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'A game girl': Liz Taylor biographer recalls star's tumultuous life

Nancy Schoenberger is the co-author, with husband and Vanity Fair contributing editor Sam Kashner, of Furious Love: Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton and the Marriage of the Century. The most recent book on Taylor, it grabbed headlines when it was published last July for its access to the couple's intimate love letters.

Schoenberger spoke to The Globe the day after Taylor's death from Williamsburg, Va., where she's an English professor and director of creative writing at William and Mary University, about their relationship, why they never saw marriage counsellors and Taylor's status as a "broad."

In the book it's mentioned that Liz wished to be buried beside Richard Burton (who died in 1984) in Geneva. Do you think that will still happen?

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No, I don't. She did want to be laid to rest next to him because she did consider it her truest marriage and the longest [they married in 1964, divorced 10 years later, then were remarried in 1976 for 10 months] But when Burton died he was married to another woman, Sally Burton, who's a lovely woman in her own right and the executor of his estate, living in Australia. Just the legal ramifications of making that happen would have been too much. So her second choice was to be buried next to Michael Jackson, whose friendship she treasured and whom she always championed. I do know several years ago she said what she'd like to see on her headstone was, "Here Lies Elizabeth Taylor/She Lived."

Was her death a surprise to you?

It was a shock but not a surprise. We knew she'd been in Cedars Sinai Medical Center for the last seven weeks. We knew she'd been in a wheelchair for the last couple of years and she was in a lot of pain. I think when Michael Jackson died it took a lot of wind out of her sails. She knew and we knew she was living on borrowed time. It felt like the end of something: When Frank Sinatra died in 1998 it felt like the end of the 20th century; with Elizabeth Taylor, it feels like the end of the Golden Era of Hollywood.

Taylor and Burton obviously saw themselves as being outside the common orbit of humankind.

Oh yes, they were. She started acting at age nine and was famous and beloved by 12. She once said, to Dick Cavett or Truman Capote, that, "I can't really remember a time when I wasn't famous." Can you imagine what that does to you? Richard had great ambition - the only one of 12 surviving children from a poor Welsh mining family who got out into the greater world to become this celebrated actor. He probably entered his relationship with Elizabeth thinking, "I'm going to hitch my wagon to this star," but lo and behold, he met his match and he fell in love with her.

Do you think they ever saw marriage counsellors?

I don't think so. But in the seventies when they were having terrible problems - the constant scrutiny, no privacy, being too famous, both of them having serious drinking problems (Richard worse than Elizabeth) - they actually were interviewed for an ongoing column in one of the women's magazines called Can This Marriage Be Saved? They allowed the column to analyze their relationship and the conclusion was, Nope, I don't think they can stay together. Can you imagine Angelina and Brad sitting for a column called Can This Marriage Be Saved? That's how game Elizabeth was. She was a game girl.

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Where do you think her compulsion to marry came from?

She wanted to be happy. She was a woman of great passion. Her first marriage, at 18, to Nicky Hilton, she was probably too young and forced into it. Her second marriage, to Michael Wilding, was good, I think - it produced her two sons - but it was to a man closer in age to her father. When she fell in love with producer Mike Todd, he swept her off her feet but then he died in that plane crash in March, 1958, snatched away at the height of her love and passion for him.

So it was an attempt to recapture that passion? She had it, it was taken away from her, and she thought she could get it again?

Yes. When she married Eddie Fisher, they turned to each other out of grief, because he'd been Mike Todd's best friend and so they married for the wrong reasons, to sort of keep Mike alive. With Richard it was the chance to have that Todd-like passion again, real passion. Burton knew that the real rival for the affections of Liz Taylor wasn't Eddie Fisher; it was the memory of Mike Todd.

Vanity Fair last year ran an excerpt from your book and it mentions a letter that Burton wrote to Taylor a few hours or so before he died, that he sent to her and that arrived at her address two or three days after he died.

We were allowed to hold and read some 40 letters to Taylor from Burton which are just wonderful and we quote several of them in the book. But she did characterize what was in the last letter but said, "It's too private; it's mine; I'm not going to share it with the rest of the world."

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The Queen named Taylor a Dame of the British Empire in 1999. But sometimes, reading your book, I thought she should have been called Broad Elizabeth Taylor. She could be pretty, well … earthy.

She called herself a broad. One time she said, "Richard's a great actor; I'm just a broad." I think that down-to-earth, self-deprecating warmth and humanness is why she stayed famous and beloved for so long.

This interview has been condensed and edited.

An excerpt from Furious Love

On March 5, 1964, two years after falling in love with Richard, Elizabeth was finally granted her divorce from Eddie Fisher on the grounds of abandonment. Ten days later, Elizabeth and Richard chartered a Viscount turbo-prop airliner to Montreal, where they were met by three limousines. The couple and a few members of their entourage - including their publicist John Springer, their lawyer and tax specialist Aaron Frosch, and Burton's dresser Robert Wilson and his wife - were then whisked to Montreal's Ritz-Carlton Hotel, where Elizabeth and Richard registered under the name of "Smith." That Sunday afternoon, they were married in a private ceremony.

Though Elizabeth now considered herself Jewish, they were married by a Unitarian minister who agreed to take on the much-divorced couple. It was a hurried ceremony. The bride wore a yellow chiffon dress designed by Irene Sharaff, who had fashioned her stunning costumes for Cleopatra. She wore hyacinths and lily of the valley in her coiled hair, and the $150,000 emerald-and-diamond necklace Burton had given her, and matching earrings as his wedding gift. Newsmen were barred from the hotel; the only official statement given was Richard's: "Elizabeth Burton and I are very happy."

It was Richard's second marriage; it was Elizabeth's fifth.

They returned to Toronto the following day and Burton resumed his role as the Prince of Denmark. When the performance was over, after his curtain calls, Burton held his hand out as Elizabeth joined him onstage. In his thrilling Welsh voice, he reprised Hamlet's line to Ophelia: "I say, we will have no more marriages." The audience cheered.

Their triumph was complete.

Excerpted from Furious Love: Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton, and the Marriage of the Century by Sam Kashner and Nancy Schoenberger courtesy of HarperCollins.

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