Vivien Leigh

Vivien Leigh is best remembered for her Academy Award-winning roles as the American southern belles Scarlett O'Hara and Blanche DuBois.


Vivien Mary Hartley was born in India in 1913. Returning to England aged six, she was later sent to European finishing schools across Europe, becoming fluent in French and Italian. At 19, she married Leigh Holman, a British barrister, and had a daughter, Suzanne, in 1933.

Attending the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, she made her first major stage appearance in 1935, in 'The Mask of Virtue' and her film debut in 'Things Are Looking Up' the same year. In 1937, she met and made her first screen appearance opposite the rising star, Laurence Olivier, in 'Fire Over England'. Determined to seduce him - even though both were married - they became lovers by the end of the year.

Olivier chose Leigh to portray Ophelia in the stage production of 'Hamlet'. He later recalled an incident when Leigh's mood rapidly changed before they went on stage. She began screaming at him, staring into space and being silent. She performed without mishap and couldn't remember the events the next day - perhaps a sign of the mental illness that would plague her.

In 1938, moving to Hollywood to be with Olivier, she landed the role of Scarlet O'Hara in 'Gone With The Wind'. Now a star, she picked up a Best Actress Oscar. The couple had to keep their relationship a secret from the public as neither of their spouses would allow them to have a divorce. Olivier's wife named Leigh as co-respondent on grounds of adultery in their divorce.

Marrying Olivier in August 1940, at which Katharine Hepburn was bridesmaid, she appeared alongside him in a US production of 'Romeo and Juliet'. They also co-starred in the films '21 Days' (1940) and 'That Hamilton Woman' (1941). Returning to London, they collaborated on productions of 'Macbeth' and 'Antony and Cleopatra'. Whilst rehearsing for Shaw's 'Caesar and Cleo', a pregnant Leigh fell and miscarried.


As a result of her deteriorating mental and physical health, her film output was small, and she began to undergo shock therapy in the late 1940s. Her health then improved somewhat, and her stand-out role in 1951 was opposite Marlon Brando, in 'A Streetcar Named Desire', for which she received another Best Actress Oscar.

In January 1953, she started filming 'Elephant Walk' alongside Peter Finch but shortly after filming commenced, she suffered a breakdown and was replaced by Elizabeth Taylor. Olivier took her home to England where she told him she had been having an affair with Finch, gradually recovering over a period of several months. At this time, many of the couple's friends learnt of her problems with manic depression.

By the end of the year, she was well enough to star in 'The Sleeping Prince' with her husband. In 1955 they enjoyed a successful season in Stratford-Upon-Avon in Shakespeare's 'Twelfth Night', 'Macbeth' and 'Titus Andronicus'. Leigh took the lead role in Noel Coward's 'South Sea Bubble' but pulled out after falling pregnant and suffering another miscarriage leading to a period of depression. She then joined her husband on a European tour of 'Titus Andronicus' but this was marred by her frequent outbursts against Olivier.

In 1958, she started a relationship with actor Jack Merivale as she considered her marriage to Olivier over. Merivale promised to take care of her knowing about her manic depression.

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." She and Olivier were divorced in 1960, as she began to shine on Broadway, especially in 'Tovarich', for which she won a 1963 Tony Award.

With her health deteriorating, her stamina diminished and, after appearing on stage with her new companion, Jack Merivale, in 'Ivanov', in 1966, her health declined markedly, and she died of tuberculosis in London on 8 July 1967.