Category Archives: Books

Furious Love: Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton & The Marriage of the Century book review

For anyone that reckons film stars are “just like us”, Furious Love provides definitive proof that that is just not so. Chronicling the notorious love affair between Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton (the authors, Sam Kashner and Nancy Schoenberger, claim they were inspired to write the book after a young theatre graduate, on hearing of the Burton-Taylor relationship, exclaimed he had no idea that Elizabeth Taylor had been married to Tim Burton), it leaves you in no doubt that, were they around today, Liz n’ Dick would never be off the front pages of Heat magazine.

The book’s title, as the narrative very quickly establishes, could not be more apt – theirs was a love that could not have burned more furiously if it tried. Events kick off on the set of 1961’s sprawling epic Cleopatra, where the already-married actors ignited their passionate affair, with outrageous, flamboyant and basically insane anecdotes peppering every page. The on-screen kiss that got longer with every take, until the director was reduced to finally shouting ‘Does it interest you that it is time for lunch?’ The love letter Burton writes to Taylor describing ‘your divine little money-box… your baby bottom and the half-hostile look in your eyes when you’re deep in rut with your little Welsh stallion’. Taylor’s then husband, Eddie Fisher, telephoning their villa only to be answered by Burton who, when asked what he was doing there, proclaimed ‘What do you think I’m doing? I’m fucking your wife!’ How Burton didn’t believe Elizabeth’s claims that she would kill herself for him, prompting her to stuff herself with sleeping pills to his face and ending up in hospital having her stomach pumped. Taylor waking up one night to find Eddie Fisher pointing a gun at her head saying, ‘Don’t worry. I’m not going to kill you. You’re too beautiful’.

This is all just the first chapter.

This tumultuous account of ‘Le Scandale’ (which had them denounced by the Vatican no less) gets things off to such a rollickingly compulsive start that the rest of Furious Love barely has time to catch its breath in response. The couple’s rise and fall follows in a mostly chronological order, taking in their various films together and apart, their travels around the globe, the gross extravagance, their omnipresence in the press (probably responsible for the state of celebrity-culture as we know it), their alcohol-fuelled fights and sweary trade of insults, their energetic love-making and unquenchable lust for each other, Burton’s declining heath, Taylor’s declining career, their break-up, re-marriage and re-break-up and finally Burton’s death. Despite the fact that Taylor is still alive some thirty years on, the book pretty much peters to an end from there – it is a history of their relationship together and simply not interested in whatever they may have done apart.

The major boon for Kashner & Schoenberger is that Furious Love was written with Taylor’s approval, allowing them exclusive access to her previously-unseen love letters from Burton (hence the ‘divine little money-box’ earlier). As a result, the book is a little too in awe of Elizabeth – not a chapter passes where we aren’t reminded of her flawless beauty, how she was even more stunning without make-up and most importantly, that she was never ever ever fat, whatever anyone else may (frequently) say. It’s a shame, then, that the few pictures within fail to properly convey Taylor’s beauty and especially annoying when the authors make protracted reference to specific photos, only for them never to appear. Similarly, the narrative falls short of criticising Taylor for continuing to drink when Burton was trying to remain sober (an obvious contributing factor in his repeatedly failing to do so) and spends too long justifying her love for jewels (apparently she’s a custodian of their beauty rather than their owner although she expected a ‘present’ from every director she worked under).

A few pics to remind you of how beautiful Taylor really was, including those famous violet eyes!

However, the inclusion of Burton’s letters (though Taylor never seems to write any back) makes up for this. There’s really no need for the authors to bang on too much about his love of language as the vitality, vividness and inventiveness of his writing shines through, evident even in his casual conversation. Able to switch from lyrical eroticism one minute to x-rated banalities the next, here he compares her to a pen:

‘You are heavy like the pen – your ass, your tits… Pendulumed like an infinitely desirable clock… And since we’re talking of pens and you, how [to] watch the ink splurge out of the pen… reach[ing] out from the depth of the divine body. Will you, incidentally, permit me to fuck you this afternoon?’

Don’t worry, it’s not all vaguely pornographic – he’s just as enthralling when signing off with ‘I love you ghastily and terribly and horribly’, fashioning another bizarre nickname for her (Lumps, Twit-Twaddle, Shebes) or scrawling dreamy poetry on the back of her photo (‘She is like the tide, she comes and goes… In my poor and tormented youth, I had always dreamed of this woman. And now, this dream occasionally returns… If you have not met or known her, you have lost much in life’). This was a man who could make probably make drinking a cup of tea sound riveting.

What Kashner & Schoenberger do capture is the uncomfortable disconnect between Liz n’ Dick – their extravagant public persona, laden in jewels and extolling each others virtues on the front pages of magazines – and Elizabeth and Richard, who just wanted to have barbeques in their backyard, drinks in the pub and escape to Wales. As Furious Love progresses, it becomes clear that these two constructs were irreconcilable, even destructive, and that no one was more aware of it than the pair themselves. They are also keen to stress the parallels between art and life, sometimes too tenuously as they exactingly recite portions of scripts to compare the films Taylor and Burton made together with events in their private life. However, it becomes increasingly clear that the movies really were no match for the drama of real-life.

It’s all told in an easy and highly readable manner, yet one that happily stops short of tabloid sensationalism. It’s utterly compulsive stuff as each chapter drips in glorious ridiculous anecdotes that make Brangelina’s clan look like The Brady Bunch. There’s the couple’s yacht, decked out with Picasso paintings and Burton’s thousand-strong library, which served as the ‘world’s most expensive kennel’ to prevent their menagerie of pets having to do quarantine (Taylor had to spend $1000 every 6 months refurbishing the carpets as none were house-trained). There’s room service ordered not just from whole other countries, but whole other continents (sausages and bacon from Fortnum & Masons, since you ask). There’s Elizabeth wondering what one of her Pekingese puppies is chewing on, to discover it was the La Peregrina pearl, given to Mary Tudor in 1554 and acquired for $37000 as a gift from Burton. There’s the couple’s on-set trailer crashing onto the cliffs below to horrified gasps at the blood oozing out of it; turns out it was just the copious amount of tomato juice they had on hand for their daily (morning!) Bloody Marys. There’s Elizabeth making an impromptu appearance on stage during Richard’s rendition of Under Milk Wood to declare ‘I love you’ in Welsh. And all backed by a motley crew of cameos from stars more than worthy of their own biographies – Wallis Simpson, Grace Kelly, Princess Margaret, Aristotle Onassis, Montgomery Clift (and an amazing appearance from Rex Harrison’s wife, who drunkenly masturbates her own dog) – plus an ever-present mob of fans, paparazzi and a coterie of offspring, animals and hangers-on.

Despite clocking in at 400 pages plus and spanning over twenty years, Furious Love tornadoes past at a frantic speed and seems over far too soon; you’ll probably be left panting for breath by the end. Overall, Furious Love may not be the finest, most accurate or best-written tribute to either Taylor or Burton’s lives or careers but what it does entirely capture is the spirit of their mad, bad and dangerous passion. The lasting impression is of a love that was too intense, too tempestuous and too all-consuming for even the most rich, famous and beautiful couple in the world. “Just like us”? I think not… and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Furious Love: Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton & The Marriage of the Century by Sam Kashner & Schoenberger, JR Books, 2010

 

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Hong Kong Murders – Kate Whitehead review

Before my boyfriend became my boyfriend and was doing his best to scare me into soliciting his company, he told me about a HK murderer who killed female passengers in his taxi, thus ensuring I never wanted to travel alone in one again. That murderer was the infamous ‘Jars Killer’ and ever since I learnt the gory details of that case, I’ve been intrigued about what other murders may have occurred in this fair city. Enter Hong Kong Murders by Kate Whitehead.

Asking after Hong Kong Murders in bookshops lead to a few strange looks, especially as Whitehead’s other book is called Sex After Suzie Wong, making my reading tastes look somewhat deviant. I find murder interesting, partly because my father was a retired detective and partly because so few occur in Hong Kong (one of the lowest homicide rates in the world – especially if you’re not a triad) that I wanted to know more about the few that had occurred and what went behind them.

With many of the cases from decades gone by and with few involving Westerners, English-language information on the interwebz was scant and Whitehead’s book was the only literature I came across on the subject. Alas, for a book entitled Hong Kong Murders, one was a suicide, two were kidnappings gone wrong, one occurred in Macau and at least six involved either gangs or triads, who are a different kettle of (garoupa)fish entirely. The two listed under ‘sex crimes’ were really nothing of the sort and by then, we’re left with all of about four genuinely interesting murder cases.

Whitehead, however, does her best to make them as uninteresting as possible. Her background in news journalism comes through – her writing is dry, factual and rather bland. Whilst this avoids making the book sensationalist when many of the stories could easily go that way, it manages to turn gripping cases into almost anything but. Having now finished Hong Kong Murders, I’m pretty sure I could write a better book using the information from just the book alone! That’s not to say my attempt would be much better; Whitehead frequently fails to go into enough depth. We feel little empathy for the victims as their backgrounds are not detailed, we learn little about possible motivations for the murders and we get little insight from any figures within the cases – be they investigating officers, families of victims/murderers or even the perpetrators themselves, criminal psychologists, journalists covering the events at the time, lawyers, barristers, someone, anyone! The lack of depth is really frustrating, especially as it’s clear Whitehead has actually done the research and spoken to such people, but their voices are relegated to comments so short and sparse that they’re instantly forgettable.

The blurb also promises that Whitehead will reveal the “cultural fingerprints” which ‘shed light on the psyche of Hong Kong’ but the cultural context she gives is so basic and rudimentary that practically anyone who’s lived in HK for a longer than a fortnight would be aware of such information. We are treated to amazing insights like HK people don’t like to get involved (just travel on the MTR and try to make eye contact with anyone to see how that works), that the city revolves around money, that attitudes toward sexuality are suppressed and that triads exist and have customs. Wow. Enlightening.

The triad cases in particular are bogged down with detail. Names, nicknames and even more names make them confusing and it’s clear that they belong to a completely different book. Triad violence and murders are hardly surprising but of modest concern to outsiders; as one story details, when non-triads were hurt during turf wars, the boss rang up to express concern and say ‘this shouldn’t have happened’. The message is obvious – don’t get involved and you’re unlikely to fall foul of the triads’ chopper. There are countless films, novels and non-fiction books written about the triads that I imagine have superior knowledge of their rituals, and with such crimes still relatively commonplace (one gang member was run over and hacked at outside the Shangri-La in Tsim Sha Tsui only a few years back), I found these pieces the least interesting. Just go watch the Infernal Affairs trilogy, instead.

Kudos to Whitehead for still being the only book about what is a fascinating subject, but reading it leaves so many unanswered questions that it becomes a frustrating experience. With plenty of recent high-profile cases (the “Hello Kitty Murder”, Nancy Kissel and the “Milkshake Murder”, the disappearance of Ani Ashekian… only last week, a corpse was discovered in a suitcase in Yuen Long), the time is ripe for someone to re-visit this subject matter and produce a comprehensive study. Now who’s offering?

3/5

Hong Kong Murders, Kate Whitehead (Oxford University Press, 2001), $135, Page One

P.S. I think it says much for Whitehead’s, or her editor’s, lack of depth that I’m not even sure who the evil guy on the front cover is or whether he’s even real or not!