Romanov conspiracy theories

Between 1918 and 1991 no one knew for sure what had happened to the Romanovs. The Russian government admitted that Tsar Nicholas had been executed but they were close-lipped about the fate of the others. It’s little wonder that conspiracy theories sprang up and imposters stepped forward. Apart from anything else, the Romanovs were worth what would be $300 billion in today’s terms, much of it rumoured to be deposited in foreign bank accounts.

Nicholas II had been a disastrous ruler, quite willing to order his troops to fire on his own people; Alexandra was suspected (unfairly) of sneaking state secrets to her native Germany during the First World War and there was that ill-considered relationship with Rasputin. But no one had any evidence of wrongdoing by the children, the youngest of whom were just seventeen (Anastasia) and thirteen (Alexei). Who could have been barbaric enough to massacre these innocents? It was hard to accept that any government would sanction such a thing. Thus the world’s readiness to believe some or all had survived.

The best-known Romanov imposter was Anna Anderson, who turned up in a Berlin asylum


Anna Anderson


Grand Duchess Anastasia

in 1920 and claimed to be Anastasia. Loads of people believed her, including the children of the family physician Dr Botkin, who had died with them in the Ekaterinburg house, their cousin Grand Duke Andrei, and even the composer Sergei Rachmaninoff. Anna Anderson died in 1984, still maintaining that she was the Romanovs’ youngest daughter. DNA tests ten years later showed otherwise, but as recently as 2014, Russian historian Veniamin Alekseyev claimed that the tests had been flawed, the DNA contaminated. He thinks that Anastasia probably did escape and Anna Anderson could well have been her. French historian Marc Ferro goes further by suggesting that Alexandra and her daughters might all have survived, with only the tsar and his son Alexei murdered.

There were several claimants for each of the Romanov children, and the story that particularly fascinates me is that of Larissa Tudor. She made no claims herself but after her death in 1926 rumours began to circulate that she had in fact been Grand Duchess Tatiana. Where did the large sum of money she left her husband come from? Why did he take flowers to her grave every year on the date of Tatiana’s birthday? And why did he have ‘Feodorovna’ carved on her gravestone (Feodorovna was her Alexandra’s patronymic) when according to Larissa’s marriage certificate her maiden name was Haouk?


Grand Duchess Tatiana


Larissa and Owen Tudor

Larissa made several contradictory claims about her own background, most famously that she was a belly dancer living in Constantinople when Owen Tudor, an officer in the King’s Own Hussars, met her in 1921. They married in London in 1923 and lived a very quiet life near Lydd in Kent. Larissa died of tuberculosis three years later but after her death rumours began to spread. When neighbours who had known her were shown portraits of Tatiana by author Michael Occleshaw, they all exclaimed “That’s her!”

There are a number of theories about how Tatiana could have escaped from Russia but Occleshaw thinks she was flown out of Ekaterinburg in early July 1918 by British agents and made her way east through Canada and hence to Britain.

What do I think happened? You’ll have to read my new novel The Secret Wife to find out.

Could the Romanovs have been rescued?

If only JFK had been in a bulletproof limo in Dallas in November 1963. If only von Stauffenberg’s plot to kill Hitler had been successful in July 1944. And amongst history’s other ‘if only’ moments are the various attempts to rescue the Russian royal family in 1917 and 18.

After they were arrested on the 16th of March 1917, the family hoped that they would either be sent into exile in their beloved Livadia Palace on the Crimean coast, or transported to Britain, where Alexandra was closely related to the British royal family (she was a granddaughter of Queen Victoria). Another plan was that they go to Denmark, birthplace of Nicholas’s mother, or perhaps Switzerland, which was neutral in the Great War.

Telegrams began whizzing between European foreign offices as every foreign secretary tried to offload the political headache onto another country. One thing was clear: they had to move quickly because the situation in Russia was volatile. An offer of asylum was sent by Britain on the 23rd March and a plan was drawn up to get the Romanovs to Murmansk, where a British cruiser could collect them. But at that point, King George V got cold feet. Where would they live? Who would subsidise them if they couldn’t get their own money out of Russia? Would his subjects rise up in protest? On 30th March, the offer of asylum was quietly rescinded. It had been their best chance of survival.

The Romanov girls in captivity in Tobolsk

The Romanov girls in captivity in Tobolsk

In August 1917, the family were moved to Tobolsk in the heart of Siberia. Hundreds of miles from the sea it was going to be much harder to rescue them, but still there were several plans. Two businessmen, Jonas Lied and Henry Armistead, proposed to the British Foreign Secretary that they would whisk the Romanovs out of Russia in James Bond style, using a fast motorboat to take them along the river systems to the ocean. However, this had to wait till spring because Tobolsk’s rivers were frozen throughout the winter months.

In October 1917 Lenin seized power and straight away took a hard line against the erstwhile royals. Alexei, the Tsar’s haemophiliac son, injured himself during the winter and could no longer walk, while Alexandra was mostly bedbound with sciatica, making rescue increasingly problematic. A Russian commissar, Yakovlev, tried to divert a train and get the family to Omsk, a town not yet under Bolshevik control, but this plan was scuppered by militant railway workers.

Instead the Romanovs were taken to Ekaterinburg and placed in the ‘House of Special Purpose’, where they were much more heavily guarded than at any previous accommodation. The net was closing, but still the intrepid Armistead was plotting to get them out in his motorboat. Others had their own schemes but any rescue would have involved a shoot-out with armed guards, which was risky.

Ironically, it was rumours of these rescue attempts, combined with the approach of around 40,000 Czech troops, that forced Lenin’s hand. At around 3am on the 17th of July 1918 the Romanovs were brutally murdered in a dingy basement.

If only George V had been more charitable. If only Henry Armistead had got them out of Tobolsk before winter set in. If only…

Women who prioritised career over love

Ms Nightingale

Ms Nightingale

If you find it challenging to juggle a successful career with a rewarding love life, pity the poor Victorian women for whom it wasn’t an option. Opportunities for fulfilling work outside the home were few and far between and if women did try to forge a career they’d most likely find it hard to get a husband. Those from the poorest households took menial jobs for the money and juggled them with raising kids, but the middle and upper classes tended to wait, like Jane Austen heroines, for the right man to come along or else they risked being left on the shelf.

Mr Monckton Milnes

Mr Monckton Milnes

Take Florence Nightingale, for example. She knew from an early age that she wanted to be a nurse but she hoped to marry as well, believing marriage was the route to true happiness. For seven years during her twenties she was pursued by a man named Richard Monckton Milnes, the MP for Pontefract and biographer of Keats. They were compatible on many levels – intellectually, morally and passionately, she wrote in her diary. She knew she would suffocate in a traditional marriage with her days occupied by domestic concerns, so hoped to persuade Mr Monckton Milnes to accept a working wife. But it was not to be; he stormed off after proposing one last time at a garden party in 1849. No one knows exactly what was said but Florence later told her aunt there had been a “misunderstanding”. It seems he wanted a wife to support his political career while she hoped to study nursing in Germany, and they could not reach agreement.

Florence was deeply depressed about the break-up, saying “life is desolate to me to the last degree without his sympathy”, and she was cut to the quick when he barely spoke to her when they next met the following spring. He married someone else, and in 1854 Florence was sent out to Constantinople to set up a hospital for troops wounded in the Crimean War, where as the “lady with the lamp” she became England’s national heroine. She went on to have an extraordinary career, setting professional standards for the training of nurses and improving healthcare throughout the nation, but she never married. She had hoped to have it all – a useful career and a loving marriage – but she was simply born too soon.

Ms Austen

Ms Austen

Writing novels was a popular career for Victorian ladies, since it did not involve working in dirty dangerous places such as hospitals where they would have to mingle with the lower classes. But all the best-known female novelists of the age had difficulty finding love, perhaps because, consciously or unconsciously, they knew it would stop them pursuing their ambitions. Jane Austen fell for a man named Tom Lefroy but when his family prevented the match she channelled her heartbreak into writing the book that became Pride and Prejudice. Would she have produced the six novels we all know and love if she had married Tom? It seems unlikely. But if she had, under Victorian property law, her husband would have owned the copyright in her work.

Charlotte Brönte avoided marrying till the age of thirty-eight, by which time she had produced her great works. Her novelist sisters Emily and Anne died young without marrying, and Mary Ann Evans had the most complicated love life of all, full of heartbreak and angst. While working as assistant editor on the Westminster Literary Review she began an affair with a married man, George Lewes, and they moved in together, which led to her being ostracised from polite society. She published her seven hugely successful novels (including Middlemarch and The Mill on the Floss) under the pseudonym George Eliot fearing that they wouldn’t sell under her own disgraced name.

Mrs Fry

Mrs Fry

One area in which Victorian wives could be active was charitable work, perhaps supporting the poor of the parish. This fitted the idea of women as ideals of moral probity and could be combined with the highest goal of all – motherhood. Elizabeth Fry managed to campaign for prison reform alongside her husband Joseph while raising an impressive eleven children. But Octavia Hill, who fought for social housing for the inner-city poor, chose women as her closest companions (and, some speculate, lovers).

Some women might become involved in running the family business but it was difficult for them to own it in their own right until changes in the property laws took effect in the 1880s. Bathsheba Everdene, Thomas Hardy’s heroine in Far From the Madding Crowd, was based on a real woman he heard about who tried to run a farm inherited from an uncle, and was considered scandalous by the locals. Hardy cops out by giving her a love interest, Gabriel Oak, to save the day, because obviously a woman could not have managed on her own!

Gradually the tide began to turn as a result of the efforts of these early pioneers. By the 1890s, Pierre Curie was respectful enough of his wife Marie’s scientific career to give up his own research and help her in her discovery of radioactivity. In 1919 Nancy Astor had her husband’s support when she became Britain’s first female member of parliament. But throughout the twentieth century many career-women still had to put their love lives on the back burner in order to reach the top.

Great-aunt Julia

Great-aunt Julia

My great-aunt Julia was one: a multi-lingual secretary at the British embassies in Paris and Madrid in the 1920s and 30s, she went on to work for the Special Operations Executive, the secret organisation that parachuted spies into Occupied France to liaise with the Résistance during World War Two. She had an exciting, fulfilling life but she never married. When I was a medical student and she was in her nineties, she told me she was glad I would have a career but wanted to know if I was “courting”. I told her all about my hugely complex love life and she smiled and said I was lucky because my generation could have it all, whereas it hadn’t been possible in her day. I didn’t like to ask if she had ever been in love but after she died I found many love letters amongst her possessions so it seems she had her chances. Did she regret choosing a career over marriage? Based on our conversations I think she would have liked to have children. I suspect all the women who made that choice must have looked back and wondered “What if…?”

We seldom have to choose outright between a love life and a career these days: it’s more a case of little daily compromises. Who takes a day off when a child is sick? Who puts their own work to one side to help their partner through a challenging deadline? We have many more options nowadays, with long-distance relationships, live-apart marriages, and all kinds of compromises that allow couples to pursue their careers and love lives at the same time – although the high failure rate in celebrity marriages is often attributed to them not spending enough time together. And some female politicians (Liz Kendall, Condoleeza Rice) find it hard to combine their ambitions with their love life. But ask yourself truly… If a situation arose in which you had to choose, as Florence Nightingale did, between career advancement and the man you really loved, which way would you go? Maybe we should think about this next time we’re moaning about juggling a partner, a home and a career.

Some inspiring Victorian careerwomen

Think of Jane Austen’s heroines: middle-class girls who live with their parents, doing needlework, painting watercolours and playing the piano – until a man proposes, whereupon they get married and run their own household, perhaps doing a spot of charity work in their spare time. This was the norm for middle-class Victorian girls. Popular literature stereotyped women as angelic models of moral probity, with motherhood their highest ideal, and the vast majority of the upper and middle classes conformed. So the intrepid women who sailed east in 1854 to nurse soldiers injured during the Crimean War were extraordinarily daring and courageous pioneers.

Of course, poor women had always worked – as servants, laundresses, farm hands, governesses, prostitutes … and as nurses. Victorian hospitals were rough, dangerous places and nurses were menial servants who scrubbed floors and emptied bedpans. Dickens perhaps did them a disservice with the caricature of Mrs Gamp in Martin Chuzzlewit as a hard-drinking, dissolute type who didn’t much care for her patients’ welfare, but nurses were paid a pittance for doing a very tough job and given no training in healthcare so I’m sure the Mrs Gamp type existed. Charitable committees of well-meaning middle- or upper-class ladies could visit the wards, mop fevered brows and read to the more respectable patients, but for such women to take paid employment in a hospital was unheard of.

Ms Nightingale

Ms Nightingale

Florence Nightingale’s struggle to be taken seriously is inspiring. She came from an aristocratic background but always knew she would suffocate as “just a wife”. She met the right people, impressed them with her grit and intelligence, and in October 1854 was invited by the Minister of War, Sidney Herbert, to go out to Constantinople to establish a hospital for the troops, where she became the “lady with the lamp” and the indomitable force of legend. After the war, although her health was severely compromised by an illness she caught in Crimea, she devoted her life to establishing training schools for nurses and forcing the medical establishment to take them seriously.

Ms Seacole

Ms Seacole

Jamaican-born Mary Seacole, a self-proclaimed “doctress”, also has a remarkable story. Before the war, she had achieved significant success treating British soldiers who succumbed to a cholera epidemic in the West Indies, and her understanding of the need to keep the patient hydrated was prescient for the day. The colour of her skin made it hard for her to gain respect in Crimea – Florence Nightingale was not a fan – but Ms Seacole’s courage in rushing out onto the field of battle to treat the wounded, and her generosity in distributing home-made refreshments, made her the soldiers’ favourite.

James Barry

James Barry

One of the most astonishing stories of all is that of James Barry. Born female, she dressed as a man in order to study Medicine at Edinburgh University and rose to the rank of Inspector General of Military Hospitals. During the Crimean War she ran a hospital on Corfu where the death rate was 90% less than at Florence Nightingale’s Constantinople hospital – much to Florence’s chagrin. That Barry was a member of the fairer sex was only discovered following her death.

Mary Seacole wrote a gripping account of her time in Crimea, as did other heroines who are not so well remembered today. Welshwoman Elizabeth Davis wrote a fascinating book about her spell as a Balaklava nurse, with descriptions that showed an advanced understanding of gangrene and necrosis. And Nurse Sarah Anne Terrot’s memoir is so extraordinarily compassionate that I had tears in my eyes as I read her descriptions of the patients she treated – such as the young lad who sobbed to her “I’m going to die, and my father and mother did love me so.”

After the amazing work these women did in the Crimean conflict of 1854-56, society was prepared to accept middle-class girls training as professional nurses and feminism as we know it was a tiny step closer. In the late 1850s a feminist periodical called the English Woman’s Journal was the first of several publications to promote women having careers, and in 1859 the Society for Promoting the Employment of Women was formed. It was a tough call to reject the ideal of the pure, angelic, stay-at-home mother and fight for the right to a career in the male-dominated labour force, but by the end of the century middle-class women had a foothold in a few professions, and medicine was notable among them. When we talk about the difficulty of breaking through glass ceilings in the present day, we should remember that these women had to dig their way up from the cellar!


My novel No Place for a Lady tells of two sisters caught up in the Crimean conflict, one of them a nurse, and it draws on the memoirs of several nurses who were there:

Why do we remember the Titanic but not the Lusitania?

WSOSOn the 7th of May 1915, as transatlantic passengers were eating their lunch, the Lusitania was hit by a German torpedo and sank with the loss of 1,201 lives. Three years earlier, when the Titanic hit an iceberg, the death toll of 1,513 was attributable to negligence, but the sinking of the Lusitania was a deliberate crime committed on the orders of U-boat captain Walther Schweiger. So why is it scarcely remembered today, while the Titanic has so firmly entered our cultural memory?

The torpedoing of the Lusitania was deeply shocking at the time. Although the passengers were predominantly British there were 159 Americans, of whom 128 perished, shaking the US stance of neutrality in the First World War to its foundations. Among the dead were 94 children, and survivors gave harrowing accounts of their angelic upturned faces as they floated lifeless in the water. At first, as with the Titanic, coverage focused on the fates of rich and famous: millionaire Alfred Vanderbilt, on his way to a meeting of a horse-breeding society; Charles Frohmann, the theatre impresario who brought Peter Pan to the stage; actresses Rita Jolivet and Josephine Brandell; fashion designer Carrie Hickson; aristocrat Lady Hugh Montagu Allan and her two daughters… And then news stories shifted to the tiny acts of heroism, the split-second decisions that had made the difference between life and death: the volunteering of a lifejacket, the rush down to a cabin to search for a lost child, all of them heart-rending and forcing readers to wonder “Would I have shown the same mettle?”

While the Titanic took two hours and forty minutes to sink after hitting the iceberg, passengers on the Lusitania had only eighteen minutes before the ship upended and slid beneath the surface. There was no time for a band to play, for ladies to collect their jewellery and furs and gents to fill their hip flasks, or for couples to argue about whether one should get into a lifeboat and leave the other behind. In the mad scramble only seven lifeboats were launched out of a total of twenty-two. The severe list of the ship made it virtually impossible to use the boats on the port side – but there was still hope for those who had failed to find a place. The water off the south coast of Ireland was 11°C, and those who were fit enough to cling to a piece of wreckage had a chance of surviving until the first rescue boats arrived some three and a half hours later. By contrast, it’s reckoned that no one lived more than twenty minutes in the –2°C north Atlantic waters where the Titanic sank.

Maybe there are dramatic reasons why so few films have been made about the Lusitania. The tension in Titanic movies comes from those 160 minutes when it gradually became clear the ship was doomed and rescue would not arrive in time, despite the valiant efforts of the radio operators signalling in the new Morse code. On the Lusitania, it was obvious from first impact that the ship was fatally damaged, but the Irish coast was so close everyone expected rescue to be imminent. The reason it took so long was because boats were understandably reluctant to venture out with a German U-boat on the prowl. In cinematic terms, survivors growing gradually weaker as they float around on disintegrating rafts or cling to beer crates does not make for dramatic viewing.

While the sinking of the Titanic dominated the news for over a year, the Lusitania was soon superceded by further wartime atrocities. Chlorine gas had been used to devastating effect at Ypres two weeks before, on 22nd April, and by late 1915 gas would be the most terror-inducing weapon of the war. The senseless slaughter of the battles of the Somme and Verdun, and the million-plus death tolls of each of the great offensives of 1918 would vastly overshadow the 1,201 killed on the Lusitania. Still, it was a huge factor in swinging American public opinion so that President Woodrow Wilson could finally persuade Congress in April 1917 that the US should fight alongside Britain and France. It can easily be argued that the Lusitania’s sinking left more of a mark on history than that of the Titanic.

The main reason why everyone has heard of the Titanic is the sheer hubris. It was the most luxurious ship that ever sailed, with every care lavished on fixtures and fittings, but there weren’t enough lifeboats. There was a suggestion that the captain may have been racing to arrive in New York in good time despite knowing there were icebergs in the area. And some (although not its builders) had suggested the ship was unsinkable – and yet it sank on its maiden voyage. Ships have sunk before and since, with greater loss of life, but none with such a poke at the sheer arrogance of mankind.

There’s hubris in the Lusitania story too: it’s suggested that the British government stowed arms on board then failed to tell the captain of U-boat activity in the area, gambling that her sinking would bring America into the war. Corroborating that version of events, divers have found over four million rounds of rifle and machine-gun ammunition in the wreck. I hope more of the truth will emerge around the centenary, as we commemorate 1,201 people who need not have died.

Gill Paul’s novella “We Sink or Swim Together”, based on the story of a real-life couple on the Lusitania, is available on Amazon. Her Titanic novel “Women and Children First” was published in 2012.

Why do actors and actresses have sex with each other?

The answer seems obvious: because they can. Most actors and actresses are better-looking than average, with bodies they spend a lot of time starving and pounding into shape, so they’re not short of offers. And if you were kissing George Clooney/Scarlett Johansson/Ryan Gosling/[insert your personal favourite] on a film set all day, wouldn’t you get just a little bit frisky and keen to try some extracurricular practice?

Affairs between lead actors and actresses are the stuff of legend: Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks, Clark Gable and Carole Lombard, Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy, Bogart and Bacall, Simone Signoret and Yves Montand, Taylor and Burton, Melanie Griffiths and Antonio Banderas, Pitt and Jolie, Daniel Craig and Rachel Weisz. … Many directors encourage it for that extra verisimilitude in the performance. Besides, no matter the cultural credentials we as audience may claim, we turn up at cinemas in droves to watch the actors we would like to sleep with – so it does no harm to box-office receipts if the gossip mags confirm they are indeed highly sexed.

Scientists at Newcastle University have researched the personality types of actors and compared them with the general population only to find that they are A/ more extravert than the rest of us (which figures); B/more open to new experiences (I guess they have to be); and C/are much more narcissistic and neurotic than the average (ah-hah!). Maybe it’s that mixture of narcissism (“How wonderful am I!”) and neuroticism (“Can’t you see how wonderful I am? Do you not love me? Does the public not love me?”) that explains the need for the ego-massage of an affair with someone equally as hot as yourself.

I imagine the problem lies in distinguishing ‘real life’ from scripted make-belief. Do they fall for the other person or for the role they are playing? If they want to stay together, how do they make the transition into domesticity? What do they make of each other’s morning breath and the stray pubic hair in the shower?

UnknownCleopatra director Joe Mankiewicz described Burton and Taylor as not so much lovers as “two actors who didn’t know how to get off stage because there wasn’t a scriptwriter around to show them how”. And so they carried on with the performance through fourteen booze-fuelled, tempestuous years.

Burton had his feet slightly more on the ground with his Welsh valleys upbringing, but Taylor had been acting out the fantasy of ‘life as a Hollywood script’ from the age of ten. She hadn’t been exposed to anything else and it meant she would forever be choosing princes who couldn’t actually live up to the hype. She persevered through eight husbands and countless lovers but none could cut the mustard so she hankered after the ones she couldn’t have – Mike Todd, who died in a plane crash; and Burton, who got himself off the booze and found a flesh-and-blood intellectual equal for his final marriage.

Of course, actors and actresses are subject to all the usual complex reasons why any of us have sex with anyone else; but some of them make it much more tortuous – and a damn sight more public.

Always the last to know…

Robert Pattinson found out that Kristen Stewart was having an affair after photographs were taken of her canoodling in a car with Snow White and the Huntsman director Rupert Sanders. Reese Witherspoon allegedly discovered incriminating text messages between husband Ryan Phillippe and Abbie Cornish. Tiger Woods tried to convince his wife he was completely faithful but the sheer number of women claiming to have had affairs with him meant he finally had to put his hands up.

It’s tough being a celebrity (or married to one). Not only do you have the shock and hurt of being cheated on, but there’s often the humiliation of the press or public finding out about it before you do.

Back in Rome in 1962, when Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton got together on the set of Cleopatra, the cast and crew were in on the secret long before their spouses had a clue. When the script called for Anthony and Cleopatra to kiss, the pair lunged for each other and didn’t appear to hear the director, Joe Mankiewicz, calling “Cut!”. (“I feel as though I’m intruding,” he quipped.) Burton indiscreetly bragged in the men’s makeup trailer that he’d ‘nailed’ his co-star in the back of his Cadillac. They used her secretary’s apartment for secret trysts and were often seen sneaking to each other’s trailers for ‘cocktail hour’ with shawls thrown over their heads.

EddieElizabeth’s husband, the singer Eddie Fisher, heard the whispers but dismissed them: she was the most beautiful woman in the world and there had always been rumours but he trusted her not to cheat. Big mistake.

After a close friend phoned to tip him off, Eddie turned to Elizabeth as they lay in bed one night and asked her directly: “Tell me the truth: is there something going on between you and Burton?”

“Yes,” she replied quietly.

SybilIt all got a bit less dignified after that. Eddie went to tell Richard’s wife Sybil, who wasn’t greatly surprised because her husband had slept with pretty much every leading lady he’d ever worked with (apart from Julie Andrews). Sybil was prepared to put up with it so long as it ended when filming was over.

It was Richard who wanted Eddie out of the way. He turned up drunk at a dinner party Elizabeth and Eddie were throwing and insisted she had to choose between them.

“Who do you love?” he slurred. “Show me who you love.”

And in front of their friends, and Eddie, she walked over and gave Richard a deep passionate kiss.

Eddie finally took the hint but it would be another year and a lot more heartache on all sides before Richard decided to leave his wife and family to be with Elizabeth. And we all know how that ended…

Years later, Eddie Fisher developed a stage act in which he joked about his ex, calling her “Elizabeth, the nympho of the Nile”. Sybil Burton took all Richard’s money in the divorce settlement and maintained a dignified silence right up until her death on 7th March this year at the age of eighty-three.

Le Scandale

When Kristen Stewart cheated on Robert Pattinson last year, the media worked themselves into a frenzy. It was just like the scandal back in 2005 after Brad Pitt left Jennifer Aniston for Angelina Jolie, when Jolie was characterised as a heartless homewrecker. But this was nothing to the treatment meted out to Elizabeth Taylor fifty years ago when she dared to have an affair with Richard Burton on the set of the movie Cleopatra.

Burton was known for sleeping with his leading ladies while his wife Sybil turned a blind eye. No harm done. He was only doing what actors have been doing since time immemorial. But the public still hadn’t quite forgiven Elizabeth Taylor for stealing husband number three from American sweetheart Debbie Reynolds. She had form.

Elizabeth Taylor's trailer on the set of Cleopatra.

Elizabeth Taylor’s trailer on the set of Cleopatra.

Once news of the Burton-Taylor affair became public, paparazzi followed everywhere, leaping in front of them to explode flashbulbs in their faces and besieging them in their homes on location in Rome. Taylor was condemned by the Vatican cardinals, no less, who called her “an erotic vagrant” and an unfit mother. An American congresswoman, Iris Blitch, tried to pass a motion banning her from ever returning to the United States because her behaviour “lowered the prestige of American women abroad” and “damaged foreign relations with Italy”. And after filming was over, Twentieth Century Fox sued her and Burton for $50 million, claiming Cleopatra would earn less money because the public were so horrified by their antics.

All bets were that Burton would have his fun, while bumping up his price per picture through association with the most famous woman in the world, then he would return to Sybil as he always had in the past. They had the same Welsh roots. They had two daughters together, one of whom was autistic. All their friends and his extended family were on Sybil’s side.

But that’s not how it panned out. His affair with Taylor was tempestuous and dangerously addictive. He gave her a black eye; she made him buy her fabulous jewels. He turned up drunk at a dinner party at her villa and in front of guests made her choose between him and then husband, singer Eddie Fisher. She chose Burton, thus ending her fourth marriage when she was still only thirty years old. Over the next year, she gradually lured Richard away from Sybil with a combination of porn-star bedroom techniques, witty repartee, occasional suicide attempts, and a capacity for alcohol matched only by his own.

After much toing and froing, by Cleopatra’s premiere in June 1963, Richard had finally told Sybil their marriage was over. He lost everything in the divorce – his family, his money, his friends in the English theatrical world and, some said, his credibility as an actor. In return he got the woman he called his “wildly exciting lover-mistress”.

I couldn’t resist writing about events on the film set in my new novel, The Affair, which comes out in May. Of course, all shoots have their problems, but the Cleopatra one was exceptional: it had a budget that started out at $2million but ended up more than twenty times that (adjusted for inflation it’s still the third most expensive film ever made); a star who demanded bowls of chilli to be flown in from Chasen’s in Los Angeles and insisted she needed days off when she was menstruating (or had a hangover); and a huge cast hired for a ten-week shoot who ended up staying for ten months, most having the time of their lives.

Against the backdrop of ancient Rome, Burton and Taylor were creating their own mythology. It’s easy now to characterise them as ego-driven alcoholics who collided and hurt others in the collateral damage; they were original couple who were famous for being famous. But that would ignore the body of exceptional work they created both together and individually: Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, Under Milk Wood, Where Eagles Dare, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold. Burton’s theatre work was legendary. Taylor’s charity work, especially for AIDS, was hugely influential.

As the 50th anniversary of the Cleopatra premiere approaches, and Richard Burton’s star has finally been laid next to Elizabeth Taylor’s in the Hollywood Walk of Fame, maybe it’s time to remember them as actors who achieved great things, as well as entertaining the world with what they themselves referred to as Le Scandale.

Celebrities in Love

If you struggle to maintain a healthy relationship spare a thought for poor celebrities, who have the odds stacked against them when it comes to love.

First of all, there are four people in a celebrity relationship: him, her, his public image and hers. We all want someone who makes us feel better about ourselves, but celebs want someone who makes them feel good on a personal level and who enhances their public image at the same time. Agents and publicists often get involved in matchmaking celebrity clients, choosing partners who will generate the most favourable column inches. They don’t want their client to be with a man who makes her look needy or unloveable; if things go wrong, she has to be the one to leave because it’s not sexy to be left. It’s an arranged marriage based on the worst possible criteria.

Celebrities are narcissistic. Their egos are fed so much by the press and fans and their big bank balances that they genuinely believe they are better than the rest of us. But there’s a tiny part of them deep down that feels unworthy and this terrifies them, making them need more reassurance than most. It’s lonely at the top, and many celebrities have trouble finding people they can trust, when family members and old friends succumb to the lure of the tabloid chequebook. That means they have to put all their eggs in one basket and expect their celebrity partner to be all things to them: lover, parent, best friend… a pressure that would damage most relationships. Yet that very loneliness means that as soon as (or preferably before) one relationship breaks up, they are on a hunt for the next person to fall in love with. And that’s why they keep getting married again and again.

The more space a particular celeb takes up in the tabloid media, the more likely it is that their marriage will fail, according to John Tierney and Garth Sundem, who studied the subject for The New York Times. They even came up with a formula to predict the chances of a celebrity’s marriage succeeding

Rule number one: if a woman is a sex symbol given to wearing skimpy clothing in public, the marriage is doomed. Sorry, Katie Price and Kieran Hayler…

Rule number two: there are bound to be problems if one partner is much more famous than the other, or much wealthier than the other, because it means there is an inherent imbalance of power. Sorry, Kate Winslet and Ned Rocknroll…

Celebrities don’t have time in their busy schedules for long courtships when they try out different things and get to know each other. They hook up, the press gets wind of it and starts asking “Will they wed?” and the pressure is on. But a whirlwind courtship is one of the clearest indicators that a marriage will fail. If there are less than six months before the big day, it’s likely they’ll be in the divorce courts within six years. They’re marrying because they have sexual chemistry instead of taking time to learn mutual respect, trust and affection.

It used to be said that selling coverage of the wedding to Hello! Magazine was a sure sign the marriage wouldn’t last, and this may well still be true. Other key signs include:

• Getting tattoos of each other’s names. When he broke up with Winona Ryder, Johnny Depp had the tattoo ‘Winona Forever’ turned into ‘Wino Forever’ but they can’t all be so neatly transformed.

• Having a lavish fairy-tale wedding lets them be prince and princess for the day but indicates they are living in Cloud Cuckoo Land.

• Playing romantic roles in which they kiss other actors on screen is inevitably going to lead to infidelity sooner or later.  It’s an occupational hazard.

• If there have been several marriages before the current one, its chances are substantially lessened. Look at the previous relationships and you’ll see where the fatal flaws lie. (Will Tom Cruise ever stop trying to convert his wives to Scientology? Probably not…)

Dick and Liz on POST cover 001

I’ve been writing about Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton in my latest novel The Affair (due out on 23rd May). The odds were heavily stacked against their relationship working: she was much more famous and much wealthier than him; she was constantly photographed in low-cut gowns; she had already been married four times; she consumed her body weight in prescription drugs and both were at the start of a lifelong love affair with booze. The fact that their first marriage lasted ten years says something about their huge attraction to each other that clearly transcended the physical.

All her life she’d been praised for her beauty but Richard Burton was the first person to tell her she was intelligent, with opinions worth listening to. He even told her she was a good actress, which is pushing it some. On his side, he fell for her thoroughly modern outlook and her caustic, bawdy wit. She didn’t nag him not to drink; she let him be the dominant one and they had a lot of fun – while it lasted. Ten years first time round, then a quick remarriage of nine months duration.

He moved on to find happiness, peace and sobriety with wife number four, Sally Burton. Elizabeth Taylor remarried countless times but always looked back with nostalgia at the great love of her life, with the man who played Anthony to her Cleopatra.

The Titanic Museums in Belfast and Southampton

Titanic Belfast tells an important part of the Titanic story, bringing to life the building of the ship in the Harland and Wolff dockyards. I liked the first gallery you go into, which is about life in the city at the time, with shadows walking back and forth on the walls and a Marconi machine you can try; I especially liked the three-sided video projections that let you travel up inside the ship from boiler room to bridge; and the final gallery with the underwater footage of the wreck is eery and fascinating.

I was less impressed by the ride round the shipyard, partly because half the projections weren’t working when we were there, but also because it just felt like a cheesy fairground ride. Also, the sinking of the ship is handled weirdly with an animated graphic showing how the water flooded in and caused the ship to upend and break in half, but I was distracted by the fact that in the graphic all the lifeboats are still in place as she sank – which is, of course, wrong.

It’s inevitable that there will be early teething troubles in a project as ambitious as this. It would be good to get more of a transport and coffeehouse/restaurant infrastructure out there in the docks. When we arrived at 4 in the afternoon the museum coffee shop was shut and there was nowhere else to get a drink. The only other quibble is from local people, who complained about the fact that the signage is only in English, not Irish. Perhaps they’ll fix that in future.

One of my books on display in Southampton’s SeaCity Museum.

Southampton’s SeaCity Museum existed before 2012 but they’ve just spent £15 million on a permanent Titanic gallery upstairs and a temporary one downstairs – and they are fabulous! It has a very different purpose from the Belfast one, which becomes apparent as soon as you walk in to find a wall of cards, each commemorating a crew member from the city of Southampton or the surrounding area. The card tells you the individual’s name, post on the ship, age – and whether or not they survived. Some have pictures but not many, and I’m told this is because the museum can’t afford the fees charged by photo copyright holders. You’ll find far more crew pictures in John Eaton and Charles Haas’s book Titanic: Triumph and Tragedy. It’s there that I came across the photo of the young man who became the inspiration for Reg in my novel.

There are some fantastic interactive items for children and an interesting plan of the ship showing how different areas were linked. The sinking is covered in a separate room where you can sit and listen to three local survivors describing their experiences, while looking at visuals of flowing ocean. The next section is the most moving of all, though. The floor has a street map of Southampton with a red dot on each house that lost someone on the Titanic – and there’s barely a row of three houses without a dot. You can listen to recordings of local people queuing up to read the lists of survivors, hoping against hope that their relative is safe, as well as local news reports from the time, and it’s incredibly sad. I had a huge lump in my throat.

And then you come into a courtroom where the British Inquiry is re-enacted, with a recording of actors reading different sections of the testimonies. Although I’d read it all before, this was strangely compelling and we found ourselves sitting listening for ages.

The downstairs gallery is all about the impact the sinking of the Titanic has had on the world since then: the films, books, games (yes, there’s a Titanic Monopoly!) and other merchandise, and it looks at some of the controversies (such as whether the rivets were to blame).

Both museums were absorbing in their own ways, and if I’m slightly biased towards the Southampton one you can blame the fact that my book is on display in their downstairs gallery! In an era when museum funding is at risk, it was great to see truly imaginative and thought-provoking displays that would engage adults and even the most computer-game-addicted child. Do visit when you can.