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Between Love and Haiti

Posted by Caribbean World Magazine on 13 April 2014 | 0 Comments

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13 April 2014

They were the golden couple, still in their 20s. They spent their honeymoon in Antigua back in the 1970s, when the island was the exclusive playground for the rich and famous.

It was a shotgun romance. He was James Hunt, the world famous English Formula 1 motor racing champion, she was Suzy Miller, a blonde leggy model. It should have been an awesome marriage but it was an awful mistake. Now the story of Hunt and his great rival Niki Lauda has been turned into a big-budget movie called Rush, directed by Ron Howard.

In truth, James Hunt was not the marrying kind. As a bachelor he’d led a devil-may-care, jet-fuelled lifestyle with all the trappings of a world-beating sports star – the international travel, parties fuelled with champagne and an endless supply of pretty girls. His cri de coeur was “sex is the breakfast of champions”. It’s likely that today James Hunt would be called a sex addict. He thought marriage to Suzy would be a calming influence.

Stories about Hunt’s partying were legendary. At a British Embassy reception in his honour, Hunt was so drunk that the ambassador hesitated to let him in. One observer wrote “The prospect of marriage had been haunting Hunt. For the full four days leading up to the wedding he was never once sober.” Suzy hoped he’d reform and end his rascal days. It was not to be. Their marriage lasted 14 months. It was her husband’s philandering that pushed her into the arms of another man – the charismatic Welsh actor and film star Richard Burton.

Suzy met Richard in the Swiss ski resort of Gstaad in Christmas 1976. He had recently remarried Elizabeth Taylor. Throughout the 1960s Burton and Taylor’s diamond-studded life was the stuff of the headlines and the gossip pages. Liz and Dick were first married in 1964. They split 10 years later, but almost immediately got back together and in October 1975 they remarried. A year after that they divorced again.

The on/off relationship was vividly illustrated in this year’s BBC drama Burton and Taylor with Dominic West playing Richard and Helena Bonham-Carter Elizabeth. But by the 70s their furious love had all but burnt itself out. Just as Hunt and Suzy Miller’s marriage had been a flop, so, too, was Burton and Taylor’s remarriage.

There was an immediate attraction between the craggy film star and the sad young sportsman’s wife. Burton first saw Suzy Hunt as they were travelling in opposite directions on a ski lift. He would say later: “I turned around and there was this gorgeous creature, about nine feet tall. She could stop a stampede.” He was 50 and she was 26. Oddly enough Burton and Taylor and Suzy and James Hunt had their divorce hearings in Port-au-Prince, Haiti in June 1976 – on the island foreigners could legally get divorced in a day.

Richard and Suzy wed two months later, the marriage lasted six years. Quite why Suzy swapped one scallywag for another is unclear. But what is definite was that Burton was as relieved to find Suzy as Hunt was glad to be rid of her.

Suzy tried to keep Rich away from the booze but he had an impossible self-destructive streak. Richard never entirely overcame his alcoholism, and they were divorced in 1982.

Later that year, he took the title role in a film about the German composer Wagner, when he met production assistant Sally Hay. “She can do everything… she looks after me so well. Thank God I’ve found her,” said Burton.

Burton was once thankful for finding Elizabeth Taylor but their life together was a bumpy one. The strains in the Taylor and Burton relationship were never further from the surface than when they made The Comedians in 1967. The film, based on the novel by Graham Greene, was set in the troubled Caribbean island of Haiti. So critical of the island’s government was the story that the filmmakers were banned from location shooting on the island.

In the end the film was shot in Dahomey, the tiny African republic, and in the south of France. One critic wrote of the political thriller:

“The Comedians would have to lose about half an hour of dysfunctional romance to be a really great drama, though it has moments of brilliance. As an evocation of 1960s Haiti, though, it is impressively accurate.”

Another critic wrote

“The Comedians treads a thin line between love and Haiti.”

The movie was a critical failure. Burton and Taylor were hopelessly miscast but, with both stars at the peak of their fame, the film made money. The book and the film were both banned by the corrupt Haitian dictatorship so it’s curious that many years later Richard Burton and his then girlfriend Sally Hay were welcomed by the president.

In 1983 Richard and Sally spent five months in Haiti and ended up looking to buy a property to buy there. They both loved the verdant countryside and the warmth of the people.

According to Burton’s recently-published diaries Sally was enchanted with Haiti. Both of them could speak French and Burton was tickled that he had the same Haiti hotel suite that Pope John Paul II would use when he visited only a few weeks later.

Burton and his new wife had a wonderful Christmas on the island. For New Year they were invited to a party by the president and his wife, Baby Doc and Michelle Duvalier, the kerfuffle over The Comedians, 17 years earlier, seemingly forgotten.

Richard Burton was a man of contradictions – he had notions of becoming a writer or academic and yet craved fame and money. He was a tax exile who got emotional about missing his native Wales.

Burton loved the Caribbean as much as the cool alpine air of Switzerland. In the spring of 1984, Mr and Mrs Burton returned to their home in Switzerland re-energised. Richard was happier and healthier as he completed a cameo role in the film adaptation of George Orwell’s 1984. It was to be his last film.

On 5 August 1984 Richard died, at the age of 58, of a cerebral haemorrhage in Geneva, Switzerland.