ANDThat is the man I am going to marry”, Vivien Leigh prophesied when she saw Laurence Olivier on stage in the play Theater Royal. “I was drunk with desire,” Olivier acknowledged after seeing her acting in The mask of virtue. He did not care that both were married, feared God and had been educated on the embers of the Victorian era: passion was stronger than prejudice, tradition or responsibility. They soon became lovers.
It was 1935, and what had begun as a furtive romance was going through all the steps of passion. They ‘lived in sin’, they got married, there were countless third parties, stories of bisexuality, searing jealousy and sex to exhaustion. And, above all, madness: Vivien Leigh’s bipolar disorder became the center of a relationship capable of the best, but also the worst.
This is revealed by Stephen Galloway, editor of hollywoodreporterin his recent book, Truly madly. Vivien Leigh, Laurence Olivier and the romance of the century (Grand Central Publisher). It is true that there are already numerous biographies of both –one of them, even, written by Tarquin Olivier, Laurence’s eldest son–, as well as a moving autobiography, Confessions, in which the actor strips naked and whips himself in equal parts.
But Galloway brings something else: of course he delves into gossip and echoes the lust that flew over the couple’s multiple beds; but his compassionate gaze encourages us to skirt the abysses of mental illness and find answers in the traumas of both of their pasts.
Thus, the author takes us to the childhood of the two protagonists. He shows us Larry devastated by the early loss of a loving, devoted and unconditional mother, but also indelibly scarred by the biblical rigidity of his father, a dour parson who would instill in him the idea of guilt and should.
As for Vivian – she had not yet changed her name to Vivien – the only child of a wealthy couple who made their fortune in colonial India, she was sent from Calcutta to England to refine herself and not acquire her own chichi accent. of those who grew up in Asia. And so she spent eight years of her childhood interned in a convent, picking up manners and ending up “hungry for a love no nun could give her.”
Each one with their emotional burdens, they approached love as they could. Larry, Galloway tells us, lived marked by the fear of sin, drowned between sexual conflicts and repression. He met Jill Osmond, also an actress, whom he would marry in 1930, “desperate to make love to a woman.” After their wedding night, he is said to have mistakenly shaved off half a mustache, “in a gesture that would delight Freud.”
For her part, Vivian left the convent eager to love and found in Herbert Leigh Holman, a good man educated in Oxford and Cambridge, a stability that would become especially necessary when her family lost everything they owned in the crisis of 1929. Between regattas, dances and flowers, Vivian, already enrolled in the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, let herself be conquered. They were married in 1932, “forming the kind of couple that Dickens would have adored.”
Laurence Olivier lived drowned between sexual conflicts and repression. He confessed that he married for the first time “desperate to make love to a woman”
There we have them. Both of them married, both focused on their acting vocation, both of them bored with domestic life. «She realized right away that her thing was neither family nor home. She was an actress with new goals, new dreams and a new identity». Vivian became Vivien and, after the success of the mask of virtue, he wrote in his diary: “The miracle had happened. I had arrived”.
Larry also kept a diary. And in it you could see the progress of her passion: she spoke first of Vivien Leigh, then of Vivien, then of Viv, and finally of Vivling, as Holman, her husband, called her. He wasn’t just stealing from his wife; also his language.
romance and guilt
The shooting of fire over england (1936), a propaganda film, opened the spigot. Despite their respective marriages, the romance begins. “They made love all the time. Every day, two, three times,” says Galloway. And, in his memoir, Larry writes: “I don’t think I’ve lived with such intensity since. I don’t remember sleeping, just the wonderful times we were together.”
But it wasn’t all happiness: there were the teachings of Larry’s parson father, and Vivien’s nunnery years, to remind them that they were sinning. Eager to be together, they forced a friendship between the two couples that would allow them to spend more and more time with each other. Meanwhile, Holman – Vivien’s husband – did not suspect anything and continued to write agonizing love letters every time they parted; and Jill, Larry’s wife, was aware of the short circuit, but she hoped that this relationship would not go further.
“It was two years of furtive life and lies,” Larry wrote in confessions, and recalled that time feeling like “an adulterous worm sleeping in another man’s sheets.” But even so, the force that gravitated around them was drawing them more and more. And they decided to take the step of informing their respective spouses that they had decided to separate, a decision that they were unable to accept.
They couldn’t stand being apart during filming. He wrote her 200 letters, she demanded a vacation to spend a few days of passionate sex with him
“Stay with him if you want, but don’t take my husband away from me,” Jill said to Vivien.
“How did you say Larry liked eggs?” Vivienne replied.
“That’s how Jill knew the battle was lost,” writes Galloway, who also refers
–citing the diaries, the memoirs and the statements of those who knew them well– a new stage of wear and tear: the struggle between conventions, religion, tradition, responsibility. Both were leaving their families at a time, 1937, when very few couples divorced. “It was a nightmare period for us and torture for others.”
At the height of success
Two great events marked the following years: the films wuthering heights (1938) and gone With the Wind (1939). Both shot in the United States and with agents and producers fighting to prevent puritanical American society from finding out that they were adulterers. The separations during the filming exacerbated the passion: Larry wrote him more than 200 letters, and Vivien demanded a vacation to be able to spend a few days “without stopping making love” (to put it more decorously than as she collects it in her diaries). .
The success of both films made them world-famous stars and even more so when, finally, in 1940 they received a divorce and got married in a ceremony that barely lasted three minutes and whose maid of honor was Katharine Hepburn.
The early days of the marriage were marked by World War II. He signed up as a pilot and was on the African campaign while she cheered on the troops. The relationship was settling down, and an example is the letters that Larry writes to him during those separations. In them, Galloway explains, “there was no longer lust, but mutual affinity, care, more tenderness than sexual hunger, without that implying less love. The Oliviers were getting older.
But Vivien’s mental illness would change everything. She had had outbursts before and she had shown signs of mood swings, but they had been attributed to the whims of a star. In the years following the war, and after suffering a new miscarriage, the episodes that took her from tears to hieraticism, from drunkenness to the most exquisite correction became more and more frequent. Today we know that her great-uncle was hospitalized for psychotic crises and that her diaries show, since puberty, the emotional ups and downs.
Interestingly, Galloway points out, as Vivien gets sick –tuberculosis left her even more vulnerable– and destroying everything she touches, the more Laurence Olivier rises as an actor. There is a dualism between his role as protector of that woman he loved madly and his career, whom he loved even more and that allows him to succeed as the best interpreter of Shakespeare.
In 1949, she tells him that she loves him “like a brother,” but not as a partner. Larry accepts the swallow and they enter a new stage of fraternity –with ‘incestuous’ dalliances, yes–, in which the successive crises continued to undermine them. In those years there was no talk of bipolarity, but of manic-depressive illness, and episodes of mania, in which his libido was even more insatiable and exhausted one lover after another, were followed by episodes of deep depression and regret.
Vivien suffered suicide attempts, hospitalizations, ‘electroshocks’, sleep cures… while triumphing in ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’
There were suicide attempts, internment, electroshocks, exorcisms, sleep cures. In between, Vivien’s talent peeked out, as demonstrated in A Streetcar Named Desire, which would earn her second Oscar (her first was for Gone with the Wind). Also attempts at rapprochement that did not come to fruition. While Vivien began a relationship with Peter Finch, Larry also begins to have new partners: Sarah Miles, Dorothy Tatin and, finally, the actress Joan Plowright, with whom he fell in love and who helped him break up definitively with his wife of more than two decades. . The divorce was signed in 1959. Larry and Joan got married, had three children and ate partridges.
During her last years, Vivien shared her life with Jack Merivale, even though, according to Galloway, she would continue to be emotionally linked to her great love. Actress Juliet Mills recalls that “Jack was very kind and took care of her, but her passion was still for Larry. That never, ever, ever changed.” In 1969, when she was only 53 years old, she Vivien died as a result of that chronic tuberculosis that she came and went. Before her corpse, Larry wept and prayed for all the poison that had been created between them. The actor would survive her 30 years, and her relatives say that, in her last days, he did not stop watching Vivien movies and saying, through tears, “that was love.”
Vivien Leigh was 19 years old when her only child, Suzanne, was born. Her artistic career prevailed over her maternal instinct. The girl lived her early childhood with her grandmother while Vivien succeeded as an actress and lived with Laurence Olivier a crazy love that would end in marriage and with Suzanne in the custody of her father, Leigh Holman. Her biographies speak of a lifelong estrangement, but one that Suzanne never wanted to talk about. Married to Robert Farrington and mother of three children, she was retaking contact with Vivien. In 2015, at the age of 81, Suzanne passed away in London. In silence, just as she lived.
Eddie is an Australian news reporter with over 9 years in the industry and has published on Forbes and tech crunch.