They stepped from the limousine into a London disco called, appropriately, Legends. Inside, they cuddled and kissed, held hands, danced cheek-to-cheek and declared their undying love. At 1:30 in the morning he escorted her home. For an awkward moment he hesitated, then she invited him inside. There, the aging but still elegant heart-mates held their first reunion in five years, chatting merrily about old times for four hours.
"You know what you are, don't you?" he later told reporters he asked her.
"Tell me," she said.
"You're a kind of instant nostalgia—and nostalgia means a ferocious longing for home."
"And am I home to you?" she asked.
She kicked him. "You're a Welsh phony," she shouted.
And so it came to pass that Richard Burton, 56, and Elizabeth Taylor Hilton Wilding Todd Fisher Burton Burton Warner, newly 50, embraced again in the tiny lightning of flashbulbs and the warmer but less predictable glow of middle-aged remembrance. After almost 20 years, two marriages, two divorces, 11 movies together, countless cataclysmic quarrels, several diamonds only slightly smaller than the Ritz, and enough newsprint to denude the forests of Brazil, the world's longest-running romance was back on the front pages. The occasion for the meeting that put new bubbles in the Liz-and-Dick soap opera was a fitting watershed: Taylor's 50th birthday. And the reunion prompted Fleet Street scribes to pop the inevitable question: Will you marry again? "We are married," said Miss Taylor. "We are married to other people."
True, but just barely. In December Taylor had announced her separation from her sixth husband, Republican Sen. John Warner, 55, of Virginia. Last month it was announced that Burton and Susan Hunt, 33, the stylish blond ex-model who had been his third wife for more than five years, had been separated since last August.
With the stage thus so deliciously set for speculation, Taylor had flown to London the last week of February to begin rehearsals for the West End run of her Broadway smash, The Little Foxes. At her first London press conference, she joked that she was "a single lady on the loose." Could Burton resist that call of the wild? He was in Italy playing composer Richard Wagner, opposite Vanessa Redgrave, in an upcoming eight-part English TV series about the romantic 19th-century musician. The morning of Liz's birthday, Feb. 27, he called her from Pisa, got permission to attend her party and, boarding a private jet, flew to London where he was scheduled to be the narrator in a fund-raiser production of Welsh poet Dylan Thomas' classic, Under Milk Wood. Wearing a fur jacket, he arrived at the elegant Cheyne Gardens home of their mutual friend Norma Heyman, where Liz was a guest, an hour before the party. Liz emerged in a glittery silver-and-lavender harem pants outfit, with Burton protectively guiding her through a hubbub of photographers.
At the $50,000 birthday bash (Little Foxes producer Zev Bufman picked up the tab), they delighted a crowd of celebrities, including Rudolf Nureyev, Ringo Starr and Barbara Bach, with their tendernesses. At one point Liz, who discoed barefoot, lassoed Dick with a napkin and drew him close enough to plant a peck on his cheek. The Mayfair disco was decorated with blow-ups of photos of Liz. Heart-shaped silver balloons, imprinted with images of her famous eyes, hovered over the 120 guests. The celebrants washed down poached salmon trout, chicken à l'orange, "bangers and mash" (Liz's favorite—sausage and mashed potatoes) and strawberries and cream with nonvintage champagne.
After escorting her home in his dark-blue Daimler, Burton swigged beer with tabloid reporters who had staked out his hotel room, entertaining them into the dawn with tales of his tempestuous life with Liz. "Elizabeth and I will never remarry," he said. "We haven't even discussed it. It's not going to happen." Still, he admitted that theirs is an endless love. "I bred her in my bones, and I love her passionately. I love her not for her breasts, her buttocks or her knees but for her mind. It is inscrutable. She is like a poem. She may marry someone else, and so may I, but we will always be drawn back to each other."
That night Liz was drawn to the Duke of York's Theatre, where Burton was narrating Under Milk Wood (they once starred together in a 1972 movie based on the play). Richard had arrived for rehearsal after three hours sleep, much the worse for wear. During a pause in the performance, Liz, clad in blue jeans and sweater, appeared onstage. She curtsied to the packed house and then told Burton, in Welsh, "Rwy'n dy garu di," meaning "I love you." Startled and overjoyed, Burton replied, "Say it again, my petal, say it louder." She did and the crowd cheered. Burton lost his place in the script. "Excuse me," he apologized to the audience. "I'm flustered." Later they had a private dinner with the cast at the Garrick Club, and a garrulously jovial Burton drank double vodkas. He gave her a birthday present, a drawing of Dylan Thomas that he had purchased for $1,500 at an auction at the theater.
Was the gift more to Liz than just another expression of affection in a year cloyed with praise? From semiretirement, she had leaped back to the pinnacle with The Little Foxes and followed it with a General Hospital cameo that drew the largest U.S. soap opera audience ever. The year was less successful for Burton. A painful spinal degeneration forced him out of his Camelot revival and into surgery. His weight dropped to a gaunt 140 pounds. Then Susan left Burton, and in October he underwent surgery again, this time for a perforated ulcer.
He had, however, not lost all his fire. Even amidst his beery, bleary testimony of love in London, Burton regaled his Fleet Street confessors with humorous jibes at his beloved. "I firmly believe she cannot act onstage," he said. "In fact, when it comes to the stage, I always tell Elizabeth that she is a divine joke. She normally hits me over the head when I say this." He was only slightly kinder to Senator Warner: "He once took me outside our chalet in Gstaad, put his arms around me to give me a bear hug and said, 'How could you let your Liz get away?' What can you say to a remark like that? In a curious way, I was delighted to learn about the separation." He was not, however, quite so thrilled to learn about his own. "It is a matter of deep personal regret to me that my marriage to Susan has broken up," he said. "I did not want it to happen. When I was told she had done it, it was a terrible blow. When I recovered, I said, 'Okay, bugger off then,' and I am afraid she did just that."
Even while baring his soul, Burton could be as engaging as ever. "For some reason," he said, "the world has always been amused by us two maniacs. Seeing her again was like having my stomach ripped out. Last week I wouldn't have dared to presume to say she still loves me, but yet she does." He then flew back to Italy, and no one really knows whether that was the beginning or the end of their reconciliation. Taylor, playing it cool and coy in a press conference, had what might be the last word. "I am wonderful at playing bitches," she said, referring to her character in The Little Foxes. "Regina is avaricious, ambitious, slightly vulnerable—a coquette and a killer." She then paused dramatically, raised her world-famous eyebrows and added: "I hope she is not like me."