Best known for her iconic performances as Scarlett O’Hara in Gone with the Wind (1939) and Blanche DuBois in A Streetcar Named Desire (1951)
The Village Squire
Look Up and Laugh
Things Are Looking Up
Fire Over England
Storm in a Teacup
A Yank at Oxford
Sidewalks of London, also known as St. Martin’s Lane
Caesar and Cleopatra
The Deep Blue Sea
The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone
Comedy is much more difficult than tragedy – and a much better training, I think. It’s much easier to make people cry than to make them laugh. ~ Vivien Leigh
Vivien Leigh was born Vivian Mary Hartley on November 5, 1913 in British India on the campus of St. Paul’s School, Darjeeling. She was the only child of Ernest Richard Hartley, an English broker, and his wife, Gertrude Mary Frances (née Yackjee; she also used her mother’s maiden name of Robinson).
In 1917, Ernest Hartley was transferred to Bangalore as an officer in the Indian Cavalry, while Gertrude and Vivian stayed in Ootacamund. At the age of three, young Vivian made her first stage appearance for her mother’s amateur theatre group, reciting “Little Bo Peep”. Gertrude Hartley tried to instill an appreciation of literature in her daughter and introduced her to the works of Hans Christian Andersen, Lewis Carroll and Rudyard Kipling, as well as stories of Greek mythology and Indian folklore. At the age of six, Vivian was sent by her mother to the Convent of the Sacred Heart (now Woldingham School) then situated in Roehampton, southwest London, from Loreto Convent, Darjeeling. One of her friends there was future actress Maureen O’Sullivan, two years her senior, to whom Vivian expressed her desire to become “a great actress”. She was removed from the school by her father, and traveling with her parents for four years, she attended schools in Europe, notably in Dinard, Biarritz, San Remo and Paris, becoming fluent in both French and Italian. The family returned to Britain in 1931. She attended A Connecticut Yankee, one of O’Sullivan’s films playing in London’s West End, and told her parents of her ambitions to become an actress. Shortly after, her father enrolled Vivian at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (RADA) in London.
Vivian met Herbert Leigh Holman, known as Leigh Holman, a barrister 13 years her senior, in 1931. Despite his disapproval of “theatrical people”, they married on December 20, 1932 and she terminated her studies at RADA, her attendance and interest in acting having already waned after meeting Holman. On October 12, 1933 in London, she gave birth to a daughter, Suzanne.
Leigh’s friends suggested she take a small role as a schoolgirl in the film Things Are Looking Up, which was her film debut, albeit uncredited as an extra. She engaged an agent, John Gliddon, who believed that “Vivian Holman” was not a suitable name for an actress. After rejecting his many suggestions, she took “Vivian Leigh” as her professional name. Gliddon recommended her to Alexander Korda as a possible film actress, but Korda rejected her as lacking potential. She was cast in the play The Mask of Virtue, directed by Sidney Carroll in 1935, and received excellent reviews, followed by interviews and newspaper articles. In the playbill, Carroll had revised the spelling of her first name to “Vivien”.
Laurence Olivier saw Leigh in The Mask of Virtue, and a friendship developed after he congratulated her on her performance. Olivier and Leigh began an affair while acting as lovers in Fire Over England (1937), but Olivier was still married to actress Jill Esmond. During this period, Leigh read the Margaret Mitchell novel Gone with the Wind and instructed her American agent to recommend her to David O. Selznick, who was planning a film version.
Despite her relative inexperience, Leigh was chosen to play Ophelia to Olivier’s Hamlet in an Old Vic Theatre production staged at Elsinore, Denmark. Olivier later recalled an incident when her mood rapidly changed as she was preparing to go onstage. Without apparent provocation, she began screaming at him before suddenly becoming silent and staring into space. She was able to perform without mishap, and by the following day she had returned to normal with no recollection of the event. It was the first time Olivier witnessed such behavior from her. They began living together, as their respective spouses had each refused to grant either of them a divorce. Under the moral standards then enforced by the film industry, their relationship had to be kept from public view.
Leigh appeared with Robert Taylor, Lionel Barrymore and Maureen O’Sullivan in A Yank at Oxford (1938), which was the first of her films to receive attention in the United States. During production, she developed a reputation for being difficult and unreasonable, partly because she disliked her secondary role but mainly because her petulant antics seemed to be paying dividends. After dealing with the threat of a lawsuit brought over a frivolous incident, Korda, however, instructed her agent to warn her that her option would not be renewed if her behavior did not improve. Her next role was in Sidewalks of London, also known as St. Martin’s Lane (1938), with Charles Laughton.
Olivier had been attempting to broaden his film career. He was not well known in the United States despite his success in Britain, and earlier attempts to introduce him to American audiences had failed. Offered the role of Heathcliff in Samuel Goldwyn’s production of Wuthering Heights (1939), he traveled to Hollywood, leaving Leigh in London.
Hollywood was in the midst of a widely publicized search to find an actress to portray Scarlett O’Hara in David O. Selznick’s production of Gone with the Wind (1939). At the time, Myron Selznick—David’s brother and Leigh’s American theatrical agent—was the London representative of the Myron Selznick Agency. In February 1938, Leigh made a request to Myron Selznick that she be considered to play the part of Scarlett O’Hara.
David O. Selznick watched her performances that month in Fire Over England and A Yank at Oxford and thought that she was excellent but in no way a possible Scarlett because she was “too British”. Leigh traveled to Los Angeles, however, to be with Olivier and to try to convince David Selznick that she was the person for the part. Myron Selznick also represented Olivier and when he met Leigh, he felt that she possessed the qualities that his brother was searching for.
The following day, Leigh read a scene for Selznick, who organized a screen test with director George Cukor. She secured the role of Scarlett soon after. Gone with the Wind brought Leigh immediate attention and fame.
In February 1940, Jill Esmond agreed to divorce Laurence Olivier, and Leigh Holman agreed to divorce Vivien, although they maintained a strong friendship for the rest of Leigh’s life. Esmond was granted custody of Tarquin, her son with Olivier. Holman was granted custody of Suzanne, his daughter with Leigh. On August 31, 1940, Olivier and Leigh were married at the San Ysidro Ranch in Santa Barbara, California, in a ceremony attended only by their hosts, Benita and Ronald Colman and witnesses, Katharine Hepburn and Garson Kanin.
Waterloo Bridge (1940) was to have starred Olivier and Leigh; however, Selznick replaced Olivier with Robert Taylor, then at the peak of his success as one of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer’s most popular male stars. Her top billing reflected her status in Hollywood, and the film was popular with audiences and critics.
The Oliviers mounted a stage production of Romeo and Juliet for Broadway. The New York press publicised the adulterous nature of the beginning of Olivier and Leigh’s relationship and questioned their ethics in not returning to the UK to help with the war effort. The couple had invested almost all their combined savings of $40,000 in the project, and the play’s failure was a financial disaster for them.
The Oliviers filmed That Hamilton Woman (1941) with Olivier as Horatio Nelson and Leigh as Emma Hamilton. With the United States not yet having entered the war, it was one of several Hollywood films made with the aim of arousing a pro-British sentiment among American audiences. The film was popular in the United States and an outstanding success in the Soviet Union.
The Oliviers returned to Britain in March 1943, and Leigh toured through North Africa that same year as part of a revue for the armed forces stationed in the region. She reportedly turned down a studio contract worth $5,000 a week to volunteer as part of the war effort. Leigh performed for troops before falling ill with a persistent cough and fevers. In 1944 she was diagnosed as having tuberculosis in her left lung and spent several weeks in hospital before appearing to have recovered. Leigh was filming Caesar and Cleopatra (1945) when she discovered she was pregnant, then had a miscarriage. Leigh temporarily fell into a deep depression that hit its low point, with her falling to the floor, sobbing in a hysterical fit. This was the first of many major bipolar disorder breakdowns. Olivier later came to recognize the symptoms of an impending episode – several days of hyperactivity followed by a period of depression and an explosive breakdown, after which Leigh would have no memory of the event, but would be acutely embarrassed and remorseful.
With her doctor’s approval, Leigh was well enough to resume acting in 1946, starring in a successful London production of Thornton Wilder’s The Skin of Our Teeth; but her films of this period, Caesar and Cleopatra (1945) and Anna Karenina (1948), were not great commercial successes. All British films in this period were adversely affected by a Hollywood boycott of British films.
After returning to England following a successful fundraising trip for the Old Vic, Leigh next sought the role of Blanche DuBois in the West End stage production of Tennessee Williams’s A Streetcar Named Desire and was cast after Williams and the play’s producer Irene Mayer Selznick saw her in The School for Scandal and Antigone. After 326 performances, Leigh finished her run, and she was soon assigned to reprise her role as Blanche DuBois in the film version of the play. Her irreverent and often bawdy sense of humor allowed her to establish a rapport with Brando, but she had an initial difficulty in working with director Elia Kazan, who was displeased with the direction that Olivier had taken in shaping the character of Blanche.
Leigh’s performance in A Streetcar Named Desire won glowing reviews, as well as a second Academy Award for Best Actress, a British Academy of Film and Television Arts (BAFTA) Award for Best British Actress, and a New York Film Critics Circle Award for Best Actress.
In January 1953, Leigh traveled to Ceylon to film Elephant Walk with Peter Finch. Shortly after filming commenced, she had a nervous breakdown and Paramount Pictures replaced her with Elizabeth Taylor. Olivier returned her to their home in Britain, where, between periods of incoherence, Leigh told him she was in love with Finch and had been having an affair with him. Over a period of several months, she gradually recovered. As a result of this episode, many of the Oliviers’ friends learned of her problems. Leigh’s romantic relationship with Finch began in 1948, and waxed and waned for several years, ultimately flickering out as her mental condition deteriorated.
In 1955 Leigh starred in Anatole Litvak’s film The Deep Blue Sea; co-star Kenneth More felt he had poor chemistry with Leigh during the filming.
After their return to London, her former husband, Leigh Holman, who could still exert a strong influence on her, stayed with the Oliviers and helped calm her during her frequent outbursts.
In 1958, considering her marriage to be over, Leigh began a relationship with actor Jack Merivale, who knew of Leigh’s medical condition and assured Olivier that he would care for her. In 1960 she and Olivier divorced and Olivier soon married actress Joan Plowright.
Merivale proved to be a stabilizing influence for Leigh. Her first husband Leigh Holman also spent considerable time with her. Merivale joined her for a tour of Australia, New Zealand and Latin America that lasted from July 1961 until May 1962, and Leigh enjoyed positive reviews without sharing the spotlight with Olivier. Though she was still beset by bouts of depression, she continued to work in the theatre and, in 1963, won a Tony Award for Best Actress in a Musical for her role in Tovarich. She also appeared in the films The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone (1961) and Ship of Fools (1965).
Leigh’s last screen appearance in Ship of Fools was both a triumph and emblematic of her illnesses that were taking root. Producer and director Stanley Kramer, who ended up with the film, planned to star Leigh but was initially unaware of her fragile mental and physical state. Later recounting her work, Kramer remembered her courage in taking on the difficult role, “She was ill, and the courage to go ahead, the courage to make the film – was almost unbelievable.” Leigh’s performance was tinged by paranoia and resulted in outbursts that marred her relationship with other actors, although both Simone Signoret and Lee Marvin were sympathetic and understanding.
In May 1967 Leigh was rehearsing to appear with Michael Redgrave in Edward Albee’s A Delicate Balance when her tuberculosis recurred. Following several weeks of rest, she seemed to recover. On the night of July 7, 1967, Merivale left her as usual at their Eaton Square flat to perform in a play, and he returned home just before midnight to find her asleep. About 30 minutes later (by now July 8), he entered the bedroom and discovered her body on the floor. She had been attempting to walk to the bathroom and, as her lungs filled with liquid, collapsed, and suffocated. Merivale first contacted her family and later was able to reach Olivier, who was receiving treatment for prostate cancer in a nearby hospital.
Her death was publicly announced on July 8, and the lights of every theatre in central London were extinguished for an hour. A service for Leigh was held at St. Mary’s Church, London. The luminaries of British stage and screen attended her funeral. According to the provisions of her will, Leigh was cremated at the Golders Green Crematorium and her ashes were scattered on the lake at her summer home, Tickerage Mill, near Blackboys, East Sussex, England. A memorial service was held at St Martin-in-the-Fields, with a final tribute read by John Gielgud.