Leigh, Vivien (1913–1967)
Leigh, Vivien (1913–1967)
Two-time Academy Award-winning British actress who achieved international stardom for her portrayal of Scarlett O'Hara in Gone With the Wind. Name variations: Lady Olivier. Born Vivian [sic] Mary Hartley in Darjeeling, India, on November 5, 1913; died in London, England, on July 7, 1967, of tuberculosis; only child of Gertrude and Ernest Hartley; convent-educated in England, Switzerland, France, and Germanybefore entering the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts in London; married Hubert Leigh Holman (a barrister), in 1932 (divorced 1940); married Laurence Olivier (an actor), in 1940 (divorced 1960); children: (first marriage) daughter, Suzanne.
Appeared in her first film (1934); made her stage debut (1935) and appeared in a number of successful light dramas in the West End before achieving international stardom after her successful campaign to win the role of Scarlett O'Hara in David O. Selznick's Gone With the Wind (1939), for which she won the Academy Award for Best Actress; won a second Oscar (1951) for her portrayal of Blanche DuBois in the film version of Tennessee Williams' A Streetcar Named Desire; suffered from mental illness later in her career, eventually being diagnosed as a manic depressive.
The Village Squire (1934); Things Are Looking Up (1935); Look Up and Laugh (1935); Gentleman's Agreement (1935); Storm in a Teacup (1937); Fire Over England (1937); Dark Journey (1937); A Yank at Oxford (1938); Sidewalks of London (1938); Gone With the Wind (1939); Waterloo Bridge (1940); Twenty-One Days (1940); That Hamilton Woman (1941); Caesar and Cleopatra (1946); Anna Karenina (1948); A Streetcar Named Desire (1951); The Deep Blue Sea (1955); The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone (1961); Ship of Fools (1965).
Everyone remembered the first time they saw her. Laurence Olivier recalled his initial sight of "that exquisite face" in 1935, glimpsed across a crowded London restaurant. Producer David O. Selznick never forgot the firelight flickering over green eyes and dark hair the evening cameras rolled for the first time on his epic Gone With the Wind. And director George Cukor remembered laughing at the proper British girl reading for the part of a Southern belle in Selznick's film, until her stunning beauty and desperate ambition silenced him. "Where else shall we look for such a combination of intelligence, beauty, and emotional sympathy," an awestruck Londoner once wondered, "lit up as they are by shafts of sprightliness and humor?"
Vivien Leigh accepted these praises with the grace of a queen receiving the adoration of her courtiers, although her early life gave no hint of such an exalted status. She had been born plain Vivian Hartley and had been educated in a series of convent schools in England and on the Continent, the proper education for the daughter of Gertrude Hartley and a British solicitor, Ernest Hartley. The only exotic feature of her early life had been her birth in India. Although Ernest's practice was in Calcutta, Gertrude had decided to retire to the cooler climate of Darjeeling to give birth to what was to be her only child on November 5, 1913. Six years later, Vivian left India to enter the Catholic school Gertrude had chosen for her, at the Convent of the Sacred Heart in Roehampton, England, where the girls rose at 6:30, attended Mass at 7:15, and breakfasted on bread and butter at 8:00. She remained at Roehampton for eight years, with only occasional visits from her parents. Among Vivian's friends at Roehampton was Maureen O'Sullivan , whose interest in acting attracted Vivian and whose later career would inspire Vivian's own. With Maureen and other girls interested in the theater, Vivian traveled to London's West End and settled on George Robey as her favorite actor, attending 16 performances of one of his plays and obtaining an autographed picture each time.
By the time Vivian left Roehampton in 1928 to continue her studies at a French convent school in Dinard, she could play the violin, cello, and piano, and had appeared as Miranda in the school's production of The Tempest and Mustardseed in A Midsummer Night's Dream. She spent only a year in Dinard, however, before persuading Gertrude to enroll her in her first non-convent school in Paris, where she was allowed to attend performances of the Comedie Française, take elocution lessons from one of the company's leading actresses, and gain a proficiency in both French and Italian. By 1931, the Hartleys had left India for good and settled back in England while their daughter finished her formal education in Biarritz, where she added German to her languages.
During her last school years, Vivian had been much influenced by a biography of the late 19th-century actress Lillie Langtry , and by the fact that her former schoolmate Maureen O'Sullivan was now appearing in the West End. Vivian proposed to Ernest that she be allowed to enroll in London's Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts, which accepted her for its spring term in 1932. In the meantime, she had met through family friends a dashing London barrister named Hubert Leigh Holman, who, she told a friend, had the manner and physical attributes of a matinee idol. After only one term at RADA, Vivian left the school to become Mrs. Leigh Holman on December 20, 1932.
But her subsequent duties as the wife and official hostess for a successful London barrister seemed a dull substitute for a life on the stage. Although she had become pregnant shortly after their marriage, Vivian convinced Holman in the
spring of 1933 to let her resume her studies at RADA. The couple's daughter, Suzanne, born on October 12, 1933, was given over to the care of a nanny while Vivian completed her final year of dramatic studies and began looking for work. Her first paying job as an actress was a small part as a schoolgirl (she was identified in the credits as "The Girl Who Sticks Her Tongue Out") in Things Are Looking Up, for which she was given one line of dialogue and 30 shillings a day. While working on the film, Vivian met actor John Gliddon, who had been to America and been much impressed with the money being made by Hollywood agents who identified and developed young actors into screen stars, unlike the much more modest and discreet British system of the time, in which screen work was looked upon with some disdain by legitimate stage talent. Once he had left the acting profession to become an agent himself, one of Gliddon's first contracts was with Vivian. It was Gliddon who suggested she burnish her rather pedestrian name by changing the "a" in her first name to an "e" and taking her husband's middle name as her own professional surname. Shortly after signing with Gliddon, Vivien celebrated by going to the theater and watching an exciting young actor named Laurence Olivier, whom she reportedly told a friend she would marry one day and whom she even ventured backstage to meet. Olivier still remembered many years later the light kiss Vivien bestowed on his shoulder as she left his dressing room.
People who are very beautiful make their own laws.
Gliddon found his new client a larger role in her second film, The Village Squire, which brought Leigh her first notices and prompted one reviewer to note: "Vivien Leigh shows promise." Still with his eye on Hollywood, Gliddon signed her for Gentleman's Agreement, produced by the British subsidiary of Paramount (not to be confused with the movie version of Laura Z. Hobson 's Gentleman's Agreement, filmed in 1947). By the time Gliddon secured Vivien's first professional role on the West End stage (in 1935's The Green Sash), he had already snagged her first major motion picture, Look Up and Laugh, one of a string of so-called "Ealing comedies" produced by Associated Talking Pictures. Vivien played a supporting role opposite Gracie Fields , a popular comedian of the time who predicted Leigh would one day be a star. Despite the compliment, Vivien had grown quite self-conscious about her appearance on screen, being particularly sensitive about her hands, which she felt were too large, and her neck, which she felt was too long—a sensitivity not helped by Look Up and Laugh's cinematographer, who delighted in calling her "the swan."
Though her film work was both gratifying and profitable, it was the stage that first made Leigh a star. While she was finishing work on Look Up and Laugh, she was cast in a West End costume drama, The Mask of Virtue, in which she first caught the eye of the mainstream British press. The reviews following the play's opening in May of 1935 made Leigh famous to such an extent that she was dubbed the "Fame in a Night Girl." Such headlines as "New Star to Win All London" and "A Young Actress' Triumph" were typical, while The Daily Mail called her reception by the opening-night audience "one of the biggest personal ovations a newcomer has had on the London stage for quite a long time." One of those who read her notices with interest was Alexander Korda, the British film producer most well-connected with Hollywood. Korda's deal with United Artists was profitable enough for him to undertake building Britain's first new film studio in decades, at Denham, which was at the time the only facility able to shoot color. Although John Gliddon negotiated a profitable, five-year contract for her with Korda which was the talk of the industry, it would be some time before the producer would offer her a role in one of his films.
In the meantime, Leigh enjoyed the fame brought by The Mask of Virtue, appearing at parties where she was introduced to the likes of John Gielgud, Noel Coward and Douglas Fairbanks; posing for an extensive photo spread shot by Cecil Beaton; and once again meeting Laurence Olivier at a party celebrating the pregnancy of his wife, actress Jill Esmond . Leigh was offered a number of stage roles, including two of Shakespeare's queens—in Henry VIII and in Richard III—before Korda finally offered her a part as the love interest in the sort of costume drama for which he would later become famous. Vivien was to play a lady-in-waiting to Queen Elizabeth I in Fire over England, and her co-star was none other than Laurence Olivier. (The great Flora Robson played the imperious Elizabeth.)
The film went into production late in 1936 at Korda's new Denham studios, with Olivier playing Ingolby, the dashing sailor who falls in love with Vivien's character, Cynthia, as England prepares to meet the Spanish Armada. It did not take long for cast and crew to notice that Leigh remained on the set even after her scenes for the day were completed, bringing cups of tea to Olivier; or for more observant gossips to note that both of the actors' spouses were conveniently occupied in other pursuits—Holman being away on a sailing trip to Denmark, and Jill Esmond at home awaiting the birth of her baby. After her second picture for Korda, 1937's Dark Journey, Holman and Vivien happened to meet Olivier and Esmond on a vacation in Italy, the two couples spending much time together. While shooting her third film for Korda, the comedy Storm in a Teacup, Olivier was a frequent visitor to the set while Vivien reportedly rebuffed the ardent advances of her leading man, Rex Harrison. It was also while making that picture that she famously refused the director's suggestion of a pratfall by drawing herself up to full height and pointing out, "But I am an English actress!"
By the time she and Holman took a much-needed break in Switzerland, Vivien had set two goals for herself. One was to appear as Ophelia opposite Olivier's Hamlet in a special production to be given at the Danish castle traditionally said to be the Elsinore of Shakespeare's tragedy. The other was to play the heroine in the film version of a book she avidly consumed during her vacation. Called Gone With the Wind, it was written by an American author named Margaret Mitchell .
As if in answer to her first wish, Korda cast Leigh and Olivier as the two romantic leads in Twenty-One Days, a suspense film with a script by Graham Greene based on a John Galsworthy short story. The two stars rehearsed together in the studio car that ferried them back and forth each day, and by the time a break in filming allowed Olivier to travel to Denmark for Hamlet, Vivien went with him as Ophelia. It was during the play's run that their affair deepened, despite the fact that Jill Esmond had traveled with her husband to Denmark. "[Vivien and I] could not keep from touching each other," Olivier later recalled, "making love almost within Jill's vision." John Gielgud, who was also in the cast, was assigned the task of taking Jill Esmond for long drives in the country while Olivier and Leigh explored their relationship in private and planned for their future.
Resuming production on Twenty-One Days on their return to England, Vivien suggested to Holman, who considered her affair with Olivier a brief infatuation, that a separation might be appropriate. Holman genially agreed, believing that patience would win the day and bring Vivien back to him. By late 1937, Vivien and Olivier had taken a house together in London's fashionable Mayfair district purchased with Olivier's advance for Twenty-One Days. At a press conference called to mark the completion of shooting on the picture, Leigh neatly sidestepped questions about her romance with Olivier but irritated Korda by talking volubly about Gone With the Wind rather than the film she had just finished for him. "I have never been so gripped by anything in my life," she enthused. "It's the finest book I've ever read, what a grand film it would make!" Then, noting that the film adaptation was already in pre-production in Hollywood, Leigh added, "I've cast myself as Scarlett O'Hara! What do you think?"
Esmond, Jill (1908–1990)
English actress. Name variations: Jill Esmond Olivier. Born Jill Esmond-Moore in London, England, on January 26, 1908; died in 1990; daughter of Henry Vernon Esmond and Eva (Moore) Esmond; studied at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art; married Laurence Olivier (an actor), in 1930 (divorced 1940); children: Tarquin Olivier.
In 1922, age 14, Jill Esmond made her stage debut at the St. James's Theater as Nibs in Peter Pan; she played the same part at the Adelphi in 1923 and 1924. In 1925, she appeared as Sorel Bliss at the Ambassador in Hay Fever. In March 1929, she made her first appearance in New York at the Booth Theater as Joan Greenleaf in A Bird in the Hand, a role she had been playing in London throughout the previous year. Other stage roles included Sybil Chase in Private Lives, Laura Hudson in Men in White, Ann Hammond in Ringmaster, Olivia in Twelfth Night, Blanche Monnier in I Accuse, Angela Brent in Tree of Eden, and Edith de Berg in The Eagle Has Two Heads. After traveling to Hollywood in the 1930s with her husband, actor Laurence Olivier, Esmond would appear in a number of films, including This Above All, The White Cliffs of Dover, Random Harvest, Journey for Margaret, Casanova Brown, and A Man Called Peter. Following her divorce from Olivier in 1940, she continued to live in Los Angeles for the duration of World War II.
The story of Vivien Leigh's successful drive to win the role of Scarlett has long been the stuff of Hollywood legend, from the series of London head shots she sent to Selznick, complete with hoopskirt, parasol and ring curls, to her whirlwind trip to Los Angeles to visit Olivier while he was shooting his first American picture, Wuthering Heights, based on Emily Brontë 's novel. Olivier saw to it that he and Vivien dined one evening with Olivier's agent, Myron Selznick, who conveniently happened to be David Selznick's brother. By 11 pm that December night in 1938, Myron had taken her to the back lot where David had assembled a collection of leftover sets from old silent movies, dressed them up to look like Civil War Atlanta, and set them alight for one of the film's most famous scenes. At the time, Paulette Goddard was the odds-on Scarlett favorite of Hollywood wags after Selznick's much-publicized yearlong search for his heroine in which every actress from Katharine Hepburn to Lucille Ball had been tested. But moments after Myron had introduced Vivien to his brother, she was whisked off for a reading with the film's then-director, George Cukor (who would later be replaced by Victor Fleming, fresh from The Wizard of Oz). By late December 1938, Hedda Hopper reported to her readers that "the cute English vamp Vivien Leigh is in our midst, but not doing a picture," although at Selznick's request she did not mention Leigh had shot three tests for Scarlett. "She was a brilliant actress," said Kay Brown , head of Selznick International in New York. "They tested her, silent tests, wardrobe tests, she was just the ideal. She was the most glowing, vibrant, dynamic woman I had ever met." On Christmas Day, 1938, Cukor told Leigh that she had the part but warned her to say nothing until the official studio announcement; and in early January 1939, John Gliddon received a telegram in London saying that Leigh "might possibly make an important picture at Selznick International" and asking him to cancel any existing commitments Gliddon had for her in England, promising that Selznick would make up his losses.
Selznick made his official announcement on January 13. "Miss Leigh was selected to play Scarlett," he said in his press release, "because she has the dark hair and green eyes of Miss Mitchell's description, and because her intelligence, determination and talent foretokened success in the most difficult assignment a Hollywood actress ever faced." Selznick had carefully elicited a supportive response from Margaret Mitchell herself, who said it would be easier for audiences to accept an actress unknown to them as Scarlett, but others objected strenuously to having a British actress playing a Southern plantation belle. One of the milder telegrams that flooded Selznick's office called his decision "an outrage to the memory of the heroes of 1776 who fought to free this land of British domination," while a correspondent for the fan magazine Movie Mirror wrote, "Why not cast Chiang Kai-shek and change the part to Gerald O'Hara!" While the fury raged, Leigh spent four hours a day for the next two weeks working on her Southern accent with a dialogue coach, did her final wardrobe tests, and was ready for her first day's shooting on January 26, 1939, on the front porch of Tara, newly constructed after the burned rubble from Selznick's "Atlanta" had been cleared away.
Scarlett appears in 90% of the 3½-hour film's scenes, and there was some worry that Vivien's stamina would give out over the ten weeks of the shoot, complicated by the fact that her heavy costuming left her limp in the brutally hot lighting required by the new Technicolor process. But as would be the case throughout her career, Leigh won the respect of cast and crew for her professionalism throughout a grueling schedule that often required her to be in makeup by five in the morning. On the few days she was not working, Vivien discussed her interpretation of the role with Cukor, with whom she formed a close friendship. Nor did she object when Selznick suggested that Olivier move out of the house she had rented on Crescent Drive, to be replaced by a personal assistant. Nearly a year after she began work on the film, Gone With the Wind had its world premiere in Atlanta on December 15, 1939, followed by openings in New York and Los Angeles. Despite the earlier outcry at her selection for the role, audiences fell in love with Leigh's Scarlett, and continued to do so over 60 years later. Bosley Crowther told his New York Times readers that Vivien Leigh was "as fine an actress as we have on the screen today. Maybe even the finest." His peers agreed, according Leigh the New York Film Critics Award for best female performance of 1939; while at the Academy Awards ceremony in February of 1940, Leigh was given the Oscar for Best Actress, quipping in her acceptance speech that if she thanked everyone who had helped her, her remarks would be as long as the film itself.
There were momentous changes in Leigh's personal affairs at this time, too. In January of 1940, Holman finally agreed to a divorce just days after Olivier received the same news from Jill Esmond, allowing Vivien and Olivier to marry in August of that year in California, when both divorces became final. Vivien would remain close to Holman despite the end of their marriage, visiting him often, sending Christmas cards and birthday gifts, and frequently taking their daughter Suzanne on vacations to the Continent and America. One close friend ventured the opinion that Leigh "seemed to suffer from an enormous guilt" for her open and very public adultery with Olivier before her divorce from Holman, and suggested that it may have been a factor in the mental illness that troubled Vivien in later life. To the public, however, Vivien Leigh and Laurence Olivier seemed the very embodiment of show business royalty, especially after they appeared in their second (and last) film together, 1941's That Hamilton Woman, a Korda picture based on the notorious affair between Lord Horatio Nelson and Emma Hamilton . With England now in the midst of war, Korda's shoot was a hurried one, with little money to spare—so much so that in the last days of filming at Korda's Denham studios, only the half of Vivien's face that was lit was made up. Although some overly patriotic Britons thought that, as one of them put it, "history should not be told through the eyes of a trollop," Leigh's performance convinced film critics that her formidable
range could easily encompass an American Southerner and an English Regency mistress. The reviewer for The Daily Telegraph wrote that her work was "easily the finest performance Miss Leigh has given us, and it confirms her position among the finest actresses of the screen." Winston Churchill, whom it was said had suggested the film to Korda, was so taken with That Hamilton Woman that he screened it at least six times, including an oceanbound showing on the way to his Atlantic Charter meeting with Franklin Roosevelt in 1941.
Although That Hamilton Woman would be their last work together on screen, Leigh and Olivier appeared frequently together on the stage, their first love. Many of the productions were mounted by the company formed for that purpose by Olivier, which became known for innovative (some said heretical) presentations of classic works. Their version of Romeo and Juliet, for example, was presented on a specially built revolving stage and was played in the round, a novel technique at the time that did little to win critical approval, either in London or in New York, where the Herald Tribune critic Richard Watts wrote: "Miss Vivien Leigh and Mr. Laurence Olivier must expect to have their local sojourn … taken as a spectacular personal appearance by Heathcliff and Scarlett O'Hara than as an earnest interpretation of the star-crossed lovers in Shakespeare's tragedy." Reviewers also objected to Leigh's vixenish portrayal of Juliet and Olivier's interpretation of Romeo as a sexually naive schoolboy. The play closed in New York after only 34 performances and was said to have lost $100,000.
While Olivier returned to films to make up their losses, Leigh toured the British provinces in a production of Shaw's The Doctor's Dilemma, which finally arrived to great acclaim in the West End, where it ran for 13 months. Shaw, then in his late 80s, did not venture to see the production himself but eventually asked to meet Vivien when he learned of her interest in playing Cleopatra (VII) in a film version of his Caesar and Cleopatra. "Do you think I'm good enough?," Vivien disingenuously asked him. "You are the Mrs. Pat Campbell of our age," the spry old man replied, giving his blessing to the picture which began shooting in 1944, after Leigh had toured North Africa and the Mediterranean entertaining British troops with poetry, songs, and scenes from Shakespeare. Once again, war intruded on the production. Filming stretched over 21 months, being continually interrupted by air raids, power shortages, and troop call-ups which thinned the crew's ranks. Tragedy marred the set, too, when a pregnant Vivien slipped and fell during one scene and was later found to have miscarried her child. It was the second of three such incidents, an earlier pregnancy shortly after her marriage to Olivier and a third in 1956, ending the same way.
By war's end, Leigh had become Lady Olivier, with the knighthood conferred on her husband, and had begun her own, 16-year reign as Britain's first lady of the stage with such roles as Sabina in Olivier's London production of The Skin of Our Teeth, as Lady Anne (of Warwick) in his Richard III and most famously as Cleopatra in alternating productions of Shaw's play and Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra mounted for the 1951 Festival of Britain, later brought to Broadway (where it was dubbed "Two on the Nile"). This time, the critics were thrilled with her work. "She is … intelligent, audacious, and courageous," wrote the Times' Brooks Atkinson of her two Broadway Cleopatras, although Vivien's old friend John Gielgud put it more simply by saying, "There was so much Vivien in it." Few except her closest friends knew that her health was suffering, with recurring bouts of the tuberculosis which had plagued her as a child and, beginning in the 1950s, the erratic mood swings which characterize the manic-depressive, a disease not diagnosed accurately until some years later by a therapist in New York.
Neither of these afflictions were evident in her luminous portrayal of Blanche DuBois in both the London stage and the Hollywood film versions of A Streetcar Named Desire. Although Tennessee Williams' play, with its references to rape, homosexuality, and incest, had been deemed "low and repugnant" in an official bill passed by the House of Commons, Olivier had purchased the British rights to it, and Leigh had agreed to the role after meeting with Williams. Many of her admirers felt it was a part far below the woman Korda himself had once called "the epitome of an English lady." Realizing Blanche was one character that would rely solely on her acting ability and not on her aristocratic looks, Leigh's first step in preparing for the role was bleaching her hair blonde and wearing excessive amounts of makeup, much to her public's dismay. To add to the tension, the play was being directed by Olivier himself at a time when relations between them had become distant. Nevertheless, she was praised for her work over the play's West End run of 326 performances and was persuaded to reprise Blanche in the film version opposite Marlon Brando's Stanley, Karl Malden's Mitch and Kim Hunter 's Stella—all of whom were dedicated followers of Lee Strasberg's "Method" technique. Leigh found she had to combine her traditional English practice of building a character on a foundation of external mannerisms with Strasberg's intensely psychological training, a blend of "role and soul," as one reviewer put it. Leigh was so successful that she was awarded her second Oscar for playing an American Southerner, with some noting that Blanche could be seen as Scarlett's dark, tragic older sister.
Vivien's deteriorating physical and mental health became widely publicized during the first weeks of shooting for 1953's Elephant Walk, a love story set in India. Hospitalized in London after filming her exterior scenes in Sri Lanka, Leigh was unable to travel to Hollywood for the rest of the production and was replaced by Elizabeth Taylor (although discerning viewers can still make out Leigh's silhouette in exterior long shots which were deemed too expensive to reshoot in Ceylon with Taylor). Vivien had recuperated enough to appear in the film version of Terence Rattigan's The Deep Blue Sea during 1954, directed by Anatole Litvak for Korda at Shepperton, where Olivier also happened to be directing and starring in his Richard III. The two were often seen having lunch together in the studio commissary, but Vivien later confided to Rattigan that her marriage to Olivier had become troubled. Both of them appeared on stage at the 1955 Stratford Festival in Macbeth, Titus Andronicus, and Twelfth Night, all of which received the usual grumbling from critics still unused to Olivier's creative interpretations of Shakespeare's work.
Hospitalized again for pleurisy after the Festival, she was strong enough to embark with Olivier on "The Shakespeare Memorial Tour"
through Europe in 1957 and create a stir later that year by speaking out in that bastion of male privilege, the House of Lords, against the planned demolition of the West End's venerable St. James's Theater. As Lady Olivier, she was allowed a seat for distinguished visitors during the debate and became the first woman, with the exception of the queen, to speak to that august body by rising to declare, "My Lords, I wish to protest against the St. James's Theater being demolished." After the shock had worn off somewhat, Leigh was icily asked to leave, to which she replied, "Certainly. I have to get to the theater." (She was appearing in a new production of Titus Andronicus at the time.) The St. James's was eventually torn down, but Vivien's efforts, along with those of other distinguished members of her profession, influenced future legislation earmarking many of London's remaining old theaters as landmarks.
No one could have known that Olivier's production of Titus Andronicus was the last time Vivien would appear with him on a stage. Although both of them attended the wedding ceremonies for Vivien's daughter Suzanne in late 1957, Olivier had already left her and had begun an affair with actress Joan Plowright . Leigh told a friend that there would have been no such separation if she had not been so ambitious about her career. The two saw little of each other over the next few years, and Vivien began her own affair with actor John Merivale, who shared her house on London's Eaton Square.
Three years later, as Vivien was preparing to walk on stage in New York in Christopher Fry's Duel of Angels, she was handed a telegram from Olivier asking for a divorce. The actor who played the male lead opposite her in the play never forgot that night. It was, he later said, "without a shadow of a doubt, her best performance. She was devastating. It was as if she realized she was on her own from now on." The next day, Olivier received a telegram back from her. "Lady Olivier," it read, "wishes to say that Sir Laurence Olivier has asked for a divorce in order to marry Miss Joan Plowright. She will naturally do whatever he wishes." Her divorce from Olivier became final in December of 1960. He married Plowright the following March. Thirty years later, still married to Plowright, Olivier confessed that his regret over the end of his marriage to Vivien was still acute. "My fault, of course," he told an interviewer. "The worst part of me … is my guilt complex. I feel almost responsible for the fall of Adam and Eve." Shortly before Olivier's death in 1989, a friend reported finding the great actor alone at home, watching one of Leigh's films with tears in his eyes.
Vivien sought some measure of peace in her work, starring in two well-received films, José Quintero's bitter The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone in 1961 and Stanley Kramer's flawed 1964 adaptation of Katherine Anne Porter 's Ship of Fools, which was saved in good measure by Leigh's touching portrayal of Mrs. Treadwell. She toured Australia and New Zealand in repertory productions of Twelfth Night, Duel of Angels and La Dame aux Camelias, and received her first Tony award in America for her work in the 1963 musical Tovarich, in which she was required to speak and sing in a Russian accent as the Grand Duchess Tatiana Petrova. But her physical state was rapidly deteriorating, to say nothing of repeated and paralyzing bouts of depression. In late 1966, Leigh collapsed at her home on London's Eaton Square in the midst of preparations for the London debut of Edward Albee's A Delicate Balance. Subsequent X-rays revealed a large, tubercular spot on one lung which doctors were unable to heal. The disease claimed her life on July 7, 1967.
The tributes to Vivien Leigh's career and life were long and many, on both sides of the Atlantic, and, on the weekend following her death, marquee lights in all of the West End's theaters were dimmed for an hour. But it was Gertrude Hartley who gave the most touching homage to the daughter she had outlived. In the small park opposite Vivien's home on Eaton Square, Gertrude placed a simple wooden bench inscribed with words from Vivien's favorite Shakespearean play, Antony and Cleopatra. "Now boast thee, Death," it read, "in thy possession lies a lass unparallel'd."
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Norman Powers , writer-producer, Chelsea Lane Productions, New York