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Elizabeth Taylor observed her 44th birthday quietly in Beverly Hills at the lavish, leased home of Henry Wynberg, the former used car dealer. His two-year romance with the durable actress ended last October when Liz remarried her fifth husband, Richard Burton, in Africa. Wynberg appears to bear no grudge. Among his guests was Elizabeth's mother, Sara Taylor, up from Palm Springs. The birthday girl wore pewter-gray chiffon, and the menu featured squab and wild rice. The cake, with a single candle, was inscribed: "Happy Birthday, from all of us who love you." During the day, her four children—Michael and Christopher Wilding, 23 and 21, Liza Todd, 18, and Maria Burton, 15—telephoned from various parts of the world to wish mother a happy birthday.

Such a simple, impromptu celebration had not been anticipated. A birthday spectacular was planned at Alfredo's restaurant in New York, but it had gone aglimmering when Burton, husband and lover for 15 years, apparently asked for a divorce, and Liz scurried home to mother, Henry and other loved ones.

What began to look like the final act of the marathon Taylor-Burton romance took shape in Gstaad, Switzerland in January. Burton was on a trip and Liz was whiling away the lonely hours at the birthday party of her daughter Maria at the Olden Hotel bar. Across the crowded room she spotted a stranger, Peter Darmanin, 37, a good-looking advertising man from Malta. "I felt a pair of devastating eyes staring at me as I turned around," Darmanin remembers. "It was Elizabeth Taylor. She told me she was very happy to see me. I bowed, kissed her hand and told her how happy I was to see her." Twenty minutes later they were dancing, and that evening Peter moved into Elizabeth's Chalet Ariel for, as he describes it, "five days of wondrous bliss." Then, with his vacation over and his wallet flat, Peter flew back to Malta. Had it really been so romantic, his secretary asked him. "Yes," said Peter, "and the minute I was there I knew I belonged."

The intermission was brief. The dashing Maltese had hardly said hello to his widowed Mum, with whom he lives in Valetta, when the telephone began to ring insistently. Elizabeth was lonesome again, and Burton had gone off to New York to rehearse his role in the Broadway production of Equus. Although Darmanin was broke, his bank account $2,500 overdrawn and business piling up, he could not resist the siren song. Borrowing another $2,500 from a friend and bringing along a filigree Maltese cross brooch as a gift, he caught the plane back to Gstaad, and soon he and Liz were inseparable. She didn't like the tiny Maltese cross very much, but she did like the man from Malta. "I really am enjoying myself," Peter told a friend. Then, during a party in his second week at Chalet Ariel, tempers flared, and Liz cracked Peter with her famous 33.19-carat ring, opening a cut in his left eyebrow. "I saw Peter being hit by a half-million-dollar diamond," said Tony Schranz, one of the guests. "It was a silly argument. I really don't know what it was all about."

Dazed and depressed, Peter slunk back to Malta to nurse his wounds (he also was suffering from a bruised right hand, the result, he said, of a bite from one of Liz's dogs). The press hounded him for intimate details, and offers for his story poured in, including one for more than $50,000. A gentleman to the core, he turned the money down. "Peter's got a bad cold, and he's giving up drinking," a friend reported. "Jack Daniel's black label got the better of him at Gstaad. That's what Liz drinks. He found out he couldn't handle it."

Meanwhile, back in Manhattan, Burton, 50, and his new companion, 27-year-old Susan Hunt (PEOPLE, March 8), took refuge in his Lombardy Hotel suite between preview performances of Equus. In Johannesburg for the Grand Prix, Susan's estranged husband, British racing driver James ("The Shunt") Hunt, 28, consoled himself with two new playmates, actresses Jane Cussons and Paddy Norvel. Huffed Cussons: "I certainly did not come between him and Suzy. I've never even met her." Added Paddy: "He's a fabulous guy, but winning the Grand Prix means more to him than anything."

After her own tumultuous eight-day pit stop in New York, Liz winged on to California with a bodyguard, her Yorkshire terrier, Shih Tzu, Siamese cat and two Cartier diamond pins, early birthday gifts from Burton. In Malta, Peter Darmanin sadly ordered his own birthday present for her to be melted down—a gold medallion engraved with his Cancer and her Pisces zodiac signs and "Saudade," the Portuguese word for "greetings" and "good health." He had commissioned the medal in anticipation of a summons from California which never arrived.

Burton's opening night, after an 11-year absence from Broadway, was a jittery affair stoked by 60 cigarettes and spates of Perrier water (but, in bizarre deference to an earlier pledge to Liz, nothing alcoholic). The first-nighters tittered nervously over some of the lines that had taken on new meaning: "My wife doesn't understand me," "Advanced neurotics...aim unswervingly at your area of maximum vulnerability—which is as good a way as any of describing [my wife]." At the final curtain, Burton was given a standing ovation, which most of the critics joined in next day. Amid all the domestic discord, he had triumphed again. He talked backstage of doing King Lear, of future movies with Laurence Olivier and the possibility of playing in the film version of Equus. "It's all very exciting," he admitted, "but I am still very hag-ridden." He added quickly: "The hag is Equus, not any living creature." To a London Daily Mail reporter, he said: "Well, it didn't work out this time—maybe it will next time. After all, with Elizabeth it is an all-or-nothing business. We don't get bitter. It's either love or all-out smash and grab." Asked about a variety of reports that he wanted to return to Liz, that she would get the lion's share of any settlement and that he would drop Suzy, Burton grumbled, "The questions are infantile, presumptuous and in appalling bad taste."

In Palm Springs, Liz was relaxing incommunicado at mother's Sunrise Country Club condominium, pondering whether or not there would be a next time. In a quarter of a century she has been married six times, to hotel heir Nicky Hilton, actor Michael Wilding, entrepreneur Mike Todd, singer Eddie Fisher (who last described himself as "the doormat to her stiletto heels"), Richard Burton and Richard Burton. Along the way there have been four children, four divorces, one widowhood and any number of Wynbergs and Darmanins. Still a rare beauty despite the pneumatic encroachments of middle age, Elizabeth could contemplate the men in her past and wonder how many more there might be in her future. (One European report had her returning soon to Gstaad and the ever-ready Maltese.) Before promising Burton his freedom and leaving New York for the coast, she had attended a preview of Equus. With Suzy Hunt in apparent command of Burton's dressing room, Liz had lingered backstage just long enough to scrawl a lipsticked message on his mirror: "You were fantastic, Love." Last week the message was still there.