The story of Vivien Leigh and her marriage to Laurence Olivier is already well known from numerous books, not least those written by Olivier himself. Vickers’s account – predictably elegant and stylish – is written very much from Vivien Leigh’s side. Lord Olivier is unlikely to enjoy it at all. Indeed, Vickers makes a point of saying that he did not meet Olivier during the course of his extensive researches, though he did bump into him by accident at Covent Garden: ‘I opened a door and he came through it, looking rather like a country schoolmaster. He muttered “Thank you”, and went on his way’. Had he known what Vickers was up to he might have chosen two rather more pointed monosyllables.
The reference to Olivier’s schoolmasterish appearance is, perhaps intentionally, patronising. Certainly Olivier turned his back on what he called the ‘baronial’ phase of his life when he left Vivien Leigh and Notley Abbey to marry the young actress Joan Plowright. It is perhaps the wilful desertion of glamour which Vickers finds so difficult to understand or to forgive. He is, after all, as his previous biographies of Gladys, Duchess of Marlborough and Cecil Beaton show, a writer particularly at home in that section of the beau monde where the ritzier kind of show business stars mingle with the glitzier kind of aristocracy.
Among English film stars, Vivien Leigh was about the ritziest of the lot. Her background was both respectable and exotic. Her father was a business man living and working in India and she was born in Darjeeling. There may have been some Eurasian blood on her mother’s side which would explain her dark and very un-English kind of beauty. She attended the Convent of the Sacred Heart in Roehampton – the same one that Antonia White wrote about in Frost in May – and various finishing schools in Europe. She spoke fluent French, Italian and German – even being able to dub her own films in those languages – and was a voracious reader. Her home life was not particularly satisfactory, her father being an inveterate womaniser and her mother usually having some man in tow. Not surprisingly, therefore, Vivien decided to marry early. She was only nineteen when she met and married Leigh Holman, a reasonably rich and fairly handsome barrister. They set up house in Little Stanhope Street in Mayfair. Vickers gives a pretty detailed description of the interior. ‘In the bedroom, iron work was a feature; beside tables of wrought iron and mirror glass, iron candlesticks on the dressing table . . . The bed itself was piled high with green and gold cushions on which rested a reminder of Vivien’s so recent childhood – her toy rabbit’.
Leigh Holman was devoted to his new wife and she soon gave birth to a daughter, Suzanne. He encouraged her acting ambitions and she enrolled at RADA. After their divorce, he never remarried and they kept in close contact to the end of her life, even going on holiday together. Within a few years, however, she had fallen for Olivier, then only a promising young actor. She announced to a friend that she intended to marry him even though they were both married already. Her own acting career had taken off rapidly since her appearance in The Mask of Virtue at the Ambassador’s Theatre in 1935. She was greatly helped by two men neither of whom was primarily interested in her for sexual reasons: Ivor Novello and John Gielgud.
On the strength of her theatrical successes, Alexander Korda, who was sexually attracted to her, offered her a five year contract worth £50,000. According to Vickers, Vivien slept with Korda ‘to advance her career and steer it towards working with Olivier’. Korda, an easy-going sensualist who took his pleasures pretty lightly, was soon encouraging the romance and making his house available for assignations. In fact, the filming of Korda’s Fire Over England (1937) proved to be a turning point both in her career and in her life. The relationship with Olivier soon became an open secret and they eventually set up house in Durham Cottage in Chelsea which she furnished with her usual slightly finicky perfectionism. Meanwhile, back in Little Stanhope Street her husband ‘kept her nightdress and dressing-gown in perpetual readiness for her’. One friend, seeing her with Olivier, thought they were like ‘two exquisite pieces of china teetering on the edge of the shelf’. It was, of course, a prophetic remark.
Before the marriage, however, Vivien enjoyed her great success in Gone With the Wind. It seemed that Olivier, who was currently second-billing Merle Oberon in Wuthering Heights rather resented this and objected to the kind of contract she was being offered by Selznick. Remembering that Olivier had placed similar obstacles in the way of his first wife Jill Esmond’s career, Selznick told him: ‘Larry, don’t be a shit twice’. One can picture Vickers’s slightly acid smile as he typed out that little story.
In the subsequent marriage, shittiness, in fact, seems to have been pretty evenly divided. As Vivien’s manic depressive illness took hold she became difficult, not to say impossible, to live with- especially as the demands of Olivier’s career made it hard for him to give her the constant attention she craved. It is hard to forgive him for continuing his holiday with the Waltons when he knew she was in a hospital bed after suffering her first nervous breakdown. But this time, she had put him through a good deal; not least by carrying on a highly public affair with Peter Finch. Vickers writes that ‘Vivien, who often berated Olivier for poor performance in the bedroom, found with Finch an extraordinary sexual rapport.’
Her own beauty and sexual attractiveness are undeniable. Rex Harrison was deeply in love with her though they never so much as held hands. Even Somerset Maugham, not noted for his susceptibility to feminine charms, was enchanted by her. Watching them together, Garson Kanin wrote: ‘As for WSM, I have never seen this side of him – the gallant, courtly gentleman. The man on the make. Every warm instinctive exchange passes between them’. Churchill loved her films as, it seems, did Hitler. Despite the admiration of the war leaders, her talents as an actress are now less obvious than her beauty. Most of the films she appeared in were pretty poor and her performance suffered from the almost compulsory refinement of the period so that James Agate could say of her Lady Hamilton that it ‘reeks of Muswell Hill at its most respectable’.
Kenneth Tynan – who changed his mind after he had met her – gave her some memorably bad notices over the years, calling her Lady Macbeth ‘more niminy-piminy than thundery-blundery, more viper than anaconda’. As for Olivier, when Anthony Holden saw him watching one of her old films on television a couple of years ago, the tears were rolling down his checks as he said: ‘This, this was love. This was the real thing’. It is to Vickers’s credit that he is prepared to acknowledge it. Having fallen for Vivien Leigh himself, he has told her story as well as it is ever likely to be told.