Darlings of the Gods: The tumultuous world of Vivien Leigh and Laurence Olivier

Vivien Leigh and Laurence Olivier

It’s 1947 and the world’s most celebrated screen and stage couple are at the height of their careers. On one London film set Laurence Olivier is playing the lead and directing Hamlet, while on another Vivien Leigh is starring as Anna Karenina after her triumph in Gone With The Wind. A year later the couple arrive in Australia to lead a 10-month tour with a company of actors from the Old Vic. The tour is a sell-out but behind the public glitter, cracks in the relationship are beginning to show. And then a handsome young actor called Peter Finch appears on the scene….

Cut to 1938… As the fictional flames roared over the city of Atlanta and the filming of Gone With the Wind took shape, the part of Scarlett O’Hara was still uncast.

The producer, David 0′ Selznick, watching what remained of the set burn, spotted his brother Myron elbowing his way through the extras with a man and a woman in tow. Selznick recognised Laurence Olivier, the famous English actor. But who was the woman dressed in black with a wide-brimmed hat shadowing her face?

‘Here, genius,’ said Myron, ‘meet your Scarlett O’Hara.’

The woman whipped off the hat, letting her dark chestnut hair blow wildly in the wind, and smiled into the flames which made her green eyes dance. Selznick couldn’t believe what he saw, Vivien Leigh was indeed Scarlett O’Hara as Gone With the Wind author Margaret Mitchell had described her: ‘The green eyes in the carefully sweet face, turbulent, lusty for life, distinctly at variance with her decorous manner.’

Thus was one of fiction’s most famous heroines brought alive for the 1939 Oscar-laden blockbuster.

In the years that followed, millions have been haunted by Scarlett’s beauty, passion, daring and those unforgettable last words spat out at her by Rhett Butler: ‘Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.’

Leigh and Olivier

The part seemed to seal a glittering future for Vivien Leigh. She had so much already — ‘her wondrous, unimagined beauty’, as Olivier called it, and a glorious talent that was to win her two film Oscars and endless applause in the theatre. And, of course, she had an historic love affair with Olivier, who had left his wife and baby son for her as she had left her husband and four-year- old daughter for him.

But beneath the glitz of this golden couple, there was a darkness which threatened to destroy them both. For Vivien was a Jekyll and Hyde creature, one minute sweetness and sanity, the next manic, hysterical and suicidal.

To her public, she was forever the lady — beautifully mannered, exquisitely dressed, radiating charm. But among those who knew her well, many would reverse the Rhett Butler line and say: ‘My dear, it was Vivien who didn’t give a damn.’

George Cukor, who directed part of Gone With the Wind before he was fired, later recalled that on the outside, Vivien was exquisite, but underneath there was something neurotic. The producer-director Gabriel Pascal, watching the rushes of her in his 1945 film Caesar and Cleopatra, was shocked by what he saw on screen. There was something frightening in her eyes,he said,something that made one fear for her more than for oneself.

It was around this time Olivier realised there was something seriously wrong. She had always suffered from bouts of nerves and spells of irrationality, but he had put this down to nervous exhaustion and an intolerance to alcohol.

Then one night, while chatting over dinner, her mood changed. She turned on him verbally, then physically. After about an hour, she crumpled onto the floor and sobbed hysterically. A few minutes later, she couldn’t remember what she had said or done.

They were both terrified. For the first time, she seemed a stranger to him. But she refused to see a doctor, clinging to Olivier as a frightened child to its father.

But she wasn’t completely the innocent. She could also be conniving and sneaky. After a particularly bad spell in New York, Olivier invited Vivien and himself to Noel Coward’s home in Jamaica. But when he confessed to Coward that he thought Vivien was having a nervous breakdown, Coward replied: ‘Nonsense. If any-one’s having a nervous breakdown, you are.’

‘Of course, Vivien had got in first,’ wrote Olivier in his autobiography, Confessions of An Actor.

‘Throughout her possession by that uncannily evil monster, manic depression,’ he says, ‘she retained her own individual canniness — an ability to disguise her true mental condition from almost all except me.’

Even when she was ill with tuberculosis and rested at Notley Abbey, their magnificent country home in Buckinghamshire, her hys-terical turns upset what Olivier hoped would be nine months of peace.

Vivien had another problem, too: nymphomania. The first signs came early on when, during periods of depression, she had distressing sexual fantasies. She sometimes had a compulsion to insist her taxi driver should come into the house with her. At other times, it was a delivery man who caught her attention.


After a while, the fantasies became real. The most famous of them was the actor Peter Finch, a discovery of Olivier’s in

Australia, where the couple enjoyed a triumphant tour with the Old Vic theatre company in 1948. Their visit was treated as almost a royal occasion by their Australian hosts.

Finch had been hanging around Vivien for some time (and vice versa) but it wasn’t until they got on a plane to Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) for the location work on the 1954 film Elephant Walk, that the penny dropped for Olivier.

News quickly reached him that Vivien, helplessly lost in a passionate affair with Finch, was being very indiscreet and undisciplined and was upsetting the filming. Olivier set off for Ceylon but found he could do nothing for her. Weeks later, when filming had moved to the United States, he was summoned again.

David Niven, a close friend, told him that he and Stewart Granger had heard of strange goings-on at the house where Vivien was living.

An old flame had moved in with her. Completely mad, he was lording it around the house draped in long tunics and togas, taking advantage of Vivien’s manic state. Niven and Granger finally decided to break in and discovered Vivien stark naked, balancing on the baluster rail of the landing.


Psychiatrists advised taking her home to England. There was a screaming match as nurses tried to sedate her. Olivier and Danny Kaye, another friend, threw themselves on top of her while the needle went in. But she came round at the airport and another fit followed, this time in front of the newspaper cameras.

Many sessions of electric shock treatment brought her out of it and she seemed relatively stable for a while. Then the same pattern started all over again until one night, Olivier snapped and hurled her across the bedroom. But she struck her left eyebrow on the marble bedside table top. Olivier wrote: ‘I realised with horror that each of us was quite capable of murdering or causing death to the other.’ It was almost the end for them. The beautiful young years he remembered so well were over. They finally parted he, after the divorce in 1960, to marry the actress Joan Plowright, and she to take her final lover, actor Jack Merivale, stepson of Gladys Cooper.

He was still with her when she died in 1967 from the TB which had attacked her so many years before. She was 54.

Merivale, a caring and compassionate companion for Vivien during very trying circumstances, had peeped into her room one July night when he got home from the theatre. She was sound asleep. He went to fix himself a can of soup and 15 minutes later, when he returned to her room, he found Vivien dead on the floor. Her lungs had filled with fluid and she had drowned.