Reading Tom Rubython’s Acknowledgements to this 812-page biography, you could be forgiven for thinking it’s the product of a lifetime of scholarship. He complains about the poor job that the archive department of Swansea University has done of indexing and cataloguing Richard Burton’s papers and compliments his own “staff” for indexing and cataloguing his original research. “Thousands of hours were devoted to this task before I even wrote a word,” he says.
Is this the same Tom Rubython who, less than a year ago, published a 764-page biography of James Hunt? Either he’s exaggerated the seriousness of his approach or he’s some kind of promethean scholar – the Boswell of modern celebrity.
A clue is provided in Chapter 33 when Rubython refers to a memoir published by Rosemary Kingsland in which the author claims to have slept with Burton as a 14-year-old schoolgirl. At the time of the book’s publication in 2003, this story was widely dismissed as a fabrication, but Rubython is convinced it’s true.
Why? Because there are stories about Burton’s childhood that Kingsland recounts in her memoir that she couldn’t have known unless Burton had told them to her personally. For instance, the claim that Burton was sexually abused by his adoptive father. Rubython is quick to add that this was a “diabolical untruth”, but because it was “exactly what Burton would have said when he was drunk” it follows that “she simply could not have made that up”.
As should be clear from the above, Rubython’s notion of what constitutes evidence of a story’s truthfulness is somewhat flexible. If it corroborates his portrait of the Welsh actor as a sexually voracious alcoholic, he’s willing to believe it, no matter how implausible. As a journalist, he follows the advice offered by the newspaper editor in The Man Who Shote Liberty Vallance: “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”
Which isn’t to say that this doorstop of a biography is bad. On the contrary, because Rubython re-hashes just about every tabloid story ever told about Richard Burton, there’s scarcely a dull moment. We learn, for instance, that he slept with 2,500 women, including most of Hollywood’s leading ladies in the 1950s and 60s. He even made love to Jean Simmons while her husband, Stewart Granger, slept soundly beside her. This is because, as Rubython tells us, “Of all the men that have ever walked the planet, it is probably true to say that Richard Burton, between the years of 1948 and 1962, was the most attractive.” (Note the precision of the dates and the insertion of the word “probably”. Quite the scholar, this Rubython.)
I particularly enjoyed the stories about the sheer extravagance of Burton’s life with Elizabeth Taylor. To be fair, Rubython does allow that there is some doubt over the tale of how the Peregrina diamond came to be eaten by Taylor’s dog. But the question mark concerns the exact location of the incident – Caesars Place in Las Vegas or the Burtons’ private yacht? That the dog ate the diamond is beyond dispute.
Rubython does what most lazy journalists do when faced with the morass of apocryphal stories about a showbiz legend – he fashions them into a morality tale. He lovingly documents all Burton’s excesses, then, with even more relish, details his long and ignominious decline. God may have created the handsome young actor with the fiery temperament and mellifluous voice, but he forsook him in middle age.
Between 1971 and 1974, Burton made one box-office disaster after another, including The Assassination of Trotsky, the Battle of Sutjeska and a soft porn film called Bluebeard.
The chapter titles give you a flavour of just what a catastrophe Burton’s life became: ‘Trouble at the top: The year to forget’, ‘Return to Oxford: Fiasco amongst the spires’ and ‘Total career collapse: Four more turkeys’. A lowpoint was a TV miniseries called Divorce His, Divorce Hers. “From early on, it was clear it was going to be a disaster,” said the 34-year-old director. The Variety critic confirmed this prognosis: “Divorce His, Divorce Hers has all the joy of standing by at an autopsy.”
By the time Burton filmed the Klansman in 1974, his last Hollywood movie, he was drinking three bottles of Vodka a day. At lunchtime, on Burton’s first day on set, he and his co-star Lee Marvin drank 17 Martinis each. The film’s publicists let journalists loose on the set to witness his drunkenness at first hand. Robert Kerwin of the Chicago Tribune Magazine summed up their verdict: “On his face is a dazed grin as if he’s been shocked awake under those heavy lights in the midst of surgery.”
And God Created Burton is pure hack work, an 812-page cuttings job compiled by a gossip columnist. If it’s a racy beach read you’re after in which a talented young man squanders his gifts and gets his cummupance, this book is for you. But if you want some genuine insight into the greatest classical actor of the last century, you’re better off reading Melvyn Bragg’s official biography.