Some people are born with extraordinary star power and are destined for Hollywood. Vivien Leigh was undoubtedly one of those people. Ever since she was a little girl, Leigh was a performer and had big dreams of becoming a starlet. She made a name for herself with her starring role as Scarlet O’Hara in Gone With the Wind, but things weren’t as glamorous behind the scenes.
If there is one word to describe Vivien Leigh, it’s fighter. She fought for movie roles and for the man she loved. But her most difficult battle of all was the one with her own troubled mind. With mental health issues, physical health problems, and immense talent, Vivien Leigh lived an interesting life, to say the least. Unfortunately, that doesn’t mean she lived a happy life.
Here is the tragic life and early death of Old Hollywood starlet Vivien Leigh.
Not a Southern Girl
Vivien Mary Hartley was brought into the world on November 5, 1913, which happened to be Guy Fawkes’s day of that year. Despite being known as the ultimate Southern Belle, in reality, she was born in Darjeeling, India (British India), the only child of her Scottish father, Ernest Richard, and Irish Mother, Gertrude Mary Frances.
But some sources state that her mom may have been Armenian or Indian. Either way, Leigh decided to keep that part of her heritage a secret in order to succeed in Hollywood and achieve stardom.
Vivian Mary Hartley always had something special about her. At the age of three, she recited Little Bo Peep for her mom’s theater group, and they loved every moment of her. Maureen O’Sullivan (who eventually played Jane in the Tarzan movies alongside Johnny Weissmuller) was childhood friends with Leigh and had this to say:
“Vivien always wanted to be an actress. She was single-minded. She was the only girl in school to take ballet, for instance. She took it alone, the only one. I thought it was brave of her.” Some people are just born to be on stage.
Destined for Greatness
When the talented Leigh was just six years old, her parents shipped her off to an English boarding school. She wasn’t able to see her family for two whole years, which is difficult for anyone, let alone a first-grader.
Since she didn’t have her parents around, she shared her Hollywood dreams and ambitions with her friends at school. She told everyone she would be “a great actress someday.” She turned out to be right, but she didn’t realize that Hollywood had a dark side that would take an awful toll on her.
She Was a Teen Mom
In the 1930s, Leigh fell head over heels in love with Herbert Leigh Holman, a lawyer who was 13 years her senior. Leigh had been studying at the prestigious Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts but dropped out to be with her man. On December 30, 1932, the couple tied the knot, but the honeymoon phase was short-lived.
The pair had a few good years together, but their significant age gap would eventually tear them apart. Ten months after the couple exchanged vows, Leigh had their daughter Suzanne. She was thrilled to be a mother despite being 19 at the time.
Making Her Dreams Come True
Leigh was incredibly dedicated and ambitious. She knew she was going to be a star and did anything she possibly could to book a role. When she landed the part of an uncredited extra in the movie Things Are Looking Up, she did everything in her power to be in the movie.
When she was offered the chance, Leigh was vacationing on a romantic cruise with her husband. But when the call came, she left the ship immediately to take the gig, which involved her saying one single line.
Finding Her Stage Name
When Leigh was starting out in the industry, her agent told her that the name “Vivian Holam” simply wouldn’t cut it. After rejecting various cringe-worthy stage names, including “April Morn,” the aspiring actress took her husband’s middle name as her last name.
She also changed her actual name “Vivian,” which was a unisex name back then, to the more vivacious “Vivien.” With a new stage name, she was ready to claw her way to stardom. It was time for her to conquer Hollywood and make her dreams come true.
What was Vivien Leigh’s breakthrough Role?
Leigh finally landed her big break in 1935. The 22-year-old booked the role of a sex worker named Henriette in the scandalous play The Mask of Virtue. Though controversial, her brilliant performances received a standing ovation and critical acclaim, launching Leigh’s remarkable ascent to the top of Hollywood.
Her hard work was paying off. She was doing what she loved. Her talent was being acknowledged, and her big Hollywood dreams were finally starting to come true. But that doesn’t mean things were perfect for the rising starlet. Though her career was taking off, Leigh’s personal life was crumbling.
Meeting a Hunky Actor
When she was in The Mask of Virtue, the actress attended a play featuring the most exciting new actor in England: Laurence Olivier. What she didn’t know at the time was that her little outing to the theater would ultimately change her life.
As Leigh watched Olivier on stage, she turned to her friend and said, “That’s the man I’m going to marry…” Obviously, she was completely glazed over the fact that she was already married to Holman, and Olivier was already married to Jill Esmond.
Vivien Leigh certainly had guts. After Laurence Olivier bowed to the loving audience, sneaky Vivien paid a little visit to his dressing room. The actress introduced herself and started a conversation with the up-and-coming performer. She gave him a soft kiss on the neck as she left the room. Obviously, he was immediately hooked.
After The Mask of Virtue, Leigh signed a huge deal with a producer and made a big-budget movie called Fire Over England. The movie was a major revolution in Leigh’s career, but she didn’t take on the movie for its script. It was her co-star, who just so happened to be Laurence Olivier. Predictably, the two actors started a passionate affair.
So, Olivier and Leigh started off as co-workers, then developed a friendship, and then turned into lovers. At face value, the actors definitely shouldn’t have been together. They were both married with little kids, but love (or lust) makes you do crazy things.
Less than a year and a half after he met Vivien Leigh, Olivier left his wife and little boy. Since neither of their spouses would give them a divorce, the couple kept their forbidden romance a secret. It sounds like Romeo & Juliet, which, spoiler alert, doesn’t have a happy ending.
Scandalous Love Letters
Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh’s on-screen passion continued to burn off-screen. This was a romantic time when people sent each other letters instead of text messages. In some surviving letters between the couple, Olivier described their fiery romance, calling the actress “very naughty.”
He wrote that he woke up in the morning “absolutely raging with desire for you, my love.” In a particularly kinky note, he even confessed that he wore Leigh’s undergarments. But like all good things, it would soon come to an end.
Her First Breakdown
When 1937 rolled around, Vivien Leigh had the world at her feet. With a blossoming career and a handsome new man, it seemed like she was on top of the world – until a mental disorder showed its ugly head. While Leigh was playing Ophelia on stage in Hamlet, she had a scary bipolar episode.
Laurence Olivier casually walked into her dressing room, and the actress started screaming at him out of nowhere. The situation rattled Olivier and freaked him out. He later described it like a switch flipped. She would yell at him and then stop as if nothing happened. Unfortunately, the illness only got worse.
Gets What She Wants
When she decided to embark on a Hollywood career, she refused to be shortchanged. So, when Olivier landed the starring role of Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights, Leigh was determined to play his love interest, Cathy. But like all starlets, she couldn’t get every part she wanted.
The director had his sights on Merle Oberon to play the leading lady. Since he didn’t give her the part she wanted, he offered the disappointed actress a supporting role instead. Leigh’s response was, “I’ll play Cathy, or I’ll play nothing.” It was a gutsy move.
She Fought for Scarlett
Later, in 1937, the actress broke her ankle and was stuck in bed recovering. To pass the time, Leigh read Margaret Mitchell’s epic romance Gone With the Wind. As soon as she found out that David O. Selznick planned on making a movie adaptation of the novel, Leigh wanted nothing more than to star in the film.
She told her agent to make sure she would get the chance to audition. “I’ve cast myself as Scarlett O’Hara,” she expressed to a journalist – and she would move heaven and earth if she needed to. It was seriously her dream role.
No Means Yes
There was no doubt in Selznick’s mind that Leigh was incredibly talented, but he apparently thought she was “too British” to play Scarlett. After letting her down gently, he assumed he would never hear from the actress again, but boy, was he wrong.
Leigh wasn’t taking no for an answer. She continued to pursue the role with, as Olivier said, “demonic determination.” That’s when she decided to move to L.A. for two reasons: Her main squeeze was there, and she wanted to convince Selznick that she would make the perfect Scarlett.
Landing the Iconic Role
As it turned out, Selznick’s brother Myron was Olivier’s agent. He personally brought the actress to his little brother David and apparently said, “Hey, genius, meet your Scarlett O’Hara.” Connections are great, especially in Hollywood, but that doesn’t mean she didn’t “wow” the director. He was impressed by her “incredibly wild” screen test, and she finally landed the role of her dreams.
When Vivien Leigh got the part, she beat out establish movie stars, like Tallulah Bankhead, Bette Davis, Greta Garbo, Joan Crawford, and Katherine Hepburn. That’s beside the fact that more than 1,400 other hopeful women auditioned at national casting calls! Leigh was over the moon, but her experience on set changed her perspective.
Behind the Scenes
Shooting Gone With The Wind was a complete nightmare. Production dragged on for months, and Leigh was regularly working exhausting 16-hour days. The overwhelmed starlet was so stressed that she smoked four packs of cigarettes a day. When she was at her wit’s end, the poor actress overdosed on sleeping pills. But that wasn’t even the worst of it.
Over the course of filming, the studio had to hire three separate directors to help salvage the cursed project. The second director, Victor Fleming (who at the time was also directing The Wizard of Oz), was so miserable that he contemplated driving his car off a cliff.
Humiliating the Actress
It doesn’t come as a surprise that the cast was also miserable. Both Vivien Leigh and Clark Gable were convinced that Gone With the Wind was going to be a huge failure. Then, David O. Selznick came around to humiliate the actress, yet again.
The director knew Leigh was the perfect actress to play Scarlett, but there was one problem… well, technically two: her breasts. Selznick felt that they weren’t big enough, and he demanded that Vivien pad her bras to enhance her assets. Ultimately, Leigh needed to tape her breasts together to achieve the look her director desired. Production dubbed it “the breastwork situation.”
Pay Wage Gap
Throughout the long days and humiliating demands, Leigh got another slap in the face: She made about a fifth of her co-star Clark Gable’s paycheck despite working twice as long as him. Ouch. The women’s wage gap has always been a major problem.
With the brutal production of Gone With the Wind, Leigh was certainly relieved that the blood, sweat, and tears paid off. In addition to being the highest-grossing flick of all time, it also brought Leigh her greatest Hollywood achievement. The 26-year-old actress won the Academy Award for Best Actress for her performance as Scarlett. Sadly, her festive night would take a dark turn.
Her Man Was Jealous
For any actress, winning an Oscar is a huge deal, so it only makes sense that Olivier would be a tad jealous of his girlfriend’s achievement. But, according to Olivier’s son Tarquin, his dad was more than just angry. Apparently, when the couple was on their way home, Olivier grabbed Leigh’s Oscar and could barely stop himself from hitting her in the head with it.
In the actor’s own words, “I was insane with jealously.” Clearly. But other than that scary ride home, 1940 was a good year for the pair.
Sacrificing Everything for Love
1940 was a happy time for Leigh and Olivier because it was the year that Olivier’s wife and Leigh’s husband finally agreed to divorce their respective spouses. When August of that year rolled around, Leigh and Oliver were officially a couple. Finally!
Although they didn’t need to hide their relationship anymore, they had a secret wedding. Oh, and Katharine Hepburn was the matron of honor. But their happy day wasn’t ripped out of a fairy tale. In fact, their marriage came at a tragically high cost. As part of their divorce agreements, Olivier and Leigh had to give up primary custody of their children.
A Failed Passion Project
Like many Hollywood power couples, Olivier and Leigh wanted to work on something together. Unfortunately, their first joint venture was a total bust. The newlyweds invested $10,000 into a stage play where Olivier would portray Romeo, while Leigh would play Juliet.
As it turned out, the production was a complete failure, and they lost a lot of money. After the project didn’t work out, their once-unbreakable relationship started to strain. To make matters worse, Leigh’s mental issues weren’t getting any better, and she was dealing with another ruthless bout with her bipolar disorder.
Eyes of a Stranger
She had had manic episodes before, but in 1940 the actress’s bipolar disorder took a terrifying turn, not only for Leigh but for her loved ones watching her breakdowns. Her agent explained that she would get so angry, and her voice would sound “hard, rasping, contemptuous.”
But the worst part were her eyes: They would turn cold or, as her agent described it, “eyes of a stranger.” After these kinds of fits, Leigh would blackout. She would have no recollection of her actions and feel extremely scared, embarrassed, and sorry.
She Was Very Sick
With everything going on, especially with her mental health, Leigh didn’t need any more suffering. Unfortunately, life had other plans. While volunteering for the Allied troops in North Africa in 1943, Leigh got very sick. But it wasn’t until 1944 that she was finally diagnosed with a horrific case of tuberculosis.
She was in the hospital for quite some time, and doctors really thought that she wouldn’t make it. The actress was finally released from the hospital, but years later, the doctors realized that they had made a fatal mistake.
Getting Back Into the Spotlight
After getting released from the hospital and seemingly recovering, Leigh was planning on reviving her movie career. Unfortunately, every movie she starred in was a flop. Leigh couldn’t even get the role she desperately wanted in the Alfred Hitchcock movie Rebecca (which her husband Olivier was cast in). Ouch!
She then made an unwise decision when she turned down the lead role in Pride and Prejudice. It was like she couldn’t get her once-thriving career back on track. Needless to say, she was disappointed. But things would only get worse for the distraught actress.
A Terrible Loss
While he was working on one of her unsuccessful movies, Leigh dealt with something much worse than a commercial failure. In 1945, while shooting Caesar & Cleopatra, Leigh was required to run across a freshly polished floor. As she was performing that scene, she fell… while pregnant.
The accident led to a devastating miscarriage, which caused the actress extreme depression. She would sob regularly and fall to the floor in grief and sadness. Film historians who have studied her believe that this was the first irreparable damage to Leigh’s psyche.
There Was More to Her
Like everyone who suffers from a mental illness, Leigh’s life wasn’t defined by her troubled mind. She was also a remarkable woman. In addition to her talent and star power, the actress could speak at least three languages, loved Siamese cats, and had a very good photographic memory.
Reportedly, the actress could memorize all her lines after reading a play just one time. On her bad days, she would have to read the script twice. This is a great quality for any person to have, but especially for an actress.
A Photographic Memory
But that wasn’t the extent of her good memory. When Leigh was just a little girl, her mom played a game of Rudyard Kipling’s book Kim to her develop her memory. The game went like this: Her mom would put a few objects on a tray and let Leigh study them. Then she would remove them and have her daughter recreate the display.
It definitely helped Leigh as an adult because, as we mentioned, she was known to have a near-photographic memory. Wow, I can’t even remember what I had for breakfast.
She Had… Urges
Bipolar disorder is a very serious condition, especially if left untreated. The episodes can come out in more than just screaming and telling. It also made the actress’s libido skyrocket, which caused Leigh to have intense, uncontrollable sexual urges.
This came out in very negative ways. Vivien Leigh would sleep with randos and strangers, from taxi drivers to delivery men, in order to satisfy her desires. Needless to say, this wasn’t helping her marriage. She was cheating on her husband, and it ended just as you would expect.
Trouble in Paradise
By 1948, Leigh and Olivier’s marriage was crumbling and hanging by a thread. During a show in New Zealand, they aired their dirty laundry for everyone to see. Leigh freaked out over losing a shoe and refused to go on stage.
Olivier’s response was to yell at his wife and hit her in frustration. Leigh hit Olivier right back. Shockingly, this whole scenario happened in front of the entire company. In retrospect, Olivier revealed that this was a sure sign that their marriage wouldn’t last.
The Ultimate Betrayal
While Leigh and her husband were touring in Australia, Olivier discovered a hot new talent: the young and charming actor Peter Finch. Olivier was so impressed that he immediately asked Finch to join him on stage. Of course, Finch agreed.
But how did the aspiring actor thank Olivier for giving him his big break? Maybe a drink, some dinner, or a night out in the town? Nope, quite the opposite, actually. Finch slept with his wife, Vivien Leigh. By that point, though, Olivier was so exhausted by Leigh’s mood swings and an uncontrollable sex drive that he was “relieved” that she had found someone else.
1948 was a grueling year from Leigh’s perspective. Unfortunately, her disorder made everyone around her miserable, and her marriage was falling apart. To top it all off, she was suffering from other health issues in well.
The actress was dealing with extreme insomnia and also had difficulties with basic impulse control. During this time, Leigh’s stress and depression got really bad and would manifest in a scary way. The proper British actress would rant, rave, and curse uncontrollably. It was clear that something was going on, but what was it?
An Iconic Role Doomed Her
The tormented artist stereotype didn’t come out of nowhere. While her personal demons were coming out to play, Leigh was playing a role that would ultimately solidify her spot in Hollywood history. The suffering actress was excited at the chance to play in Tennessee Williams’ new tragedy, A Streetcar Named Desire.
She earned amazing reviews for her brilliant performance as Blanche Dubois, but the role took a terrible toll on the actress’s mind. Not many characters are as tragic and desperate as Blanche DuBois. After taking on Blanche’s fractured psyche for more than 300 performances, Leigh confessed that “playing her tipped me into madness.”
Taking Home the Trophy
Since the play was such a success, Hollywood decided to adapt the play for the big screen. Once again, Leigh had to fight for the part. Despite portraying the character beautifully on stage, the director didn’t think she was the right fit for the movie version. Luckily, Leigh convinced him otherwise.
Not only did she prove herself to the director, but to audiences all over the world. She took home her second Academy Award for her breathtaking performance in A Streetcar Named Desire. Sadly, this would be her last Oscar. The actress went from feeling victorious to feelings of despair in a very short period of time. She used one of her Oscars for a very creative purpose. She transformed it into a doorstop that would hold her bathroom door open.
Even when the actress was suffering from a debilitating mental illness, she still had her charm, and people found her irresistible. When she was filming A Streetcar Named Desire, her co-star Marlon Brando reportedly wanted to have an affair with her.
According to the actor, Leigh had an unbeatable caboose, and the only reason he didn’t go after her was that he was friends with “Larry” Olivier. Brando followed the “bro-code,” but it doesn’t mean other castmates didn’t take their shot with the beautiful actress.
Leigh was set to star in a movie called Elephant Walk in 1953 before she suffered an extreme mental breakdown. It got so bad that Paramount Studios replaced her with Liz Taylor. During Leigh’s short time on set, her insomnia got worse; she became very paranoid and even started hallucinating.
Olivier didn’t join Leigh on set, so naturally, she found attention and comfort in the arms of her co-star, her ex-fling Peter Finch. After being fired from the movie, Leigh got on a plane headed back to Los Angeles. While in the air, the actress was so distressed that, apparently, she tried jumping out of the plane to end her life.
She Was Institutionalized
At this point, it was evident that Leigh was losing her mind. She would spend hours yelling and screaming in her dressing room until she was eventually sedated and sent back to England. Once she arrived, her husband felt there was only one option left. He sent Leigh to an insane asylum for three months, where she endured various painful sessions of electroshock therapy.
Leigh’s issues should have been kept private. But as we know, it’s tough to keep secrets when you’re famous. People are constantly watching you, trying to dig up dirt. After leaving the asylum, she was featured on stage in England. She captivated audiences, but it wasn’t for her acting talents. They whispered about seeing the burn marks that she had received from the electroshock paddles.
Her Marriage Was Toxic
By this point, Leigh and Olivier’s relationship had gone through the wringer, and, honestly, it was surprising that they were still together. They managed to get over Leigh’s affair with Finch, but it was clear that their love story was coming to an end. Audience members could hear the toxic couple taunting each other cruelly during their performances.
Leigh made things worse off stage by fixating on negative reviews. Olivier was accused of not performing up to par so that he wouldn’t outshine his less-talented wife. He tried convincing his wife that none of it was true, but the damage was already done.
Another Terrible Loss
In 1956, the 44-year-old actress miraculously got pregnant with Olivier. The unlikely mother hoped that the baby would save their marriage and give her and Olivier a fresh start. But fate had other plans in store. Leigh lost her baby, and like the last time she lost a baby, she fell into a depressive spiral.
Losing her baby while playing another tragic Shakespearean role wasn’t a good combination for Vivien Leigh. While touring Europe for a Titus Andronicus production, Leigh had another breakdown. This time, she stripped naked in a public park. Later on, she flew into a rage and beat her husband with a wet towel, causing him to throw her across the room.
Too Much to Handle
After almost 20 years with the starlet, her last breakdown was too much for Olivier to handle. He left his wife and settled down with a different actress: Joan Plowright. However, Olivier looked back, saying that he would “never love anybody as much as Vivien.” Unfortunately, he couldn’t stay with her because of her insane mood swings. With that, their relationship was over.
While Olivier was getting to know Joan Plowright, Leigh found solace in the arms of actor Jack Merivale. He was well aware of her mental state and physical health and promised Olivier he would take good care of the actress. With Leigh in safe hands, the couple finally divorced in 1960.
Her Post Divorce Breakdown
After Leigh and Olivier split up, Olivier tried to stay on good terms with his ex-wife. He wrote a letter to Vivien thanking her for dealing with their break up “nobly and bravely and beautifully” even though it was heartbreaking and must have been “hell” for her. Olivier was right. Around this time, the devastated actress tried taking her own life.
After her divorce, Leigh’s behavior became even more bizarre than usual. She rented a car and was so upset about its color that she demanded it be repainted. She also insisted on bringing her Picasso and Renoir paintings everywhere she went. She thought a creative outlet would help her, so she signed up to act in a play. Unfortunately, she was wrong.
And She Still Won a Tony
Leigh starred in a stage musical called Tovarich in 1963. According to the actress, it was a disaster. She had another scary breakdown that caused her to blank out on her lines and sing songs three times faster than she was supposed to. It even got to the point where she assaulted some of her co-stars on stage in front of an entire audience.
She was obviously headed down a dangerous path as her disorder started to worsen. Her behavior was so outrageous and uncontrollable that she needed to be restrained and sedated. Shockingly, even with all of that going on, Leigh earned a Tony for her performance.
She Was Getting Violent
Although she battled her bipolar disorder for years, in 1965, while filming Ship of Fools, one episode ended in a horrific twist. During an assault scene, Leigh hit actor Lee Marvin with a high heel so hard that she literally left a scar on his face. Things were getting out of hand.
Since she was clearly a hazard to have on set, Ship of Fools would be Vivien Leigh’s final movie appearance. She didn’t have much time left, and, sadly, the little time she did have left would be incredibly heartbreaking.
During the summer of 1967, Leigh’s tuberculosis came back, and it was terrible. She was required to stay in bed to recover from the disease. The sick actress got up to go use the bathroom. Tragically, she collapsed on her way. By the time her boyfriend Jack Merivale found her, Leigh had already taken her last breath. She passed away in London on July 8, 1967.
Leigh and Olivier had been broken up for seven years at this point. Still, the acclaimed actor went to see his ex-wife for the very last time. He stayed with her body until the authorities removed it. Then, he helped Merivale plan Leigh’s funeral and arranged for her body to be cremated. Her ashes were spread near East Sussex, her beloved home.
Rest in Peace, Superstar
When news broke about Leigh’s death, the theaters in London paid her a heartbreaking tribute. Each and every one of them turned their lights out for an hour to honor Vivien Leigh’s memory. But the most touching tribute came from the actress’s greatest love, Laurence Olivier.
In the weeks leading up to Olivier’s death, he reportedly watched one of Leigh’s movies. He started crying and said, “This was love.” Despite not being able to make their marriage work, Leigh felt the same way about Olivier. She once said: “I would rather have lived a short life with Larry [Olivier] than face a long one without him.”