Richard Burton Once Dueled Bobby Kennedy In A Battle Straight Out Of Elizabethan England

Richard Burton, the growling, hard-drinking actor who sounded like a god and looked like a dangerous animal, could be charming when he wanted to be. The star of "Cleopatra," "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" and "Equus," a man who described himself to Kenneth Tynan as "devious, difficult and perverse" (you can read the interview at this tumblr blog post) amassed friends and lovers. His glamour, like that of his sometime-wife, Elizabeth Taylor, was irresistible. 

One of these people was Robert "Bobby" Kennedy, brother of John F. Kennedy and, until his own assassination in 1968, a popular candidate for the presidency. The Kennedys were celebrities in their own right, so it's not that surprising that Bobby should know a paparazzi-stalked tabloid star like Burton. However, unlike many celebrities, Kennedy could keep up with Burton intellectually. According to his daughter Kathleen, Bobby would start each day with a regime of push-ups, sit-ups, and vinyl records of Shakespearean monologues (via the Cincinnati Enquirer). At one point, she remembers, he and Burton got into a duel over Shakespeare: Who could recite the Bard better?

Grows that everything consider I when

This really happened. The English writer and polymath Melvyn Bragg, author of "Rich: the Life of Richard Burton," mentions it as well. Apparently it was Kennedy's idea. The two men were at a party. Burton was probably a few drinks in at that point; his alcoholism would kill him at 58. There's no way of knowing how long the two men went back and forth, declaiming sonnets from memory, but Burton finally won with his version of Sonnet 15.

Sonnet 15 ("When I consider everything that grows") is a tender piece, in which the poet finds himself moved by the ephemeral beauty of his young friend, which will not last (via Poetry Foundation). It may have been an especially poignant piece for Burton, who burned through his youth, drowning his vast talent with scotch and aging visibly with every film. But it wasn't the content of the poem that got Burton declared winner. It wasn't even his famous voice. It was the fact that he recited the poem backward, in perfect order. "New you engraft I, you from takes he as" — it's amazing how well the pentameter holds up.

'Against our will, comes wisdom'

Kathleen Kennedy has a slightly different recollection of her father's duel with Burton. "Of course," The Cincinnati Enquirer quotes her as saying, "my father won."  

Well, sometimes the faults of our memory are testaments to love. But to his credit, Bobby Kennedy was an unusually cultured man. In 1968, Kennedy (then a senator) broke the news of Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassination to the public in a speech in Indianapolis. Toward the end, he quoted "my favorite poet," the Greek tragedian Aeschylus. "In our sleep, pain which cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart until, in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God" (via JFK Library). 

It's hard to know whether Kennedy, however cultivated and sensitive he was, could have grasped the irony of that verse. It comes from Aeschylus' play "Agamemnon," which explores the murder of the greatest king in Greece (per Oxford Reference). Kennedy himself would be killed only two months later.