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Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton in 'Cleopatra'

5 great romances of the 20th century 

Image: Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton in Cleopatra | Public Domain

There has been enough rose-tinted retrospective gushing for the likes of Paris and Helen, Antinous and Hadrian, Anthony and Cleopatra, etc. So, we thought we’d bring it a bit more up-to-date and focus on five couples whose romances help define the 20th century, an age that gave rise to the cult of celebrity.

1. Gertrude Stein and Alice B Toklas

Of all the romances on this page, the relationship between acclaimed writer Gertrude Stein and Alice B Toklas is perhaps the most enduring. Both were born in the San Francisco Bay Area in the 1870s and raised in prominent Jewish families, but they didn’t meet until a chance encounter in Paris in 1907. The two became inseparable until Stein’s death in 1946.

In their time together, Toklas - herself a talented writer - took on a supportive role while her lover wrote, but she was by no means a subordinate. Indeed, it was noted that Toklas pretty much ran the busy household which she enforced with rules. The pair became famous for their salons which were attended by artists and writers like Picasso, Matisse and Hemingway.

Toklas was buried next to her lover in Paris' Père Lachaise Cemetery after spending the final 20 years of her life guarding Stein’s legacy. This included her most celebrated novel, The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas.

2. Frida Kahlo and Diego Riviera

Frida Kahlo, an art student at the time, met Diego Riviera at the Mexican Communist Party. The latter was 20 years older, married, and already a renowned painter. After a passionate affair, Diego divorced his wife and married Frida in August 1929. The couple's relationship was tempestuous and punctuated by multiple affairs, Frida with both men and women, and Diego even had a fling with Frida’s younger sister.

A decade later, the marriage appeared to end in divorce but they re-married just a year later. They remained married in pretty much the same chaotic vein until Frida’s untimely death in 1954 when she was 47, just one year after she opened her first solo exhibition in Mexico. In due course, Frida’s fame spread worldwide, and she’s now better known than her husband.

In November 2021 Frida Kahlo’s 1949 self-portrait, Diego y yo, featuring an image of her husband on her forehead, sold at auction for $34.9 million, making it the most expensive work by a Latin American artist.

3. Edward VIII and Wallis Simpson

There is evidence that society never forgave the former Mrs Simpson for the scandal of the events that took place at the end of 1936, because she changed her name to Wallis Warfield in May 1937. The fact she’d been married once and was already married when she met Edward VIII helps put things into some sort of perspective regarding the commonly held, ‘twice married' Mrs Simpson.

The pair married a year after he spectacularly abdicated the throne, just a month after her divorce was finalised. As husband and wife, they enjoyed a privileged and, at times, controversial existence. They were friends with the English fascist Oswald Mosley and his wife, Diana, not to mention a decidedly suspicious relationship with Adolf Hitler. But they also invited the likes of Maria Callas, Marlene Dietrich, Cecil Beaton, Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton to stay in their sprawling French retreat. It’s alleged that during his visit, Burton told Wallis Warfield: ‘You are without question the most vulgar woman I’ve ever met.’

The pair remained together until Edward's death on 28th May 1972. Wallis died on 24th April 1986 and, despite the controversy, was buried beside her husband at Frogmore in Windsor Castle.

4. Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor

This one stands out because of the high-profile nature of the protagonists, and because it was far from love at first sight either. In fact, it took nine years from when they first met before the romance blossomed, in full costume and make-up, on the set of Cleopatra in January 1962.

Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor were first married on 15th March 1964, his second marriage and her fifth. The controversy their relationship caused at the time is hard to grasp by today’s standards. Their booze-soaked marriage, punctuated by extravagant spending, public squabbling and affairs led to divorce in 1974, and then to re-marriage the following year. However, this was a short-lived affair and they finally split in 1975,

They remained close, right up until Burton’s sudden death in 1984, aged 58. Indeed, three days before he passed of a cerebral haemorrhage, he wrote a love letter to Taylor from his home in Switzerland. Taylor took the contents of the letter to her grave, never revealing what he wrote before she died in March 2011.

5. Johnny Cash and June Carter

In February 1968, Johnny Cash asked June Carter to marry him in front of 7,000 people in London, Ontario. Both were successful county music artists when they met at Tennessee’s Grand Ole Opry in 1956, but it wouldn’t be for another twelve years until the pair finally tied the knot. June described falling in love with Johnny as less than convenient like it was something outside of her control, and she was only too aware of the painful consequences of their falling in love with their children and respective divorces.

Following the marriage, the couple had a son and happily blended their existing families. The couple often performed together, hosted The Johnny Cash Show on TV from 1969 to 1971 and pursued their solo careers. Despite Johnny’s frequent bouts in rehab and June’s addiction to prescription pills, the pair remained devoted to each other until she died in 2003. Johnny, heartbroken, passed away a mere four months later and they were laid to rest, side by side, in Hendersonville Memory Gardens in Tennessee.