Cleopatra was a BIG movie. It had lavish sets. Elaborate costumes. Thousands of extras. It ran more than four hours long. At the time, it was the most expensive film ever made. It won four Oscars, earned more money at the box office than any other movie in 1963, and still managed to lose tens of millions of dollars.
But nothing about it was as big as its stars. Elizabeth Taylor, hailed as one of world’s most beautiful women, became the highest paid actress in Hollywood when she signed on to play the title role. Starring alongside her as Marc Antony was one of the most respected thespians of his time: Richard Burton.
To the joy of paparazzi everywhere, the two fell in love. They were gorgeous, tempestuous, alcoholic, entertaining. Their director said working with them was “like being locked in a cage with two tigers.” Every twist and turn in their relationship became international news.
It was less fun for their spouses. Burton had been married for more than a decade; Taylor, 28, was already on her fourth husband. Neither marriage would last much longer. When Burton’s wife saw the way he behaved with his co-star on the set of Cleopatra, she fled — not just the set, but the entire country. The couple was divorced by the end of 1963.
It wasn’t an easy divorce. This was back in the days when divorces were exceedingly difficult to get, so Burton and his wife had been forced to go to Mexico for theirs. Taylor’s was taking even longer. That was a problem. Burton was scheduled to be in Toronto — he was returning to the stage in a John Gielgud-directed production of Hamlet. It was debuting at the O’Keefe Centre. And since the two new lovers didn’t want to be away from each other, they would be living here. Together. For eight weeks. In sin.
They arrived in January of 1964 and took over a five-room suite on the eighth floor of the King Edward Hotel. (Good luck finding a newspaper article that doesn’t refer to it as a love nest.) For many people, this was an outrageous scandal. There was no shortage of religious indignation in early 1960s. The Vatican had already denounced Taylor’s “erotic vagrancy”. Judgmental teenagers showed up at the hotel to protest, brandishing signs with slogans like “Drink not the wine of adultery” and “She walks among your children”. A congressman in the United States even suggested that Burton’s U.S. visa should be revoked.
But the moralizers were fighting a losing battle. There were more fans than picketers. The Toronto Star ran an editorial defending the couple. Times were changing.
Finally one day, when Taylor came down from their suite to meet Burton for lunch, there he was, sitting at their usual table in the Sovereign Ballroom. It was strangely deserted; he’d reserved the entire room. That’s when he proposed.
Nine days after Taylor’s own Mexican divorce was finalized, the couple were married — in Montreal, since conservative Ontario wouldn’t recognize their quickie, foreign divorces. A couple of days later, they were back in Toronto showing off their wedding rings. The minister who performed the ceremony would be getting angry phone calls for weeks.
A few days after they got back, Taylor and Burton were off to the United States; Hamlet was opening on Broadway. Over the course of the 1960s, they would make seven movies together and drink and fight and write passionate love letters declaring their undying devotion. He called her “a poem”, “unquestionably gorgeous”, “extraordinarily beautiful” and also “famine, fire, destruction and plague”. They divorced in 1974. Remarried in 1975. Divorced again in 1976. That would be the last time; a few years later he was dead.
When she came home from the memorial service, there was one last love letter waiting for her in the mail. He’d written it three days before he died, asking her to give him one more chance. In one of the last interviews she gave before she passed away in 2011, she said it was still there, where she kept it, in the drawer beside her bed.
Cross-posted from The Toronto Dreams Project Historical Ephemera Blog.