Infernal Affair

REVIEW: 'Erotic Vagrancy: Everything about Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor' by Roger Lewis

Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton in 'The Sandpiper' (Wikimedia Commons)
March 24, 2024

After the filming of Cleopatra, the notorious flop epic that cemented the union of the actors Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, the Vatican was driven to make a public condemnation of the two, declaring, "You will finish in an erotic vagrancy, without end or without a safe port." Whether or not this clerical opprobrium lost something in translation, it captured something of the enduring appeal of the 20th century's most notorious star-crossed lovers, whose tempestuous marriages—both to each other, and to others—have long since eclipsed their acting careers in the public imagination. Now, Roger Lewis, biographer of Peter Sellers, Laurence Olivier, and Anthony Burgess, has attempted, over the course of this monumental, unique, and exhausting book, to put their strange and ostentatious existence into context.

"I've always thought of Taylor and Burton as a comical couple," Lewis declares halfway through. Erotic Vagrancy is not a book short on laughs, generally because it is so rich in cherishably bitchy asides about those whom the pair found themselves in contact with. So we have "Mickey Rooney, who always struck me as a hobgoblin," "Mike Todd, a ghastly circus hustler," and "Pat Kavanagh, an over-rated literary agent," to name but three. And Lewis is not blind to the pitfalls of biography, of which he writes that "conventional or traditional biographies are about corpses, reclining figures on tombs," and goes on to denigrate them for having "a very self-satisfied air." There is nothing conventional or traditional about this behemoth, 600-odd pages long and a dozen years in the creation. It has been acclaimed by many critics in Lewis's native Britain as being a masterpiece. That several of these critics are friends of Lewis might account for the hyperbole with which this book has been greeted. A masterpiece, it is not, but it is a wildly original and flamboyant look at fame and reputation, and a fitting testament to its subjects.

Of the two, Taylor gets the shorter shrift. Lewis's interpretation of the actress is that she was greedy and sensual, a loud hypochondriac (who was nevertheless often ill, sometimes life-threateningly so) who loved eating, drinking, and having sex. The acting was secondary; she played herself. She is represented as a great avaricious monster of want and need who tore through her eight husbands, leaving them all worn out and quaking. The living ones, at least. Burton, meanwhile, is Faustus—a part he memorably played while young—whose diabolical pact involved him obtaining enormous fame (and Elizabeth Taylor) only to be damned to despair (and continued association with Taylor). It seems obvious that Lewis sides with the "steadfastly sympathetic" Burton over his de trop wife. That said, Burton was given to violence and nonsense throughout his life, even as he declared absurd things like "Jesus Christ was unquestionably a Welshman." As, it should be noted, Lewis himself is.

The most successful section of the book is the extended account of the production of Cleopatra, where the sheer oddness of the film and its tortuous making is given its own section told in diary form, "I.T.A.L.Y." It includes details such as how an ailing Taylor was visited by John Wayne, Tennessee Williams, and Truman Capote—"though I don't know whether all at the same time"—that Taylor and Burton's abandoned wife Sybil both tried to kill themselves at various points, and that Burton himself, knowing the controversy would make him globally famous, relished the brouhaha, before coming to hate it. His involvement with Taylor would push the Cuban Missile Crisis off the front pages and render the two inseparable in the public imagination for the next two decades, before his premature death from alcoholic excess in 1984, at the age of 58.

Still, if Burton was a tragic figure, he literally made love to the agent of his destruction. He said of Taylor that he was "bewitched. Bewitched by her cunt and her cunning," and Erotic Vagrancy is at its best in its exploration of the sadomasochistic bond between the two, rich in sex and violence and mutual obsession. It is at its weakest in the endless sarcastic plot summaries of obscure and forgotten films, which could easily have been trimmed down or jettisoned altogether, as well as in some of the structural oddities.

There is a frustrating amount of repetition of information caused by the author's refusal to follow straight chronology. And it's a hubristic move to spend pages pointing out factual errors in other biographies if your own scholarship is flawed. Lewis dismisses the existence of the Burton Taylor theater in Oxford as "obviously it never came to pass," but as I walk past it most days, I can assure the author that it did.

It is typical of Erotic Vagrancy that Lewis has no interest in Burton's big hit Where Eagles Dare, the father-friendly 1968 action flick that he dismisses as "the popular and callous war film" (he hates Lawrence of Arabia too, and goes off on a lengthy digression to tell us why) while instead focusing on such forgotten pictures as the Tennessee Williams adaptation Boom! He does, however, a commendable job, backed up by comprehensive research, of bringing Burton and Taylor's more unexpected private moments to life; I was particularly amused by the detail that they enjoyed watching the British Carry On films on board their luxury yacht, and that Carry on Cleo, with its spoof of Cleopatra, was a particular favorite.

This feels like a final work by its author, who has written extensively about his declining health. There are walk-on cameos by all of his other biographical subjects, lending it a valedictory feel of sorts, and he muses as to whether he is the "Frank Sinatra of biography." If he is, this is surely his "My Way"—a big, overblown, unashamedly emotional showstopper that suits its subjects down to the ground. He writes of them that "when Burton and Taylor were at large, they were joyously vulgar in that they were a ludicrous intensification of themselves." That joyous vulgarity, as well as ludicrous intensification, is everywhere to be found in Erotic Vagrancy, a biography that gleefully thumbs its nose at good taste and restraint, and becomes something inimitable, even uplifting, in the process.

Erotic Vagrancy: Everything about Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor
by Roger Lewis
Mobius, 645 pp., $28

Alexander Larman is a journalist, historian, and author, most recently, of The Windsors at War: The King, His Brother, and a Family Divided (St. Martin's Press).