"I love not being me," Elizabeth Taylor once said, strange as such a thing might sound coming from a glamorous megastar. "Not being Elizabeth Taylor, but being Richard Burton's wife."
Before Brangelina, there was Dickenliz. This celebrity union, passionate and excessive in countless ways, both scandalized and mesmerized the public like none before or after, making today's version — Brad and Angelina — seem positively boring in comparison.
And, for better or for worse, it came to define Taylor and the rest of her life. Critics and observers might disagree about whether it enhanced or detracted from her film career. Clearly, to Taylor, it didn't really matter.
"Elizabeth didn't give a damn," says Aileen Mehle, the famous gossip columnist who was known as Suzy. "She didn't care what people thought. She was going to live her life the way she wanted it, and be with the men she wanted."
And Taylor wanted Burton almost from the moment they met in Italy on the film set of the 1963 "Cleopatra," a film whose excesses mirrored those of the relationship it launched. "His hands were shaking from a hangover," says Nancy Schoenberger, co-author with Sam Kashner of last year's "Furious Love," a look at the relationship. "She had her defenses up at first, but he went through them all."
They were both married at the time — she to Eddie Fisher, whom she had famously "stolen" from Debbie Reynolds, he to wife Sybil Burton. "Through all his dalliances, the understanding was that he'd never leave Sybil," says Schoenberger. "But that was before he met Elizabeth."
Once public, the relationship was a full-blown scandal. Taylor was denounced on the floor of the House of Representatives and by the Vatican. "Whenever somebody says, 'So and so is a big star,'" columnist Liz Smith once said, "I say, 'Have they been condemned by the Vatican?'"
The Taylor-Burton union happened to coincide with the sharp rise of paparazzi culture. The term "paparazzo," which technically means a buzzing insect, was actually coined by director Federico Fellini in his 1960 film "La Dolce Vita." It wasn't about Taylor and Burton, but it could have been, says Schoenberger: "It was really the beginning of paparazzi culture as we know it now," she says. "The feeding frenzy, the photographers trailing stars with telephoto lenses."