Richard Burton, Elizabeth Taylor, and the Dawn of the Celebrity Power Couple

After a run of sensitive British men, Taylor Swift appears to be dating a stubbled American in a No. 87 jersey, the Kansas City Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce. The coupling has put America into something akin to a state of emergency, but on NBC’s “Today” show, Kelce’s mother, Donna, offered a display of calm. “It’s fairly new,” she told the show’s co-anchor Hoda Kotb. “Just another thing that’s amped up my life.” When asked how she’d liked hanging out with the thirty-three-year-old singer-songwriter at Arrowhead Stadium, Mrs. Kelce, wearing a dark jacket and green spectacles, smiled and said, “It was O.K.” For the N.F.L. franchise, it was more than O.K. The first game Swift attended, the Chiefs versus the Chicago Bears, became the most watched telecast of the week, and sales of Kelce jerseys grew by nearly four hundred per cent.

Can romance be cashed out in brand loyalty? Certainly, when it comes to celebrity couples, passion and ambition are typically inseparable. David and Victoria Beckham, who became an item in 1997, may have brought the pop star–sports hero dyad to its modern apogee, making a billion hearts flutter while creating an interstellar expansion in their consumer base. Netflix’s recent docuseries “Beckham,” directed by Fisher Stevens, reveals their pairing to be blissfully adolescent. (Him: “I just fancied her.” Her: “I just fancied him.”) Pop stardom combines with sporting glory in a particularly bountiful way: manna from the gods of promotion. “My daughter was so obsessed with them,” Anna Wintour says in the first episode, “that I felt the world must be.”

If you came of age amid the shining indivisibility of David and Victoria, it was impossible not to feel the push and pull of their particularly gigantic needs. (“It was about what me and Victoria wanted, and we wanted America.”) Still, the simplicity of emotional display in their romance makes “The Lion King” seem like Beckett. In the docuseries, the danse macabre of blame and heroism in soccer doesn’t exert the same grip as the Beckhams’ marriage, a story of modern fantasy and bronzed narcissism which seems only to enlarge with the accumulation of family members and sponsorships. Power couples can sell anything under the sun—deodorant, whiskey, watches, sneakers—but on a good day the best ones will also bring metaphysics to the marketplace, retailing the ideas that no two people are merely themselves and that mega-marriages are made in the groves of Heaven. Behind this gauzy reassurance, of course, is the fear that we are all, in fact, utterly and completely alone, or, worse still, married to either Johnny Depp or Amber Heard.

There are few early nights in the marriages of celebrity couples. By a sort of completion instinct, the excitable participants in these unions will usually toil for extra pleasure, high on joint enterprise and happy to mock the midnight bell. Beyoncé and Jay-Z, together since 2001, have long seemed addicted to the special lights that illuminate celebrities. Softened by maturity, they now yearn for the things they wanted before they had everything. But though the Knowles-Carters may have magnified the brand spirit into a new sort of romance, the idea of the celebrity couple really began in an excess of fervency, entering a plastic palace to a fanfare of ancient tubas: to be precise, it began with Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, in the 1963 spectacular “Cleopatra.”

The actors’ affair came to light during its filming, as a colorful tale from history was supplanted by something much more Day-Glo. In a vulture crown and mod eyeliner—more nineteen-sixties cat eye than Nefertiti kohl—the ruler of Egypt demands that Mark Antony get down on his knees before her—or is it the son of Wales who must kneel before the queen of Hollywood? There had been famous and adulterous couples before, but not in wide-screen, and not with the glut and the glare that came to be so pronounced in the case of Burton and Taylor. They had “the largest entourage I had ever seen,” Dominick Dunne remarked. “And the people who worked for them worshipped them.” This is the first rule of modern celebrity coupledom: There are always more than two people involved. The best matches, where the couple parries the joys of domestic life with the task of world domination, are ones in which even the children are drafted into the entourage. The second rule: The marriage should be operatic—that’s to say, extravagantly distant, with a strong sense that everything is taking place on another planet.

“I love Richard Burton with every fibre of my soul,” Taylor told the press in 1974, announcing their first divorce. The marriage had devolved into a prison of publicity. (Like many repeat offenders, they would find life outside the institution difficult to manage.) “Taylor and Burton’s is a Pop Art story,” the British writer Roger Lewis offers in his fabulous new book, “Erotic Vagrancy: Everything About Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor” (Riverrun). “Their abundance and violent greed belong with comic books and bubble-gum machines—with Roy Lichtenstein’s enlarged comic strips of lovers kissing.” The phrase “erotic vagrancy” (vagabondaggio erotico) had appeared in a letter published in L’Osservatore della Domenica, an edition of the Vatican newspaper, in April, 1962, implying that Taylor was a homewrecker who went from man to man, murdering marriages. The letter went on to question Taylor’s suitability as an adoptive parent, saying that children need “a serious mother more than a beautiful mother.” Taylor asked if it was possible to sue the Vatican. Even after a couple of millennia, Cleopatra in her split skirts was still an affront to the apostles of Roman Catholic life. The item set the tone for the duration of the Burton-Taylor relationship, where every illness and every diamond would be the subject of ravening public interest.

“Biography is historical fiction,” Lewis, the author of several biographies that read like novels of manners, writes. At roughly six hundred pages, this latest is tectonically subjective, one aspect of his fandom constantly sliding under the plate of another, and he can only be right to call it an “occult story.” The saga of Taylor and Burton is about extra-human obsession. “I think it was a little like damnation to everybody,” Taylor wrote, in a bit of a champagne rush. But it felt like a blessing, too. During the Cold War, she and Burton managed to launch a whole industry of self-magnification, based on their personal ups and downs, and it made the mortals feel better.

“Richard and Liz Burton are completely corrupt,” the director Tony Richardson wrote to Christopher Isherwood in 1964. “They think only of money.” The habit is more familiar today—luxury and exclusivity as brute personal Helicon—but people noticed when the couple began purchasing all the first-class seats on the flights they took, to keep civilians at a distance. Biographers report that Taylor insisted on having chili (some say hamburgers) flown to Rome from Chasen’s, in West Hollywood. Rules existed only to be bent. “When they were at The Dorchester,” Lewis informs us, “the Burtons kept a boat anchored on the Thames for their dogs and cats, which couldn’t come ashore because of quarantine restrictions.”

Before Burton and Taylor, Hollywood couples tended to conceal their amours in the same way that they concealed their wealth, surrounding it with high fences and studio publicists. Every marriage is a contract, but some are more contractual than others. Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz, married in November, 1940, covered their private life in a miasma of canned laughter. The marriage survived for twenty years and may have been the most famous one in America; yet, according to each, it was never the union it seemed to be. In May, 1945, Lauren Bacall married Humphrey Bogart, twenty-six years her senior. “He was not the prince on the white horse that I had imagined,” she later said, but they shared a deadpan insolence that audiences admired. Bogart-Bacall was a mood. “She’d become integral to Bogie’s stardom, thereby clinching her own,” William J. Mann writes in “Bogie & Bacall: The Surprising True Story of Hollywood’s Greatest Love Affair” (Harper). Twenty years before the Burtons arrived, trailing furs, vodka, and domestic violence, Bogie and Bacall were thought to be united in bad behavior. Yet the great difference, in the annals of celebrity coupledom, is that the earlier system was built to protect the stars from their worst selves. Bogart was a drinker and an irascible loner, but these defects only burnished his legend. On September 25, 1949, after a spell at the 21 Club and a stop at the St. Regis Hotel, Bogart and an old friend ended up at El Morocco, on East Fifty-fourth Street. Along the way, the plastered chums had bought a pair of giant stuffed pandas. They dragged the bears into the night club, propped them up in a booth, and ordered more drinks. In due course, a young model, Robin Roberts, decided she wanted to take one home—a panda, that is. No sooner had she grasped the inviting paw than Bogie stood up, and, in her telling, twisted her wrist and pushed her. She fell to the floor during the encounter, causing a certain amount of bruising. “The Battle of the Pandas” made its way to court, where a judge ruled that Bogart “was entitled to use enough force to protect his property.” All the good feeling, and all the prejudice, was on Bogie’s side. “A cheer went up from the assembled spectators, bobby-soxers, and riff-raff,” Alistair Cooke reported at the time, with Miss Roberts descending the steps of the court to boos and catcalls. In those days, a famous married couple was thought to show its mettle by overcoming such nuisances. When asked by the waiting press if he was drunk when the incident took place, Bogie did a Bogie. “Isn’t everyone drunk at 4 a.m.?” he replied.

The marriage of Marilyn Monroe and Joe DiMaggio was bookended by two public events. The first was the couple’s run-in with the press outside San Francisco City Hall on January 14, 1954, a few minutes after they were married and a few weeks before they flew to Japan for their honeymoon. (From there, Monroe would be asked to go to South Korea to entertain the troops.) The second, nine months later, was a jostled gathering outside their home in Beverly Hills, where the actress fought hard to control her distress as her lawyer announced her and DiMaggio’s divorce. Some say the retired baseball player had lost his temper—not for the first time—over the scene in “The Seven Year Itch” where Monroe’s skirt is blown into the air, but we’ll never know the exact details of the argument. Silence was the rule. “I’m all in favor of a good screaming free-for-all every two or three months,” Paul Newman is quoted as saying in “Joanne Woodward & Paul Newman, Head Over Heels: A Love Affair in Words and Pictures” (Voracious/Little Brown), a new book by their daughter Melissa Newman. “It clears the air, gets rid of old grievances, and generally makes for a pleasant relationship.” But it wasn’t meant for the public. To their many fans, Newman and his wife were models of productive empathy. Not for Woodward the asp at the breast or the diamond as big as the Ritz.

True love, for Burton and Taylor, involved the supersizing of everything. More luggage. More jewels. More dogs and cats. More alcohol. But, if you watch the films they made together, you can detect the steady progress of guilt and isolation, a spectacular melding of private and public selves, as the two actors struggle to maintain some sense of their own identities.

“I knew your taste in platinum, I wasn’t too sure about the stones,” the tycoon Paul Andros (Burton) says early in “The V.I.P.s” (1963), handing his wife (Taylor) a sapphire-and-diamond bracelet, which makes her tearful on their way to Heathrow Airport. In good time, Terence Rattigan’s screenplay reveals why: she is having an affair with an international playboy (Louis Jourdan), and she feels mixed up about it. Stuck at the airport during a fog, Burton and Taylor sparkle and dim through the intricacies of adultery, which everyone watching at the time knew had just happened in real life. (Some of the jewelry in the film was Taylor’s own, including the tiara her character wears in the opening sequence, a present from her third husband, Mike Todd.) The film, centered on a pair of spoiled people who happen to want slightly more than everything, finds nourishment in the Burtons’ own reality. He shadows himself throughout, and when he speaks, in that voice of torn velvet, we believe we hear him twice. Burton only ever had two facial expressions as an actor, pointed disdain and abject self-loathing. By the end of “The V.I.P.s,” he is maxing out on both as he guns for his wife, or runs for his life—it’s hard to tell which in the lingering confusion.

The Burtons were the first celebrity couple to be commandeered by the soap opera of their own lives, using their films as a rolling background. “I’m not so much interested in the men in your life as in your attitude towards marriage,” says Dr. Edward Hewitt (Burton), the Episcopal priest and schoolmaster who lusts after Taylor’s character in “The Sandpiper,” a 1965 film set along the coastline at Big Sur. The Burtons were newlyweds when shooting interiors began in Paris, of all places, the previous year. They’d crossed the Atlantic on the Queen Elizabeth, inhabiting six first-class suites, before checking into the Hotel Lancaster, near the Champs-Élysées, where they took twenty-one rooms. Taylor was hilariously miscast as Laura Reynolds, an unwed mother and free-spirited peacenik, showing an audacious amount of cleavage as she tries to defend her homeschooled nine-year-old son against disciplinary action. (He has killed a deer, but since he also quotes Chaucer we know he isn’t a juvenile delinquent.) A judge makes her send the boy to Dr. Hewitt’s boarding school. “Men have been staring at me and rubbing up against me ever since I was twelve years old,” she tells the schoolmaster. “I see myself . . . being handed from man to man as if I were an amusement. ”

Cartoon by Glen Baxter

“Oh, God . . . give me strength,” Dr. Hewitt says, not long before he removes her earrings in front of a log fire. Then comes the guilt. “You’re a glowing woman,” he adds. “I’m just a hypocrite.”

The Sandpiper is about adultery,” Roger Lewis tells us. “By her very presence Taylor seems to demand: what right have men got to make women feel ashamed?” (She was still smarting from being slut-shamed by the Vatican.) Meanwhile, Burton stands on a precipice, a man in a blaze of self-recrimination, both in the film and in his own life. “I’ve lost all my sense of sin,” Dr. Hewitt says in that famous voice, always replete with moral pain.

“That’s about the nicest thing a person could lose,” Laura replies.

Celebrity marriage is an internal-combustion engine, and audiences love nothing more than to watch it stall out or send the car off a cliff. By the time we get to the fictional college campus in “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” (1966), an alcoholic haze threatens to mist up the lens. So does the too-muchness of the Burtons’ own lives, all that beauty and conscience. The film’s director, Mike Nichols, felt that Burton was in love with ruin. “He was enthralled by the idea of large, romantic self-destruction,” Nichols later said. In the film’s Martha and George, the concept of celebrity coupledom meets its keynote speakers, and we are confronted with a kind of confessional poetry in which these famous spouses become fully alive to what we determinedly imagine they ought to be feeling. Radiating verbs and verbiage, Martha comes out of Elizabeth Taylor like a wife on fire, swilling gin and crunching on ice cubes, goading, accusing, threatening, and injuring, while George, the failed man of the history department, seeks to settle all the great scores. “I cannot stand it,” he says.

“You can stand it,” she replies with tousled alacrity. “You married me for it.”

In more recent times, matrimonial dishevelment and the unravelling of bliss have yielded to gladiatorial combat, with each gossip site its own colosseum. Many celebrity couples have taken to this realm—they live out their relationships there—but for others the trials of a famous marriage are merely a throat-clearing exercise for the ultimate song of self-love. “I want to emphasize that I am not an expert trained in any form of therapy,” Jada Pinkett Smith warns in her strenuous new memoir, “Worthy” (HarperCollins), before attempting every aria in the self-help songbook. Burton-Taylor notions of the living soap opera are to be found everywhere in Pinkett Smith’s account of her life, but with added chakras, extra doors of perception, and levels of self-pity that Elizabeth Taylor would have regarded as not quite in the party spirit. Pinkett Smith’s story is simple: she married a megastar. At first, Will Smith was her “new Prozac”—she has battled depression—and they could go “toe to toe,” talking about everything and reading “The Tao of Physics” together. (Funny how the authors of these memoirs are never reading books like the ones they are writing.) When Smith asked her to marry him, she went to Harry Winston in Beverly Hills and bought “a nice-sized pear-shaped diamond set in a platinum band.” She had to make it all real. “By buying my own ring, I took some measure of control,” she explains. They went on to have two children together.

The marriage seems, from the very beginning, a form of “conscious uncoupling,” to borrow a phrase popularized by Gwyneth Paltrow and Chris Martin (copyright 2014). “By the time we were married with children,” Pinkett Smith tells us, “it was obvious to me that Will and I had very different perspectives about the trappings of fame.” By way of example, we learn that the Clintons invited her husband to host the New Year’s millennium celebrations in Washington, D.C., in 1999. Pinkett Smith writes, “When Will told me we were invited to stay overnight at the White House—after a long tiring night with young children—I had to say, ‘This is too much.’ ”

“Jada, it’s the Lincoln Bedroom,” he persisted. “We get to sleep in the same room as the Emancipation Proclamation.”

“Will, I get it. But after that long night, I’m not trying to stay in Lincoln’s dusty-ass bedroom.”

It took another sixteen years for them to split up. Except, in a new kink in the coverlet of celebrity matrimony, they never divorced, and have continued since 2016 with the story that they are man and wife. “By his own admission, feelings were not a priority for Will,” Pinkett Smith writes. “How he felt, how anybody felt, was not a priority. That was a difficult reality for me to continue to navigate and accept.” Smith would later deal with his lack of feeling, or his lack of something else, by slapping the host of the 2022 Academy Awards, Chris Rock, who had just made a joke about Pinkett Smith’s hair, evidently trespassing on a universe of personal complexity.

The Smiths’ response to the pressures of a celebrity marriage was to keep shtum and protect the brand; others end things in a festival of acrimony. The British actress Sophie Turner, late of “Game of Thrones” and a stalwart of the X-Men franchise, has recently been spinning in a tabloid centrifuge alongside her husband, Joe Jonas, of the pop trio the Jonas Brothers. Negotiations about the four-year marriage, which also produced two children, are at such a pitch that they can only be hours away from reaching the United Nations. Turner and Jonas’s mutual bitch-slapping might recall another magnificent custom from the Burton-Taylor playbook: to mobilize, amid such classical drama, the doom-loving choruses. In modern costume, they are the entourages and the press. “I could hear them fighting at night in their room,” a crew member on “The Klansman,” from 1974, said. Taylor retreated from there into a scrum of doctors and journalists, hinting at a cancer diagnosis before proclaiming her and Burton’s irreconcilable differences. (She would in fact live another thirty-six years.) In the era of Turner and Jonas, the estrangement of famous couples is a process that happens by increments on social media. People take sides, people shout and bawl, people like or unlike the antagonists. In a recent filing, Turner claimed that she learned her husband was divorcing her by reading it in the press. Jonas denies this, but, after a period of mediation and more stories on Page Six, an initial custody agreement has been reached.

The gift of Burton and Taylor was to bring to the marriage of true minds a powerful whiff of impending disaster. Taylor was cast in the 1974 film adaptation of Muriel Spark’s “The Driver’s Seat,” the story of a woman who is travelling to an unnamed European city to be murdered. Spark initially thought that Taylor was right for the part, as did Taylor herself, but later came to feel that the actress hadn’t been up to it. “She looked less like someone who wanted to be killed and more like a woman in search of a Martini,” Spark judged. Both onscreen and off, Elizabeth Taylor was never a very believable victim. She saw marriage as a means of personal increase, and the idea made her airy, believing that her best match would indeed come to be confirmed in Heaven. “Do you somehow wish that you had been reunited with Richard Burton?” an interviewer asked her, four years after the death of the man she had married twice.

“I’m sure we will be,” she said. ♦

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