Frank recommended the biography of Abraham Lincoln as summer reading fare because of Abe’s nobility of spirit. I am recommending Richard Burton because of his spirit of noble passion. Frank and I both want to escape the pedestrian pettiness of present-day politics – not to mention the horror show of news from the Middle East – but we travel different routes. While I, too, am a devoted admirer of Abe, my mood right now screams out for light, sexy, fun, acerbic. Richard Burtons’s diaries are perfect.
Who doesn’t love Richard Burton in Virginia Woolf? Cleopatra? The Night of the Iguana? And The Spy who Came in from the Cold?
He is a great actor, but his uncensored recordations between 1940 when he is 15, and 1983 when he is 57, reveal a brilliant, compassionate, caustic, humble, and at times hysterically witty, observer of foibles – his own as well as those of the rich and famous he partied and worked with. I dread finishing the book because I have become so attached to him. I am going to mourn his death of long ago.
But he lives on in the computer. I can listen to him recite the poetry of Dylan Thomas, and watch him and Julie Andrews singing “Camelot” on the Ed Sullivan show from 43 years ago. These days, I invariably call Steve “Richard,” and I, of course am Liz. Ha Ha! I am boring everyone with my Dickie anecdotes. This is especially wearing on people who cannot abide celebrity worship. But I nay-say them. He is beyond stimulating, insightful and erudite. He critiques the zillions of books he is always reading. He expostulates on the political scene, and never refrains from dissecting the uglier parts of his own personality.
His public persona may be linked to booze and ultra-luxe, but his day-to-day musings are riddled with the concerns, joys and worries that are familiar to anyone on the right side of 50. The diaries are a hugely readable, not People-magazinable, peek into the privileges of astounding wealth while, at the same time, offering up a portrait of a middle-aged man beset with the fears, pleasures, and anxieties that are common to all of us.
He fetters over having to work to make money:
March 26, 1966. I worry enormously about the fact that we have no money. I worry that I will not be able to look after my wife and my children after I’m dead.
He frets over the welfare of his children:
November 1, 1969. We are having desperate trouble with Michael. We do our damndest to help him but it is impossible…However we will do our best and love him a lot and have patience with him…
And he is riddled with arthritis:
July 30, 1971. Missed yesterday as I have a gouty or arthritic left wrist, exquisitely uncomfortable.
The next day:
I was so uncomfortable last night that in bed the slightest movement made me groan as if demented. Elizabeth says I am the world’s champion ‘conyn’ whicb is Welsh for moaning hypochondriac.
He loved eating at the best French restaurants, and the simplest Italian trattorias. He fantasizes about retirement. In some ways, he is just like you and me – until you come upon an entry such as this one, where he recounts how Elizabeth acquired the Cartier diamond. On October 2, 1969 they visited a hospital in Geneva where they had donated money to build a paraplegics ward (Richard’s brother Ivor was a paraplegic):
Somewhere between the hospital and dinner brooding set in. Between long silences deadly insults were hurled about. At one point E. knowing I was in a state of nastiness, said to me at the lousy Italian restaurant we went to: Come on Richard, hold my hand. Me: I do not wish to touch your hands. They are large and ugly and red and masculine. Or words to that effect. After that my mind was like a malignant cancer-I was incurable. I either remained stupidly silent or, if I did speak, managed an insult a second. What the hell’s the matter with me? I love milady more than my life…Why do I hurt (her) so much and spoil the day?
The next day:
I am very contrite this morning but one of these days it’s going to be too late cock, too late. E. has just said that I really must get her the 69 carat ring to make her big ugly hands look smaller and less ugly. Nobody turns insults to her advantage more swiftly or more cleverly than Lady Elizabeth. The insult last night is going to cost me. Betcha!
Next time I am asked, “Who would you invite to your next dinner party?” I would reply, Richard Jenkins, a Welsh miner’s son, aka Richard Burton.