This Day In History: October 24

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Movie star Richard Burton dazzles wife Elizabeth Taylor—and their legions of fans—when he buys her a 69-carat Cartier diamond ring costing $1.5 million. It was just another chapter in a tempestuous marriage that began on the Ides of March and continued thereafter in the public eye.

Taylor and Burton met and fell in the love during the filming of Cleopatra (1963). She was a 30-year-old London-born American starlet who was already on her fourth marriage, and he was a former British stage actor, also married but known to fool around and drink on the set. Cleopatra made them both superstars, and on March 15, 1964, they were married at the Ritz in Montreal. As one of the most famous married couples in the world, they commanded high salaries to appear in nearly a dozen movies together. Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966) and The Taming of the Shrew (1967) were the only two to receive critical acclaim.

The couple’s stormy private life often drew more attention than their movie roles, and their extravagance was legendary. During the 1960s, they earned a combined $88 million and spent more than $65 million. They bought a fleet of Rolls Royces, whole floors of luxury hotels, a private jet, a helicopter and a multimillion-dollar yacht. They were American royalty, and the world watched as their lives began to fall apart. Taylor appropriated Burton’s alcohol-abuse problem and also mixed drugs into the stew. By 1969, their marriage was a constant cycle of verbal and physical battles that was only interrupted by the mutual presentation of expensive gifts. The famous Cartier diamond was the product of a fight they had in a restaurant one night. Burton called Taylor’s hands large and ugly, and she responded that in that case, he’d better buy her the 69-carat ring she wanted so that her hands looked smaller and more attractive.

The flawless, pear-shaped diamond had 58 facets and was unearthed from the Premier mine of South Africa in 1966. It went up for auction in October 1969 and was bought by the Cartier jewelry firm for $1.05 million. The very next day, on October 24, Burton bought the diamond for an estimated $1.5 million; although the exact sum was undisclosed. The diamond—christened the “Taylor-Burton”—remained at Cartier for several days before Burton took it home and presented it to Taylor. Thousands of people lined the street outside Cartier every day to view it.

Taylor and Burton became estranged in 1970, in 1973 they formally separated, and in 1974 they divorced. They remarried in 1975 but stayed together just a few months. The next year, they divorced for the second and last time. Three years later, Taylor put the Taylor-Burton diamond up for auction. The jeweler Henry Lambert bought it for $3 million and then sold it to an anonymous buyer in Saudi Arabia. Elizabeth Taylor went on to have two more husbands, both of whom she divorced. 

Taylor passed away on March 23, 2011. Richard Burton died of a brain aneurysm in 1984.