Liz Smith: The “Last Letter” From Burton To Liz — Did It Ever Exist?

And more from our Gossip Girl: Kate Middleton — too thin or very pregnant? … Chelsea Handler, the $25 million dollar woman

“THERE WAS no letter. My lawyer talked to … other lawyers. And there was no ‘last letter.’”

That is Sally Burton, the fourth and last wife of Richard Burton. The widowed Sally never remarried after Richard’s death from a cerebral hemorrhage in 1984. The letter to which Sally is referring is one that the authors of Furious Love — the bestseller about the grand passion between Elizabeth Taylor and Richard — claim Richard wrote to Elizabeth just before his death.

The note seemed to suggest they should get back together again. The authors said Elizabeth kept this letter “by her bedside” for twenty years. They claimed Elizabeth would not show it to them.

Some backstory: In the immediate aftermath of Richard’s death, it was his second wife, Elizabeth Taylor, who was treated by the media as Burton’s widow. It was Taylor’s collapse at her Bel Air mansion on the news … it was Taylor’s grief that the magazine and newspapers headlined. When Sally decided — in the face of the international frenzy — that Elizabeth should not attend Burton’s funeral, Elizabeth agreed. Then Sally changed her mind, but it was too late. When Elizabeth did finally visit Burton’s grave, it was the inevitable, terrible mob scene.

Sally has never spoken much about Richard and less about Elizabeth, but the subject of “the last letter” has clearly strained her patience. “I’m sorry,” Sally tells Britain’s Daily Telegraph. “I’ve felt it for some time. They were divorced twice so there seems to have been a bit of a problem. It’s a wondrously romantic story, but …”

There was never any love lost between Sally and Elizabeth. Richard married Sally during the calamitous run of “Private Lives,” a joint 1983 effort Elizabeth hoped would rekindle their love. Apparently the Noel Coward play had quite the opposite effect! But Sally doesn’t think Elizabeth was behind the tale of the infamous “last letter.” She believes it was a fiction devised by the writers.

I can’t say for sure. But I do know that one of Elizabeth’s very closest assistants called this office in some distress, after the publication of the book, to say that there “was no last letter, she never spoke of such a thing to me, ever. There is nothing resembling a letter by her bedside; she never said it.”

And though this aide didn’t say it, Elizabeth’s health, by the time she had contact with the authors, was extremely fragile. She was in constant pain. In fact, at the time, she had assumed the book was to be about Richard, only. Not a recounting of their affair and marriages.

When she read an excerpt of the book in a magazine, Elizabeth flung it to the floor and said, “What a fucking piece of trash.”

Some people thought the tale of the letter was “romantic.” Others were appalled. It was as if she was stealing Burton from yet another wife — this time from the grave.

Elizabeth never denied her love for Richard, and when she did speak of him, sometimes she’d say “maybe we might have tried again” — stressing her own sobriety as an impetus. (Her very last conversation with her stepdaughter, Kate Burton was about Richard — how much she still loved him and missed him.)

But Elizabeth Taylor was not a cruel woman. And I don’t believe she would have deliberately gone out of her way to hurt Sally Burton. Especially after over twenty years, and all that Elizabeth had suffered physically. Those sufferings changed her. For the better.

Even sans “the letter,” do I think Elizabeth and Richard might have tried for “third time’s the charm.” I honestly do, and this is no reflection on Sally Burton, who has set up scholarships in Richard’s name and kept the actor’s flame burning. As much as the chaos of Elizabeth’s life repelled Richard at times, he was inevitably drawn back to it, to her, and to the publicity. He always saw himself as the tragic figure of Faust and Elizabeth as his Helen of Troy. He even made a movie about it. And Elizabeth didn’t seem to mind that it was she who was seen pulling Faust down to hell, cackling madly.

I guess she figured, as long as they were together!

* * *

CHELSEA HANDLER is the E! network’s raunchiest female star. She is host of late-night’s “Chelsea Lately” and often takes her own network to task for its programming. She is especially hard — and funny — about the Kardashians. Nobody in the public eye escapes her scathing ruminations. Not even herself (The title of her first book was, as you know, Are You There, Vodka? It’s Me, Chelsea!)

Well, the powers at E! have a good sense of humor, apparently. Chelsea has been signed on for two more years and received a nice raise. She’ll earn a whopping $25 million. Vodka has been good to this girl.

* * *

A WAY not to diet. Whenever you are tempted to reach for something fattening or sugary just stop and ask yourself, “Would the Duchess of Cambridge eat that?” I know someone who saw the newlywed Kate recently. She says the Duchess is so thin it’s unbelievable, especially when she looks healthy in her photos. Some feel she is too thin, all but emaciated in person. (I recall many felt she was too thin even at her wedding, though most people put that down to all brides wanting to be their slimmest on their big day.)

And yet, several of the supermarket tabloids are insisting Kate is five months pregnant, one magazine even ran a photo of Kate with her hand on her stomach, as if that really means anything.

* * *

HARPER’S Bazaar tells us several things I never knew till now: Doctors in Florida take up 89% of all oxycodone sold in the U.S. … The Chinese buy 2,100,000 chopsticks from the state of Georgia’s Georgia Chopsticks. So do ABC’s “buy America” people know about that? … Seventy-five percent of Americans age 17-24 are ineligible to join the military … a typical good-looking U.S. worker ends up out-earning an ugly one by as much as $230,000 over a lifetime.

They say by the time you are 21, you have 99 friends, but from that moment on, you start losing them. At the peak, you have 13 best pals and 17 close friends and 70 acquaintances.

Ronald Reagan once declared that ketchup was a vegetable. Is that why French schools recently banned ketchup?!

9 comments so far.

  1. avatar rick gould says:

    I was wondering when this Sally Burton item regarding was going to come up in this column.
    Let the fun begin…

  2. avatar Lila says:

    It is true, and frightening, that 75% of our nation’s youth is not fit for the military. Obesity is one factor, but so is poor education, and all kinds of frailties that seem to be on the rise – allergies, asthma, ADHD, etc., if severe enough. It’ scary – when I was a kid, there were only one or two kids I knew who had ANY kind of allergy or asthma. And no one had heard of ADHD… And I don’t recall any totally unmanageable kids in the classroom, either, or any on prescriptions. Now? Seems like healthy kids really are the minority.

  3. avatar sandra b says:

    This was yesterday asking never to print Kardashian again:
     Jay Gentile November 16, 2011 at 2:19 pm Liz, please never print the name of any Kardashian again — until they actually accomplish something other than making homemade porn and starring in fake weddings. Between Sarah Palin and the Kardashians, America is awash is whorish grifters. They deserve no additional publicity or celebrity. Please?

    So there is it again today – Kardashians. And in bold type no less. Come on Liz – don’t turn into those writers from USAToday and Yahoo who can’t go one day without giving that trash family some press. Even if it is second hand via Chelsea. PLEASE. There are so many more intersting people to write about.

  4. avatar Mr. Wow says:

    WoW!   Great pic of Liz n’ Dick. 

    And if I am not mistaken, posed in London only weeks before they split for the second time.  (At Burton’s 50th birthday party.) 

    By the time ET reached New York to watch Richard in “Equus” she was less luminous, less attractively coiffed and had to witness Burton publicly embrace his soon-to-be third wife, Suzy Hunt, at Sardi’s.  What goes around comes around and I am sure Miss T. thought quite a bit about Sybil Burton as she fled Manhattan. 

    Then again, on Burton’s “Equus” opening night, the crowds outside the theater were screaming for her.  Not  him.  As Liz Smith notes–Faust had sold his soul.  But he was always Helen of Troy’s creature.

    • avatar Andy Budgell says:

      Mr WoW, Any chance of you and Miz Smith collaborating on a book about Elizabeth? Surely it would be the “definitive” account of her extraordinary life! Please consider it! :)

  5. avatar Baby Snooks says:

    I wish everone would get their stories straight. Now Sally Burton claims Elizabeth agreed not to come to Switzerland the funeral.  Then Sally decided she should. But she didn’t. Not likely given her obsession for Richard Burton.  I guess next Sally will claim there was no feud. We all imagined it. But does want us all to know there was no letter.  Something odd about it as they say. 

    As for the letter that everyone now claims didn’t exist. Well everyone who printed that it did no doubt was contacted by the “close associate” at the time but for some reason everyone forgot to “correct’ the story. Including unless I’m mistaken Liz Smith.  And unless I’m mistaken it was reported by several media outlets that she had been buried with the letter. And since the media wasn’t invited, that little bit of information had to have come from whoever was handling the media for the family. Now, we are told the letter doesn’t exist. Seems everyone wants to paint a pretty picture. Or have some pretty publicity prior to the Chrsitie’s auctions.  Now we have Richard and his Merry Wives. 

    • avatar Mr. Wow says:

      Dear Baby…

      Sally’s story never changed on Burton’s funeral.  She forbade ET to attend, citing the media circus her presence would cause.  Elizabeth agreed.  Her four children flew to Switzerland.  Then, Sally indeed thought it over.  Or said she did.  But by that time, it was too late for ET to catch a flight.  Sally said she regretted initially banning ET.  And she probably did.  By all accounts she is a nice woman.

      A week later, Elizabeth did go to Switzerland, was guided to the wrong gravesite and cornered by the press.  That night, attended by her entourage who held up umbrellas to shield her, she found Burton’s grave.  The photos of her in distress, without makeup are quite sad.   Burton’s family then invited Taylor to the London memorial a month or so later.  They insisted she–not Sally–sit with all of them.  I’m sure ET was more than glad to oblige at that point, all the matters being quite fresh.  Including her fiancee Victor Luna backing out of their marriage, shocked by Taylor’s hysterical reaction to Burton’s death.

      As for “the letter” we’ll never know, but it seems uncharacteristic of Taylor–wouldn’t you say?  Is it something “The Earth Mother” would do?   And this is the second time Liz Smith has printed the tale of Taylor’s aide insisiting the note did not exist.  

      However, the story is too “good” (or bad)  not to  become a part of the Taylor/Burton myth. I choose not to believe it, with no proof either way.  She wasn’t mean, in my experience.   In any case, Sally, Sybil and Debbie have outlived Taylor, and quite healthily, too.   They had the satisfaction of watching her terrible decline over the past 15 years. 

      • avatar Baby Snooks says:

        I wish I had time to “google” away – there was a feud. From the moment Burton died. Suddenly, there was no feud. Please. As for “What Would Earth Mother Do?” Well, she would open up the bedstand and read the lover a little bedtime story. She was OBSSESSED with him. With or without a letter in the bedstand drawer. He must have been dynamite in bed. Only explanation why she and Sybil both would put up with the “wandering.”  He apparently never “wandered” on Sally. But then who was left to “wander” with at that point? Of course it may have fallen off. What he predicted would happen to Henry Wynberg. Who he was just a little jealous of. And he was a little obssessed as well. But he knew it. Which is why he would never entered the ring for round three. His worst addiction was not alcohol. His worst addiction was Elizabeth Taylor.  Sally became his “Betty Ford.”  She was also his Sybil.  Who I think he always regretted divorcing. Which she probably knew. Which made it all the more unforgiveable. Despite her having gone on to what has been a really nice life.

        I doubt anyone including Sybil got any satisfaction over her decline. They may have gotten satisfaction over other things. But not that.  In the end despite the public appearance to the contrary, hers was not really an enviable life. The only thing that was enviable was her ability to make the best of it.  Which she did. People talk about how she hurt others. Others hurt her as well. She was just like the rest of us.  Mixed bags all.

        It’s a shame they grabbed the laptop. I suspect after she got finished with Arnie Klein she would have proceeded with a “And while I’m having at it…”   Even Baby Snooks would have gotten nailed. Although maybe not. I think she knew I knew she meant well. And knew that I did as well. All that matters. Not everyone means well. 

  6. avatar RobinRR says:

    I think by the time 1964 / 1965 came around Sybil was damn glad to be rid of Mr. Burton and is probably grateful to Ms. Taylor. Sybil, by the way, was the only wife of Mr. Burton who did not attend either his funeral and his memorials so obviously she doesn’t think too much about here time with him.