Childhood & Early Life
Vivien Leigh was born on November 5, 1913 in Darjeeling in the Bengal Presidency of British India to Earnest Hartley and Gertrude May Frances. Her father was a clerk in the brokerage offices of Piggott Chapman and Company in Bengal.
In 1917, Leigh’s father was transferred to Bangalore while she and her mother stayed in Ootacamund (Ooty). She performed for the first time on stage for her mother’s amateur theatre group and gave a performance on “Little Bo Peep”.
Leigh was sent back to England at the age of six and was made to attend Woldingham School in Roehampton. She went on a tour with her father to Europe and completed her schooling at different schools all around Europe.
In 1931, the family returned back to England and it was then that Leigh made a declaration of her desire to become an actress. Her father got her enrolled in the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (RADA) in London.
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In her struggle to become an actress, Leigh hired an agent, John Gliddon, who introduced her to film maker Alexander Korda, but unfortunately he rejected her. In 1935, she was cast in a play called ‘Mask of Virtue’.
After attending the play, Korda accepted his misjudgment and signed a film contract with her. He moved her play to a larger theatre but Leigh failed to deliver her performance in bigger space and in front of larger audience.
In 1937, Leigh did, ‘Fire Over England’ opposite Laurence Olivier. It was based on a novel with same title and was directed by William K. Howard. This movie was the onset of the affair between Leigh and Olivier.
Around the same time, she was cast as ‘Ophelia’ opposite Olivier’s ‘Hamlet’ in Old Vic Theatre, which was staged in Denmark. By this time she and Olivier had started to live together.
In 1938, she grabbed American attention with her film, ‘A yank at Oxford’, in which she was cast along with Robert Taylor, Lionel Barrymore and Maureen O’Sullivan. She also did ‘St. Martin’s Lane’ in the same year.
In 1939, she was signed on for the role of ‘Scarlett O’Hara’ in George Cukor’s ‘Gone with the Wind’. She received the Best Actress Academy Award for it. The movie won 10 Academy Awards.
In 1940, Leigh was cast by Selznick for the lead role in the movie, ‘Waterloo Bridge’, starring opposite Robert Taylor. The movie was supposed to pair Leigh and Olivier but at the end moment Olivier was replaced by Taylor.
Leigh and Olivier invested their entire savings in the stage production of ‘Romeo and Juliet’, around the same time. The project proved a failure as the nature of their relationship was questioned by the media and their acting was also criticized.
The pair again appeared in the war based movie, ‘That Hamilton Woman’ in 1941. The movie was popularized in the States to gather pro-British war sentiments from Americans. It was a huge hit and Winston Churchill’s personal favorite.
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In the late 1940s, Leigh did movies like, ‘Caesar and Cleopatra (1945)’ and ‘Anna Karenina (1948)’; both the movies were a failure. But her Thorton Wilder’s play ‘The Skin of Our Teeth’ proved to be a success.
Leigh and Olivier went on a tour to Australia and New Zealand to raise money for the Old Vic Theatre in 1948. They performed plays like, ‘Richard III’ and ‘The School for Scandal’.
In 1949, Leigh was cast as ‘Blanche DuBois’ in the West End production of ‘A Street Car Named Desire’. She gave 326 performances and was later cast for the film version of the play and won her 2nd Academy Award.
The couple again performed together in two plays, ‘Antony and Cleopatra’ and ‘Caesar and Cleopatra’ in 1951 in London as well as in New York. The plays received positive reviews in both the cities.
In 1953, she was cast by Paramount Pictures in ‘Elephant Walk’ opposite Peter Finch. But due to her mental breakdown, she was replaced by actress Elizabeth Taylor.
In 1953, she recovered and performed in ‘The Sleeping Price’ with Olivier and in 1955, they again performed together at Stratford-upon-Avon in ‘Twelfth Night’, ‘Macbeth’ and ‘Titus Andronicus’. She also starred in ‘The Deep Blue Sea’.
During the 1960s, Leigh did a Musical Broadway, ‘Tovarich (1961)’ and received a Tony Award for Best Actress for it. She also did movies like, ‘The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone (1961)’, ‘Ship of Fools (1965)’.
Personal Life & Legacy
Leigh got married to Herbert Leigh Holman, a barrister, in 1932; he was 13 years older to her. He was against her theatrical endeavors, which is why she left RADA in the middle. They had a daughter together, Suzanne.
She started an affair with Laurence Olivier in 1937. They could not get married as both their spouses refused to give them divorces, which is why they had to live together instead.
In 1940, after finally receiving divorces from their respective partners, Leigh and Olivier got married in Santa Barbara, California. But their marriage was also clouded with problems. They both got divorced in 1960, and she started an affair with actor Jack Merivale, who was very well aware of her mental condition. They never got married but stayed together until her death.
Leigh collapsed on the floor of her room on the night of July 7, 1967 and was found dead by Merivale. She was cremated at the Golders Green Crematorium and her ashes were scattered in a lake in Sussex.
Leigh suffered from manic depression and started showing signs of bi-polarity since the late 1930s. Olivier experienced it for the first time when she shouted at him for no apparent reason, suddenly became silent and then started staring into the space. Later when asked, she had no recollection of it.
She suffered from two miscarriages in her life, both with Olivier and every time after the miscarriage, she went into deep depression for days and became a recluse.
The British Library in London purchased the papers of Laurence Olivier from his estate in 1999. Known as ‘The Laurence Olivier Archive’, the collection includes many of Vivien Leigh's personal papers, including numerous letters she wrote to Olivier.