Frank, Revealing and Poignant: Yale to publish Richard Burton’s Diaries

Richard Burton Diaries

Richard Burton Diaries

This October, Yale will be publishing the surviving diaries of Richard Burton. Starting when he was 14 and running throughout his life, career and the years of his celebrated marriages to Elizabeth Taylor, The Richard Burton Diaries reveal a man quite different from the one we ‘know’ as acclaimed actor, film star and jet-set celebrity.

With a few months to go until publication, The Richard Burton Diaries has already captured the imagination of journalists, film fans and celebrity enthusiasts. Both the Daily Telegraph and the Daily Mail have recently run stories on Richard Burton, and last weekend Radio 4 broadcast a reading of the diary which appeared in the biography by author and broadcaster Melvyn Bragg.

Richard Burton (born Richard Jenkins, 1925–1984) was the son of a coal miner in Pontrhydyfen, South Wales, the 12th of 13 children. From his domestically troubled, working class upbringing, Burton forged one of the most dazzling acting careers of his generation, appearing in The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and Cleopatra. It was on the set of Cleopatra in 1963 when Burton first met Elizabeth Taylor. The Hollywood couple were married for a first time between 1964 and 1974 and then again in 1975 for another year.

Burton’s celebrity lifestyle and his hedonistic behaviour has led to a particular perception of this iconic figure. Revealing a different side to the actor, Burton’s diaries were donated by his widow Sally Burton to Swansea University, who in turn entrusted them to Yale for publication. They are a revelatory personal account, portraying a rather different man than his popular image of ‘hard drinker’ and ‘womaniser’ would have us imagine.

“I awoke this morning at about 7 o’clock. I stared at Elizabeth for a long time. I held her hand and kissed her very gently. Probably no woman sleeps with such childish beauty as my adorable difficult fractious intolerant wife.”
– 15 June 1969

From his private, handwritten pages there emerges a different person – a family man, a father, a husband, a man often troubled and always keenly observing. Understood through his own words, day to day and year by year, Burton becomes a fully rounded human being who, with a wealth of talent and a surprising burden of insecurity, confronts the peculiar challenges of a life lived largely in the spotlight.

“My lack of interest in my own career, past present or future is almost total. All my life I think I have been secretly ashamed of being an actor and the older I get the more ashamed I get. And I think it resolves itself into a firm belief that the person who’s doing the acting is somebody else.”
– 15 August 1971

The Richard Burton Diaries were written between 1939 and 1983 – throughout his career and the years of his celebrated marriages to Elizabeth Taylor. Diary entries appear in their original sequence, with annotations to clarify the people, places, books and events he mentions. At times Burton struggles to come to terms with the unfulfilled potential of his life and talent. In other entries, he crows over achievements and hungers for greater challenges. He may be watching his weight, watching his drinking, or watching other men watch his Elizabeth. Always he is articulate, opinionated and fascinating. His diaries offer a rare and fresh perspective on his own life and career, Elizabeth Taylor’s, and the glamorous world of film, theatre and celebrity that they inhabited.

“It has been a very bizarre few days. First of all […] there was the affair of the diamond! It created a sensation from the word ‘go’ starting with the fact that it was bought under strange circumstances, that Onassis was our chief rival… that it arrived here with several armed guards one of whom had a machinegun. Elizabeth’s delight in it is a joy to behold and a very quaint thing to witness is the obvious pleasure that other people take in her wearing it. And of course, nobody can wear it better. The miraculous face and shoulders and breasts set it off to perfection.”
– 17 November 1969

The diaries were edited by Chris Williams, professor of Welsh history at Swansea University. Williams said: “The words reveal a rather different Richard Burton from the one most people have in their minds. It reveals somebody who is much more reflective and thoughtful and someone who engaged intellectually with the world around him. It’s not just the ale and women kind of image but someone concerned about the world around him and his family…”

The last six or eight months have been a nightmare. I created one half and Elizabeth the other. We grated on each other to the point of separation. I had thought of going to live alone in some remote shack in a rainy place and E had thought of going to stay with Howard in Hawaii. It is of course quite impossible. We are bound together. Hoop-steeled. Whither thou goest. He said hopefully.
– 20 March 1969

William continues: “From 1965 to 1972 he was with Elizabeth and it was when their lives were as settled as they ever were. He writes about his love for her and his anxieties about his relationship and her health. It is a very frank and raw account of their marriage and relationship. It’s a bit sad because we know it’s all going to come to an end but it is also revealing and touching and Elizabeth comes out of it extremely well.”

“At about 12 noon this same day I did something beyond outrage. I bought Elizabeth the jet plane we flew in yesterday. It costs, brand new, $960,000. She was not displeased.”
– 30 September 1967

The Richard Burton Diaries is available to pre-order now from Yale University Press.

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