Elizabeth Taylor's most prized role: Mrs. Burton (AP)

Associated Press
Elizabeth Taylor's most prized role: Mrs. Burton (AP)
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FILE- This Nov. 15, 1969 file photo shows Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor as they arrive at Hotel …

NEW YORK - "I love not being me," Elizabeth Taylor once said, strange as such a thing might sound coming from a glamorous megastar. "Not being Elizabeth Taylor, but being Richard Burton's wife."

Before Brangelina, there was Dickenliz. This celebrity union, passionate and excessive in countless ways, both scandalized and mesmerized the public like none before or after, making today's version — Brad and Angelina — seem positively boring in comparison.

And, for better or for worse, it came to define Taylor and the rest of her life. Critics and observers might disagree about whether it enhanced or detracted from her film career. Clearly, to Taylor, it didn't really matter.

"Elizabeth didn't give a damn," says Aileen Mehle, the famous gossip columnist who was known as Suzy. "She didn't care what people thought. She was going to live her life the way she wanted it, and be with the men she wanted."

And Taylor wanted Burton almost from the moment they met in Italy on the film set of the 1963 "Cleopatra," a film whose excesses mirrored those of the relationship it launched. "His hands were shaking from a hangover," says Nancy Schoenberger, co-author with Sam Kashner of last year's "Furious Love," a look at the relationship. "She had her defenses up at first, but he went through them all."

They were both married at the time — she to Eddie Fisher, whom she had famously "stolen" from Debbie Reynolds, he to wife Sybil Burton. "Through all his dalliances, the understanding was that he'd never leave Sybil," says Schoenberger. "But that was before he met Elizabeth."

Once public, the relationship was a full-blown scandal. Taylor was denounced on the floor of the House of Representatives and by the Vatican. "Whenever somebody says, 'So and so is a big star,'" columnist Liz Smith once said, "I say, 'Have they been condemned by the Vatican?'"

The Taylor-Burton union happened to coincide with the sharp rise of paparazzi culture. The term "paparazzo," which technically means a buzzing insect, was actually coined by director Federico Fellini in his 1960 film "La Dolce Vita." It wasn't about Taylor and Burton, but it could have been, says Schoenberger: "It was really the beginning of paparazzi culture as we know it now," she says. "The feeding frenzy, the photographers trailing stars with telephoto lenses."

Georges Briguet is eternally grateful for that frenzy. The owner of Le Perigord, a French restaurant on Manhattan's East Side, was thrilled when Taylor and Burton began dining there early in the relationship, requesting a secluded table. They were dressed to the nines, and especially fond of the cassoulet.

The restaurant wasn't doing great business at the time — until a tabloid photo appeared of the famous couple emerging from it, the awning in full view. Customers started coming in droves. "We wouldn't have been able to keep going if it hadn't been for them," Briguet says.

More recently, the restaurant has hosted Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie, who have come several times for an organic free-range chicken dish, Briguet says. They have star power, too, but it's not quite the same. "Ms. Taylor was the queen of glamour," he says.

Taylor and Burton tied the knot for the first time in 1964 in Montreal, launching a decade-long marriage that became known for the good (beauty, fame, wealth), and the bad (the booze, the brawling). At one point they lived on a yacht, called Kalizma after some of their children: "They were too famous to live on land," Schoenberger notes.

The constant was their passion. Burton wrote love letters, many of them provided by Taylor to the authors of "Furious Love." Well into their marriage, he wrote: "You don't realize of course, E. B., how fantastically beautiful you have always been, and how strangely you have acquired an added and special and dangerous loveliness." He went on to discuss her anatomy.

Their erotic passion apparently extended even to games of Scrabble. "When you get aroused playing Scrabble," Taylor has been quoted as saying, "that's love, Baby."

"She was pretty fixed on him," says longtime Associated Press movie writer Bob Thomas, now 89, who spent time with them in Mexico, where Burton was filming "The Night of the Iguana" (1964) and both were still married to their former spouses. "They were certainly passionate." Taylor, he says, was griping about having difficulty getting Fisher to agree to a divorce.

Gossip columnist Mehle recalls meeting the couple at a party at Kensington Palace in London, given by Princess Margaret and then-husband Antony Armstrong-Jones. "Elizabeth looked stunning, and he looked pretty fine, too," she said. "It was a very glamorous gathering."

But Mehle, now 86 and living in New York, remembers another evening in Palm Springs, Calif., that displayed a different side to the marriage. "I was staying with Truman Capote, and Frank Sinatra called to invite us to dinner with Elizabeth and Richard, who were his houseguests. But he warned, 'This couple is driving me crazy. He drinks nonstop, and she is holding her own, drink for drink! It's getting a little unpleasant.'"

Mehle says she and Capote decided not to go.

Taylor and Burton would make close to a dozen movies together — some flops, some successes, especially the 1966 "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" for which Taylor tossed aside the glamour, gained weight and won her second Oscar. (Many thought Burton deserved one, too.) Schoenberger says the in-character brawling actually made things better at home.

In any case, she says, "They loved fighting. It was foreplay for them."

Film historian Leonard Maltin calls the movie "a very gutsy film for Taylor to have done." And he feels it's a shame that since her death Wednesday at age 79, Taylor isn't being remembered enough for her film work — for "Virginia Woolf" but also "Giant" (1956), "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof" (1958) and even "National Velvet" (1944), the movie that made her a child star.

"She was obviously one of the great beauties of the 20th century, so you have to say that," he says. "Then, she was one of the great celebrities of the era, one of the great personalities. And then finally you get to the actress. It's a little skewed, but there you have it."

Author Schoenberger, though, doesn't think the celebrity factor — and especially the "marriage of the century," as many called it — took away from Taylor the actress. In any case, she says, "Elizabeth herself said her greatest role was Mrs. Burton." In fact, for two years, she scaled down her career early in the marriage, to allow her husband to "catch up."

Taylor and Burton divorced in 1974, then remarried for a brief time the next year. She would go on to marry Sen. John Warner in 1976, divorcing him in 1982, and then Larry Fortensky, a 37-year-old construction worker she met at the Betty Ford Center, in 1991. They divorced in 1996.

Burton, too, would remarry, spending the last part of his life with wife Sally Hay. But, in one of the more touching parts of "Furious Love," the authors reveal that Burton sent Taylor a love letter just before his death of a cerebral hemorrhage in August 1984, one that she received only after she returned to California from visiting his grave in Switzerland.

Taylor did not provide that letter to the authors, saying it was too personal. But she kept it on her bedside table, they say, and made clear that it expressed his love and a desire to return to her.

She wrote the authors:

"In my heart, I will always believe we would have been married a third and final time. From those first moments in Rome we were always madly and powerfully in love. We had more time ... but not enough."

(This version CORRECTS spelling of Antony Armstrong-Jones.)

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