Beauty and the beast of mania
The legendary Vivien Leigh will always be remembered as the breathtakingly beautiful and ferociously tempered Scarlett O'Hara in Gone With The Wind – for which she won an Oscar. As November marks the centenary of her birth, we look back at her life which imitated her art in many ways, says Julia Molony
It was, in 1935, the most expensive film ever made. The bullying, ruthlessly ambitious producer, David O Selznick, was addicted to uppers, "crushing up Benzedrine and licking the pieces from the palm of his hand, a grain at a time", according to Hollywood biographer Patrick McGilligan. One director (George Cukor) had already been fired from the project and the over-stretched studio was amped with anxiety.
In the middle of all this was a 26-year-old Vivien Leigh, an arriviste British actress, heart-stoppingly beautiful, and the subject of a production-meeting furore because of her flat-chest. Crisis talks were called because Vivien couldn't fill the cups of the soon-to-be iconic red gown. The new director, Victor Fleming, insisted that without sufficient cleavage to denote her character's dangerous sexuality the scene was doomed. The solution, it was decided, was to scotch tape her breasts into a jutting shelf. Vivien complained she could barely breathe, and railed against Fleming.
It was just one, small example of the daily tortures for Vivien Leigh of life on set of Gone With the Wind.
A total of 1,400 women had auditioned for the role of Scarlett O'Hara. Leigh was a graduate of Rada and an experienced stage actress. But, ultimately, it was her face that won her the role. "I took one look and knew she was right," Selznick recalled. "Her tests showed that she could act the part right down to the ground, but I'll never recover from that first look."
In that look, I guess, he must have seen all the qualities she brought to the film, and to every role she played thereafter; fragility, high emotion that bubbled close to her perfect, sculptural surface, and through it all, a ribbon of cool, sharp steel.
Vivien may have been young, she may have been mentally ill, but she wasn't a pushover. Her great trademark skill as an actress was her ability to convincingly depict women who were falling apart, while maintaining an essential poise, even hauteur. And yet, by the time Gone With the Wind wrapped, the psychologically fragile Leigh was herself coming apart at the seams. She had suffered a small breakdown prompted by the stressful environment on set. Olivia de Havilland, who played Melanie Hamilton, observed, "she gave something to that film that I don't think she ever got back".
Eventually, her first breakdown would lead to another, more debilitating this time, and culminating in a spell in a psychiatric institution. From there, it was just a short step for Vivien Leigh to full blown bi-polar disorder, a condition which, in an era before effective pharmacological treatments, took over large swathes of her life. It clouded and stained her 20-year relationship with Laurence Olivier like smoke on glass.
But the days of Gone With the Wind, were the early, still hopeful ones – a time of all-consuming and mutual infatuation between the two stars. They were both already married when they met in London. Leigh was still a relatively unknown actress and Vogue model when she spotted Olivier performing on stage in London and declared immediately: "I'm going to marry that man." That she was already wed, to a barrister her parents approved of, seemed incidental, and certainly no obstacle to her goal.
Rumour had it that the up-and-coming Olivier had married his first wife, Jill Esmond, as much out of desire for access to her contact book (she was well connected in theatre and close friends with Noel Coward) than for contact with her. In any case Esmond, was a lesbian, and the marriage a farce. Olivier too, considered his marital status a mere detail, especially after laying eyes on Leigh.
When the inexperienced Leigh was chosen to play Ophelia beside Olivier's Hamlet, the die was cast. It was an experience that would define Leigh's life in more ways than one. It launched her as a committed and critically acclaimed Shakespearean actress. She would later go on to build on her rendition of Ophelia with other classical roles, as Cleopatra on film, and later, back on stage in London, alongside Olivier, as Lady Macbeth in 1955 in a Royal Shakespeare company production.
But, in 1935, she was under the jurisdiction of the Hollywood studios as their most promising new star. Whatever she and Olivier felt about their relationship, the executives at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer were concerned. During filming, the relationship between them had to be kept secret. They lived openly in London but, since officially still married to their respective partners, were considered best kept apart, lest an adultery scandal jeopardise the success of the film.
And so, while Vivien Leigh was in California being taunted over her cup size by a pill-popping producer, Olivier was miles away working on Broadway and accessible only at the end of a long-distance phone line. It was a perfect emotional storm, and the result was a thunderous affair.
Leigh was born in Darjeeling, India, in 1913, the only child of Ernest Hartley and Gertrude Yackjee. As a small child, she was sent back to England to be educated in a convent in Roehampton.
She was 19 when she married Herbert Leigh Holman, and had her first and only child, Suzanne, an experience that she noted in a letter to her friend with the words: "Had a baby girl. Never again, it is a messy business!"
Perhaps she was never built for monogamy. She lasted just a couple of years with Herbert. And though she and Larry stayed together for 20 years, they were both chronically unfaithful. Theirs was a passion forged in narcissism and ignited by insecurity.
Professional competitiveness, as well as sexual rivalry, shrilled between them. "They were both beautiful and both wanted more," wrote the authors of a 2010 biography, cheesily titled, Damn You Scarlett O'Hara. "Vivien loved to torture Olivier with her affairs, especially after she grew more mentally ill, depressed and manic."
Olivier, of course, was always considered the true artist, while Leigh, despite her two Oscars, was unfairly better known as that brighter, though less-respectable thing, a movie star. Despite her awards, she remained somewhat in his shadow.
Publicly, she couldn't be seen to outshine him – critics celebrated her beauty but were often blinded to her talent. While Oliver was always essentially a stage animal, Leigh's limpid looks lit up on the silver screen.
Olivier himself couldn't help but see her formidable talent as a threat.
When she won an Oscar for her Scarlett O'Hara, the months of torture finally paying off, Olivier, enraged, admitted to grabbing Leigh's Oscar in the car. "I was insane with jealousy. It was all I could do to restrain myself from hitting her with it," he remembered.
Their relationship simmered with violence. The actress Sarah Miles, who claims to have had an on/off affair with Olivier throughout his marriage to Vivien, says he confessed to her that "before he and Vivien parted for good, he pushed her aside during a row and she accidentally tripped and fell into the fireplace, hitting her head on the fire dog". For a moment, he believed he had killed her.
They got married in 1940, the very minute they were free to do so, slipping away to Santa Barbara with the ink on their respective divorce papers barely dry. It was a rushed, simple affair. Katharine Hepburn was the maid of honour. Neither of them had been granted custody of their children – Olivier had a son with Esmond – leaving them both utterly free to devote themselves entirely to each other. At some point Leigh must have reconsidered her feelings about childbirth. She became pregnant for a second time with Olivier's child in 1944, but suffered a miscarriage, tipping her once again into blackness.
In 1943, Leigh and Olivier moved back to the UK, into Notley Abbey, their marital home. It was a beautiful and stately 14th-Century Augustinian monastery on a riverbank with a swimming pool, and it became a cultural hub outside of London. Vivien and Olivier regularly hosted formal parties, frequented by the great and the good – their friends from the London theatre world and even one or two visitors from Hollywood. Noel Coward was a regular, and the writer and actor David Niven was a guest there, as were Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall, Bette Davis, Orson Wells, Judy Garland and Marilyn Monroe. Leigh was a famed hostess, and apparently liked to take guests on midnight walks around the garden.
When they weren't at home, they were regular visitors to Soggs Parva, an estate set on the Kent-Sussex border and described in one newspaper as "the foremost weekend retreats for the acting and social elite of the Sixties and Seventies".
Charles Castle, the owner of the estate and a documentary film-maker remembers how Vivien stood out among the guests, not just for her grace, generosity and beauty, but also for her sense of high culture. "She could name every flower in the garden in Latin," he has said. "She read widely and was tremendously knowledgeable about the theatre. And she had great taste."
But despite their position together as leading lights of British cultural life, to which they were both fervently committed, Olivier and Leigh had a difficult relationship.
Olivier was a preening and jealous husband. Vivien, meanwhile would swing between episodes of mania and bottomless troughs of despair. "Throughout her possession by that uncanny evil monster, manic depression, with its ever-tightening spirals," Olivier recalled in his autobiography, "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."
If her condition was ruining her personal life, in public she successfully channelled it into her performances. She picked up her second Oscar for her portrayal of Blanche DuBois in A Streetcar Named Desire by Tennessee Williams, in which she played opposite Marlon Brando, with whom she is also said to have had an affair. Williams, speaking about her performance in Street Car described her as "a demonic creature – the size of her feeling was too great for her to contain without the escaped madness".
In 1953, while filming Elephant Walk in Sri Lanka, she reignited her absorbing affair with the rugged actor Peter Finch, which lasted on and off for several years, and brought about the end of Finch's marriage to the ballet dancer Tamara Finch.
And while in the public's mind, Vivien remained secure as "the perfect English rose", as Vogue editor Diana Vreeland described her, signs were beginning to appear in the papers that all was not well. A frenzy of rumour surrounded her relationship with Peter Finch.
As she grew more troubled, she was replaced on Elephant Walk by Elizabeth Taylor. Reports of her electro-shock therapy appeared in newspapers in London. Of the classic Hollywood maladies of addiction, madness and bad love, Leigh's life was touched by two out of three. Eventually, in 1960, she and Laurence divorced. Leigh's entanglement with Finch was a contributing factor and Olivier later said that if they hadn't split, they would have killed each other.
Despite the split, and the fact that by 1960 Leigh was in a relationship with Jack Merivale, the man who would be the last great love of her life, the intense ardour between her and Olivier never burned out, but rather combusted. "I feel very deeply in love with Jack Merivale and very deeply grateful to him," she wrote to Olivier that year, "but it does not alter the fact that I shall love you all my life and with a tenderness and respect that is all embracing."
Merivale, who was also married when he and Vivien met, seemed to give her some degree of happiness. "Leigh taught me how to live, your father how to love and Merivale how to be alone," she told Olivier's son Tarquin.
In 1967, aged just 53, she succumbed to the tuberculosis that she'd suffered from recurrently since her early adulthood. But she had always been emotionally, as well as physically consumptive. On screen, the characters she played were fragile, fractured, despairing. In life, she vibrated with the threat of psychological rupture.
By then, she had become known in Hollywood inner circles for her voracious sexual appetites. It's unclear whether she was a natural libertine or someone whose thrill-seeking behaviour can be dryly pathologised as the "promiscuity" so often associated with mental illness. She was also portrayed in some quarters as a "nymphomaniac".
Scotty Bowers – the Hollywood fixer who claimed to have arranged hook-ups for Cary Grant and Rock Hudson, also wrote about Leigh in his memoirs, Full Service, The Secret Sex Lives of the Stars. He claims to have set up sexual encounters for her with both men and women, organised from a brothel masquerading as a petrol station, where there was one pump, (no pun intended) for legal reasons. He presided there throughout the Forties; fixer, pimp and gigolo – the patron saint of fornication.
"You seldom got a roll in the hay the way you did with Vivien Leigh," Bowers said. Although he also said that Katharine Hepburn was a cross-dressing lesbian, so make of that what you will.
The authors of Damn You Scarlett O'Hara seem to concur, claiming that she had at least three lesbian lovers, and a particular fondness for "rough trade". According to a source quoted in the New York Post: "In the 1940s, the world's most recognisable star would drive down to Scotty's with her friend George Cukor, the initial director of Gone With The Wind, and they would both pick out young men for the night.
"They would pay the men with gifts such as cigarette cases, jewels, or even stocks and bonds. She depended on the professional discretion of men not to boast they had just serviced Scarlett O'Hara."
Like Marilyn Monroe, somewhere on the road to fame and infamy, Leigh lost custody of her own story. Fact and fiction merge and it becomes hard to know whether the more outrageous stories about her are to be credited, or are simply the products of an industry that, in posthumously mining the wreckage of her life, turns up occasional nuggets of fools gold.
In 1961, wracked with tuberculosis, she accepted the role of Karen Stone, a troubled widow who, at one stage of the action, throws down a set of house keys to a young gigolo she has never met. Perhaps it was just too convincing a performance. Since so much of her life and her work overlapped, it's hard for us not to believe that the rejection and anguish of Scarlett O'Hara, the rape of Blanche Dubois, and the despair and loneliness of Karen Stone, were happening to Vivien too.