CELIGNY, Switzerland (Reuters) - She survived him by a quarter of a century and sought the limelight he shunned, yet in their adopted Swiss village home, it is Elizabeth Taylor’s leading man and husband Richard Burton who is best remembered.
According to celebrity folklore, the pair were to have been reunited in death, and Burton, the British actor she married and divorced twice, lies buried here in Celigny, Switzerland.
Yet when Taylor died last week of congestive heart failure she was laid to rest in Los Angeles, leaving Burton alone in his quiet rural grave a few hundred meters (yards) from Lake Geneva.
The villagers of pretty but unremarkable Celigny are not surprised.
“She didn’t come here much,” says Jaqueline Esseiva, 78, a lifelong resident of this village where the hard-drinking Burton died of a stroke in 1984.
“It wasn’t elegant enough for her. Too simple. Him though, he was friendly. No airs and graces.”
Esseiva’s English-born postmistress mother used to chat with Burton, who spoke no French, but frequented the village’s two main bars in the 1960s, 70s and early 80s.
He was a popular figure with children, who were allowed to play with the electric windows on his black Cadillac. Locals say he once hit a wall near the square in the car after one of his famous drinking bouts. Taxi drivers remember him stumbling into their vehicles, while Swiss newspapers have reported restaurant owners recalling quarrels with Taylor over dinner.
It was while they worked as co-stars on the 1963 Hollywood epic Cleopatra that Taylor and Burton began one of the most famous love affairs of the 20th Century. They married and divorced twice.
But back to the burial folklore.
According to his Wikipedia entry, Burton’s last wife Sally Hay bought the empty plot next to his and made his grave big.
The entry says it was an apparent attempt to squeeze Taylor out of the burial tryst — a pact that could have sealed their love affair and shut out her six other husbands and his three other wives.
The Welsh-born actor’s resting place, in a gentle wooded valley backing onto a stream, is indeed wider than its neighbors, but there also seems to be room for another one beside it. That is all academic now.
Coming out the cemetery gate on a sunny spring day a few days after Taylor’s death is Harley Decorvet, aged 88, who used to look after Burton’s Celigny house and still tends his grave.
In his hand is a local newspaper, folded inside a clear plastic packet to show a photo of Taylor from her screen-siren days.
It had been left at the graveside under a stone, as if by somebody who wanted the legend to come true.
“We can’t leave these things lying about,” he says, a twinkle in his eye as he walks back up the dirt path to his car, parked in sight of the wide blue lake.
Is it true she wasn’t here much? A sideways look. “She was here more than people think.”
Editing by Stephanie Nebehay and Elizabeth Piper