Discovering the queer history of Hollywood icon Richard Burton
‘Famous Welsh actor that was married to Elizabeth Taylor…’ was about the extent of my knowledge about Richard Burton. But I was in South Wales near the town where he was born, so it seemed like a good opportunity to learn a bit more about this icon of stage and screen.
What I discovered seemed decidedly queer – Richard Burton definitely registered on my Gaydar.
Although never having formally trained as an actor, Burton was widely recognised and awarded as one of the leading actors of his generation.
Born in 1925, he was originally called Richard Jenkins – changing his surname to Burton when he was taken in as a ward by his schoolteacher, Philip Burton.
Richard Burton died in 1984 at the age of 58. He’d been married five times, but he’d had only four wives – he married Elizabeth Taylor twice.
The local tourism board has created a self-guided trail that takes you through some of the key points of interest in Richard Burton’s life in South Wales.
The trail begins in the small town of Taibach, on the outskirts of Port Talbot, where Burton lived for his formative years. Taibach isn’t a very pretty place – dominated by the steel works that has always been a major source of employment for the community.
Starting from the memorial park, we walked past the library where Burton studied and borrowed books, on to the Baptist chapel where he worshipped with his sister, the rugby club where he drank, the house where he lived with his sister and her family, the house where Philip Burton lived and where he took Richard in as his ward, and the secondary school where Philip Burton worked as a teacher and where Richard studied.
All of this in the shadow of the imposing Brombil Mountain, which overlooks the village – easily accessible from the neighbourhood where he lived. The young Richard Burton would frequently walk up the mountain and practice his vocal exercises, as well as drink and smoke – both of which he enjoyed from a young age.
There is a tremendous sense of pride and ownership by the local community of the Richard Burton legacy. The children from the primary school that Burton attended have designed and planted the memorial flowerbed in the local park, and the children from the secondary school that he attended have produced a lot of the material that’s included in the local guides to his life.
From Taibach, it was only a short drive to Pontrhydyfen – the village where Burton was born. The self-guided walk for this location takes you past the house where Burton was born, the street where his friends and family lived, out along a walking trail to a portrait bench where there’s a table for picnicking, and you can listen to recordings of Burton reciting poetry from Dylan Thomas, finishing the trail at the chapel where the memorial service was held upon his death.
Both the Taibach and Pontrhydyfen trails are easy walking, and there’s a couple of cafes or pubs offering coffee and lunch. We stopped at Afan Lodge, a former miners’ hall. It was in this hall where Richard Burton first performed on stage, taking part in a local eisteddord competition.
What was interesting about visiting the neighbourhood where Richard Burton grew up, and walking in his footsteps, was that there was nothing particularly special about where he was born, who his family was, or where he went to school – his was a fairly small world. He could have been anyone, and simply faded into obscurity like most of us are destined to do. But from those humble beginnings, Burton created something more for himself – a starring role on the world stage.
Having seen where Richard Burton had come from, I wanted to understand more about the man himself. That evening, I met up for a drink with Professor Chris Williams. A professor at Swansea University, Williams has edited and published the diaries of Richard Burton.
How did the publication of Richard Burton’s diaries come about?
It was 2005, and I’d just joined Swansea University. At that time, Richard Burton’s widow – Sally – was looking for somewhere to donate his letters and papers. She ultimately selected Swansea University as it was the main University close to where Burton had grown up – part of the deal was that we would publish the diaries.
My speciality is as a historian of Wales, I’m generally dealing with academic topics that reach a small number of people, so editing something like this was a bit of a new experience.
What makes Richard Burton worthy of this type of interest and attention?
He has a great reputation for theatre, but that’s not something you can experience today. His film record is mixed – in most films he essentially plays himself, and his films haven’t aged well. You have his voice, which is undeniably powerful – particularly as a speaker of poetry and a performer of the work of Dylan Thomas. Ultimately, he was a powerful personality and a great presence. There’s something to that.
Which is your favourite Richard Burton film?
I’ve watched a lot of Burton films. I like The Spy Who Came In From The Cold. One of the more interesting movies he made was Staircase in which he and Rex Harrison played a gay couple – Burton had high hopes for this movie but it wasn’t successful, and it’s almost impossible to find these days.
There were some rumours that Burton was gay, was there anything in the diaries that suggested this?
There were rumours, and he was asked about it once in an interview – he replied something like he had ‘tried it once.’ But there isn’t anything in the diaries that he wrote that confirms this.
There are actually some mildly homophobic comments in the diaries, but this generally just reflects how people spoke at the time.
The relationship with Philip Burton seems an interesting dynamic – his teacher at secondary school who takes an interest in the young Richard, eventually takes him as his ward and Richard moves in with him and changes his surname to Burton?
It’s difficult to look at that situation with a modern sensibility – at that time, it wouldn’t have seemed so unusual.
While it is clear that Philip had taken an interest in talented boys before, looking at the diaries, there’s no real suggestion that there was anything improper about Philip’s interest in Richard. However, at one point, Richard makes a reference to Philip having ‘tried it on’ but that he ‘never got anywhere’.
There is some sense that Richard wanted to adopt Philip as opposed to the other way around – Richard needed a father figure.