They battered one another emotionally and physically.
They divorced in June 1974, then re-married in 1975. Their final divorce was in July 1976. In Quogue, Burton insisted they weren’t separated. Taylor partied at Calvin Klein’s Fire Island waterfront home, where she reportedly left towels stained with lipstick and makeup. In the late 1990s, she vacationed at Andy Warhol’s Montauk summer estate. Taylor and Burton married again—but not each other.
On Aug. 5, 1984, Burton died at age 58 of a cerebral hemorrhage; he rests in Wales. Taylor died 27 years later at age 79 in 2011. Many say that Burton’s love letter written three days before dying was buried with Taylor in Forest Lawn Cemetery in California. Burton’s last wife, Sally Hay Burton, disputes that, saying that her lawyer was told by other lawyers that there was no letter.
The truth rests with Taylor and Burton.