They were the ultimate show business power-couple, conquering both the stage and film together. Although their relationship did not last, their love for each other always did. Classic Hollywood Central takes a look at some of Classic Hollywood’s real-life love stories and continues this journey with the story of Vivien Leigh and Laurence Olivier.
As rising stars in London who loved the theatre, both 22-year old Vivien Leigh and 28-year old Laurence Olivier had seen each other in theatre productions. After Laurence, or Larry as everyone called him, saw Vivien in The Mask of Virtue in 1936 he went backstage to congratulate her on her performance. It is said that they were immediately attracted to each other. Still, the only option they had was to become friends. Vivien had married Leigh Holman, a barrister eighteen years her senior, when she was nineteen and they had a two-year old daughter together. Larry had married fellow actress Jill Esmond when he was twenty-three and he was about to become a father. So Vivien and Larry became friends and even went on vacation to Capri with their spouses.
But the following year the pair was cast as lovers in the film Fire Over England and it was obvious to everyone on set that they were heavily involved during filming.
Their chemistry was palpable, so theatre the Old Vic cast them as Hamlet and Ophelia in their production of Hamlet. The couple was so in love that they did not care who knew and they both soon left their spouses to be together. But Leigh and Jill did not let go without a fight: it took three years before their respective divorces were granted. Since the public was not fond of married parents having affairs, Larry and Vivien had to try to keep their relationship a secret. This was difficult, as they lived together and were madly in love. Their agents and publicists often had to beg them to be discreet.
In 1938 Larry went to Hollywood to film Wuthering Heights. Vivien stayed in England, but missed him so terribly, she soon joined him. Not just for the company though: she was also determined to get the coveted part of Scarlett O’Hara in Gone With The Wind. Her plan succeeded and as the success of Gone With The Wind overshadowed Wuthering Heights, Larry could not help but to be a little jealous. But with their sudden surge of fame it was getting harder to keep their relationship under wraps. Thankfully, their divorces were granted in 1940 and on August 31 they got married in a short and simple ceremony with only director Garson Kanin and actress Katherine Hepburn in attendance. Their first joined effort as a married couple was to bring Romeo & Juliet to the stage in America, but the production failed miserably. By now the pair was bombarded with criticism because the Second World War had begun and they had stayed in America instead of joining in the war effort in Europe. Larry then joined the Fleet Air Arm, but was never called to see action. In 1943 he got permission to make Henry V and Vivien toured North-Africa to entertain the troops. The pair wrote letters to each other constantly and were still very much in love. But all was not well for Vivien: after her tour she was hospitalized for tuberculosis. When she got home she was happy to discover that she was pregnant, only to suffer a miscarriage a few weeks later. She fell into a deep depression which foreshadowed the bipolar disorder she would be diagnosed with later.
Vivien reclined into their mansion Notley Abbey, while Larry was busy cementing his place in the London Theatre.
Still, every weekend he would race back to their home to be with her. Although Vivien seemed to revel in her role as homemaker, playing hostess to many of their friends, the symptoms of her bipolar disorder were getting worse. But eventually she longed to return to acting and in 1945 she resumed her career by starring in Ceasar and Cleopatra. In 1948 a newly knighted Larry took Vivien with him to tour Australia and New-Zealand to raise funds for the Old Vic theatre. But the cast and crew could not help but notice that the two fought a lot. In one instance Vivien refused to go on stage. Laurence then slapped her in the face in front of their crew. Vivien was mortified, then slapped him back and made her way to the stage while swearing profusely. By the end of the tour, they were both exhausted. Larry would later say that he ‘lost’ Vivien in Australia. Next on the agenda was the play A Streetcar Named Desire in which Vivien would star and which Larry would direct. After playing Blanche DuBois for months on stage, Vivien also portrayed her in the movie adaption opposite Marlon Brando. Although it was to be one of her most applauded roles, she later stated that playing the unstable Blanche ‘tipped me over into madness’.
By now Vivien and Larry’s relationship had soured and mostly revolved around work. They were considered a power couple in both the theatre world and movie industry and they knew it.
In the following years they performed in multiple plays together, but behind the scenes Vivien’s illness grew worse and Larry was having numerous affairs. By 1953 Vivien suffered a mental breakdown while filming Elephant Walk opposite Peter Finch. She was brought home and it was only then that the couple’s inner circle learned of her illness. Vivien also admitted to Larry that she was having an affair with her co-star, but the two stayed together and even resumed their partnership on stage.
In 1957 Vivien got pregnant but suffered a miscarriage a couple of months into her pregnancy. By 1958, both considered their marriage to be over. Larry was having an affair with actress Joan Plowright and Vivien had taken up with actor Jack Merivale. But these turned out to be more than mere affairs: both would stay with their new partners until their death. In 1960 Vivien and Larry officially divorced.
Larry married Joan Plowright in 1960 and they would go on to have three children together. Although Vivien and Jack Merivale never married, they remained together until Vivien’s death of tuberculosis in 1967. Despite her relationship with Jack, Vivien stated before her death that she ‘would rather have lived a short life with Larry than face a long one without him’ and she kept his picture on her bedside table. Larry was one of the first on the scene when Vivien passed away, despite his own health problems at the time, and was absolutely devastated by her death.
Remaining a workaholic for the rest of his life, Larry continued to act throughout his numerous health problems. He refused to slow down and played his final role only a year before his death of renal failure in 1989. Friends say that they saw him watch a movie starring Vivien shortly before his death with tears in his eyes saying: ‘This, this was love’.
Read more about Laurence Olivier’s life.