Readings — From the October 2012 issue

The Longest Days

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From actor Richard Burton’s diary entries recording a trip with his wife Elizabeth Taylor to visit Yugoslavian president Josip Broz Tito in preparation for The Battle of Sutjeska, a 1973 film about World War II in which Burton plays Tito. The Richard Burton Diaries, edited by Chris Williams, will be published next month by Yale University Press.

july 21, 1971

Spent most of yesterday with Yugoslavians about the Tito film. Lots of fascinating talk about Communism and Russia, but mostly about Tito. We go, at Tito’s invitation, to see him on the twenty-eighth instant. Should be very interesting to say the least.

july 31

Arrived safely and were taken by car—Mercedes-Benz—to and through Pula, where a boat awaited us. A mass of photographers and journalists and TV people at the airport to meet us. Usual questions—“What’s it feel like to play a great man?” “How much do you know about Tito?” They have given us a villa not far from Tito’s. Very hot—no air conditioning.

Madame Broz (she prefers that to “Tito”) was at the villa to meet us. Big woman and very peasant-looking and utterly charming with a devastating smile. We were offered canapés (which I ate, removing the bread), and champagne, which I refused, and delicious Turkish coffee, which I didn’t refuse.

august 1

A long but enjoyable day spent, apart from a short nap in the afternoon, with Tito. We presented the president and wife with our present from Van Cleef & Arpels—a chunk of pyrite (?) with a clock set into it. I told Tito, after being asked what I thought of the script, that I thought he was weakly presented in it and should be stronger and that the part was too small. He said it was OK to make it larger, which pleased the director, Delić, to no end. So perhaps I’ll have something better to do than just stand around and look like a man of destiny.

The president is surprisingly small and delicate. Little short arms and legs and a small head with little features. He wears slightly tinted glasses, and I can’t really tell the color of his eyes. He has quite a potbelly, but the rest of him is slim—no bottom and a thin chest and legs. He walks slowly and with short steps. When he sits down behind a table he seems most formidable. I’m slightly put out by the nervousness with which the servants serve us all. They live in remarkable luxury unmatched by anything else I’ve seen. After lunch the president and I talked a great deal about the war and Sutjeska in particular. I asked him if he liked Stalin. He took a long time to answer and finally said he “liked him or rather admired him as a politician but disliked him as a man.”

He called for us at 4 p.m. in a convertible Lincoln Continental—“a present from the people of Zagreb,” I think he said—and started to drive. He immediately punctured the front right tire by driving over a very sharp curbstone not fifty yards from the house. Instead of stopping and cutting the engine, he revved up and we jerked and jolted about for a nerve-racking ten seconds or so. We left the car and went on foot to visit a small zoo with an elephant and ibex and elands, etc. Gazelles too. He suddenly looked very old and even smaller after the car incident but was soon his old confident self again. He seemed a little apprehensive of the elephant when feeding it.

august 2

At 9:30 saw a PR man who asked me a lot of questions about why I was doing it all, etc. For the umpteenth time I went through my stock verbiage. “Great man,” “Great opportunity,” “Hope I can do justice,” etc. I hope, more aptly, that they can do justice to me. Give me the tools, i.e., part, and I’ll get on with the job. Were it not, actually, for E’s delight in the power and glory of it all I would do my best to cut and run—so great is the strain of boredom—especially the interminable translated conversation. Both Tito and Madame Broz tell long stories which they don’t allow the interpreters to interrupt, result being that by the time the latter have finished one couldn’t care less what the story is about.

At precisely 9:50 we left the house for the president’s villa. Then straight on to a small powerful yacht—35 knots top speed, 160 tons, 120 feet—and belting off down through all the hundreds of islands in this part of the world. Lovely towns and hundreds of spanking-new hotels. The beaches, mostly rock, were crawling with tourists. They average 30 million a year, they kept on saying. Almost everybody waved at the presidential yacht, and he waved back. The president proudly told me that his coast was the best-defended in Europe and that guns, submarines and gunboats were hidden under all the cave-infested islands. Occasionally through the binoculars, which were amply supplied, I would glimpse a sailor at attention on some remote hillock rigidly saluting.

We had lunch on a little island facing Brioni, not without the excruciating examination of the house and grounds. “This is from Indonesia, from Sukarno himself.” “This is work from the people of Macedonia.” “This is from the Sudan.” I noticed that most faces bore fixed smiles of boredom long before the end of lunch and despite the fact that they were drinking. E’s face, of course, was an exception. She is having a ball. It is as well that I’m not drinking or I might be asking some very awkward questions.

There were occasional bright moments. Tito in English: “I was very glad when my grandmother died.” E: “Why?” Tito: “Because it meant she stopped beating me.” E: “That’s an awful thing to say.” Tito: “She was small but strong and always angry.”

He met Churchill, who was in the vicinity on Onassis’s yacht. Winston C. accepted a very small whiskey. Tito had his usual large one. “Why so small a portion?” asked Tito. “You taught me to drink large ones.” “That was when we both had power,” said Winston C. “Now I have none and you still have yours.”

Power does corrupt. I doubt whether Tito sees the ordinary Joe Soap from whom he came except when the latter waves a flag and carries a banner. At least he doesn’t keep his people waiting. Last night we went to see a film in the Roman Theater at Pula. The streets were lined with sailors rigidly at attention, behind them masses of people who applauded the whole route. E was the star of the evening—much more so than, or at least equal to, Tito. When we entered the coliseum—6,000-person capacity—they all stood up and gave an ovation. E deeply thrilled. Me cynical as ever.

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