Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton in Puerto Vallarta
On the Mexican Pacific coast, surrounded by green mountains, the emerald waters of the Banderas Bay, lying beside the beach, is a beautiful and magical place, Puerto Vallarta, the scene and set for a famous love story/scandal between Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, an event that pushed this town along a the road to become a world class tourist destination.
So what? Some may say, or: Who was Liz Taylor and Richard Burton? I actually may be included among those that initially thought that way, but after visiting the town, reviewing old photos of the area and watching "The Night of the Iguana" and reading a bit on the subject, I must say I am quite shocked by seeing how much Puerto Vallarta actually seems to be trying to forget its past or, at the very least, neglecting it.
Puerto Vallarta has a colorful history before it was discovered by Hollywood, the enormous bay, with almost 30 miles of beaches was first explored by Francisco Cortés de San Buenaventura, Hernán Cortés’ nephew in the XVI century. It was also used as a pirate hideaway and even the naval commander Francis Drake seems to have hidden in these bays and coves.
The first registered village is mentioned in 1851, called Las Peñas, by 1880, the town had a population of 1500 inhabitants dedicated to salt deliveries, agriculture and livestock-raising. Later on silver mining was an important part of the local economy until the end of the XIX century when large supplies were discovered in USA. In 1918 the town was renamed to Puerto Vallarta (Vallarta Harbor) in honor of Ignacio Luis Vallarta, governor of the state of Jalisco in the second half of the XIX century.
Puerto Vallarta in 1920
Puerto Vallarta prospered once again, during the so-called “green gold fever”, the banana, which was exported mainly to the U.S., this declined after the Mexican Revolution when the lands of foreign companies were expropriated. During World War II shark exports drove a good part of the local economy.
During the decade of the 1950’s the town became attractive for intellectuals, artists and politicians. A Mexican architect, Fernando Freddy Romero created the so-called “Puerto Vallarta style”, with white adobe fronts, red tile roofs, wrought iron decorations and stone walls, colonial style but with a Mexican touch. (Photos of downtown Vallarta)
Puerto Vallarta in 1957
So the question might be why is Puerto Vallarta a famous tourist destination today? Among the main reasons are three names: John Huston, Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton.
During September 1962, a famous love story began when John Huston arrived in the small fisherman harbor with Burton and Taylor. John Huston was at the time a very famous American director, with successful movies and many awards. Among his movies at the time were, The Maltese Falcon, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, The African Queen, Moulin Rouge, Moby Dick, and many more, many Oscars and other recognitions.
Elizabeth Taylor (1932-2011), an English actress, was on the top of her long career, the highest paid actress, at the time, for her lead in Cleopatra, where she met and started an affair with Richard Burton (1925-1984), a Welsh actor, who played Mark Anthony. Both were married at the time and their scandalous romance, which the Vatican condemned as “erotic vagrancy”, received an incredible amount of attention from the tabloid press, both Dick and Liz were unable to travel anywhere without being hounded and virtually attacked by mobs of fans, press and others. They were the ones that inaugurated the Beatle like adoration and stalking fans and paparazzi (from the Italian for annoying insects).
Richard Burton & Elizabeth Taylor during the filming of the Iguana
While Huston dedicated his time to the scouting and the photographic archive of the area, preparing for his new film “The Night of the Iguana”, a stage play written by famous American author Tennessee Williams, Elizabeth and Richard enjoyed their romance and time in Vallarta.
The Night of the Iguana Poster
The location for “The Night of the Iguana” at Mismaloya was proposed to Huston in 1962 by Guillermo Wulff (the person that added the cupola to local house designs), a Mexico City civil engineer that had traveled regularly to Vallarta since the 1950’s. John Huston thought the best way to get the most and the best from the actors, was to place them is a challenging location, far from their own (Hollywood) and in extreme distress, what better way to "simulate" a run-down third class hotel in Mexico, than building it in the Mexican jungle!
Mismaloya today, arches of the set can be seen on the hill
He finally decided to film “The Night of the Iguana”, on a set that he built on the southern side of Mismaloya Beach on a hill with a spectacular view of the bay, the beach, the Pacific Ocean and Los Arcos.
Mismaloya was quite the challenge, it was remote, only accessible by boat, in the middle of the jungle and certainly very far from what they would consider “civilized”.
The movie set at Mismaloya
Enormous efforts were made to prepare the area for the filming. They (Elizabeth and Richard) spent time in Huston's Puerto Vallarta villa and would take a boat early to Mismaloya to continue the shooting and work. Some shots in the movie are from the town itself in the early 1960’s.
From "The Night of the Iguana" by John Huston
John Huston had lived in Mexico for many years, even got a position riding as an honorary member in the Mexican cavalry, and returned time and again during his life, he even bought a house in Puerto Vallarta and in his later years lived in isolated Las Caletas, where he wrote his autobiography, An Open Book.
You can see Mismaloya in the background, Ava in the foreground (from "The Night of the Iguana".
I visited the set of the Night of the Iguana in April 2012, half a mile past Mismaloya going south, and the place is closed. There is no access and the people there said it was being remodeled. The old sign falling apart by the side of the road made it perfectly clear that the place has been neglected, who knows what they have in store, hopefully something nice and appropriate.
The Night of the Iguana sign by the highway
I visited from the sea side and the same thing, access is blocked, the iron and concrete pier Huston and the actors used to arrive at by sea to get to the set, is falling apart, as is the iguana on the pole that marked the spot.
The Night of the Iguana Set 2006 by D. Loucks Photography
(click to enlarge)
Some real iguanas greeted me along the way, but there’s certainly no sign at all of past glories, nor that it's a place Vallarta honors and values.
The Night of the Iguana, no trespassing
In Puerto Vallarta, Casa Kimberley (Kimberley House) is being completely remodeled (May 2012 - actually the place was plastered with “clausurado” signs - government closure), so who knows what it's all about. One thing is sure, if any ghosts wandered inside the villa, they've long since moved to some nicer property.
Decoration tiles on Richard Burton's ex-house
The house owned by Burton across the street is also being “remodeled”, little is left other than the bridge that is also neglected, the little pink paint still left peeling off in large chunks, the crumbling “Casa Kimblerly” sign and some tiles mentioning the house of the stars barely hanging on.
Casa Kimberley sign
Nostalgia is “in”, you can see old movies reappearing, remakes, remasters, directors cuts, old fashion styles recycled, I am sure the love story between Taylor and Burton, the incredible and unique scandal, the films by Huston and so on, could easily be made interesting for newer generations too, there is no need to forget WHY Vallarta is on the map today. Brangelina are a joke compared to what Dick and Liz did to the world, they were the couple of the XX century, reviled, loathed and admired all at once.
If you visit the Cuale River Island you’ll find a sculpture that honors John Huston, the director, it was requested by Humberto Esparza, owner of Le Bistro restaurant, friend of the director, and was sculpted by artist Carlos Ramírez, with Huston on the director seat.
John Huston sculpture on Isla Río Cuale
The shooting of “The Night of the Iguana” started in 1963, besides Burton, the main roles were played by actresses Ava Gardner, Deborah Kerr and Sue Lyon. Mexican talent was also included by Huston such as actor/director Emilio "El Indio" Fernández and cinematographer Gabriel Figueroa.
Due to Taylor and Burton's romance and their shared love of the town, Puerto Vallarta started to appear in the media (when the actors and director got along well and no scandals around the movie itself arose) and became a well known place, it’s also mentioned and shown a lot during the movie itself. Mexican authorities and locals frowned upon the affair too, considering the catholic population, even more so in the 1960's, Liz's presence must not have been very popular and may be an underlying reason why Vallarta still isn't too open on the subject or at least don't publicize it so much.
Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton and Ava Gardner
During the filming of the movie, Richard Burton purchased Casa Kimberley for Elizabeth Taylor, on Zaragoza Street as her 32nd birthday's present. The house can be found by climbing some steep cobblestone side streets, in what is known as Gringo Gulch and you can easily spot it by its "pink" bridge communicating both sides of the street and a crumbling plaque with the house’s name.
Liz Taylor lived in Casa Kimberley with her personal rooms on the top floor; Richard Burton lived in the house across the street and built the bridge (Lover’s Arch) linking over to his lover’s home, so he wouldn’t have to cross the street to get there. It was based on "The Bridge of Sighs" that you'll find the Italian city of Venice. Considering their fights, which they very much enjoyed (as can be seen in a 60 Minutes interview linked at the end of the article), the bridge was also called the “Reconciliation Bridge”.
Their love ended in marriage, Richard and Elizabeth got married in Montreal, Canada on March 15, 1964. They divorced after 10 years, remarried on October 10, 1975, but divorced a little under a year later.
Richard Burton returned to Puerto Vallarta with his new wife, Susy Hunt in 1977, he purchased a hacienda for her as a Valentine’s Day gift, a few blocks from Casa Kimberley, on Miramar Street, the home is now the beautiful Hacienda San Angel.
Anyway, this long story is a review of how and why Puerto Vallarta gained so much attention as a tourist destination, Huston, Taylor and Burton, played a significant role in getting the press and tourists down to this remote bucloic village, but the town really did the rest by itself.
Downtown Puerto Vallarta 2012
Many people find Puerto Vallarta magical, that it shares the mysteries that are the foundation of the Mexican soul, attracting both artists and intellectuals from around the world, just as it did by itself during 1950’s. This attraction, this love, people end up feeling for Puerto Vallarta is perfectly symbolized in the love story between Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, something Puerto Vallarta should always be thankful for, and a indelible reason why the city must make it an important part of its present and future.
Author: Mogens Gallardo
On the trail of the Iguana (The (Original Movie Promo), very interesting: