top of page
Vintage English
It is foretold! The torrential flow of inexorable destiny!

Actress - Vivien Leigh

Vivien Leigh was an English actress. She is most famous for her role as Scarlett O’ Hara in Gone with the Wind. Her other famous role is as Blanche DuBois in A Streetcar Named Desire. For both these roles, she received Academy Awards.

She was born on the 5th of November 1913 in Darjeeling, West Bengal, India, to Ernest Harley and Gertrude Robinson Yackje. Ernest Harley was a British officer in the Indian Cavalry.

Her birth in an Indian town could have affected her personality. In the Indian language environment, as the offspring of a British officer an undercurrent of superiority complex could get embedded. At the same time, being a child could bring in a complexity of inferiority, which is naturally encoded in most Indian languages. It is a complicated scenario, but could be a pointer to her later life affliction of mood shifting, which was given the nomenclature of bipolar disorder by frivolous modern psychiatry. She shifted to England at the age of six and a half, where naturally the social communication environment would be entirely different. It would be stupid to say that this grave change in communication environment has no affect on human psyche. Actually, the codes of these issues remain beyond the limits of human mind. There is also the fact that she did her education in Europe and returned to England 1931. A combination of these encodings in her secondary codes could have moulded her “incredible wildness”.

Her mother gave her an early introduction to literature, which included fairy tales (Hans Christian Andersen), and such authors as Lewis Carroll, and Rudyard Kipling. This also included Greek mythology and Indian folklore.

Apart from being a great film actress, she was also a great stage performer. She had acted in a great variety of roles including that of characters of Shakespeare and George Bernard Shaw. She has been described as extremely beautiful, which however did give concern to her. For, this feature sometimes competed with her acting talent, for appreciation.

In December 1932, she married Herbert Leigh Holman. However, she went for acting in a small role in a film, which led to her acting career. One thing led to another. Her role in the play The Mask of Virtue (1935) could have marked a definite change in her acting career. She received very good reviews. It was mentioned that she could affect change of moods in her facial expressions with lightening speed.

She was seen by Laurence Olivier when she was acting in this play. He congratulated her; which more or less began a relationship of intimacy between them. Laurence Olivier was then a budding actor. They acted as lovers in the film Fire over England (1937). This led to an affair between them, which culminated in their living together and later marriage on 30 August 1940.

It was at this time that she asked her agent to suggest her name for the part of Scarlett O’ Hara in Gone with the Wind in its forth-coming production. Actually, there was a lengthy search going for a befitting person to act in this role. Many actresses including Barbara Stanwyck, Bette Davis, Carole Lombard, Frances Dee, Greer Garson, Ida Lupino, Irene Dunne, Jean Arthur, Joan Bennett, Joan Crawford, Joan Fontaine, Katharine Hepburn, Lana Turner, Loretta Young, Lucille Ball, Margaret Sullavan, Merle Oberon, Miriam Hopkins, Norma Shearer, Olivia de Havilland, Paulette Goddard, Susan Hayward and Tallulah Bankhead had been considered for the role.

David Selznick, the producer of the movie, saw her in Fire over England and A Yank at Oxford. He was impressed. Later, when Viven Leigh did a screen test for Selznick, he wrote to his wife, ‘She’s the Scarlett dark horse and looks damn good. Not for anyone’s ear but your own: it’s narrowed down to Paulette Goddard, Jean Arthur, Joan Bennett and Vivien Leigh’.

The director of the film George Cukor also discerned the “incredible wildness” in Vivien Leigh. However, George Cukor was replaced by Victor Fleming, as the director. It may be mentioned in passing that Vivien had a friendly relation with Cukor, but was on antagonistic relationship with Fleming.

The filming was a difficult period for Vivien. She had to work heavily all round the week. Olivier was not with her, and she missed him. Moreover, she was quarrelling incessantly with Leslie Howard, who was acting as Ashley Wilkes. It may be remembered that in the story, Scarlett is emotionally attached to Ashley. Beyond all that, was her distaste for Fleming, the film director.

However, she had a wonderful relationship with Olivia de Havilland, who acted as Melanie Hamilton (Ashley’s wife) in the movie. Later Havilland had this to say about those days: “Vivien was impeccably professional, impeccably disciplined on Gone with the Wind. She had two great concerns: doing her best work in an extremely difficult role and being separated from Larry, who was in New York.”

Gone with the Wind won ten Academy Awards. Leigh’s a Best Actress award was one of them. This film brought her international attention and fame. Before this film, her fame had been confined mostly to Britain.

Formal divorce with her first husband and marriage to Olivier took place after this. However, it may be mentioned that her first husband remained a very good friend of hers till her death. However, the new marriage was also in serious trouble by around the next eight years.

It was in 1944 that it was found that she was having tuberculosis in her left lung. Nevertheless, after many weeks of treatment, it was believed that she was fully cured. However, it was this infliction that ultimately killed her in 1967.

In 1947,Olivier was Knighted by the British monarch. Thus as per the convention, she became Lady Olivier. This title was retained by her even after the divorce from him, as Vivien, Lady Olivier.

During a formal tour of Australia and New Zealand, there was very open fight between the spouses. In one incident, in Christchurch, Leigh refused to go onstage. Olivier slapped her on her face. She slapped him back, but went onstage. It was a mentally exhausting tour. Later Olivier did comment that he ‘lost Vivien’ in Australia.

Her next significant work included the role of Blanche DuBois in stage production of A Streetcar Named Desire. Kenneth Tynan, the critic did not appreciate her acting, saying that British actors were “too well-bred to emote effectively on stage”.

She was soon involved in the film version of this play. The director of the film Elia Kazan did not initially see her as a good actor. His initial impression of her was that ‘she had a small talent’, however as the filming progressed he was ‘full of admiration’ for ‘the greatest determination to excel of any actress I’ve known’. However, Leigh would say much later that playing Blanche DuBois “tipped me over into madness.”

Throughout the years, there was lingering moments of outburst against her husband, and other members of her workgroup. Even though, modern psychiatrists may simply find the easy way of confining the issue to some nonsense terminology, there may be some real irritants that were recurrently spurring the outbursts. She was an extremely talented person, having done the stage performance of many English classical works. This is not a small issue, for the training for this level of work requires immense patience, deep profundity in language, and an overall talent and possibly a whisper of genius. Moreover, there is the distant experience of having lived in India as a child in a very different social communication atmosphere. All these may have a gnawing effect, when the persons all around are unintelligent to any of these things. Moreover, the powerful words of the mediocre or the uninformed! It can really provoke; but then, the reactions may come at the wrong places and at the wrong person!!

Beyond all this is the issue of very fleeting understandings about the foundation on which marriage exists. Her first marriage, despite the husband being a very helpful person, went into disarray, due to what can be described as infidelity and yielding to shallow passions.

By 1958, Leigh started an affair with actor Jack Merivale. He knew about Leigh’s medical condition, which included both her tuberculosis as well as the propensity for mentally tormenting behaviour. Late Olivier did write:

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.’

It seems that she could bring her theatrical effect of change of moods in her facial expressions with lightening speed in her real life also.

Somewhere in the inner codes of life, there was some lingering negativity. What could be the root cause of it, it is difficult to say, but even her infidelity to her first husband would have added a numerical value to it; albeit a negative value.

Her third husband Merivale was a good influence on her psyche. However, it is said that she definitely missed Olivier. Moreover, her first husband Leigh Holman also took time to be with her, to stabilise her shifting mood. She went on a tour of Australia, New Zealand and the South Americas. The tour was successful, however she was at times not happy. Back home she continued her work with the theatre.

One night (7th July 1967), when her husband Merivale came home past midnight, he found her asleep in his bed. When he came to the bedroom after midnight, ((8th July), her body was seen on the ground. It is believed that she had tried to walk to the bathroom. Her lungs were filled with liquid. She had collapsed, dead.

Merivale informed Olivier immediately of this news. Olivier came and stood and prayed for forgiveness for all the evils that had sprung up between us’.

It was her sterling performance as Scarlett in Gone with the wind that brought her to the notice of the world. In the film, Scarlett is a very shrewd person, very opportunistic, and more or less selfish. She uses men, who fall for her charm, and see no other use with them. There is this comment about Leigh’s role in this film in the New York Times (Dec 1939):

‘Miss Leigh’s Scarlett has vindicated the absurd talent quest that indirectly turned her up. She is so perfectly designed for the part by art and nature that any other actress in the role would be inconceivable’.

Book profile



Author: Somerset Maugham

The Story

Folk songs:

On the banks of Allen Water,

On the banks of Clyde

Excerpt: Magnus in The Apple Cart

English Colonial History:

Emancipation of slaves

Scientist: Sir. Isaac Newton

Geo discoverers: Captain James Cook

Film: The bridge on River Kwai

Actress: Vivien Leigh

Battle: Jameson Raid

Incidence: Nelson’s death



Popular songs: Jingle Bells

Place: Rocks of Gibraltar

bottom of page