The Richard Burton Diaries

The Richard Burton Diaries


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The Richard Burton Diaries by Chris Williams, Richard Burton

Irresistibly magnetic on stage, mesmerizing in movies, seven times an Academy Award nominee, Richard Burton rose from humble beginnings in Wales to become Hollywood's most highly paid actor and one of England's most admired Shakespearean performers. His epic romance with Elizabeth Taylor, his legendary drinking and story-telling, his dazzling purchases (enormous diamonds, a jet, homes on several continents), and his enormous talent kept him constantly in the public eye. Yet the man behind the celebrity façade carried a surprising burden of insecurity and struggled with the peculiar challenges of a life lived largely in the spotlight.

This volume publishes Burton's extensive personal diaries in their entirety for the first time. His writings encompass many years—from 1939, when he was still a teenager, to 1983, the year before his death—and they reveal him in his most private moments, pondering his triumphs and demons, his loves and his heartbreaks. The diary entries appear in their original sequence, with annotations to clarify people, places, books, and events Burton mentions.

From these hand-written pages emerges a multi-dimensional man, no mere flashy celebrity. While Burton touched shoulders with shining lights—among them Olivia de Havilland, John Gielgud, Claire Bloom, Laurence Olivier, John Huston, Dylan Thomas, and Edward Albee—he also played the real-life roles of supportive family man, father, husband, and highly intelligent observer. His diaries offer a rare and fresh perspective on his own life and career, and on the glamorous decades of the mid-twentieth century.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780300197280
Publisher: Yale University Press
Publication date: 07/09/2013
Pages: 704
Sales rank: 555,586
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.20(h) x 1.60(d)

About the Author

Chris Williams is professor of Welsh history, director of the Research Institute for Arts and Humanities, and deputy director of the College of Arts and Humanities, Swansea University. He lives in Swansea, Wales.

Read an Excerpt



Copyright © 2012 Swansea University
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-300-18010-7


He is a deeply educated and remarkably unself-conscious man. He combines education with intuition to an unusual degree. He is a brilliant actor (in fact, he is all actor), but he is also an enemy to vulgarity and a man at war with boredom. He does not believe in a social elite nor will he take lodging in an ivory tower. He is a worker with a mind, but the worker remains. Happily, he is not snobbish in any direction.... He sincerely likes all manner of humanity, and I envy the characteristic. He is sophisticated without being cynical. He is generous without aggrandizing himself. He is a first-class acting companion, and I admire his personality without reservation.

William Redfield, writing about Richard Burton, 1964

Diaries? Autobiography? Time will tell, and may surprise.

Emlyn Williams, speaking at the Memorial Service for Richard Burton, St Martin-in-the-Fields, London, 30 August 1984

This introduction to Richard Burton's diaries performs a number of functions. First, it offers a sketch of the life of Richard Jenkins, later Richard Burton, from his birth in 1925 through to the beginning of what may be called the 'diary years', in 1965. During these first four decades Burton did keep two diaries which are reproduced in this volume: one in 1939/40, when he was still Richard Jenkins, and one in 1960, when he was married to his first wife, Sybil. Both are interesting, but neither offers anything in the way of a continuous narrative which might replace a broader overview of the subject's life in these years.

Once we arrive at the beginning of 1965, however, the diaries are sufficiently substantial and sequential to render any biographical sketching redundant. Linking passages, situated chronologically amidst the text itself, perform the vital function of connecting those parts of the diaries kept between January 1965 and March 1972 with each other.

After March 1972 the diaries are more fragmented. Further passages, also situated in the text, contextualize the primary materials for 1975, 1977, 1980 and 1983, and the last months of Richard Burton's life.

The second section of this introduction addresses the question of the provenance and purpose of the diaries. Why did Burton keep them? Who was their intended audience? To what extent can one explain the lapses in making entries, or even the many months and years that separate some of the diaries that have survived?

The third section extends this analysis by considering the value of the diaries, particularly when set against the context of the many biographies of Burton and of Elizabeth Taylor that purport to tell the story of the same period of time. To what extent, one has to enquire, do they represent a corrective to previously published accounts? Is it possible to see the diaries as harbouring a greater 'truth' than the many interviews given by Burton, or are they exercises in self-deception, no more reliable than any other source?

Finally, the principles by which these diaries have been edited and prepared for publication will be explained.

Richard Burton: A Biographical Sketch, 1925–1965

Richard Walter Jenkins was born on 10 November 1925 at the family home, 2, Dan-y-bont, Pontrhydyfen in the Afan valley, Glamorgan, Wales. His father, also named Richard Walter Jenkins and born in the same place in 1876, was a collier. His mother, born Edith Maud Thomas in 1883, had been a barmaid, and was originally from Llangyfelach north of Swansea, six miles to the west. Richard Sr and Edith had married in 1900. Their eldest child, Thomas Henry, had been born in 1901, and by 1925 there were four more sons – Ivor (born 1906), William (born 1911), David (born 1914) and Verdun (born 1916) – and four daughters: Cecilia (born 1905), Hilda (born 1918), Catherine (born 1921) and Edith (born 1922). Two other daughters, both named Margaret Hannah, had died in infancy (in 1903 and 1908, respectively). So Richard junior was the twelfth child and the sixth son of a prolific union, even by the standards of coal miners' families in the early twentieth century.

Pontrhydyfen was a mining village. The coal industry was the primary employer, although a greater diversity of industrial jobs existed a few miles to the south at Cwmafan and Port Talbot. At its immediate pre-war peak there had been a large pit in Pontrhydyfen and an associated drift mine together named the Cynon colliery, employing around 700 men, as well as the Merthyr Llantwit and the Argoed collieries, both of which employed around a hundred men each. Smaller concerns employing about twenty men operated at Graig Lyn and Wern Afon. There were other collieries within relatively easy travelling distance to the north, around Cymmer, and to the south, at Cwmafan.

The steep valley sides were, and remain, the dominant landscape motif and give the area an Alpine feel. The dramatic atmosphere is enhanced by two large viaducts: a seven-arch railway viaduct of red brick, and, looming above the Jenkins family home, what had originally been the Bont Fawr aqueduct, powering waterwheels at the long-closed Oakwood ironworks. This four-spanned structure in Pennant sandstone by 1925 carried a minor road.

Pontrhydyfen enjoyed the standard facilities of South Wales mining communities. There was a pub (the Miners' Arms), a Co-operative store, a primary school, an Anglican church (St John's) and two Nonconformist chapels. Bethel Welsh Baptist was the one favoured by the Jenkins family. Welsh was the language of the home, although all but the youngest children would also have been fluent in English.

By 1925 the South Wales coal industry was on the cusp of decline. South Wales coal had always been high in quality but also high in price, owing mainly to geological factors. Many of its favoured export markets had been lost during the First World War, or were now threatened by competitors able to undercut prices. Long-standing structural difficulties were exacerbated by Britain's return to the Gold Standard in 1925, which raised the prices of exports, by the facility given to Germany to pay some of its reparations under the Paris Peace Settlement in the form of coal, and by a succession of industrial disputes, including a three-month stoppage in 1921. A major dispute was narrowly postponed in 1925, but a showdown between the coal industry's notoriously intransigent employers and its equally robust trade unions appeared inevitable.

The crisis in the coal industry would have profound consequences for the Jenkins family, for not only did Richard Sr work underground but so did sons Tom, Ivor, Will, David and Verdun. The year after Richard's birth, 1926, was a profoundly traumatic one in the coal industry. A seven-month-long industrial dispute wrought havoc in areas such as South Wales, and plunged many families into serious poverty and debt. Richard Jenkins Sr's colliery closed, along with most in the immediate area, and he was forced to seek employment in a series of casual jobs.

But whatever the troubles in coalfield society at large, a more profound tragedy would befall the Jenkins family in 1927. Richard's mother Edith gave birth to her thirteenth child, Graham, on 25 October. Six days later she was dead, aged forty-four, having succumbed to septicaemia.

The response of the Jenkins family to this catastrophe revealed both its strengths and its weaknesses. Richard Sr – always a heavy drinker, a gambler and someone who was incapable of exercising control over his spending patterns – appears not to have had the sense of responsibility that, fortunately, his older children did possess. New baby Graham was sent to live a few miles away in Cwmafan with brother Tom and his wife Cassie. Two-year-old Richard moved further again: to Taibach, a district of Port Talbot, on the coast, and into the home of sister Cecilia ('Cis' or 'Cissie') and her husband Elfed James.

Cis was twenty years older than her brother. She was old enough to be his mother, and in many respects embraced that role. She and Elfed had been married for only four months when Edith died, and they were living in a terraced house in Caradog Street, Taibach. Elfed James was, like so many others, a miner, working mainly at Goitre colliery, just to the north of Taibach. He and Cis had met at Gibeon Welsh Independent (Congregationalist) Chapel, where Elfed's father was a deacon. Elfed, it seems, though competent in Welsh, was happiest speaking English, and this was the language of the James household, as it was of much of Taibach and Port Talbot generally. A year after taking Richard in, Cis and Elfed's first child, Marian, was born, in November 1928. A second daughter, Rhianon, followed in December 1931.

Although Richard would become most closely associated in the public mind with his birthplace of Pontrhydyfen, it is more accurate to see him as a product of Port Talbot, as this was where he lived from the age of two until he left South Wales altogether at the age of twenty-one.

Port Talbot took its name both from docks that were opened in 1839 and from the Talbot family that had lived at the nineteenth-century Tudor-style home of Margam Castle, further to the south. It embraced the older village centre of Aberafan, and was home to tinplate works and (from 1907) steelworks. The docks served both industries, as well as the copper works of the Cwmafan area and the coal mines of the Afan valley. The Great Western Railway passed through the town on the South Wales Railway, providing easy connections to both Cardiff (30 miles to the east) and Swansea (12 miles to the west), while the Rhondda and Swansea Bay railway line brought coal from the upper Rhondda Fawr through the Rhondda Tunnel (the longest in Wales) down the Afan valley to the docks. New docks were opened in 1898. The main occupations for men were in the metal industries, mining and transport. Women comprised less than a sixth of the officially recorded labour force, and most were to be found in the personal service, commercial and financial sectors, although there were some jobs for women in the tinplate industry. The majority of women were fully occupied in the home.

The 1921 census recorded Port Talbot's population as 40,005. That it grew to only 40,678 by 1931 indicates a certain amount of economic stagnation, although given that the population of the county of Glamorgan in which it stood declined in the same decade from 1,252,481 to 1,225,717, one might say that it fared better than settlements uniquely identified with the coal industry. Like many of the industrial towns of South Wales, it was characterized by leftwing politics. The Member of Parliament for Aberavon at the time of Richard's birth was Labour's J. Ramsay MacDonald, the former, and future, Prime Minister, while another scion of the town was George Thomas, who would become a long-serving Labour MP for the constituency of Cardiff West and, eventually, a famous Speaker of the House of Commons. Labour voting rested on strong traditions of trade unionism. William Abraham ('Mabon' to give him his bardic name), the leader of the South Wales miners in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, had been born at Cwmafan, while Clive Jenkins, born in Port Talbot a few months later than his namesake Richard, would become a leading light of the Trades Union Congress in the 1970s.

Neither the strength of such working-class credentials, nor the fact that Port Talbot society was increasingly dominated by the English language, inhibited the flourishing of Welsh national sentiment in the town. The National Eisteddfod, the major cultural festival of Wales, visited during Richard Jenkins's time in primary school – 1932 – and the suggestion was even advanced in 1943 that Port Talbot be made the capital of Wales, given that half the population of the country could be found within a 30-mile radius. Notwithstanding the economic difficulties of the inter-war years, this was still a proud, self-confident society.

At the age of five Richard began attending the Eastern Primary School. At eight he passed on to the Eastern Boys' School. He was an able, if not exceptional, pupil, with strong interests in sport (particularly rugby union) and in books. He made great use of the local public library on Station Road. Richard's interests were encouraged by one of his teachers at the Boys' School, Meredith Jones, and in June 1937 he passed the scholarship examination that would take him to Port Talbot Secondary School, one of two grammar schools in the town (the other being the 'County'). This was a significant achievement: most boys, especially working-class boys as Richard undoubtedly was, did not take this step, even if they had the ability.

Richard appears to have continued to develop and flourish in his new environment. Academically he had potential, but it was probably his sporting talents that were most apparent in his early years in the 'Sec'. His qualities as a wing forward in rugby union were recognized, but he was also an able cricketer. The first of his diaries provides ample evidence of his sustained focus both on his studies and on his attainments on the playing field.

School, of course, was just one element in a boy's life. Richard was being brought up in a household where religious observance was taken seriously, and where attendance at chapel on a Sunday was expected, often more than once. In 1933 a split had occurred in Gibeon Chapel: Cis and Elfed had followed their disgruntled pastor, the Reverend Dr John Caerau Rees, to a new cause named Noddfa ('Refuge'), initially in his own home but subsequently located in the library in Taibach. In 1939 Noddfa had finally opened its own premises, on Station Road, and the 1940 diary reveals that this would be regularly visited by Richard on most Sabbaths. Chapel-going involved much more than theology, of course. In many respects it was more important as a vehicle for social and cultural activities. Richard learned to play the organ and developed a talent for singing and recitation, which could be exhibited in the many Eisteddfodau that were staged in the Afan and nearby valleys.

Money was, it seems, an issue in the James household when Richard was a boy. The family moved a couple of hundred yards up Caradog Street, to a more attractive, semi-detached house, entirely their own, at the start of the 1930s. Their previous home had been rented accommodation: this was now on a mortgage. But regular and well-paid employment was not easy to find or to keep and finance was often difficult. In order to provide himself with pocket money Richard pursued a number of avenues. He delivered newspapers, and collected old papers to wrap fish and chips, and he collected animal dung from the hillsides above Taibach for sale as garden fertilizer. He spent his income on almost weekly visits to the cinema (there are forty-two recorded in his first diary), on books, and on clothes.

If 1940 catches Richard at a time when he is looking forward to a brighter future, despite the war that is raging in Europe and in the skies above Port Talbot, 1941 was to be much more disruptive. For in April of that year Richard suddenly left the Port Talbot Secondary School and, temporarily at least, abandoned his academic ambitions. His intention of taking the School Certificate examinations in June was put aside, and instead he began work in the men's outfitting department of the Taibach Co-operative Wholesale Society, just across the road from both the library and Noddfa chapel in Station Road. What prompted this appears to have been a financial crisis in the James household occasioned by Richard's brother-in-law Elfed falling ill and being out of work, although it is possible that it was partly explained by the disruption in the coal trade brought about by the fall of France in 1940. The James family had influence in the Co-op – Elfed would later serve on its management committee – which was a powerful institution with over 6,500 members in the locality and nine different premises.

Fortunately for Richard, this hiatus in his scholarly progress was temporary. His old teacher Meredith Jones continued to watch out for him, and urged him to return to school. Other supporters included County Councillor Llewellyn Heycock, a governor of the Port Talbot Sec and also chairman of the Glamorgan Education Committee, and Leo Lloyd, drama director of the Taibach Youth Club. Headmaster C. T. Reynolds was not enthusiastic about welcoming Richard back, but he did so in September 1941.

It was in this last phase of Richard's schooling that the influence of the English teacher Philip Burton became most profound. Richard had encountered Burton before – he is mentioned in the 1940 diary, most notably in connection with Richard's participation in the school production of George Bernard Shaw's The Apple Cart – but it was only after his return to school in the autumn of 1941 that the two began to work closely together.


Excerpted from THE RICHARD BURTON DIARIES Copyright © 2012 by Swansea University. Excerpted by permission of YALE UNIVERSITY PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents


List of Illustrations....................vii
Note on the Print Version....................x
Introduction, by Chris Williams....................1

What People are Saying About This

Emplyn Williams

Diaries? Autobiography? Time will tell, and may surprise.—Emlyn Williams, at Richard Burton's Memorial Service, London, August 1984

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The Richard Burton Diaries 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 2 reviews.
RKL More than 1 year ago
Burton was a first-rate writer as well as actor. He is insightful, humane, and funny. He demonstrates an intimidatingly good knowledge of poetry and of English literature, and his writing style puts that of most professionals to shame. It's really a loss that he did not pursue his writing ambitions. Anyway, the diaries are a marvelous read.
Reader_Grl More than 1 year ago
WAY too many footnotes. They could have been a book alone. Otherwise, an okay read.