“Please, please my angel, drop me a line of what the doctor said, and if possible ask him to send me a report,” one day wrote legendary actor Laurence Olivier in a letter to his equally iconic wife, Vivien Leigh, suffering from a recurring episode of tuberculosis. “You are the only person in the world who could make me hideously selfishly love another person more than myself.”
Vivien became a legend by bringing Blown away by the windby Scarlett O’Hara and A tram named Désir‘s Blanche DuBois flamboyantly onscreen, but offscreen she has been plagued by episodes of physical and mental illness. And although they adored her, the men in her life – especially her first husband Leigh Holman, her greatest love, Laurence Olivier, and her last partner, actor John “Jack” Merivale – found themselves helpless. facing his battle with bipolar disorder.
Olivier “compared the situation to reaching out to a drowning person from a life raft and being unable to rescue that person without being pulled down,” Kendra Bean, author of Vivien Leigh: an intimate portrait, exclusively tells Closer every week, on newsstands now. Yet they did what they could to help him until his death at 53 in 1967.
Vivien’s mental health issues may have been genetic, but Alan Strachan, author of Dark Star: A Biography of Vivien Leigh, recount Closer that the actress, born in British-controlled India, suffered from abandonment issues as a child.
“At the age of 6, she was uprooted from her happy childhood in India and thrown into a very cold and cold London convent and left,” he explains.
At 19, while studying theater at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London, Vivien met Holman; they got married and had a daughter, Suzanne. The marriage faltered after she was introduced to Olivier, however. Two accomplished actors, they had “absolute and utter absorption of each other – sexually, mentally,” says Strachan.
Still, Holman remained an important presence. “He helped and supported Vivien for the rest of his life,” says Strachan. “He never stopped loving her and… she trusted him completely.”
Things were more passionate with Olivier. “O my dear little love, I want you so much,” he wrote to her very early. But this fire – while dragging them into a 20-year marriage – ultimately separated them. “His libido was heightened by his manic phase and Olivier couldn’t cope with it,” says Strachan.
The famous couple shocked the world, breaking up in 1953 when Vivien had an affair with her Elephant walk co-starring Peter Finch. But during filming, she suffered a breakdown and was replaced by Elizabeth Taylor. While in hospital in England, Vivien underwent severe treatment, including electroconvulsive therapy, and was “wrapped in damp sheets and placed in a barbiturate-induced coma,” says Bean.
Vivien survived and eventually fell in love with actor Jack Merivale. “He was patient and had the ability to take care of her,” Bean explains, adding that Vivien has been “much calmer in recent years”. Like her previous lovers, Merivale has remained devoted to her talent and beauty. But maybe, like so many of her fans, the men in her life were also drawn to her fragility.
“The fairy godmother gave her all the blessings – beauty, money, charm, talent – but she was bipolar,” Strachan said. Closer. “There was a flaw in perfection that fascinated people. There was a crack in the mirror.
– Lisa Chambers
For more on this story, pick up the latest issue of Closer magazine, on newsstands now.