Out of Switzerland: Grave reminder of a late-night scoop

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The Independent Online
CELIGNY - I went to visit Richard Burton's grave the other day. I always do when in this Swiss village where he passed much of the latter half of his 58 years. With its simple, uncarved stone, his name but no epitaph, on a damp, sunless slope above a gurgling brook, it is a dark but serene spot. Burton liked to linger here during his lifetime, a place that reminded him of his native Wales.

Some say he wanted to be laid to rest in Wales. But to those who knew the actor here - his last wife Sally, his drinking buddy and confidant Paul Filisdorf, then proprietor of the Cafe de la Gare, his housekeeper Madame Glatz, his gardener Harley Decorvet - there was no doubt. Monsieur Reechard, as they called him, wanted to be buried in the dark glen of what is known as the Old Cemetery in Celigny, a few hundred yards from the villa he bought in the 1950s and named 'Pays de Galles' - Wales.

I stood by the actor's gravestone, engraved simply 'Richard Burton, 1925-1984', surrounded by begonias, with a small plastic pot of chrysanthemums in the centre.

As always, I thought I could hear his voice. My mind ran through the tales of his drinking bouts in the Cafe de la Gare, after which he would stagger across the Geneva-Lausanne railway line that separated the cafe from his villa. There were many who thought the Lausanne-Geneva express, rather than the eventual cerebral haemorrhage in bed, would ensure, to cite Burton's compatriot Dylan Thomas, that he did 'not go gentle into that good night'.

Celigny, population 600, one of Switzerland's most picturesque villages, on the lower slopes north of Lake Geneva, had never seen anything like his funeral. Even the fire in 1991 that all but burnt down the village's 14th-century church where Burton's funeral service had been held caused less of a commotion.

The world's press darkened the village's ancient streets like a swarm of locusts. Not only was this the funeral of a legend. It was, potentially, depending on the presence of Burton's most-famous former wife, the funeral story and picture of the decade.

Foreign television crews bought every ladder in the village, the better to place themselves by the cemetery. Villagers' motorcycles were hired to ship film, homes were invaded for the telephones. The Reuters correspondent, Ronnie Farquhar, gave the world the news of Burton's burial from the phone in my in-laws' living room.

But the day ended in anti-climax as Elizabeth Taylor, warned off by the widowed Sally Burton, did not show up. Not that day, at least.

The best Fleet Street photographers can read the minds of celebrities better than any psychoanalyst. Photographer Ken Lennox knew Liz Taylor. He was not acquainted with her, but he knew her. After years of chasing celebrities, he could read the actress like the proverbial book.

A few nights after the funeral, Lennox and a fellow Fleet Street 'snapper' were 'staking out' the cemetery. It was around 4am, eerie and pitch black, when car headlights appeared down the narrow lane. Miss Taylor and her daughter Liza Todd emerged, using battery torches to stumble down the slippery path.

Miss Todd asked the Fleet Street men to stand back and respect her mother's moment of grief. They did so, in return for the smallest of favours: 'to shoot a couple of frames'. Miss Taylor knelt in front of what was then a simple wooden cross bearing her former husband's name, clasped her hands in prayer and whispered: 'Oh, Richard, oh, Richard.' Only Miss Todd, Lennox and his colleague ever heard those words. But the pictures told the story around the world.

A few nights earlier Ken Lennox had the macabre privilege of finishing Burton's last bottle of wine. The evening before he died on 5 August 1984, the actor dined with a colleague, John Burt, in a hotel near Celigny, leaving a bottle of finest Bordeaux - about pounds 400 - half-full. The proprietor kept the bottle, pending his next visit.

Lennox checked in late at the same hotel the night after Burton's death, and asked if there was any chance of a sandwich and a glass of wine. The proprietor related the story of the previous evening, produced the bottle and shared it with the photographer with a toast. 'To Monsieur Reechard. He would not have wanted us to waste it.'