Vivien Leigh

From New World Encyclopedia

Vivien Leigh
Vivien Leigh Scarlet.jpg
Vivien Leigh as Scarlett O'Hara in Gone with the Wind (1939)
BornVivian Mary Hartley
November 5 1913(1913-11-05)
Darjeeling, Bengal Presidency, British India
DiedJuly 8 1967 (aged 53)
Belgravia, London, England
EducationLoreto Convent
Convent of the Sacred Heart
Royal Academy of Dramatic Art
Years active1935–1967
TitleLady Olivier (1947–1960)
Vivien, Lady Olivier (1960–1967)
Spouse(s)Herbert Leigh Holman​
(m. 1932; div. 1940)
​ Laurence Olivier​
(m. 1940; div. 1960)
Partner(s)John Merivale (1960–1967)
ChildrenSuzanne Farrington
Vivien Leigh signature.png

Vivien Mary, Lady Olivier (November 5, 1913 – July 8, 1967), known as Vivien Leigh, was an English actress who won two Academy Awards for her portrayals of American "southern belles." She was the first non-American to win a "Best Actress" Oscar. Her award winning roles were as Scarlett O'Hara in Gone with the Wind (1939) and as Blanche DuBois in A Streetcar Named Desire (1951), a role she had also played in London's West End. She also won a Tony Award for her Broadway debut in the musical version of Tovarich in 1963.

In her 30-year career she made only 20 films, most of them in the 1930s. Her life was marked by two marriages, one child, severe bouts of depression, tuberculosis and world renown for her beauty and talent.

She frequently worked in collaboration with her second husband, Laurence Olivier, who also directed her in several roles. Their life together was full of romance and tragedy, making them one of Hollywood's most glamorous couples.

Early life

Vivien Leigh was born as Vivian Mary Hartley in Darjeeling, British India just before the outbreak of World War I. The only child of Ernest Hartley and Gertrude Robinson Yackje, they lived in India during a time when a simple officer in the Indian Cavalry could live like a king. Her father was British, while her mother was of French and Irish descent.[1]

Leigh made her first appearance on stage at the age of three. She recited "Little Bo Peep" in her mother's amateur theater group production. Leigh was introduced to authors Hans Christian Andersen, Lewis Carroll, and Rudyard Kipling by her mother, who instilled in her an appreciation of literature and art. Leigh particularly loved the stories from Greek mythology.

Leigh was sent to England for her formal education when her mother became worried that she would not receive proper instruction in Bangalore. Leigh was sent to the "Convent of the Sacred Heart" in Roehampton in 1920. Her first stage appearances at school were in Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream (playing the fairy), and in The Tempest (as Miranda). She studied ballet, played the cello in the school orchestra, and excelled at piano - taking her music exam at the Royal Academy of Music when she was a teenager.

A highlight of her education at Sacred Heart was the close friendship she formed with Maureen O'Sullivan, also a future actress. She confided in Maureen that her greatest desire was to become "a great actress." [2]

Her formal education included finishing schools in Paris and the Bavarian Alps. After graduation in 1931 she returned to England. Leigh was surprised and excited to see that her old friend, Maureen O'Sullivan had a film playing in London's West End. This inspired her to tell her parents she had decided to become and actress and as a result they helped her enroll at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (RADA) in London.[3] Her studies at RADA did not last long, however. The same year she met Herbert Leigh Holman, a barrister who was 13 years her senior. Holman was not interested in "theatrical people" and disapproved of them, but he fell in love with Vivien and they were married on December 20, 1932. She became pregnant almost immediately and gave birth to a daughter, Suzanne, on October 12, 1933.

Acting career

Only ten months after her daughter's birth Leigh accepted a small part in the film Things Are Looking Up, her first motion picture appearance. Immediately upon completion, Leigh hired John Gliddon as her agent. It was Gliddon who suggested a name change as he did not think "Vivian Holman" was an appropriate name for an actress. After many versions, including the name "April Morn," Leigh decided on "Vivian Leigh" for her professional name.[4]

With a new agent and a new name, Vivien began her career in earnest. In 1935, she received excellent reviews for her role in the play The Mask of Virtue. Her performance led to a film contract and one last name change, that of "Vivian" to "Vivien." Years later Leigh remembered the influence of her first brush with fame and greatness:

Some critics saw fit to be as foolish as to say that I was a great actress. And I thought, that was a foolish, wicked thing to say, because it put such an onus and such a responsibility onto me, which I simply wasn't able to carry. And it took me years to learn enough to live up to what they said for those first notices. I find it so stupid. I remember the critic very well, and have never forgiven him.[5]

In 1938, Leigh appeared in another film, this time with her childhood friend, Maureen O'Sullivan, along with Robert Taylor and Lionel Barrymore. The film was A Yank at Oxford, and it marked a shift in her career, as it was the first of her films to be widely received in the United States.

Achieving International Success

During the filming of her two films in 1938, Leigh read Margaret Mitchell's best-selling historical novel Gone with the Wind. She heard that a film version was going to be made and became very interested in playing the role of Scarlet O'Hara.[6] She remarked to a journalist, "I've cast myself as Scarlett O'Hara," and the film critic C. A. Lejeune recalled a conversation with her where she made the prediction that Olivier "won't play Rhett Butler, but I shall play Scarlett O'Hara. Wait and see."[7]

Publicity photo of Clark Gable and Vivien Leigh for Gone with the Wind

Leigh requested that she be placed in the running for the role of Scarlett. That month, the producer of the film, David Selznick, watched Leigh's two most recent pictures. Although he never thought he would like her, Selznick was won over by Leigh's beauty and her talent. Selznick deliberated for several months, studying Leigh's work and photographs. On October 18, Selznick wrote in a confidential memo to director George Cukor, "I am still hoping against hope for that new girl."[8]

When Leigh traveled to Los Angeles to be with Laurence Olivier, she had a chance meeting with Selznick's brother Myron. Myron was serving as Olivier's American agent, and he took the couple to the set of the film and introduced Leigh to his brother. Shortly after, Leigh did a formal audition and a screen test for David Selznick. After the audition Selznick 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 of the film, George Cukor, agreed with Selznick and noted that the "incredible wildness" of Leigh was perfectly suited to Scarlett. Leigh was given the infamous part soon after.[9]

The production of Gone with the Wind was fraught with difficulties. First Cukor was fired and then replaced by Victor Fleming as the new director. The change led to several conflicts between Leigh and Fleming. Leigh believed that Cukor was the man for the job, thus, along with Olivia de Havilland, the two actresses met with Cukor secretly to ask advice on how the roles of Scarlett and Melanie should be played. Leigh truly admired and befriended Clark Gable, his wife Carole Lombard and de Havilland. However, her relationship with Leslie Howard was tense and strained. Leigh was required to perform several of the most emotional scenes with Howard, she worked seven days a week, and often long evenings. She missed Olivier who was in New York City, and she became tired and distraught. She wrote in a letter, "I loathe Hollywood…. I will never get used to this – how I hate film acting."[10]

Many rumors flowed concerning Leigh's behavior during filming. It wasn't until 2006 that Olivia de Havilland spoke out against the rumors and accusations. She said of Leigh, "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 (Olivier), who was in New York."[11]

Gone with the Wind brought fame to Leigh. However, she never bought into the idea of being a huge star. She once said, "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."[12]

Gone with the Wind was nominated for several Academy Awards, winning ten of them. Among the ten were Best Actress for Leigh, who also won a New York Film Critics Circle Award for Best Actress.

Life with Laurence

Leigh with Laurence Olivier in That Hamilton Woman. (1941)

Laurence Olivier first saw Leigh when he attended one of her performances in The Mask of Virtue. After the play, Olivier was so impressed that he went backstage to congratulate the actress on her remarkable performance. From that moment, a friendship developed. A short time later, the two were cast in the 1937 film Fire Over England.

Because We Must opened on February 5, 1937. She followed this play with the role of Ophelia in Hamlet, playing opposite her new love Laurence Olivier at the Kronborg Castle in Elsinore. Michael Redgrave was a young cast member, and Alec Guinness was Olivier's understudy at the time. At this point both Vivien and Olivier's marriages were failing due to their own affair, and this resulted in separation from their spouses and moving in together in Chelsea. Olivier continued to concentrate on Shakespeare, joining the Old Vic Theatre Company, while Vivien performed briefly in A Midsummer Night's Dream as Titania in December of 1937. It ran successfully for several months.

Did you know?
Vivien Leigh and Laurence Olivier were one of Hollywood's most glamorous couples

During the production of Because We Must Olivier got his first glimpse of Leigh's developing mental health problems. During one performance, Leigh abruptly changed her mood, yelling and screaming at Olivier shortly before appearing onstage. As suddenly as she began screaming, she stopped, calmed herself down, and went out to perform without mishap or incident. By the following day, Leigh was completely normal and couldn't even remember the incident had occurred.[13]

In February 1940 both Olivier and Leigh obtained divorces, with neither of them gaining custody of the children. In August of that same year the couple was married in a small wedding attended only by the two witnesses, Katharine Hepburn and Garson Kanin.

The couple loved working together, though Leigh met with disappointments as she was passed over for the leading lady role in Olivier's two films Rebecca directed by Alfred Hitchcock and Pride and Prejudice (1940). When the film Waterloo Bridge (1940) was being made, it was to star the couple, however, Selznick replaced Olivier with Robert Taylor. Both Leigh and Taylor were at the top of their fame, and the film proved to be a major success.

Olivier and Leigh took a break from film work and decided to perform on the stage in a production of Romeo and Juliet for Broadway. However, the press reviews were not favorable. Brooks Atkinson, a reporter for the New York Times wrote, "Although Miss Leigh and Mr. Olivier are handsome young people they hardly act their parts at all."[14] The play's failure caused severe financial strain for the two, who had invested almost all of their savings into the production.[15]

The couple went on to film That Hamilton Woman (1941) a World War II film that became very successful, especially in the Soviet Union. The film was also popular in the United States. Winston Churchill was very close to the couple, and he often requested that they attend dinners and other official events. He once said of Leigh, "By Jove, she's a clinker."[16]

Troubles began for the couple when they returned to England. Leigh contracted tuberculosis after completing a tour through North Africa. Then she discovered she was pregnant while filming Caesar and Cleopatra (1945). A short time later she suffered a miscarriage, the first of two they would experience while together. She began to verbally and physically attack Olivier, suffering her first of many breakdowns as a result of manic-depression, or bipolar mood disorder. Olivier came to recognize the symptoms and was able to prepare himself for them. The episodes were followed by Leigh having no memory of the event, but feeling deeply remorseful.[17]. In 1947 the couple ventured to Buckingham Palace where Olivier was knighted. Leigh became Lady Olivier, a title she used the rest of her life.

By 1948 Olivier was on the Board of Directors for the Old Vic Theatre, and to raise funds, the couple decided to tour through Australia and New Zealand to raise funds for the theater. The tour was long and exhausting, Leigh suffered from insomnia, and the couple fought often. At the very end of the tour, Olivier told a journalist, "You may not know it, but you are talking to a couple of walking corpses." Later he commented that he "lost Vivien" during the tour to Australia.[18]

Marlon Brando and Vivien Leigh in A Streetcar Named Desire (1951)

Leigh followed a few stage performances with her role as Blanche DuBois in the West End stage production of Tennessee Williams's A Streetcar Named Desire. Leigh's run lasted 326 performances, and garnered her the same role in the film version that starred Marlon Brando. Leigh and Brando got along well, but she had conflicts with the director, Elia Kazan, who felt that Leigh "had a small talent." Kazan would soon change his mind, however, saying he was "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."[19]

Vivien Leigh received her second Academy Award for Best Actress for her role as Blanche, as well as a BAFTA Award and a New York Film Critics Circle Award for Best Actress. Author Tennessee Williams commented that Leigh was "everything that I intended, and much that I had never dreamed of," but in later years, Leigh said that her time as Blanche DuBois "tipped me over into madness".[20]

Declining health

In January 1953, during the filming of Elephant Walk with Peter Finch, Leigh suffered another breakdown. Paramount Studios replaced Leigh with the popular Elizabeth Taylor. Olivier brought Leigh back to their English home to recover. During this time Leigh said that she was in love with Peter Finch and had been having an affair with him. Gradually, over a period of months, Leigh made a recovery.

As a result of this breakdown many of the Olivier's friends learned just how sick Leigh had become. David Niven said she had been "quite, quite mad," and in his diary Noël Coward expressed surprise that "things had been bad and getting worse since 1948 or thereabouts."[21]

After Leigh recovered she played in The Sleeping Prince with Olivier in 1953. Two years later the couple performed at Stratford-upon-Avon in Shakespeare's Twelfth Night, Macbeth and Titus Andronicus. The theater was always packed and the two received favorable reviews. Her second miscarriage threw her into another period of severe depression. Again, after recovery, the couple performed in a European tour of Titus Andronicus. The tour did not go well with Leigh becoming more frequent in her moody outbursts. Olivier took her home once again, even calling upon Leigh's ex-husband, Leigh Holman, to help calm her.

In 1958 Leigh decided that the marriage was over, and she began another affair with the actor Jack Merivale. Merivale said he was aware of Leigh's condition and assured Olivier that he would take good care of her. In 1959 Leigh found more success with the Noël Coward comedy Look After Lulu.

In 1960 she and Olivier formally divorced and Olivier soon afterwards married the actress Joan Plowright. In his autobiography Olivier wrote, "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."[22]

Final years and death

Merivale kept his promise and offered a stable environment for Leigh. The couple seemed happy but Leigh was quoted by Radie Harris as confiding that she "would rather have lived a short life with Larry (Olivier) than face a long one without him."[23]

Even though Leigh was still prone to depression and anxiety she continued to act. In 1963 she 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).[24] Her last play was Anton Chekhov's Ivanov in 1966, with John Gielgud, in which she ironically played a woman who dies of tuberculosis.

In May 1967 Vivien had another bout of tuberculosis. After seeming to be on the road to recovery, on the night of July 7, Merivale returned from a play and found Leigh sleeping peacefully. Thirty minutes later he returned to the bedroom and discovered her body on the floor. Apparently, Leigh had been attempting to walk to the bathroom but her lungs filled with liquid, causing her to collapse.[25] Merivale contacted Olivier immediately. In his autobiography, Olivier described his "grievous anguish" as he traveled quickly to Leigh's home. Olivier paid his respects and "stood and prayed for forgiveness for all the evils that had sprung up between us,"[26] before helping Merivale make funeral arrangements.

Vivien Leigh was cremated. Following a memorial service, and a final tribute read by John Gielgud, Leigh's ashes were scattered on the lake at her home, Tickerage Mill, near Blackboys, East Sussex, England. In the United States, Leigh was the very first actress to be honored by "The Friends of the Libraries at the University of Southern California." The ceremony was conducted like a memorial. Several of her friends, including George Cukor, gave tributes, mixed with clips of various films she had done.[27]

Awards and nominations

Year Award Work
1939 Academy Award for Best Actress (won)
New York Film Critics Circle Award for Best Actress (won)
Gone With the Wind
1952 Academy Award for Best Actress (won)
BAFTA Award for Best Actress in a Leading Role (won)
Golden Globe Award for Best Actress - Motion Picture Drama (nominated)
New York Film Critics Circle Award for Best Actress (won)
Venice Film Festival - Volpi Cup (won)
A Streetcar Named Desire
1963 Tony Award for Best Leading Actress in a Musical (won) Tovarich

Preceded by:
Bette Davis
for Jezebel
Academy Award for Best Actress
for Gone with the Wind
Succeeded by:
Ginger Rogers
for Kitty Foyle
Preceded by:
Judy Holliday
for Born Yesterday
Academy Award for Best Actress
for A Streetcar Named Desire
Succeeded by:
Shirley Booth
for Come Back, Little Sheba
Preceded by:
Anna Maria Alberghetti
for Carnival
Diahann Carroll
for No Strings
Tony Award for Best
Leading Actress in a Musical

for Tovarich
Succeeded by:
Carol Channing
for Hello, Dolly!


  1. Anne Edwards, Vivien Leigh, A Biography (Coronet Books, 1978, ISBN 0671224964), 12.
  2. Edwards, 12-19.
  3. Edwards, 25-30.
  4. Edwards, 30-43.
  5. Kendra Bean, Vivien Leigh: An Intimate Portrait (Running Press, 2013, ISBN 978-0762450992).
  6. Selznick wrote in a memo on February 3, 1938, "I have no enthusiasm for Vivien Leigh. Maybe I will, but as yet have never even seen a photograph of her. Will be seeing "Fire Over England" shortly, at which time of course will see Leigh…."
  7. Terry Coleman, Olivier, The Authorised Biography (Bloomsbury Publishing, 2005, ISBN 0747583064), 76-77, 90, 94-95.
  8. David O. Selznick, Memo from David O. Selznick (New York: Modern Library, 2000, ISBN 0375755314), 184.
  9. Ronald Haver, David O. Selznick's Hollywood (New York: Bonanza Books, 1980, ISBN 0517476657), 259.
  10. John Russell Taylor, Vivien Leigh (Elm Tree Books, 1984, ISBN 0241113334), 22-23.
  11. Bob Thomas, Private and public Olivier revealed in biography The Associated Press, December 27, 2006. Retrieved August 11, 2022.
  12. Taylor, 22-23.
  13. Coleman, 97-98.
  14. Edwards, 127.
  15. Anthony Holden, Olivier (Sphere Books Limited, 1989, ISBN 0722148577), 189-190.
  16. Holden, 202, 205, 325.
  17. Holden, 221-222.
  18. Holden, 295.
  19. Coleman, 233-236.
  20. Holden, 312-313.
  21. Coleman, 254-263.
  22. Laurence Olivier, Confessions Of an Actor (Simon and Schuster, 1982, ISBN 0140068880), 174,
  23. Alexander Walker, Vivien, The Life of Vivien Leigh (Grove Press, 1987, ISBN 0802132596), 290.
  24. Edwards, 266-272.
  25. Edwards, 304-305.
  26. Olivier, 273-274.
  27. Edwards, 306.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Bean, Kendra. Vivien Leigh: An Intimate Portrait. Running Press, 2013. ISBN 978-0762450992
  • Coleman, Terry. Olivier, The Authorised Biography. Bloomsbury Publishing, 2005, ISBN 0747583064
  • Edwards. Anne. Vivien Leigh, A Biography. Coronet Books, 1978. ISBN 0671224964
  • Haver, Ronald. David O. Selznick's Hollywood. New York: Bonanza Books, 1980. ISBN 0517476657
  • Holden, Anthony. Olivier. Sphere Books Limited, 1989, ISBN 0722148577
  • Olivier, Laurence. Confessions Of an Actor. Simon and Schuster, 1982, ISBN 0140068880
  • Selznick, David O. Memo from David O. Selznick. New York: Modern Library, 2000. ISBN 0375755314
  • Taylor, John Russell. Vivien Leigh. Elm Tree Books, 1984. ISBN 0241113334
  • Walker, Alexander. Vivien, The Life of Vivien Leigh. Grove Press, 1987. ISBN 0802132596

External links

All links retrieved May 3, 2023.


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