- Created on Friday, 21 August 2015 17:38
That is the title of a biography I have just read of Vivien Leigh by Alexander Walker. Even young people know her as the actress who played Scarlet O’Hara in Gone with the Wind, arguably the most celebrated and iconic female role in movie history. But, the highs and lows of her own life, including her health problems, were as dramatic as any role she played.
In 1913, she was born Vivian Hartley of British nationals who lived in India. But ethnically, she was mostly Irish and French, and, it is rumored that she had a little Indian blood in her from her mother’s side which contributed to her exquisite beauty. Her parents were well-off, and she was an only child, and her early years were very pleasant and comfortable. But, her mother was a very devout Roman Catholic, and she wanted Vivian to attend a convent school. So, when she was of school age, they returned to England so that Vivian could attend the Convent of the Sacred Heart in London. Let’s just say that her easy, breezy, lazy days of summer were over.
But, Vivian was bright. She was a good student. She became fluent in French and Italian. And she became very proficient in literature, including Shakespeare. (Most Americans don’t realize that Vivien Leigh was also a great Shakespearean actress.) She later attended other posh boarding schools on the European continent. But, from the beginning, all she ever wanted to do was become an actress.
So in 1931, at the age of 18, she persauded her parents to let her attend the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts in London. But, a year later, she met a lawyer who was 13 years her senior, Leigh Holman, and she fell in love. They married, and she immediately got pregnant with their daughter Suzanne, and Vivian temporarily abandoned her dreams of becoming an actress. But, after Suzanne was born, there were servants and nannies galore to do the infant care, and Vivian resumed her quest for stardom with even greater intensity than before.
She found an agent who right away decided that her last name had to go. The name they settled on, Leigh, was of course, derived from her husband’s first name, although actually it was his middle name. And the change in spelling of her first name from Vivian to Vivien was done by one of her first stage directors, and it stuck.
So, she started getting parts, at first bit parts, in both British plays and movies, and she was noticed favorably by the already famous Laurence Olivier. He sought her to star with him in the film Fire Over England in 1937, and there was no stopping the romance between them even though they were both married. But, from the beginning, Olivier noticed that she had sudden, severe mood swings, although they did not disrupt her performances.
But, they became inseparable, and though it took time, they did eventually obtain divorces from their spouses so that they could marry, which happened in 1940. Each had a young child; Oliver’s was a son. And even though neither had custody of their child, they did have them enough of the time for Suzanne Holman and Tarquin Olivier to bond as siblings. Vivien reportedly had two miscarriages during her marriage to Olivier.
But, in 1945, during her marriage to Olivier, Vivien contracted her first case of pulmonary tuberculosis, which laid her up in bed for months. The very fact of that tells you that her health wasn’t good.
Regarding her habits, she both smoked and drank, but they all did in those days, and especially actors and musicians. At times, she smoked heavily, such as during the making of Gone with the Wind. I think it’s amazing that a woman whose acting career got launched solely because of her great beauty should smoke, but in those days, few realized how harmful and destructive smoking is.
But, she recovered from that bout of tuberculosis and went promptly back to the lifestyle that provoked it: smoking, drinking, late nights, and woefully inadequate rest.
Regarding her food, she ate a regular British diet, with its emphasis on animal protein and cream and butter, but not nearly enough fresh produce. Also, sweets were mentioned as a favorite of hers. She was always slim and petite, but realize that sometimes ill-health can keep a person slim.
Her manic episodes included severe hypersexuality, which manifested, at first, as increasing demands on her husband (for sex). But, by that time, Laurence Olivier was a man in his 40s who was working very hard, and although he tried to oblige her as best and as often as he could, it just wasn’t enough. As you know, a woman can always oblige a man with sex even if she is not in a responsive state, but a man’s lack of responsiveness is not something that he can hide or circumvent. And that led to her seeking sexual satisfaction outside the marriage.
The young actor Peter Finch became her long-term lover, with Olivier’s awareness. It was during the making of the movie Elephant Walk filmed in Sri Lanka and Los Angeles that Vivien was deeply involved with Finch (her co-star) when she had a complete nervous breakdown. It was in L.A. that Vivien was dragged away by the men in white coats, and Elizabeth Taylor was brought in to reshoot the movie, although they left in some distant scenes which included Vivien.
In those days, the main and only treatment for manic depression was electro-convulsive therapy: shock treatments. It is still used today but not nearly as much as before and usually only when drugs aren’t working. Vivien Leigh had a great many shock treatments. Over the years, it may have been over 100. And everyone, including Vivien, tried to recognize, in advance, when an attack was coming on so that she could go in for a treatment. The symptoms included the hypersexuality, which led her to have incredibly brazen and sudden flings, such as going to bed with a taxi driver, an elevator attendant, or just someone she met in the street. Another symptom was shopping addiction. Another was the loss of discretion in how she spoke to people. She was always rather blunt and unrestrained in her language- inclined to say shockingly candid things. But, it got much worse during her episodes. Many claimed that playing the role of the disturbed Blanche DuBois in Streetcar Named Desire worsened her own mental illness.
Her marriage to Olivier, which had deteriorated badly, finally ended, and it was his doing. He had fallen for another actress, Joan Plowright, whom he wanted to marry. But regardless of Joan, he had taken all that he could bear from Vivien. Their marriage ended in 1960, although for all practical purposes it was over before that. But, at the end, Vivien tried very hard to talk him out of it. Despite all her betrayals, which were induced by her mental illness, she felt a deep and close bond to him, which endured to the end. She never spoke badly of him. And, the same was true of her first husband, Leigh Holman, whom she stayed close to and spent time with even after their divorce.
But, Vivien’s best relationship may have been with her last lover, actor Jack Merivale. For many years, he was a friend- to her and Olivier. And when their romance blossomed, Jack felt obliged to inform his friend Laurence Olivier, who gave his blessing. Why shouldn’t he have when he was happily married? It’s interesting that Joan Plowright had nowhere near the beauty of Vivien Leigh. In fact, Joan wasn’t beautiful at all, in my opinion. But, Olivier was looking for something else.
Jack Merivale proved to be great for Vivien because he was keenly aware of her mental problems and always on the lookout for trouble and ready to steer her into treatment at the first sign of crisis. Apparently, the shock treatments did provide some relief. But, they both had busy careers, often on different continents, so they were separated a lot. But, when they were apart, she wrote to him frequently (daily) and some of her letters to him were published in the book. She was always intensely romantic in how she wrote to him, and it was very beautiful and also very youthful, considering that she was a grandmother of three at the time. She certainly had a fire for romance.
One of the last things she did in her life was visit India, the country of her birth. Not Jack Merivale, but other friends traveled with her. And then she almost made a trip to Russia because she was very popular in Russia, although not for Gone with the Wind which was forbidden in the Soviet Union for being too bourgeois.
But, after the India trip, she started coughing up blood, and it was soon discovered that her tuberculosis had recurred again, and virulently. She was ordered to bed and to stop smoking, neither of which she did completely. Jack was with her, although he was working at the time. She died alone. It’s believed that her lungs filled up with fluid and she suffocated. Jack had checked on her early in the evening, and she was doing OK. But then he had to go perform and when he checked on her a few hours later, she was sprawled on the floor, face down, dead. He tried giving her mouth-to-mouth but to no avail. He called her doctor. And then he called Olivier. Ironically, Olivier was in the hospital at the time for prostate cancer, but he checked himself out and took a taxi to her house. Jack let him be with Vivien alone in her room for a while. Olivier wrote in his memoir: “I stood and prayed for forgiveness for all the evils that had sprung up between us.” Vivien Leigh was 53 when she died in 1967.
It was very interesting to read about how she got the role of Scarlett O’Hara in Gone with the Wind. It was the most coveted female role in the world at the time. Vivien traveled from London to Los Angeles to audition for it. David Selznick refused to pay her way because she was practically unknown outside of England at the time. But, when he saw her and interacted with her, he soon realized that she came closest to Margaret Mitchell’s description of Scarlett in the book, down to the luscious green eyes. And, she also had the same dominant, willful, assertive personality of Scarlett O’Hara. And that’s what did it.
Could life have been different for Vivien Leigh in terms of her longevity? Of course. I have to think so. With better nutrition, better habits, and better self-care, she could have lived a lot longer. But, I am saying that in reference to her TB. I can’t make any claims regarding her manic depression, which may have been her destiny regardless. And, it may have been her mania that drove her to pursue her acting career the way she did, so who knows: without it, she may have had a very different life. It may have been a necessary part of her genius. Would she have been happier without it? Very possibly. I happen to think that when it comes down to extreme highs and extreme lows, as she had, that the lows hurt a lot more than the highs fulfill. So, I wouldn’t wish that kind of life on anyone. But, when I try to imagine watching Gone with the Wind with anyone else but Vivien Leigh playing Scarlett O’Hara, it is a very depressing thought indeed.