Vivien Leigh

    Vivien Leigh.

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    Did You Know?
    For much of her life, Vivien Leigh suffered from mental illness. After a breakdown in the 1950s she was sent to Netherne Hospital in Surrey for a week and underwent the controversial ECT treatment.

    Birth name:
    Vivian Mary Hartley

    5' 3" (1.61 m)

    Laurence Olivier (31 August 1940 - 2 December 1960) (divorced)
    Herbert Leigh Holman (20 December 1932 - February 1940) (divorced) 1 child

    'A lucky thing Eva Peron was. She died at 32. I'm already 45.'

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    The carefully orchestrated search ended in a coup de theatre with the relevation that an English actress, with only a few films to her credit, was to play the Southern heroine of the the novel that, since 1936, had outsold the bible in the USA. The fact that Vivien Leigh was not American failed to outrage the many Scarlett O'Hara fans in the Deep South; the unforgivable miscasting would have been to let a Yankee play the role!

    After diction lessons, Vivien Leigh successfully added the right touch of molasses to her clipped English delivery. She was also coached (first officially and later privately) by George Cukor, Selznick's original choice to direct Gone With The Wind. She battled constantly with Victor Fleming (the director who replaced George Cukor after three weeks), failed to make friends with her co-star Clark Gable, threw tantrums on the set and off, and won an Oscar.

    The Truth about Scarlett?

    Her achievement still stands, even if there remains doubt as to how she came to play the role. Another version of the story is that Victor Saville, the British director who directed Leigh in Storm in a Teacup (1937) rang her London flat one day and said:

    'Vivien, I've just read a great story for the movies about the bitchiest of all bitches, and you're just the person to play the part'

    Resolved to try for the part of Scarlett, Leigh followed Laurence Olivier - then her paramour, later her husband - to California, where he was to play Heathcliff in Samuel Goldwyn's production of Wuthering Heights (1939).

    It seems she was probably seen by - and made a strong impression on - David O. Selznick and Cukor, and was kept under wraps while the continuing search for Scarlett gathered a million dollars worth of publicity. She was then made to appear, like a rabbit out of Myron Selznick's hat, to snatch the part.

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    At 26 she became a priceless commodity in the industry. David O. Selznick, the sole proprietor of her contract, doled her talents out parsimoniously: first to MGM for Waterloo Bridge (1940), then to Alexander Korda, who had originally discovered Leigh in Britain, for That Hamilton Woman! (1941). There followed an absence from screen dictated by war and sickness. She reappeared as Bernard Shaw's Egyptian kitten of a queen in Caesar and Cleopatra (1945), looking ravaged and mature enough to play Shakespeare's Cleopatra.

    She was Tennessee Williams' own choice for the part of Blanche DuBois in his play A Streetcar Named Desire. The play was filmed in 1951, and this time Leigh's Southern drawl was so convincing that it seemed to issue from a dark bruised recess of her being. A sense of inevitable decline is captured in the curtain line: 'After all, I've always depended on the kindness of stranger' - a melancholy echo of that other famous exit line 'After all, tomorrow is another day', which summed up the headstrong, vixenish, egotistical Scarlett.

    Living close to the edge

    Various screen tests for Scarltt have survived and been screened: Leigh's has disappeared into some clandestine collection, but we have Cukor's word that no-one, not even Leigh herself during the actual shooting of the film, could match her miraculously intuitive approach on that first brush with the part.

    Around her Scarlett one perceives, even now, not just the whims and caprices of a spoiled beauty, but real hovering demons; the same which would overwhelm her later in her private life. As early as Fire over England (1937), she seemed a needlessly neurotic lady-in-waiting, but while she was young such traits could be taken as eccentricies. Watching Vivien Leigh glow in inferior pictures like The Roman Spring of Mrs Stone (1961) or Ship of Fools (1965), there is the strong impression of a trained performer drawing perilously close to lived experience; in The Deep Blue Sea (1955), she is almost too genuine for comfort playing a woman caught between suicide attempts.

    Vivien Leigh's own life had been one of extremes. Born in 1913 in India, separated in childhood from her mother, she struggled with depression and hysteria before contracting tuberculosis. She fought the disease throughout her life until finally succumbing to it in 1967. But these bare facts do not explain her peculiar 'poetic' nervousness.

    Tennessee Williams celebrated a certain breed of women as 'ladies who died when love was lost'. This definition, though it misses Scarlett, encompassess Blanche, Anna Karenina, Mrs Stone and Mrs Mary Treadwell of Ship of Fools, and may stand as a fitting, if melancholy, epitath for Vivien Leigh herself.


    R A N D O M

    April 14:

  • Vivien Leigh's country retreat, Tickerage Mill, near Uckfield, East Sussex where her ashes were scattered goes on sale for 3.5 million. When Leigh bought it in 1961 it cost her 20,000. Upon her death in 1967, her ashes were scattered there.

    The current owners are Ken and Honer Hoggins. It is a Grade II listed five-bedroom mansion and comes with an ancient bluebell wood, a walled-garden and a separate gardener's cottage.

    The Trivia below has been sourced from the brilliant book on Vivien Leigh, Vivien Leigh: A Biography. Available at (direct link).

  • On the afternoon of July 7th, 1967, Vivien watched the Wimbledon Men's Final at her home in Belgravia, London. This means one of the last things she saw from the outside world was John Newcombe of Australia beating the German Wilhelm Bungert in straight sets (for the loss of just 5 games). With her was her partner, the actor Jack Merivale, who then left to go to the theatre as he was appearing in the Last of Mrs Cheyney at the Guildford Theatre.

    He arrived home around 11 P.M.and stepped into Vivien's bedroom where he found her asleep with her cat Poo Jones lying beside her on the bed.

    He went into the kitchen to heat some soup and at 11.30 P.M., he stepped into Vivien's bedroom agin. Now she was lying on the floor inconscious. She had stopped breathing...

  • She bought Tickerage Mill in Blackboys, Sussex, on the advice of Dirk Bogarde. The cottage was constructed in the Queen Anne style, had 5 bedrooms, 90 acres, woods and a barn. It was close to a beautiful lake - the main reason she bought the property.

  • Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh would get married in the course of the production for his film, That Hamilton Woman.

  • It is not clear when exactly Vivien began her affair with Peter Finch. He had arrived from Australia in the late 1940s. But it was during the same time that Vivien was living her own life which was more detached from Olivier's. They maintained only a professional dependency but no physical contact.

  • At the end of September 1945, when the war was almost over, the Oliviers moved into their new country house in the Buckinghamshire countryside, where, after a long search. they had purchased the property Notley Abbey. It was a historic residence on a large estate which was nearly 70 acres. It was founded during Henry II's reign to be used as an abbey and then as a hospice for the Augustine order. Later, under Henry VIII. Notley Abbey was purchased by a protestant family. Over the centuries it had been transformed into a private residency with 22 rooms including a servant's quarters, a refectory, barn, a pigsty and a henhouse. The Oliviers acquired the property with the fishing rights for the stretch of the River Thames that ran through it, using all their savings to repair and furnish the estate.

  • Source: Vivien Leigh: A Biography.

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