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.

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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 http://nyti.ms/ZUbvfc.

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.

Are those with Titanic-themed products coming out for the centenary simply jumping on a bandwagon?

A cartoon in today’s Sunday Times books section shows a bookseller drowning under an avalanche of Titanic books. In fact, there are 78 books about the Titanic scheduled for publication in the UK this year, up from 68 last year and just 10 the year before. This ‘avalanche’ extends to virtually every other form of media, with James Cameron’s 3D feature film, Julian Fellowes’ TV mini-series, loads of TV documentaries, operas, theatre productions, concerts, new museums … see Greg Ward’s calendar of events at http://blogtanic.wordpress.com/events-calendar-2/.

Cartoon from the New York Herald, 17 April 1912.

I have written two Titanic books myself, one published last year and one coming out in 10 days. Have I jumped on a bandwagon, along with all these other writers, musicians and artists? The term has an implication of opportunism, a hint that we might not have chosen this topic were we not pretty sure that it would be popular – and I can’t speak for anyone else but personally but I would have to hold my hands up to this. I earn a living from writing and have to choose subjects people want to read about or my income will dry up. Publishers are on a regular look-out for anniversaries in order to hitch their wagon to publicity generated by other media, and my non-fiction Titanic book was the result of a commission from a far-sighted publisher back in 2009.

However, I don’t think anyone who has a Titanic product coming out around this time has created it without caring deeply about what happened in the north Atlantic on the night of the 14th/15th of April. You can’t immerse yourself in the subject without becoming emotionally involved. I also think most of us were already Titanoraks and the centenary just brought an opportunity to get our work out there. I’ve been passionate about the Titanic story since I was a teenager. Both my grandfathers worked in shipbuilding on the River Clyde and I grew up knowing about the great luxury liner that sank on its maiden voyage. The story really got under my skin when I saw the film A Night to Remember, and I think I’ve been waiting for a chance to write about it since then.

Of course, it’s important to remember that this is the centenary of a tragedy in which 1,500 people died, and many of them are still remembered by living relatives. There is a line that shouldn’t be crossed, so that we are commemorating events but without being disrespectful to the dead. None of the books and other media I’ve come across so far have been in bad taste, although there are forums where some argue that the costume cruises to the site of the sinking are a step too far.

The Titanic is part of our cultural memory. Before April 1912, the word “titanic” meant “colossal, strong, all-powerful”, after the Greek gods called Titans. Now it has become synonymous with catastrophic disaster, one that could so easily have been avoided. It is a subject that still creates controversy and makes us analyse our own moral values and, as such, a prime arena for artists working in all media. I welcome the diversity of artistic interpretations that is emerging and personally am going to take in as many of them
as I can.

Unequal in life, unequal in death

It’s well known that first-class passengers were much better served by the Titanic’s crew than those in third class. After the collision with an iceberg, first-class ladies and gents were led by their room stewards up to the boat deck, while most of third class had to fend for themselves. What’s less well known is that this discrimination continued a week later when bodies were hauled from the ocean onto the Mackay-Bennett, the vessel commissioned by White Star Lines to go out and search for the dead.

The Mackay-Bennett sailed out of Halifax, Novia Scotia on the 17th April, two days after the sinking, and when it reached the area five days later the crew found bodies scattered all over the surface, buoyed up by their cork lifejackets. The men had been braced for it to be unpleasant work but were distressed to find a two-year-old boy and some women among the very first bodies they hauled up on deck. Once on board, victims were stripped and all details of clothes, personal possessions and distinguishing features were carefully noted to aid identification.

Relatives in New York wait to find out if their loved ones have survived.

However, it soon became evident that the 100 coffins they had brought with them would not be nearly enough, so the ship’s captain made a decision: only those who were obviously upper-class would be given the coffins. If someone was well-dressed, had expensive jewellery or a gold watch, they would be treated by an embalmer and laid in one of the coffins on deck. Second-class passengers and ship’s officers were embalmed then sewn into canvas bags and stacked on deck. Third-class passengers and crew members were put on ice in the ship’s hold. And within a day of this grisly work beginning, it was decided that many of the bodies would have to be given sea burials because the Mackay-Bennett simply didn’t have enough embalming fluid and canvas or enough room to take them all back to Halifax.

Multi-millionaire John Jacob Astor had a gold watch, fancy gentleman’s clothes and $4000 in his pocket, so he was carefully placed in a coffin and when they got back to port, his body was one of the first released to his relatives for burial. However, nineteen-year-old Eileen McNamee from Salisbury had just one shilling and eleven pennies in her purse and her clothes weren’t deemed sufficiently grand so she was sewn into a weighted canvas bag and tipped back over the side. Bodies with tattoos or wearing stewards’ jackets were more likely to be dumped overboard, as split-second decisions were made about an individual’s class. Of the 306 bodies recovered by the Mackay-Bennett, 116 were buried at sea.

Back in Halifax, relatives congregated, hoping at least to have a body to take home and bury, and there was great distress to hear of all the sea burials. Word was released to the press that it was only those who were in an advanced state of decomposition who had been sent to the deep, but that simply wasn’t true. There was very little decomposition because of the salt water and freezing temperatures. One crewman said “I expected to see the poor creatures very disfigured but they looked as calm as if they were asleep.”

For those relatives who did manage to identify a body in the Halifax ice rink that had been turned into a temporary morgue, there was further insult to come: White Star Lines would charge full fare to transport a coffin back to Europe for burial at home. Less well-off families couldn’t raise the cash so their loved ones were laid to rest in cemeteries in Halifax, while John Jacob Astor’s was transported by the family’s private train to his estate on Rhode Island.

Death is often said to be the great equaliser for humanity. Regardless of age, sex, income and position in life, we will all die. But in 1912, after the Titanic sank, there was no equality of treatment for the victims.

Should women and children be saved first in shipwrecks?

‘Women and children first’ is a phrase that will be forever associated with the Titanic but it’s unclear whether this is actually what Captain Smith ordered as the ship was sinking. There was one precedent for it back in 1852 when HMS Birkenhead foundered off Cape Town with 26 women and children on board. Her Captain ordered that the men stand back while the women and children were loaded onto a cutter, and 450 men subsequently died – but the rule certainly wasn’t part of maritime law.

In some ways, it made no sense to save lots of women who would become widows, and children who would become orphans, because without a man to provide for them they might well not survive back in the old days when you needed a man to put a roof over your head. Many cultures decided it was more useful to society to save the men first, and there are documented instances in which this rule was followed in shipwrecks before 1900. The only way to justify saving women and children first is the argument that men tend to be stronger swimmers and more able to save themselves if they end up in the water; but in fact, swimming skills had nothing to do with survival on the Titanic. Once they were in the water, it was just pure luck if they managed to get onto a boat – and hardly any did.

Neither the American nor the British Inquiry into the sinking of the Titanic was able to establish whether Captain Smith gave the order to prioritise women and children. He was heard to shout “Be British” into a megaphone, but that can be interpreted in many different ways! Second Officer Lightoller, who was in charge of loading the lifeboats on the port side of the ship claimed that when the Captain asked him to load the boats, he queried: “Shall we load the women and children first?” and the Captain answered “Yes.” Eloise Smith, a first-class passenger testified at the American Inquiry that when she asked if her husband could accompany her onto a boat because she was pregnant, the Captain didn’t answer but shouted ‘Women and children first’ into a megaphone.

An underfilled lifeboat photographed by a passenger on the Carpathia.

Lightoller took the supposed order very literally, and the only men who boarded lifeboats on his side of the ship were the minimum number required to row them. This meant that many of his boats went off half-filled because there weren’t sufficient women around at the time of launching who were prepared to leave a luxurious liner and get on a fragile wooden rowing boat suspended 70 feet above the dark ocean. On the starboard side, Officer Lowe sensibly filled up available places with men. Captain Smith must surely be blamed for failing to ensure that the lifeboats were filled to capacity. Had that happened, another 467 people could have been saved.

What would happen in a shipwreck nowadays? It’s too early to know exactly what occurred during the evacuation of Costa Concordia, but it seems most people behaved very decently in helping children and those with walking difficulties to safety. Women took their place alongside men in the queues for the lifeboats, as of course it should be in a society where we demand equality of the sexes.

What were the crew doing as the Titanic sank?

Back in 1912, working in service was a serious commitment, whether you were a butler
in a stately home or a steward on board a luxury steamship. Your needs were far less important than those of the people you served; in fact, your life was less important than theirs.

Injured wireless operator Harold Bride is helped ashore in New York.

After the Titanic hit an iceberg and began to sink, her crew continued to man their posts even once the situation was clearly hopeless. There are countless tales of selfless devotion to duty, and in most cases it wasn’t as a direct result of orders from superiors but just a sense that it was their role in life.

That’s why the five postal clerks struggled to haul sacks of mail above the level of the rising waters, while stokers kept tending the fires long after the ship had come to a halt and obviously wasn’t going anywhere. Seamen rushed around checking all the watertight bulkheads were closed and manning the pumps, trying and inevitably failing to keep water out of each of the ship’s compartments.

Stewards occupied themselves with ushering passengers to the boat deck, while officers supervised the loading of the lifeboats and the firing of distress rockets. The orchestra played on the boat deck. Chief baker Charles Joughin organised the distribution of loaves of bread among the lifeboats while in the wireless room Jack Philips and Harold Bride kept sending out distress messages long after Captain Smith had relieved them of their post. In fact, very faint wireless calls were heard from Titanic up to the last minutes of the ship’s life, although they were too weak to be read after 1.45am when the engine rooms filled with water.

There were lights on board the ship until the last minutes because of the heroism of the engineers who stayed below deck pushing back circuit breakers that tripped as water got into the wiring. During the last 20 minutes, the lights flickered but they stayed on. How much worse would the experience have been for all if it had been conducted in pitch blackness? Needless to say, none of those engineers survived.

I chose a steward, Reg Parton, as one of the main characters in my novel Women and Children First, because it’s an aspect of the Titanic story that is less often told. What must it have felt like to know the ship was sinking and not be able to focus on saving your own life because of a sense of duty? Unlike the passengers, crew members knew there weren’t enough lifeboats, so they were aware that hanging around was tantamount to a death sentence. Of the 885 male crew, only 192 survived.

On the 10th of April this year, more than 600 schoolchildren will march through Southampton each holding a picture of a member of Titanic’s crew. They will proceed from the Engineers’ Memorial in East Park to the new SeaCity Museum, where an exhibition will tell the largely untold story of the men and women who worked on the ship. It seems only right that during the many events commemorating the centenary of the sinking of the Titanic, the city that was home to the majority of the crew is honouring them in this way.