Once the most glamorous couple in showbiz, Vivien Leigh and Laurence Olivier have won global recognition and countless Oscars starring in some of Hollywood’s most celebrated films.
However, their relationship was torn apart by infidelities and a serious mental illness that was not understood in their time.
The tragic truth behind the golden couple’s love is explored in new book Truly, Madly – written by Stephen Galloway. Below is an excerpt from the book:
As the first married couple to become global celebrities since the advent of talkie, Vivien Leigh and Laurence Olivier seemed to have it all.
But they were doomed by a mental illness that neither understood, turning their relationship from a dream into a living nightmare.
Her passion was famous, but this wasn’t the gentle, sentimental kind of Hollywood movies—it was the kind that engulfs, overwhelms, and sometimes devastates.
In October 1933, Vivien gave birth to a girl, Suzanne. Ten months later she saw Laurence for the first time in the comedy Theater Royal. Forgetting her marriage vows to attorney Leigh Holman, she turned to a companion and whispered, “This is the man I’m going to marry.”
In May 1935 Laurence saw Vivien on stage and days later they met up with mutual friends at the Savoy Grill.
Vivien soon accepted Laurence’s invitation to a garden party he and his wife Jill were throwing. And on January 27, 1936, they had lunch alone for the first time.
They were not yet in a close relationship, as Laurence’s diary makes clear. He refers to his lunch date as “Vivien Leigh” and uses her full name. But “Vivien Leigh” soon gives way to “Vivien,” then “Viv,” eventually becoming “Vivling,” the very nickname her husband used. Laurence didn’t just steal the man’s wife; he stole his language.
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On July 15, 1936, the two began work on the film Fire Over England. And they couldn’t stay apart.
Together for extended periods when others were away, they crossed the line between attraction and action, admiration and fling.
Every moment they weren’t working—and sometimes when they were—they’d slip away and find a private space where they could talk, laugh, and touch.
They loved each other all the time. “Every day, two or three times,” Laurence confided to a friend.
“I don’t think I’ve ever lived that intensely since then,” Vivien later said. “I can’t remember ever sleeping; just every precious moment we shared together.”
Left alone in their small home in Chelsea, Laurence’s wife Jill couldn’t turn a blind eye to it all.
She had smelled Vivien’s perfume on her husband and assumed the affair would be over. In the final weeks of pregnancy she was on her own, forced to lie still on doctor’s orders.
Laurence was delighted at the birth of his son and began reading Shakespeare to him in his cradle. But nothing could break his bond with Vivien, and with a ruse that angered him, he took her to his newborn.
In mid-June 1937, Vivien and Laurence chose the moment to sneak away. Vivien’s husband and daughter were still asleep when she left without a word.
Laurence wrote around 200 longing letters, all of which Vivien kept tied in a red ribbon in her bedside table. Today they are perfectly preserved in their archive in the Victoria and Albert Museum.
In the letters, Laurence told Vivien that she was lovable and original, even if she occasionally got angry. “I hope you’ve noticed the healthy respect I have for your anger!”
During rehearsals for a stage production of Hamlet the previous year, Laurence appeared ashen in front of his colleagues and, according to an early report, “said something about Viv going mad, attacking him, having a fit.”
When Vivien emerged, she was unrecognizable from her usual vivacious self and “didn’t speak a word to anyone, just stared blankly into space.”
It was obvious that this exquisite diamond was flawed, but people still knew so little about mental health. Nobody understood that she was seriously ill. Not even Vivien herself.
Three years later, she won an Oscar for her iconic role as Scarlett O’Hara in 1940 and she became the toast of Hollywood. On August 31 of this year, Vivien and Laurence, together with their friends Katharine Hepburn and the writer Garson Kanin, made their way to Santa Barbara and got married.
They returned to London after German bombing destroyed parts of the city. And in April 1941 Laurence enlisted in the Royal Navy and reported to his base at Lee-on-Solent, 60 miles from London.
Despite the war, “he could never recall such contentment”. Vivien waved goodbye every morning when he set off on his motorbike and then tinkered around the house and garden.
“All that could lead to a breakup is our constant fear,” Laurence wrote.
Two miscarriages plunged Vivien into depression. Then her mood changed again, several times. She quickly alternated between highs and lows, unlike anything Laurence had seen, a terrifying experience for both of them.
Declaring Vivien “insane” would have meant taking her to a psychiatrist or, worse, jailing her.
Women were easily labeled “hysterics” and imprisoned for months if not years. Few asked for psychiatric help unless forced to do so.
When Vivien returned to work on Cleopatra in 1944 after a five-week absence, Laurence falsely declared her better.
He thought the worst was over. He hadn’t realized that it had only just begun.
Vivien’s highs were inevitably followed by lows and then another high. There were times when these cycles lasted for months and others when they alternated in the blink of an eye.
Juliet Mills said: “I remember they had a terrible argument, which I heard through the walls, and [Laurence] thrown out of the room and about half an hour later there was smoke and Vivien had set the bed on fire.”
In early 1949, the Oliviers were sitting at home when Vivien spoke. “I almost thought my ears were deceiving me: ‘I don’t love you anymore. There’s no one else or anything; I mean, I still love you but in a different way, sort of, well, like a brother’. “
Laurence felt like he had been “sentenced to death”. He wrote: “The central force of my life, indeed my heart, was removed as if the most skillful surgeon in the world had done it.”
Vivien entered a dark and frightening phase in her life; She was faced with moods she couldn’t fathom, let alone control. When she had a breakdown, she behaved violently and later wrote letters of apology.
Both she and Laurence had affairs. During filming of A Streetcar Named Desire in 1950 with Marlon Brando, Marlon said, “She slept with almost everyone and started to unravel mentally and fray physically at the ends.”
While filming Elephant Walk in Sri Lanka in 1953, Vivien fell in love with actor Peter Finch and then showed signs of psychosis and hallucinations.
Vivien was now accompanied by a parade of nurses. She had lost all semblance of sanity and was flown from California to London for treatment.
“Crying hysterically, actress Vivien Leigh was dragged from a car onto a transatlantic plane today by her husband, Sir Laurence Olivier, after delaying the flight by 20 minutes,” reported the Los Angeles Times.
“The British actress, who was suffering from a nervous breakdown and fear of flying, alternately sobbed and shook his fist at her husband until he grabbed one of her arms and pulled her out of a limousine and pulled her up the ramp to the aircraft floor. “
When the plane landed, four doctors and two ambulances were waiting.
A common feature of bipolar disorder – or manic depression, as Vivien’s condition eventually came to be known – is periods of mania alternating with depression, along with a third “mixed” state in which these extremes occur simultaneously, the most worrisome aspect of the disease and the most difficult for a layman to understand.
There is no evidence that Vivien suffered any long-term memory damage when she first received electroconvulsive therapy.
Vivien remained unconscious for four days. When she revived another manic episode occurred; She was again sedated and kept in a coma for a fortnight.
Laurence didn’t seem to understand that her condition was temporary. “She wasn’t the same girl I fell in love with after she was treated,” he wrote. “She was more of a stranger to me now than I could ever have imagined.”
In August 1957, Laurence Vivien admitted his affair with actress Joan Plowright. “I suppose you should know that I’m in love with Joan Plowright.”
Vivien issued a statement on 21 May 1960: “Lady Olivier wishes to say that Sir Laurence has asked for a divorce in order to marry Miss Joan Plowright. She will, of course, do as he pleases.”
After years of infrequent contact, Laurence visited Vivien at her home, Tickerage Mill, in East Sussex, under the care of nurses. The two reminisced for hours as if conflict had never stood in the way of their love.
On July 7, 1967, Vivien Leigh died of tuberculosis at the age of 53.
When his third marriage to Joan Plowright was strained, a friend who visited Laurence’s home just before he died in 1989 at the age of 82 found him alone. He was watching one of Vivien’s films.
His eyes were filled with tears. “That, that was love,” he said. “That was the real thing.”
Truly, Madly: Vivien Leigh, Laurence Olivier and the Romance of the Century, by Stephen Galloway, is published by Sphere. It will be released on March 10th and will cost £25.
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https://www.mirror.co.uk/3am/celebrity-news/vivien-leigh-laurence-olivier-were-26390884 Vivien Leigh and Laurence Olivier 'torn apart by infidelity and mental illness'