In the centenary year of Vivien Leigh's birth, discover the incredible life of the Hollywood starlet
In celebration of the centenary year of Vivien Leigh’s birth, the V&A has acquired the personal archive of the Hollywood icon.
Including more than 200 letters, telegrams, photographs, newspaper clippings and postcards plus diaries she began as a precocious 16 year-old, the archive gives visitors a rare insight into the famously feisty actress’ life and explores her tempestuous love affair with Laurence Olivier.
Born Vivian Hartley in Darjeerling, India; she came to England with her British parents at 6 years old and went on to attend schools in England, France, Italy and Germany before studying at The Royal Academy of Dramatic Art.
Putting her career on hold at 19, she married lawyer Leigh Holman and had his daughter, before finally making her stage and film debut as ‘Vivien Leigh’ in 1935. She met and promptly fell in love with established (and married) actor Laurence Olivier while performing Shakespearean plays at the Old Vic and the two embarked on a very public love affair.
Photography: Volume of press cuttings about Vivien Leigh’s role in Gone With The Wind, 1940. Copyright: Victoria & Albert Museum, London
Around the same time, the producer of Gone With The Wind was conducting an unprecedented nationwide publicity campaign to find the perfect Scarlett O’Hara. 1,400 women were interviewed including massive stars such as Katherine Hepburn and Bette Davis before Leigh (then a virtually unknown theatre actress) auditioned and won the part amid much controversy.
But the gamble paid off. Gone With The Wind went on to become the most successful film in box office history and won an astounding 10 Oscars, including the Best Actress gong for Leigh.
Set against the turbulent backdrop of the American Civil War, the romantic epic is the story of feisty, petulant southern belle Scarlett O’Hara (Vivien Leigh) and her complicated love life with the dashing Rhett Butler (Clark Gable) and the married Ashley Wilkes (Leslie Howard).
Photography: Gone With The Wind – Scarlett O’Hara & Rhett Butler
In reality, the starlet’s life was no less messy but finally in 1940, she was able to marry Olivier after they’d secured divorces from their repective partners. The pair went on to become a powerhouse couple in the world of showbusiness co-starring in films and plays and receiving rapturous adoration from fans.
However, behind the scenes, things were not so rosy. The couple began to avoid the limelight as Leigh was suffering from severe bouts of manic depression. As these grew worse, she struggled to perform and her relationship with Olivier became strained. Things reached a tragic peak in 1944 when Leigh fell during a rehearsal and suffered a miscarriage – from that moment, her health snowballed and she became increasingly unstable. Battling bipolar disorder, insomnia and tuberculosis left the star desperate and she underwent electroshock therapy and began drinking heavily.
Photography: Vivien Leigh with Laurence Olivier, date unknown, photographer unknown. Copyright: Victoria & Albert Museum, London
Leigh’s portrayal of the famously unhinged Blanche Du Bois in the London play and the Hollywood film adaptation of A Streetcar Named Desire undoubtedly drew on her own struggles with sanity but the performance won her high acclaim and yet another Best Actress Oscar. She would later say that her year inside the mind of Blanche tipped her into madness.
Photography: Programme for A Streetcar Named Desire starring Vivien Leigh at Aldwych Theatre, 1949. Copyright: Victoria & Albert Museum, London
Indeed, Leigh’s mental state did decline and after another miscarriage, she had a breakdown in 1953 and withdrew from filming her latest movie. This contributed to her growing reputation of being difficult to work with and her marriage to Olivier suffered too, finally ending in divorce in 1960.
While Olivier went onto remarry, Leigh moved in with a younger actor, Jack Merivale and took a break from the limelight. When she emerged to headline a musical in 1963, she triumphed, winning her first Tony award then following that success with another Oscar-winning film, Ship of Fools.
Photography: Vivien Leigh as Blanche Dubois in A Streetcar Named Desire, 1949. By Angus McBean. Copyright: Harvard Theatre Collection, Houghton Library, Harvard University
Sadly it was only two years later that Leigh’s health deteriorated once again and she succumbed to her tuberculosis at the age of just 53. It was a tragic end for the troubled star and the West End blacked out its lights for a full hour in her honour.
A revolving selection from the Vivien Leigh archive is on display in the V&A’s Theatre and Performance Galleries.
Photography: Vivien Leigh, date unknown. By Angus McBean. Copyright: Harvard Theatre Collection, Houghton Library, Harvard University