Biography of Vivien Leigh British theater and film actress. Awarded two Oscars for best actress.
She is mostly remembered for her role as Scarlett O’Hara in the movie “Gone With the Wind“.
Despite her fame on the big screen, she was mostly a stage actress; During her 30-year career, she played roles ranging from the comedies of Noël Coward and George Bernard Shaw to classic Shakespearean characters such as Ophelia, Cleopatra, Juliet, and Lady Macbeth.
Vivien Leigh’s early life until 1933
Vivien Leigh is the stage name of Vivien Hartley. She was born on November 5, 1913 in Darjeeling, in the current state of West Bengal, India.
Vivien was the only daughter of Scottish British financier Ernest Hartley. Her mother, Gertrude Frances, was a Catholic, of Irish descent and born in Darjeeling.
Ernest Hartley and Gertrude Frances were married in 1912 in the London borough of Kensington.
They returned to India, and the following year Vivien was born.
In 1917 Ernest Hartley was transferred to Bangalore as an officer in the Indian cavalry.
Gertrude Hartley tried to instill in her daughter an appreciation for literature.
She introduced her to the works of Hans Christian Andersen, Lewis Carroll, and Rudyard Kipling.
She also made sure that she knew stories from Greek mythology and Indian folklore.
When Vivien turned six, her mother sent her to London, as an intern, to the school of the Convent of the Sacred Heart.
This was the first school founded in England by the religious of the Sacred Heart. During World War II, this convent was totally destroyed.
Travel in Europe with his parents
Her father took her out of school, and for four years Vivien was able to travel with her parents to various cities in Europe.
They were especially in Biarritz, San Remo and Paris. They enrolled her in schools whenever they could, so Vivien became fluent in French and Italian.
When the family returned to Britain in 1931, Vivien was already 18 years old.
Beginnings of Vivien Leigh’s theatrical career
Once established in England, Vivien communicated to her parents her intention to be an actress.
Soon after, her father enrolled her at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London.
Shortly after starting classes at the Academy, Vivien met Herbert Leigh Holman, a lawyer 13 years her senior.
They fell in love and married on December 20, 1932. Vivien Hartley was renamed Vivien Holman.
Vivien Leigh lost interest in classes and performances. Therefore, she abandoned dramatic art studies at the Academy.
On October 12, 1933, she gave birth in London to her only daughter, Suzanne, who would later become actress Suzanne Farrington.
Vivien Leigh’s beginnings as an actress until 1939
In 1935, at the suggestion of her friends, Vivien Holman played a small role as a schoolgirl in the British musical comedy film “Things Are Looking Up“.
It was her film debut, although she did not appear in the credits.
To enhance her acting career, Vivien Holman hired an agent, John Gliddon. He opined that Vivien Holman was not a proper name for advertising.
After considering numerous suggestions, she decided that her stage name would be Vivien Leigh.
In 1935, she starred in the play “The Mask of Virtue“, directed by Sidney Carroll. Vivien Leigh received rave reviews. A poet described her as “the essence of English youth“.
A problem arose when the play was moved to a larger theater. Vivien Leigh was unable to adequately project her voice. She couldn’t keep the attention of such a large audience.
Actor Laurence Olivier met Vivien Leigh when he came to see a performance of “The Mask of Virtue” and went on to congratulate her on her magnificent performance.
In 1937 Vivien Leigh and Laurence Olivier starred in the movie “Fire Over England“.
It is a historical drama that takes place during the reign of Elizabeth I of England. The plot is centered on England’s victory over the Invincible Army.
“Fire Over England” became famous because, during filming, the two lovers of the film began a passionate romance in real life.
This was all very scandalous, as Laurence Oliver was married to actress Jill Esmond; and Vivien was still attached to Herbert Leigh Holman.
In those months, Vivien Leigh read Margaret Mitchell‘s novel “Gone with the Wind“.
Vivien was clearly reflected in the character of Scarlett O’Hara; and instructed her American representative to recommend her to David O. Selznick, who was planning a film version of the novel.
Meanwhile, Vivien Leigh was chosen to play Ophelia in Laurence Oliver’s stage adaptation of William Shakespeare’s tragedy “Hamlet”.
From that moment, they began to live together, but without marrying because their respective husbands had refused to grant them a divorce.
In 1938, Vivien Leigh acted alongside Robert Taylor, Lionel Barrymore and Maureen O’Sullivan in “A Yank at Oxford“.
This was the first of her films to attract attention to her in the United States.
During production, she acquired a reputation for being difficult and unreasonable. This was because she disliked her supporting role.
Furthermore, she realized that her eccentricities seemed to be beneficial to her.
In 1938, she worked alongside Charles Laughton and Rex Harrison on the musical drama “The sidewalks of London“.
In this film, a street artist (Charles Laughton) develops the talent of a humble girl (Vivien Leigh). And a songwriter (Rex Harrison) takes her to the top of fame in Music.
Years later, in 1964, the movie “My fair lady” starring Audrey Hepburn and Harrison Ford told a very similar story.
Vivien Leigh and “Gone with the Wind”
Producer Samuel Goldwyn made an offer to Laurence Olivier for the title role in the movie “Wuthering Heights” (1939).
Goldwyn and the film’s director, William Wyler, offered Vivien Leigh a supporting role, which she declined.
Laurence Olivier traveled to Hollywood, and Vivien Leigh stayed in London, albeit for a short time.
In February 1938, Vivien Leigh had asked her representative in the United States to consider her for the role of Scarlett.
David O. Selznick had seen Vivien’s performances and thought she was a beautiful actress, but by no means a possible Scarlett because she was “too British“.
Despite this initial refusal, Vivien Leigh traveled to Los Angeles to be with Laurence Olivier.
Upon arrival Vivien tried to convince David Selznick that she was the right person for the role.
Soon after, she landed the role and worked on the unforgettable film “Gone with the Wind“.
“Gone with the Wind” is an American epic, historical and romantic film, adapted from Margaret Mitchell’s 1936 novel. Produced by David O. Selznick and directed by Víctor Fleming.
The story unfolds in the southern United States, against the backdrop of the dawn of the Civil War and the reconstruction of the country.
The film tells the story of Scarlett O’Hara, the determined daughter of Georgia plantation owners.
The protagonists are played by Vivien Leigh (Scarlett), Clark Gable (Rhett Budler), Leslie Howard and Olivia de Havilland.
Filming was delayed for two years because of Selznick’s determination to secure Clark Gable for the role of male lead.
Also influencing the delay was the search for an actress for the role of Scarlett O’Hara. 1,400 actresses had to be interviewed before making the decision.
Sometimes Vivien had to work seven days a week, often late into the night.
She confessed to Laurence Oliver that she hated acting in the cinema and never wanted to shoot a movie again.
“Gone With the Wind” won ten Oscars, including Best Actress for Vivien Leigh.
The New York Film Critics Circle awarded her an award for Best Actress. Her early performances had given her immediate success in Britain.
But she was relatively unknown in other parts of the world until the premiere of Gone With the Wind.
Historian and film critic Leonard Maltin described the film as one of the greatest of all time. He added that Vivien Leigh brilliantly played her part.
Marriage and first jobs with Olivier
In February 1940, Jill Esmond agreed to divorce Laurence Olivier; In turn, Leigh Holman divorced Vivien, although the two maintained a close friendship for the rest of her life.
Jill Esmond received custody of Tarquin, her son with Olivier; and Herbert Leigh received custody of Suzanne, his daughter with Vivien Leigh.
On August 31, 1940 Vivien and Laurence were married in Santa Barbara, California, in a ceremony attended only by their hosts and witnesses: Katharine Hepburn and Garson Kanin.
Vivien Leigh had done a screen test and hoped to co-star with her husband in the movie Rebecca (1940), which was to be directed by Alfred Hitchcock with Olivier in the lead role.
After seeing Vivien Leigh’s screen test, David Selznick pointed out that she didn’t seem like the right actress for the character.
In addition Selznick made it appear that Vivien had not shown any enthusiasm for the role until Olivier was confirmed as the protagonist.
He gave the role of Rebecca to Joan Fontaine.
Vivien Leigh from 1940
In 1940 Vivien Leigh worked on the movie “The Waterloo Bridge”, along with Robert Taylor, then at the height of his success, as one of the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer’s most popular male Stars.
Its box office receipts reflected the great reception among the audience and critics.
Vivien and Laurence staged a theatrical production of “Romeo and Juliet” for Broadway.
But the New York press was totally unfavorable to them and the failure was a financial disaster for both of them.
In 1941, they both starred in the movie “That Hamilton Woman“, also known as “Lady Hamilton“.
It was one of the films that Hollywood made with the aim of awakening a pro-British feeling among the American public.
The film was popular in the United States and an exceptional success in the Soviet Union.
It was also the beginning of a great and long friendship of the Olivier Leigh couple, with Winston Churchill.
In 1943, Vivien Leigh toured North Africa, as a member of a theatrical magazine aimed at encouraging displaced armed forces in the region.
Vivien Leigh acted for the troops before falling ill with a persistent cough and fever.
In 1944, she was diagnosed with tuberculosis of the left lung and spent several weeks in the hospital.
In 1945 Vivien Leigh was filming “Caesar and Cleopatra“, a British film adapted from Bernard Shaw’s novel, when she discovered she was pregnant.
Soon after, she suffered a miscarriage and temporarily fell into a deep depression.
Her husband Laurence Olivier witnessed Vivien having several days of hyperactivity, followed by a period of depression and a nervous breakdown.
After this episode, Vivien did not remember anything and was extremely embarrassed.
Vivien Leigh and Laurence Olivier from 1946 to 1948
With her doctor’s approval, Vivien Leigh was able to return to acting in 1946.
However, all UK films from this period were negatively affected by a Hollywood boycott of British films.
In 1947 Laurence Olivier was knighted and Vivien Leigh accompanied him to Buckingham Palace for the investiture.
In 1948 Sir Olivier became a member of the Board of Directors of the Old Vic Theater in London.
In order to raise funds for the theater, he and his wife undertook a six-month theatrical tour of Australia and New Zealand.
Laurence Olivier appreciated Vivien Leigh’s ability to captivate the press.
Both had a resounding success with the plays they presented.
However, members of the company later recalled several fights between the couple.
The most dramatic altercation occurred in Christchurch, New Zealand, when there was an exchange of insults and slaps between Laurence and Vivien.
The success of the tour encouraged the Oliviers to make their first appearance together in the West End, performing the same plays as on the tour; and one more, “Antígona”, included at Vivien Leigh’s insistence because she wanted to act in a tragedy.
In 1951 Vivien Leigh landed the role of Blanche DuBois in the film based on the Tennessee Williams playwright “A Streetcar Named Desire“.
This is considered one of the most important works of American literature.
It tells the story of Blanche DuBois, a southern lady with delusions of grandeur, sheltered in an invented world; conceited, arrogant and unbalanced; and Stanley Kowalski, her rough brother-in-law, member of the proletarian immigrant class.
The film, directed by Elia Kazan, won several awards, including an Oscar in the Best Actress category, for Vivien Leigh’s performance as Blanche DuBois.
Tennessee Williams commented that Vivien Leigh gave the role “everything I imagined for it, and much of what I had never dreamed of“.
Vivien Leigh had mixed feelings about her relationship with the character; in later years, she said playing Blanche DuBois drove her crazy.
Vivien Leigh’s life from 1951 to 1960
In 1951 Vivien Leigh and Laurence Olivier performed two plays on Cleopatra: “Anthony and Cleopatra” by William Shakespeare; and Bernard Shaw’s “Caesar and Cleopatra”.
They alternated the works every night. They got good reviews.
In 1952, they brought these two productions to New York, representing them for a season.
The reviews were also positive, but one of the critics infuriated them when he suggested that Vivien Leigh was beautiful, but lacked talent.
In January 1953, Vivien traveled to Ceylon to film “The Path of the Elephants” with Peter Finch.
Shortly after filming began, she suffered a nervous breakdown and Olivier took her back to her home in Britain.
After several months of recovery, she was able to go to the Stratford-upon-Avon stage representing some of Shakespeare’s plays, together with Laurence Olivier.
The seats were filled, they received good reviews, and Vivien Leigh’s health seemed stable.
In 1956 Vivien became pregnant. Unfortunately, several weeks later, she aborted and entered a period of depression that lasted for months.
Her frequent attacks on Laurence became unbearable. In London, her ex-husband Herbert Leigh stayed with the Oliviers and helped calm her down.
In 1958 Vivien began a relationship with actor Jack Merivale, who was aware of the actress’ medical condition.
Merivale assured Laurence Olivier that he would take care of her. In 1960 Vivien and Laurence divorced.
In her autobiography, Olivier spoke of the years of tension they had suffered from Leigh’s illness: “Throughout her possession by that incredibly evil monster, manic depression, with its deadly and increasingly narrow spirals, she kept her good judgment, an ability to disguise her true mental condition from almost everyone except me, for whom the trouble could hardly be expected. ”
Last years and death of Vivien Leigh
VIvien’s relationship with actor Merivale proved to be a stabilizing influence for Leigh. Merivale joined her for a tour of Australia, New Zealand and Latin America, which lasted from July 1961 to May 1962.
The actress enjoyed positive reviews without sharing the limelight with Laurence Olivier.
In 1963, despite still experiencing bouts of depression, Vivien Leigh continued to work in the theater.
That same year she won a Tony Award for Best Actress in a Musical.
In 1965, she appeared in the movie “The Mad Ship“, directed by Stanley Kramer. Before filming, Kramer was unaware of Vivien’s fragile mental and physical state.
She was sick; She had almost incredible courage to go ahead and make the movie. The role she played was loaded with paranoia.
This affected Vivien a lot and she suffered nervous breakdowns that hurt her relationship with other actors. Among them were Simone Signoret and Lee Marvin; they were both compassionate and understanding.
During the scene of a rape, Leigh was embarrassed and hit Marvin so hard with a high-heeled shoe that it marked his face.
She suffered a relapse of her tuberculosis in May 1967. After several weeks of rest she seemed to be recovering.
On the night of July 7, 1967, Merivale dropped her off as usual in her Eaton Square apartment to go act in a play.
When he returned home shortly before midnight, he found her asleep.
Thirty minutes later, he entered the bedroom and discovered her body on the floor. She had tried to go to the bathroom and when her lungs filled with fluid they collapsed and suffocated.
Her death was publicly revealed on July 8, 1967, and the lights in all the central London theaters were turned off for an hour.
A Catholic service was held at St Mary’s Church in London. Her funeral was attended by celebrities from British theater and cinema.
In accordance with her last wishes, Vivien Leigh was cremated and her ashes were scattered in the lake next to her country house at Tickerage Mill, near Blackboys, East Sussex.