After falling in love on the set of Cleopatra, Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton came to Puerto Vallarta in 1963 so that Burton could begin work on director John Huston’s film Night of the Iguana, shot almost entirely in the ocean side jungle of Mismaloya.
Hotels for cast and crew were in short supply and primitive to say the least. The old Oceano Hotel that stood in front of the black and white striped lighthouse on the Malecon in Old Town was the production’s headquarters. But when Elizabeth arrived to find a dirt floor and flying cockroaches in their “suite”, Burton called his buddy Huston and said “My friend, if we don’t find suitable accommodations for Elizabeth, I’m afraid I won’t be able to star in your film”. Huston immediately offered the couple his own rented villa on the hill in Gringo Gulch, Casa Kimberley, and the rest is history.
The couple fell in love with Puerto Vallarta and Burton bought Casa Kimberley as a surprise birthday gift for Elizabeth’s 32nd birthday in February 1964, just a few months after filming completed and a month before their marriage.
The Burtons spent a lot of time in Puerto Vallarta over the years, bringing along the kids (she had three children plus the daughter she adopted with Burton), their movie star friends and Taylor’s ever present entourage.
Burton eventually purchased the house across the street, razed it and built another house around a large pool, connecting the two houses with a replica of The Bridge of Sighs in Venice, forever afterwards called “The Lover’s Arch”.
Known as “The Pool House”, this adjoining second home also became Burton’s poker lair when high jinx buddies like Peter O’Toole were in town or “the dog house” when Elizabeth saw fit to lock him out of the main house. Hence the neighbor’s name for the “The Lover’s Arch”: El Puente de Reconciliación or the “Bridge for Making Up”.
Burton started a journal while living in Puerto Vallarta, using a typewriter on the upper terrace of the penthouse master suite at Casa Kimberley. This highly personal account of their everyday lives was later published into a fascinating biography titled Richard Burton: A Life by Melvyn Bragg.
The famous couple’s notoriety swept Puerto Vallarta into the world’s eye and was the genesis of the thriving tourism industry we know of today. Burton also made many charitable contributions to the city and just like so many others who came before and after him, was absolutely enchanted by the place and decided to live here.
The Burton’s befriended many of the locals and took a special interest in the young nephew of their neighbor, clothing designer Xavier de la Torre, owner of the Villa Leonarda and friend of Rock Hudson. Sergio Toledano, now an award winning Mexican photographer, was at the time a precocious 12 year old boy who had recently lost his mother. Taylor had strong maternal instincts and she and Burton took the boy under their wing, standing in as god parents for his first communion and taking him on many trips around the world including on their yacht the Kalizma and to England while Burton filmed Anne of a Thousand Days. The international paparazzi that gathered outside the gate at Casa Kimberley waiting for photo ops of the famous couple (a prelude to the current cultural obsession with celebrities) sent headlines around the world from Puerto Vallarta: “Liz to Adopt Another Child”.
Taylor sold the Casa Kimberley complex several years after Burton died in 1984, saying the “memories made her too sad…” She could never bring herself to spend the night there again after he was gone. Hundreds of Burton’s books and letters were found, along with movie memorabilia, vintage 1960’s clothing and a collection of Taylor’s wigs. Taylor comments in her book, My Love Affair with Jewelry, that a bejeweled Tiffany brooch in the shape of a dragon that Burton gave her for the premier of Night of the Iguana, “forever symbolized the early days of our marriage when we lived in Puerto Vallarta…”