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In 1905 Ernest Richard Hartley arrived in Calcutta as a clerk in the brokerage offices of Piggott Chapman and Company, not yet twenty. Marriage and children were far from his thoughts. However, when he returned for a visit to his home in Bridlington, Yorkshire, in 1911, he met Gertrude Robinson Yackje. Hartley fell in love and proposed. They were married in the fall of 1911. In the beginning of the winter - December 2, 1911 - they both arrived in India. Two years later, on the evening of November 5, 1913, the English doctor informed Ernest Hartley that he was the father of a fine and exceptionally beautiful baby girl. Her name was Vivian Mary Hartley, who would one day become Vivien Leigh.
Vivian made her first stage appearance at the age of three years and four months,
reciting "Little Bo Peep" for her mother's amateur theatre group.
At the age of six-and-a-half (1920), Vivian was sent to the Convent of the Sacred Heart in Roehampton, England. Her closest friend at the convent school was the future actress Maureen O'Sullivan, to whom Vivian expressed her desire to become "a great actress."
Vivian completed her later education in Europe, returning to her parents in England in 1931. She discovered that one of Maureen O'Sullivan's films was playing in London's West End and told her parents of her ambitions to become an actress. Both were highly supportive, and her father helped her enroll at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (RADA) in London.
One February day in 1932 Vivian and her friends met a man.
"That's Leigh Holman", said one of Vivian's friend. "What do
you think of him, Vivian? Isn't he handsome?"
"I think he looks the perfect Englishman. I'm going to marry him."
"He's almost engaged a girl already."
"That doesn't matter. He hasn't seen me yet..."
They were married on 20 December 1932 at St James's Spanish Place, a chirch favoured by prominent Roman Catholic families. Upon their marriage she terminated her studies at RADA. On October 12, 1933, she gave birth to a daughter, Suzanne, but felt stifled by her domestic life. Her friends suggested her for a small part in the film "Things Are Looking Up", which marked her film debut. She engaged an agent, John Gliddon, who believed that the name "Vivian Holman" was not suitable for an actress, and after rejecting his suggestion, "April Morn", 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.
Cast in the play "The Mask of Virtue" in 1935, Vivien Leigh received excellent reviews followed by interviews and newspaper articles, among them one from the Daily Express in which the interviewer noted "a lightning change came over her face", which was the first public mention of the rapid changes in mood that became characteristic of her. John Betjeman, the future Poet Laureate, also wrote about her, describing her as "the essence of English girlhood." Alexander Korda, who attended her opening-night performance, admitted his error and signed her to a film contract, with the spelling of her name revised to Vivien Leigh. She continued with the play, but when Korda moved it to a larger theatre and Vivien Leigh was found to be unable to project her voice adequately, or to hold the attention of so large an audience, and the play closed soon.
Laurence Olivier saw Leigh in "The Mask of Virtue." Antoher chance to see her he had in
the play " The Happy Hypocrite." A friendship developed after he congratulated
her on her performance. In that time, his wife Jill Esmond was six month pregnant.
While playing lovers in the film "Fire Over England" (1937),
Olivier and Leigh fell in love and began an affair.
Once, according to Paul Both, once Laurence and Vivien appeared in Korda's office.
"Alex, we must tell you our great secret", said Vivien. "We're in love and we're going to get married."
Korda smiled and said, "Don't be silly - everybody knows that. I've known it for weeks and weeks."
Almost as soon as she had complited her role in "Fire over England", Vivien was put into "Dark Journey." Later, in May 1936 Margaret Mitchell novel "Gone with the Wind" had been published in America. Vivien took a copy of it with her when she and Leigh went to Kitzbuhel fer Christmas. Her American agent suggested Vivien Leigh to David O. Selznick, who was planning a film version. She remarked to a journalist, "I've cast myself as Scarlett O'Hara", and The Observer's film critic C. A. Lejeune recalled a conversation of the same period in which Vivien "stunned us all" with the assertion that "Larry won't play Rhett Butler, but I shall play Scarlett O'Hara. Wait and see."
At last she and Larry were free of "Twenty-One Days." In the theater Vivien Leigh played Ophelia to Olivier's Hamlet in an rapidly changed as she was quietly 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 behaviour from her. They began living together, as their respective spouses had each refused to grant either of them a divorce. Leigh appeared with Robert Taylor, Lionel Barrymore and Maureen O'Sullivan in "A Yank at Oxford" (1938), the first of her films to receive attention in the United States. Vivien's next role was in "St. Martin's Lane" (1938) with Charles Laughton.
Despite his success in Britain, Laurence Olivier was not well known in the United
States. Offered the role of Heathcliff in "Wuthering Heights" (1939),
Laurence Olivier travelled to Hollywood, leaving Vivien in London. Goldwyn and the film's
director, William Wyler, offered Vivien the secondary role of Isabella,
but she refused it, saying she would only play Cathy, a role already assigned to Merle Oberon.
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). Leigh's American agent was the London representative of the Myron Selznick Agency (Myron was David's brother), and in February 1938, she asked that her name be placed in consideration for the role of Scarlett. Between February and August, Selznick screened all of her English pictures, and by August he was in negotiation with producer Alexander Korda, to whom Leigh was under contract, for her services later that year. On October 18, Selznick wrote in a confidential memo to director George Cukor, "I am still hoping against hope for that new girl." Leigh travelled to Los Angeles, ostensibly to be with Olivier. When Myron Selznick, who also represented Olivier, met Vivien Leigh, he felt that she possessed the qualities his brother David O. Selznick was searching for. Myron Selznick took Leigh and Olivier to the set where the burning of the Atlanta Depot scene was being filmed, and introduced Vivien. The following day, Vivien Leigh read a scene for Selznick, who organized a screen test and wrote to his wife, "She's the Scarlett dark horse and looks damn good. Not for anyone's ear but your own: it's narrowed down to Paulette Goddard, Jean Arthur, Joan Bennett and Vivien Leigh." The director George Cukor concurred and praised the "incredible wildness" of Leigh, who was given the part soon after.
Filming proved difficult for Vivien Leigh; Cukor was dismissed and replaced by Victor Fleming, with whom Leigh frequently quarreled. She and Olivia de Havilland secretly met with Cukor at night and on weekends for his advice about how they should play their parts. She befriended Clark Gable, his wife Carole Lombard and de Havilland, but she clashed with Leslie Howard, with whom she was required to play several emotional scenes. Adding to her distress, she was sometimes required to work seven days a week, often late into the night. She also missed Olivier, who was working in New York. She wrote to Leigh Holman, "I hate Hollywood as much as I thought I would and I know I shell never be happy here."
In 2006, de Havilland responded to claims of Leigh's manic behavior during filming "Gone with the Wind", published in a biography of Laurence Olivier. She defended Leigh, saying, "Vivien was impeccably professional, impeccably disciplined on Gone with the Wind. She had two great concerns: doing her best work in an extremely difficult role and being separated from Larry, who was in New York."
Gone with the Wind brought Leigh immediate attention and fame, but she was quoted as saying, "I'm not a film star, I'm an actress. Being a film star, just a film star, is such a false life, lived for fake values and for publicity. Actresses go on for a long time and there are always marvelous parts to play." Among the ten Academy Awards won by Gone with the Wind was a Best Actress award for Leigh, who also won a New York Film Critics Circle Award for Best Actress.
In February 1940, Jill Esmond agreed to divorce Olivier, and 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,
and Holman was granted custody of Suzanne, his daughter with Leigh. On August
31 Olivier and Leigh were married in Santa Barbara, California, in a ceremony
attended only by their witnesses, Katharine Hepburn and Garson Kanin.
Leigh hoped to star with Olivier and made a screentest for Rebecca, which was to be directed by Alfred Hitchcock with Olivier in the leading role, but after viewing her screentest Selznick noted that "she doesn't seem right as to sincerity or age or innocence", a view shared by Hitchcock, and Leigh's mentor, George Cukor. Selznick also observed that she had shown no enthusiasm for the part until Olivier had been confirmed as the lead actor, and subsequently cast Joan Fontaine. He also refused to allow her to join Olivier in Pride and Prejudice (1940), and Greer Garson took the part Leigh had envisioned for herself. 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. Leigh's top billing reflected her status in Hollywood, and despite her reluctance to participate without Olivier, the film not only proved to be popular with audiences and critics, but it also became her favorite film.
Vivien Leigh and Olivier mounted a stage production of "Romeo and Juliet" for Broadway. The New York press publicized the adulterous nature that had marked the beginning of Olivier and Leigh's relationship, and questioned their ethics in not returning to England to help with the war effort; and critics were hostile in their assessment of the production. Brooks Atkinson for the New York Times wrote, "Although Miss Leigh and Mr. Olivier are handsome young people they hardly act their parts at all." While most of the blame was attributed to Olivier's acting and direction, Leigh was also criticised, with Bernard Grebanier commenting on the "thin, shopgirl quality of Miss Leigh's voice." The couple had invested almost their entire savings into the project, and its failure was a financial disaster for them.
They filmed "That Hamilton Woman" (1941) with Olivier as Horatio Nelson and Leigh as Emma Hamilton. With Britain engaged in World War II, 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. Winston Churchill arranged a screening for a party that included Franklin D. Roosevelt and on its conclusion addressed the group, saying, "Gentlemen, I thought this film would interest you, showing great events similar to those in which you have just been taking part." The Oliviers remained favourites of Churchill, attending dinners and occasions at his request for the rest of his life, and of Leigh he was quoted as saying, "By Jove, she's a clinker."
The Oliviers returned to England, and Leigh toured through North Africa in 1943, performing for troops before falling ill with a persistent cough and fevers. In 1944 she was diagnosed as having tuberculosis in her left lung, but after spending several weeks in hospital, she appeared to be cured. In spring she was filming Caesar and Cleopatra (1945) when she discovered she was pregnant, but suffered a miscarriage. She fell into a deep depression which reached its nadir when she turned on Olivier, verbally and physically attacking him until she fell to the floor sobbing. This was the first of many major breakdowns related to bipolar disorder. Olivier came to recognise 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. Vivien was well enough to resume acting in 1946, 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 successes.
In 1947 Olivier was knighted, and Leigh accompanied him to Buckingham Palace for the investiture. She became Lady Olivier, and after their divorce, per the style granted the divorced wife of a knight, she became, socially, Vivien, Lady Olivier.
By 1948 Olivier was on the Board of Directors for the Old Vic Theatre, and he and Vivien embarked on a tour of Australia and New Zealand to raise funds for the theatre. During their six-month tour, Olivier performed "Richard II"I and also performed with Leigh in "The School for Scandal" and "The Skin of Our Teeth." The tour was an outstanding success, and although Vivien Leigh was plagued with insomnia and allowed her understudy to replace her for a week while she was ill, she generally withstood the demands placed upon her, with Olivier noting her ability to "charm the press." Members of the company later recalled several quarrels between the couple, the most dramatic occurring in Christchurch when Leigh refused to go onstage. Olivier slapped her face, and Vivien slapped him in return and swore at him before she made her way to the stage. By the end of the tour, both were exhausted and ill, and Olivier told a journalist, "You may not know it, but you are talking to a couple of walking corpses." Later Laurence would comment that he "lost Vivien" in Australia. The success of the tour encouraged the Oliviers to make their first West End appearance together, performing the same works with one addition, Antigone, included at Leigh's insistence because she wished to play a role in a tragedy.
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 "The School for Scandal" and "Antigone", and Olivier was contracted to direct. Containing a rape scene and references to promiscuity and homosexuality, the play was destined to be controversial, and the media discussion about its suitability added to Leigh's anxiety, but she believed strongly in the importance of the work. J. B. Priestley denounced the play and Leigh's performance, and the critic Kenneth Tynan commented that Vivien Leigh was badly miscast because British actors were "too well-bred to emote effectively on stage." Olivier and Leigh were chagrined that part of the commercial success of the play lay in audience members attending to see what they believed would be a salacious and sensationalist story, rather than the Greek tragedy that they envisioned, but the play also had strong supporters, among them No‘l Coward who described Leigh as "magnificent."
After 326 performances, Vivien Leigh finished her run. Soon she was engaged for the film version. Her irreverent sense of humour allowed her to establish a rapport with her co-star Marlon Brando, but she had difficulty with the director Elia Kazan, who did not hold Vivien in high regard as an actress. Later Kazan commented that "she had a small talent", but as work progressed, he became "full of admiration" for "the greatest determination to excel of any actress I've known. She'd have crawled over broken glass if she thought it would help her performance." Leigh found the role gruelling and commented to the Los Angeles Times, "I had nine months in the theatre of Blanche DuBois. Now she's in command of me." The film won glowing reviews for her, and she won a second Academy Award for Best Actress, a BAFTA Award and a New York Film Critics Circle Award for Best Actress. Tennessee Williams commented that Leigh brought to the role "everything that I intended, and much that I had never dreamed of", but in later years, Leigh would say that playing Blanche DuBois "tipped me over into madness."
In 1951, the Oliviers performed two plays about Cleopatra, William Shakespeare's "Antony
and Cleopatra" and George Bernard Shaw's "Caesar and Cleopatra", alternating
the play each night and winning good reviews. They took the productions to New York, where they
performed a season at the Ziegfeld Theatre into 1952. The reviews there were mostly positive,
but the critic Kenneth Tynan angered them when he suggested that Leigh's was a mediocre talent
which forced Olivier to compromise his own. Tynan's diatribe almost precipitated another collapse;
Leigh, terrified of failure and intent on achieving greatness, dwelt on his comments, while
ignoring the positive reviews of other critics.
In January 1953, Vivien traveled to Ceylon to film "Elephant Walk" with Peter Finch. Shortly after filming commenced, she suffered a breakdown, and Paramount Pictures replaced her with Elizabeth Taylor. Olivier returned Vivien to their home in England, where between periods of incoherence, Leigh told him that she was in love with Finch, and had been having an affair with him. She gradually recovered over a period of several months. As a result of this episode, many of the Oliviers' friends learned of her problems. David Niven said Vivien had been "quite, quite mad", and in his diary Noel Coward expressed surprise that "things had been bad and getting worse since 1948 or thereabouts."
Leigh recovered sufficiently to play "The Sleeping Prince" with Olivier in 1953, and in 1955 they performed a season at Stratford-upon-Avon in Shakespeare's "Twelfth Night", "Macbeth" and "Titus Andronicus." They played to capacity houses and attracted generally good reviews, Leigh's health seemingly stable. Noël Coward was enjoying success with the play "South Sea Bubble", with Leigh in the lead role, but she became pregnant and withdrew from the production. Several weeks later, she miscarried and entered a period of depression that lasted for months. She joined Olivier for a European tour with "Titus Andronicus", but the tour was marred by Leigh's frequent outbursts against Olivier and other members of the company. After their return to London, her former husband Leigh Holman, who continued to exert a strong influence over her, stayed with the Oliviers and helped calm her.
In 1958, considering her marriage to be over, Vivien Leigh began a relationship with Jack Merivale, an actor and friend who knew of Vivien's medical condition and assured Olivier he would care for her.
Vivien Leigh achieved her new level of success in 1959 with the Noël Coward comedy "Look After Lulu", with The Times critic describing her as "beautiful, delectably cool and matter of fact, she is mistress of every situation."
In 1960, Vivien Leigh and Laurence Olivier divorced. Olivier said, "I shall never love anybody as much as Vivien, but it isn't possible to live with her and do my work - I just can't keep it up. She's too exhausting for me." He married the actress Joan Plowright. In his autobiography he discussed the years of problems they had experienced because of Leigh's illness, writing, "Throughout her possession by that uncannily evil monster, manic depression, with its deadly ever-tightening spirals, she retained her own individual canniness – an ability to disguise her true mental condition from almost all except me, for whom she could hardly be expected to take the trouble."
Jack Merivale proved to be a stable influence for Leigh, but despite her apparent contentment she was quoted by Radie Harris as confiding that she "would rather have lived a short life with Larry than face a long one without him."
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 Olivier sharing the spotlight with her. 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 the Broadway musical "Tovarich." She also appeared in the films "The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone" (1961) and "Ship of Fools" (1965).
In May 1967, she was rehearsing to appear with Michael Redgrave in Edward Albee's "A Delicate Balance" when she became ill with a recurrent bout of the tuberculosis from which she had been suffering for more than twenty years but, after resting for several weeks, had seemed to be recovering.
On the night of July 7, Merivale left her as usual, to perform in a play, and returned home around midnight to find her asleep. About thirty minutes later (by now July 8), he returned to the bedroom and discovered her body on the floor.
Vivien Leigh had been attempting to walk to the bathroom, and as her lungs filled with liquid, she had collapsed. Merivale contacted Olivier, who was receiving treatment for prostate cancer in a nearby hospital. In his autobiography, Olivier described his "grievous anguish" as he immediately traveled to Leigh's residence, to find that Merivale had moved her body onto the bed. Olivier paid his respects, and "stood and prayed for forgiveness for all the evils that had sprung up between us", before helping Merivale make funeral arrangements. Vivien Leigh was cremated, and her ashes were scattered on the lake at her home, Tickerage Mill, near Blackboys, East Sussex, England.
Leigh Holman died in the 1970s without having remarried. He has always remained close to Suzanne and his grandchildren. Laurence Olivier, created a Life Peer in 1970, with a son and two daughters by his marriage to Joan Plowright, died 11 July 1989. Jack Merivale married the actress Dinah Sheridan in 1986.