Richard and his Cadillac, Céligny, Switzerland in 1958. © Estate of Bob Penn.
This is the story of Richard Burton, behind the headlines – the husband, father, reader, writer and passionate Welshman.
Richard and his first wife Sybil had made their home in the quiet Swiss village of Céligny, near Lake Geneva in 1957. That year they also became parents to daughter Kate, followed two years later by the birth of Jessica. His older brother Ivor and sister-in-law Gwen also lived at Céligny and accompanied Richard on location.
Richard and Sybil at the home they named Le Pays de Galles (French for Wales), in Céligny, Switzerland, 1958. © Estate of Bob Penn
Richard wrote about his daughters in his diaries and remained close to Kate after his separation with Sybil in 1963. After marrying Elizabeth Taylor, Richard became step father to her children; Michael and Christopher (Wilding) Liza (Todd), and Maria (Burton), the daughter she had started adopting with Eddie Fisher, but Richard became her legal father.
Richard was a loving father to all of his children, although family life was never normal for the Burtons. They travelled the world between their many homes, from Switzerland to Mexico. In London they would stay at the Dorchester Hotel or aboard the Kalizma yacht, named after Richard’s daughters Kate, Liza and Maria.
Richard often wrote lovingly about his children in his diaries and treasured the many letters and drawings they sent him.
Richard and Elizabeth’s personal lives were under constant scrutiny from the press and public. It was during this time that Richard recorded the events of his life in a diary. The ‘diary years’ cover seven years of his life while married to Elizabeth and give his personal account, in his own words. Richard enjoyed writing and turning to his diary was a way of honing his skill as a writer. It may have also been his way of detaching himself from his public persona and being truthful with himself.
Richard with his daughters Kate, Maria and Liza Todd. Also pictured (left) is his brother, Ifor. They were in Rome to film The Taming of the Shrew, July 1966.
Richard enjoyed the reputation of being a literary man. His ambition was to return to Oxford University to get a degree, to be a tutor and to write books. With a hectic life Richard couldn’t fulfil such a dream but he did manage to publish articles about his love of Wales and rugby.
Richard’s personal diaries were written knowingly that one day they would be read by someone or used as a basis for an autobiography. In 2012, The Richard Burton Diaries, edited by Chris Williams, was published. Ultimately Richard had realised his lifelong ambition of becoming a writer.
Follow @BurtonDiaries for daily excerpts from Richard’s diaries.
Richard loved words and books, possibly more than acting. When he had time on his hands, there was nothing he preferred more than to be alone with a book. He devoured books, sometimes reading several in a day. He liked to surround himself with books and had libraries in all of his various homes. Wherever in the world Richard travelled, he would carry a selection of books with him in his ‘book bag’.
Richard reading outside his home in Céligny.
Richard started collecting books when he was twelve, buying pocket books of classic novels published by the Everyman Library. By the time he was in his twenties, he had around 300 of them. Elizabeth Taylor later bought him the whole collection, bound in coloured calf leather.
Richard’s library room at his home in Céligny.
1976 was a year of new beginnings for Richard. He returned to the Broadway stage in Equus and married his third wife, Suzy Hunt. Equus was a great success and a year later Richard starred in the film of the play, which led to his seventh Oscar nomination. He returned to Wales too, where he visited the Miners Arms in Pontrhydyfen to open a room in memory of his father. His life appeared to be back on track.
Richard had stopped writing his diary in 1975 but briefly went back to it in 1980. By this time he was on Broadway again as Camelot’s King Arthur, twenty years after he first took on the role. Eventually Camelot took its toll on Richard’s health and his marriage. Towards the end of the tour he had to bow out due to serious back problems and in 1982 Richard and Susan went their separate ways.
Richard and Sally Burton.
Although Richard’s health was weakening, his life didn’t slow down. In 1982 he started an epic project filming Wagner and met his fourth wife, Sally Hay, a continuity producer working on the production. They married on 3 July 1983 by which time Richard had moved on to another stage project – the Broadway production of Noël Coward’s Private Lives, acting alongside Elizabeth Taylor.
The following year Richard made his last film, playing the part of O’Brien in George Orwell’s 1984. In his last acting role, he played alongside his eldest daughter Kate, in a TV series called Ellis Island.
Richard starring alongside his eldest daughter Kate, in a TV series called Ellis Island.
Richard died suddenly from a cerebral haemorrhage on 5 August 1984 at his home from home, Le Pays de Galles. He was buried in Céligny, Switzerland according to his wishes, dressed in red (his favourite colour), with the works of his favourite poet, Dylan Thomas. On 11 August a memorial service was held at Bethel Baptist Chapel in Pontrhydyfen where they sang his favourite Welsh hymn, ‘O Iesu Mawr’.
'O! Iesu mawr, rho d'anian bur
I eiddil gwan mewn, anial dir,
I'w nerthu drwy'r holl rwystrau sy
Ar ddyrys i'r Ganaan fry.'