During the late 1960s and early 1970s, the years he most assiduously kept a diary, the actor Richard Burton (1925-84) had the following pet names for his wife, Elizabeth Taylor: Lumpy, Booby, Old Fatty, Shumdit, Cantank, Old Snapshot and the Baby. She sometimes called him, who knows why, Darling Nose and Drife.
They were at the height of their fame, and they seemed to speak a private language. Together they called Campari mixed with vodka and soda water, one of their favorite cocktails, a "Goop." They referred to the act of raiding the refrigerator instead of sitting down to a proper meal as "grapple-snapping." That's a vivid and useful phrase I hope becomes, alongside noshing, common usage.
Burton's diaries, published now for the first time, are filled with these kinds of pocket-size delights. I grapple-snapped my way through them and even fixed a Goop or two. (They are delicious and derailing.) But I admired this complicated and fairly remarkable book for its deeper and more insinuating qualities as well. First among them is that Richard Burton, a maniacal reader his entire life, was handy with the English language.
He was unpretentious and aphoristic. You can open his diaries almost at random and find lines like: "I shall die of drink and makeup"; "It was a piece of glottal cake"; "We are cosmic jokes"; "I was gonged down by a highway patrolman for exceeding the speed limit"; "There are few pleasures to match tipsiness in this murderous world."
Many actors have complained about gawking vacationers and cunning paparazzi. Only Burton put it this way: "If the 'Origin of Species' is valid then we are certain to see within the next few hundred years American tourists with built-in cameras."It's hard to imagine a midcareer actor working today whose diaries will be half as literate or lemony.
So many lurid and appalling books have been written about Burton and Taylor that it's hard to see them plain. "The Richard Burton Diaries" is, however, true to why tabloid writers flocked to them: It's a love story so robust you can nearly warm your hands on its flames.
Taylor is in her late 30s in most of these entries; he is in his mid-40s. "E is my only ism," Burton writes. "Elizabethism." While she was away, he noted, "I miss her like food." He calls Taylor "an eternal one-night stand" and "beautiful beyond the dreams of pornography." He declares, "She is a prospectus that can never be entirely cataloged, an almanac for Poor Richard."
This volume's editor, Chris Williams, reminds us that Taylor often read Burton's diaries, with his permission. (She even wrote in them on occasion.) So misdirection and self-editing is surely omnipresent. But Burton didn't shy from critiquing Taylor's looks. She is "still a little tubby," he writes in 1969. He notices her "ever -present baby double chin." He types: "The breasts, despite their largeness and considerable weight, sag very slightly but no more than they did 10 years ago. Her bottom is firm and round. She needs weight off her stomach."
He is honest about their quarrels, which could be racking. At times it's as if they're delivering outtakes from "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" (Mike Nichols's 1966 film version, in which they starred). "We drank Sambuca and said nasty things to each other" is a not-untypical line here. So is: "If you can marry Eddie Fisher you can marry anybody, I said."
Taylor gave as well as got.
"I was coldly accused of virtually every sin under the sun," Burton writes after one row. "Drunkenness (true) mendacity (true) being boring (true) infidelity (untrue) killing myself fairly quickly (true) pride envy avarice (all true) being ugly (true) having once been handsome (untrue)." Both seemed to agree that, as Burton put it, "A good shouting match is sometimes good for the soul."
Come to this volume for the love story, stay for the lit talk. Burton often read as many as three books a day and hated anything or anyone getting in his way. "Maria Callas arrived," he jots in November 1968, "and since I was in a reading mood she was not welcome."
Burton read everything, high and low, and his running commentary is mostly a joy to behold. Edmund Wilson is "wrong about everything" and "a bore." A Kingsley Amis novel is "expertly written but has 'don' written all over it." He notes the "excruciating banality" of Ian Fleming and writes about him, hilariously: "He has the cordon-bleu nerve to attack one of my favorite discoveries: American short-order cooking."
Burton was a frustrated writer; he searched for a book of his own to write, something to follow up the small semi-autobiographical novel, "A Christmas Story," he published in 1964. He was tired of merely repeating other men's words for a living.
"I am as thrilled by the English language as I am by a lovely woman or dreams," he writes, "green as dreams and deep as death." That last clause is a reference - these diaries are wrinkled with such allusions - to a poem by Rupert Brooke.
Burton and Taylor knew almost everyone, and this book can be consumed as a series of mildly snarky comments about the rich and famous. Mia Farrow has "eyes as round as her fist." Franco Zeffirelli is "a coward and devious." John Huston is "a simpleton." Paul Scofield "walks like a pimp." Lucille Ball is "a monster of staggering charmlessness."
There are dispatches from the sets of "Anne of the Thousand Days" (1969) and "Raid on Rommel" (1971), but as the book goes along, Burton and Taylor begin to see less of actors and more of the world demimonde. There are a lot of barons and embassy parties. Yachts and private jets and rubies are purchased. Caviar blinis are consumed. Weeks are spent in St-Tropez and Cannes and Gstaad. The Duke and Duchess of Windsor and Princess Grace make regular appearances. One half-expects a callow young Donald Trump to butt in and hold a news conference.
"I think that I am, despite my ferocious attachment to the working class, an admirer of the true aristocrat," Burton writes, "particularly if he is cleverer than I am." Few of the aristos in his diaries, frankly, seem clever at all. You suspect that he'd have had a happier life had he spent more time with writers, the people he most liked to argue with.
These diaries are not unedited. They have been pared down by about one-fourth, Mr. Williams tells us. They are still too long. Burton was most prolific from 1965 to 1972, but there are also short and halfhearted entries here from 1939, 1940, 1960 and the early '80s. If you skip these, you'll miss little.
Burton and Taylor married twice, in 1964 and 1975. They were divorced twice as well, in 1974 and 1976. They went through hell. But you believe the Burton who writes: "I love that woman so much sometimes that I cannot believe my luck."
© 2012, The New York Times News Service