Bridge of sighs
Written by [email protected]
I am Eduardo Castillo and my story begins in Mexico. I was the head bartender at The River Cafe jazz bar on the Rio Cuale in Puerto Vallarta. The rio splits old Vallarta from the ‘centro.’ This particular night, it was unbelievably sultry, the humidity soaking anyone moving faster than an iguana. The bar was swinging hot that night, the rhythms pulsating out through the open windows giving passersby a free concert of some of the best syncopated Cuban tempos anywhere. No mariachi stuff here, just great musicians pounding out wonderful Havana jazz. This was the place to be in Vallarta in the early 1960’s, great music and a great ambiance.
Then, she appeared in the bar’s entrance way, a goddess clad in sun white gossamer. I caught my breath. So did many others.
She was stunningly statuesque, a few inches under six feet tall, sheathed in a white diaphanous dress that clung to her body with screaming sensuality. The tight bodice squeezed her voluptuous breasts into pneumatic orbs that every red-blooded guy in the room ogled. She flowed between the low tables of the bar giving everyone an erotic banquet of female pulchritude, choosing a stool in the middle of my bar. The narrowness of her waistline suited her curvaceous body perfectly. She sat down with the flourish of a Spanish dancer, her skirt billowing outward like a flamenco star who spinning to the clack of the castanets.
“Casa Noble, doble, senor. Sin hielo por favor.” Her Spanish had just a hinted of an American accent. I quickly pulled down the vintage anejo tequila and I began polishing a clean glass trying in vain to mask the trembling in my hands. I poured her a generous double of the honey coloured liquid gold.
“Gracias senor e su nombre?’
“Yo soy Eduardo, senorita, but I speak English.” I stuttered in reply, mesmerized by the magnificent example of womanhood looking women sitting before me.
“Muy bien Eduardo, gracias.”
Her face, her beautiful face could not be matched by any heavenly angel. Her alabaster white skin was incredibly white as if sculpted from the finest Thassos marble. She was beyond angelic. Plato would have written, ‘She was beauty.’ She was of a universe of her own. I was beyond bewitched. I was awestruck.
“De nada senorita….?” I murmured adding a blank hesitation at the end of my response in with the hope that she would fill it in with her name.
“Elizabeth. Elizabeth Taylor.”
The air gasped from my lungs. I knew of Elizabeth Taylor. Everyone in Puerto Vallarta knew of Elizabeth Taylor. She was here because of her very public affair with Richard Burton who was filming Night of the Iguana south of the beach at Mismaloya.
Then, brash laughter and raucous chatter preceded a group of Hollywood VIP’s as they plowed their way into the bar. I recognized most of the group from local newspaper photos. Coverage had been heavy in every edition. Ava Gardner, Deborah Kerr, and everyone knew Richard Burton. One man seemed to dominate the gaggling group, kind of above them, their superior in some way.
This leader shouted out, “Liz, there you are! We didn’t see you in the restaurant. Did you eat already?”
As Elizabeth Taylor turned to acknowledge him, the light of the bar caught the amazing colour in her eyes. Not dark blue, not deep black but an unusual purple, a deep violet. When she looked back at me to order another drink, I was met with the full force of her overpowering gaze, almost collapsing on my very legs. Awesome. Awesome. Awesome.
“Eduardo, un’otro por favor.”
She looked back at the man who had shouted out the greeting, “John, I’ll have you know I have been here for the last hour waiting. Where have all of you been?”
John was John Huston, the well-known director of the Iguana movie. Though his gray hair was thinning, and he wore an untrimmed grizzly gray five o’clock shadow, he still projected a look of distinction and sophistication, one which commanded subordination and acquiescence.
He plopped himself down next to Taylor, leaned over and kissed her cheek. Richard Burton scowled at him and shouldered his intrusion between Taylor and Huston.
“Not to worry, Richard. We all recognize your staked-out territory.”
Richard Burton was a handsome man, wavy brown hair, medium height, good physique, not muscular but not flabby either. He slid his hand down over the Hollywood star’s her curvaceous backside and kissed her with surprising roughness.
“Hello, darling!” he said.
Elizabeth replied, “Calm yourself, Dick” clearly intending the salaciousness inference of the nickname’s suggestive innuendo.
“Were you able to film any scenes today, darling?”
“Film any scenes? Shit, I can barely stand up because the damn leg hurts like hell even a week after.” Burton responded gruffly.
Huston, leaned back so Taylor wouldn’t obstruct his view of Burton and grumbled, “We couldn’t film anything today because you could hardly move.”
“I’ll be better tomorrow, Big John. Not to worry, old boy!”
“Sure Dickie, I know you will be, provided you aren’t too hung over.”
Everyone in the bar, or at least everyone who kept up with the Burton-Taylor gossip knew how Burton had broken his ankle.
Burton was renting the hacienda at Calle Zaragoza, 39, while filming the Iguana movie. Because Taylor had her rented house was right across the street from his, Taylor’s, #40, locals began calling the street ‘gringo gulch.’ Taylor had come to Vallarta to keep Burton company while he was doing the film. More than likely, she came to keep him out of trouble, woman trouble. Burton had a reputation as being a real lady’s man, flirting with every one of his leading ladies, incessantly, until he succeeded in bedding the current target of his ardor.
At the end of each day’s shoot, Burton would be driven home where his nightly imbibing, drinking copious amounts of his favourite Mexican libation, Jose Cuervo Especial. He claimed it had medicinal properties which calmed his stomach’s irritation. He would explain to anyone who listened, “I normally drink scotch but with this Mexican food, my stomach feels like it’s on fire. This tequila soothes the burning.”
In any case, after a couple of hours of drinking, Burton was usually very drunk. Not “tipsy,” as some might say, but more like “smashed.” In this condition, he did not walk well, but rather staggered and lurched about. As well, when he was in this inebriated state, he usually felt more amorous libido would become more energized and so he would want to be with Taylor. It was a great convenience that she lived directly across the street. However, there was one drawback to this advantageous house location of their house. It was the street.
Calle Zaragoza, the street in the heart of Vallarta, discouraged traffic with its extreme narrowness. Built in the mid 1950’s, the Mexicans had manually laid down a patchwork of smooth rounded stones as the street’s base, ideal for durability but indescribably bad for pedestrians. In his drunken condition, it was more likely a factor of good luck that got Burton across the street intact most nights, rather than his own ambulatory skills. However, on his last crossing, Burton’s luck ran out. He slipped and fell. The local hospital recognizing the importance of their new patient, diagnosed the broken ankle quickly and put him into a walking cast. No matter that it may have been a ‘walking cast,’ the pain he suffered in just standing on the ankle was excruciating. So bad, the dosage of his prescribed pain killers obliterated his memory skills making him forget his lines. Without the prescription drugs, the pain was so great, absolutely no filming was possible to the dismay of the director, Huston.
The first time an accident occurred, Huston found a way to work around it. He continued the filming, shooting scenes which didn’t require Burton’s presence. Filming this way slowed production but at least, it didn’t stop.
Life in Vallarta went on as usual, slow and steady, hot and humid. Burton and Taylor, much the same. Each night, regular as the tide, awash with waves of tequila, Burton would lurch across the street knocking on Taylor’s door.
Knock, knock! Taylor’s housekeeper/maid/cook, Juanita, would open the door with guarded caution. One could never be too cautious in any Mexican town of size because of the poverty throughout the country. This was especially true after dark.
“Hola Senor Burton. Como esta?” was the pleasant way Juanita greeted Burton at the door every night.
Burton slurred a reply, “Hey Juanita, tell Lizzie, her beau is here!” Then he’d stumble over to Taylor’s bar where he would pour himself another tequila.
“How are you doing tonight, Dickie?” Taylor asked in a tone a mother uses when she is about to reprimand her offspring but wants to do so in a gentler, oblique way rather than scolding the child directly. In Taylor’s case, though she was never pleased seeing Burton in this intoxicated condition, she never chastised him for it. Maybe because she herself drank nearly the same amount, seeming to tolerate it better. Maybe because she knew criticizing him would only result in his drinking even more, faster. Maybe because she simply loved him, pure and simple, no matter what condition he was in. In any case, she would walk up to the bar and kiss him on the lips with passion and provocation, saying, “Pour one for me too, Dickie.”
This routine became the nightly norm for the duo. He would arrive, inebriated. Together, they would continue their drinking late into the night. At some point, when was unpredictable, Burton would begin his amorous advances arousing Taylor’s own sexual desires. She would then lead him to her bedroom where they channeled the carnal gods, Eros and Aphrodite, Bacchanalian nymphs lost to passion.
Huston, a non-religious man, gave prayers of thanks for the surprising speed with which Burton’s ankle healed, or at least healed enough so that Burton could stand pain-free. It meant regular filming could now resume as long as shots were restricted to above the waist, or at worst, above the knees. Filming continued. So did the nightly visitations. As well, the nightly drinking, a dangerous premonition of what was to come. Still, Huston was happy. The producers were happy. Burton and Taylor were happy. Everything was right in Vallarta.
Weeks later, Huston strode into my bar with a group of men who I later learned were the cinematographer and two of the film’s producers.
“John, we’re behind schedule and losing a shit load of money,” complained Ray Stark, the biggest producer of the movie.
“OK Ray, OK. But we never stopped filming” Huston replied, defensively.
“No, true. You overcame the ankle disaster brilliantly. But when he broke his fuckin’ arm, all shooting stopped. You couldn’t shoot around that and still maintain scenic credibility. You gotta find a way of saving this asshole from any more accidents,” continued Stark.
“What do you want me to do? Wrap him up in cotton batten?” Huston rebutted.
“How about telling Taylor to leave Vallarta?” Stark suggested.
“Are you nuts, Ray? If Taylor left, Burton would pack himself in her suitcase. Our movie would be finished. Forget about that idea. It won’t happen.”
“Well, you have to do something. This latest setback has put us on the financial brink. We’re really over budget.”
The producers were upset because Burton had once again stumbled in his nightly passage. This time, he fell hitting his face on the stoneway, splitting open his cheek. No amount of makeup could mask the gash. The set doctor feared there might even be a lasting scar.
“What do you want me to do? Buy up all the tequila in Vallarta so Burton can’t get any? Hell, he’d switch to scotch. That lush would even consider Mexican aftershave if he had to!” retorted Huston.
“We don’t give a shit what you do, John. He can’t have any more drunken accidents.”
Huston ordered another round for the table while Stark continued his relentless hunt for a solution to Burton’s repetitive accidents. “Why doesn’t he just move in with her? Then, there would be no need for those damn nightly crossings.”
“Liz refuses to let him. She says she needs her space, her privacy,” replied Huston.
“What bullshit! He’s over there every night all night as is. Hey, why not buy one of the adjoining houses? Then he wouldn’t have to cross the street.”
“We looked into that idea after he broke his wrist. The old lady on the east side, she’s in her 80’s. Well, she likes living beside a famous Hollywood star. She refused to sell. Then, the guy on the west wouldn’t explain his refusal. I suspect he likes the view of Liz’s pool ‘cause he is out on his balcony every afternoon while Liz sunbathes.”
“Well, we gotta find a solution. We just can’t have him crossing the street every night, smashed as hell. What are we gonna do?”
“I’ll think of something. But right now, I gotta get back home. I need to really recharge my batteries because tomorrow I have to try to convince Burton to double his normal amount of work to make up for lost time. That’s going to be a hell of a battle. I’m going over to his place right now to see if I can convince him to come out to the location early so that we can get a really good head start on the shooting tomorrow.”
“Christ John, good luck with that one. The harder he works, the more he drinks.”
The group signaled me for the check and asked me to call them two cabs, likely a bit of a wait at this hour.
“Calle Zaragoza, por favor, senior,” directed Huston as the cab driver pulled away from the River Café.
“Muy bien, gracias,” the cab driver mumbled.
Huston paid the cab, got out, and walked to the street level entranceway of Burton’s quaint little hacienda. It was a nice little street. The homes on each side of the street had thick, pastel painted walls that shielded their inner courtyards from any street noise and the direct rays of the hot sun. Each house, on both sides of the street, was set in from the wall. Though the houses were not large, they were comfortable and spacious enough given that this was an old neighbourhood in the heart of Vallarta.
‘The only damn problem was the street itself with its smooth faced round stones surface, simple construction but a tremendously durable surface. But one which was slippery for any pedestrian at the best of times, indescribably dangerous when wet,’ thought Huston as he rang the doorbell at the portico entrance.
The door pulled open a little as a short, stocky Mexican woman peered out into entranceway. Recognizing Huston, she widened the opening, smiling invitingly, “Hola Senor Huston. Como esta esta noche, senor?”
“Muy bien, Consuela. Senor Burton?”
Consuela opened her hand, palm up, fingers pointing toward the other side of the street. The extended hand signaled that Burton was across the street at Taylor’s.
“Gracias, Consuela,” responded Huston and he turned around and began to cross the street. ‘Shit, stupid way to build a street. Even a sober person could easily injure themselves,’ he thought to himself.
Juanita, Taylor’s housekeeper, answered the door seconds after Huston had rung the bell, likely Liz was still up for Huston could hear loud voices coming from center of the house even while he was still in the courtyard.
“Blimey, look what the wind just blew in. Come on in, old man. Sit down. What can I get ya?” Burton said to Huston, spraying his words with a tequila laced slur.
“Just a short tequila, Richard. I am surprised you’re still up.”
He added in a near admonishing tone, “You know we’ll be shooting a long day tomorrow?”
“Agh, not to worry, old man. Your number one star will be ready, cock-eyed and bushy tailed, ready to rip away, early as hell.”
“I sure hope so ‘cause we’re badly behind schedule and the producers are beginning to really squawk.”
“Fuck ‘em! All they ever worry about is their goddamn profit. Cheap bunch of fuckin’ Jews.”
Huston grimaced at the racist shot, deciding it best not to respond.
“Oh don’t worry John. I was about to take him to bed early anyway,” Liz blurted out. Her words were much clearer than Burton’s.
“Well, then best I leave so you both can get to bed early,” replied Huston as he gulped down the shot. “I need some solid sleep myself.”
Huston turned toward the courtyard but he hesitated, turned back toward the famous couple and looking directly at Taylor, emphasized, “Liz, it’s crucial he get some real rest because we have nearly a dozen scenes to shoot tomorrow.”
Liz nodded comprehension and put her hand behind the director’s waist, gently guiding him toward the courtyard. No words were needed as the two of them fully understood what was needed.
Liz returned just as Richard was pouring another tequila.
“Oh no, big guy! Come on to bed. I want to feel my big guy up against me.”
“Hey babes, I can be up against you right out here just as easily,” he garbled awkwardly pawing her heavy breast. Liz moved his hand to her waist adding, “Come on darling, let’s go to bed and I’ll give you a little honey.”
In the 60’s, Vallarta was little more than an overgrown village. Mismaloya was about 30 minutes away and it was really primitive, little power, no running water and there was no decent accommodation for any of the Hollywood people. Almost everyone rode back to Vallarta at the end of every day’s filming via the company buses or the municipal cabs that lurked in the area like piranhas near their host sharks at the end of every day’s filming.
Huston was home in minutes and in bed almost seconds after entering his own rented house. He was exhausted, not just from the day’s work but also from the stress of trying to defend Burton in the discussion at the café. Also, he was worried Burton would continue drinking even after he had urged him to go to bed early. Still, he quickly drifted off into a fitful sleep, too fatigued to think anymore.
Huston woke up with a start, dawn just breaking. He sat up, “I got it. I know how I’ll solve the damn problem with the accidents.” After breakfast, he stopped by Burton’s house and asked Consuela if Jesus had arrived at the house yet.
“Si senor. Hee ees een da keechen,” she told him.
Jesus Valdez was Burton’s gardener/handyman. He was a slow-moving Mexican of indeterminate age, but old for sure. Huston had concluded long ago that Valdez was worth his weight in gold because he was the one who had aided Burton many times, when accidents had happened. He had massaged Burton’s bruised hip or back after a fall, had taped his thigh after another and ice packed numerous sprains and strains. Now Huston had dreamed up a solution to the Burton accident episodes and he wanted to see if Valdez could help him bring his idea into concrete reality.
“Si Senor Huston. I know someone who can help us. Manual Artega, he ees a good hombre. Eeee get job done…queek and cheap too senor.”
“How long?” asked Huston.
“I don know for sure senor, but I guess tres dias o quattros, three, maybe, three, four days.”
“You think it can be done so quickly.”
“Senor, eef one has money, anything is possible een Vallarta. We weel haffa to oil some hands but wee will do it senor.”
“Good Jesus. Here, get started and make the necessary arrangements. We need this completed as quickly as possible,” added Huston as he pushed a thick wad of money into Valdez’ hand. Huston then left.
Valdez gulped the rest of his morning hot chocolate, now tepid, having lost all its ‘hot’ while he and Huston had been collaborating on the new solution to the Burton nightly excursions. But it didn’t matter to him, as his mission was more important than his normally casual and leisurely breakfast which he usually had in the pleasurable company of the buxom Consuela.
“Look Manuel, Huston will likely pay you a bonus if you can do this in a couple of days.”
“Two days to do it? Impossible. I need a week at least,” insisted Manuel Artega, owner of Muri di Manuel. “But I have some good men available, so with the right amount of oil, the job can be done in three days. No less. Concrete needs time to set.”
“Muy bien, amigo. Vamos, ariba.”
Huston had one more issue to resolve. He had to convince Burton to stay with him while his solution was being carried out. He was guessing that if Burton discovered the plan, he would see it as an attack on his capabilities, and maybe even his manhood. He hoped he could convince Liz to help him with persuading Burton to move residences for just a few days.
“What a fantastic idea, John,” Liz exclaimed. “Dick would never agree to doing it if we told him about the idea. You know how big his ego is. But he will accept it when it’s a done. I am sure of it.”
Vallarta’s mayor, Benito Ortega, approved the work very readily when ‘enough oil had greased his palm.’ Permits could be granted very easily in Vallarta, with the right financial persuasion. Work at Calle Zaragoza 39 and 40 was started straightaway.
Artega’s crew of eight men crew commenced work from both sides of the street simultaneously to speed things up. On the third day, late in the day, the Artega team applied the finishing coat of bright white paint. The job was done, completed in an amazing three days as Artega had promised.
Liz looked up at the work and said, “Fantastic! A great job! And nobody will complain about it possibly looking out of place. Dick, will love it, I am sure.”
The next day, Huston made the announcement to the entire movie crew at morning breakfast, “Hey people, today I am going to give you all a break ‘cause you have been working so hard. We’re cutting off at noon. Go home, gets some rest, and relax for the day.” Everybody cheered as if they were on the Malecon on New Year’s Eve at midnight. Every single one of them felt exhausted from the tiring days they had been putting in the last few weeks to make up for delays caused by Burton’s frequent accidents. Everyone understood challenges Huston had in dealing with his flamboyant, and vitriolic star. Still, they were all grateful for the break.
“I thought you had producers breathing down your neck, Hustie, old boy,” Burton queried Huston.
“Don’t worry about the producers, Richard. I have them under control. But I am taking you out for dinner tonight and Eduardo is going to uncork a super anejo just for you. But first, when we get back into town, I have something I want to show you back at your place.”
“Blimey, old chap. I love surprises.”
The cab bringing Huston and Burton back to Burton’s house turned the corner on to Calle Zaragoza and Huston directed the cab driver to stop right there, “Aqui Senor. Stop!”
Burton was surprised at their stopping a few houses short of his place but at Huston’s directive, he got out of the cab. As he turned toward his house, he exclaimed, “What the fu…? What is that?”
“That my friend is your Bridge of Sighs,” said Huston, with great pride. “Liz had it made for you, special. Just so you wouldn’t hurt yourself when you were coming over to her place.”
Burton looked up with a gaping mouth. His house was now joined to Taylor’s by a beautiful covered bridge, the sun reflecting the white sides, the red brick trimming blending it perfectly with the Mexican style of the surrounding structures. It looked beautiful. It looked like it was built along with the original two houses. It fit in perfectly. And even smarter, it guaranteed safe passage was almost a guarantee for Huston had the ground level street entranceways sealed off.
“It looks just like a miniaturized Bridge of Sighs in Venice,” cooed Burton. “That Liz, she can be a bitch, but she sure is a romantic one.”
And so there you have it. The story of how the Bridge of Sighs between Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor’s houses was built in the 1960’s in Puerto Vallarta.