It was positively scandalous when actors Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh got together. Both of them were already married when they fell for each other, and after they hooked up their tryst eventually became public knowledge. But the world didn’t know their most intimate thoughts on the affair until many years later, when letters came to light.
Leigh and Olivier had a deeply passionate relationship – their recently recovered letters attest to that. But it was also a difficult one. Leigh struggled with mental illness at a time when it was barely understood, let alone properly medicated. And their marriage, when it finally happened, was full of ups and downs.
As fans of either legendary actor no doubt know, the marriage didn’t last. But the love between them, it seems, actually did. Right up until Leigh’s death Olivier sent her loving messages. Their story was one worthy of a Hollywood movie itself, and the letters documenting their relationship only add to it.
At the time Leigh met Olivier, she was married to a man called Herbert Leigh Holman. The two were wrong for each other in virtually every way, even though they had a child together in 1933. Holman was 13 years older than Leigh and, most crucially of all, he disapproved of her wish to pursue acting.
But Leigh was determined to make it as an actress anyway. She appeared as an extra in the movie Things Are Looking Up, uncredited. Then she took to the stage. In 1935 she appeared in the play The Mask of Virtue, and that proved to be her breakout performance. Newspapers raved about her talent.
Among the audience members who came to admire Leigh in the play was Olivier, an actor with success already under his belt. He came backstage to personally praise her performance, and that was the beginning of it all. According to Michelangelo Capua’s biography of Leigh, the young actress almost immediately fell for Olivier.
But at the time Olivier was married, albeit unhappily, to actress Jill Esmond. They also had a child together, their son Tarquin. They may not however have actually lived as husband and wife. According to people who knew her, Esmond was more interested in women than men and both she and Olivier had affairs.
Olivier’s most infamous affair, of course, was with Leigh. “I couldn’t help myself with Vivien. No man could,” the actor was quoted as saying in Michael Munn’s 2007 biography Lord Larry: A Personal Portrait of Laurence Olivier. “I hated myself for cheating on Jill, but then I had cheated before, but this was something different. This wasn’t just out of lust. This was love that I really didn’t ask for but was drawn into.”
Throughout the 1937-1939 period Olivier and Leigh lived together, but kept their relationship very much under wraps. Neither Holman or Esmond would allow their respective partners to officially divorce them. During this time Leigh was suffering more and more from mental illness, but her career was going well, as was Olivier’s.
In 1939, Leigh performed the role that would come to define her whole career, that of Scarlett O’Hara in Gone With the Wind. But she found filming the movie difficult. Her mental illness made it hard for her to connect with her co-stars. And she doubted the film would be a success, as later revealed in her letters to Olivier.
Of course, Gone With the Wind actually transpired to be one of the most successful films of all time. It also catapulted Leigh to more fame, as the following year she picked up a Best Actress Academy Award for her performance. And that same year, she and Olivier finally got the divorces they needed and could marry.
Leigh and Olivier tied the knot in California on August 31, 1940. But although the union was perfectly legitimate, people weren’t impressed with the way the relationship had started. The couple were the subject of scorn. In a 1982 interview with Time magazine, Olivier recalled that he and Leigh received “awful letters from the public.”
Leigh and Olivier performed a play together in 1940, a production of Romeo and Juliet. But, partly because of the scandal, it was a massive flop. The two actors weren’t deterred, however. They continued to work as a duo in movies such as 1941’s That Hamilton Woman. But before long health problems would overtake Leigh.
In addition to her mental health problems, in 1944 Leigh came down with tuberculosis, a serious condition. She was hospitalized for weeks while she recovered. And unhappily, even worse fortune was yet to come. In 1945, while pregnant with her and Olivier’s child, she suffered a miscarriage, possibly sparked by an on-set tumble.
The tragic event made both Leigh’s mental and physical health worse. She struggled with bipolar disorder while still fighting the tuberculosis. She attempted to self-medicate with alcohol, and even tried electroshock therapy. It was a barely refined treatment during the 1940s and it left Leigh’s forehead scarred.
Needless to say, Leigh’s career suffered from all this. Meanwhile, however, her husband was achieving more and more success. In 1947, he was made a knight at Buckingham Palace, with Leigh becoming Lady Olivier. At the time the actor was working as both director and star of what would prove to be a well-received movie version of Hamlet upon its release the following year.
Even though they had become a Lord and Lady, the marriage of Olivier and Leigh was deteriorating by the end of the 1940s. While touring New Zealand in 1948, the pair quarreled before they were meant to go on stage. Olivier slapped Leigh, and she struck him back. It was the beginning of the end.
Leigh had more success in the acting world after that, most notably by portraying Blanche DuBois in both the play and the film version of A Streetcar Named Desire. But her bipolar disorder was getting worse and she was having affairs. The couple did their best to remain together, but it became more and more difficult.
In 1956 Leigh had another miscarriage, and fell into a serious depression. She would often take out her grief on her husband. Both Leigh and Olivier began seeing other people, considering that the marriage was more or less over. Leigh began a relationship with Jack Merivale, and Olivier with Joan Plowright.
Eventually, in 1960, Olivier sought a divorce. The actor told Leigh the news via telegram, which only added to her distress. As soon as the legal process was complete, Olivier married his girlfriend Plowright. And yet, perhaps surprisingly, Olivier and Leigh remained friends and sent letters to each other even after the split.
The lifetime of letters which Olivier sent to her were kept by Leigh. They found their way to the Victoria and Albert Museum (also known as the V&A), and in 2015 they were released to the general public. There were more than 200 of them, and they provide an intimate look into the passionate but doomed relationship between the two actors.
The V&A received the collection from Leigh’s grandchildren. “It really explores the life of one of Great Britain’s most celebrated performers,” performance curator Keith Lodwick told the BBC in 2013. “The archive has never been publicly available before so we’re discovering nuggets of information about Vivien Leigh that haven’t been documented before and have given a fresh insight to her life.”
Lodwick also spoke to The Guardian newspaper that year. “We want to rescue Vivien Leigh from the shadow of Laurence Olivier,” he said. “She was undoubtedly one of the most beautiful women of the 20th century, and in some ways that was her handicap. I think this archive will rewrite the biographies.”
Some of the letters between Leigh and Olivier are rather steamy ones. “I woke up absolutely raging with desire for you my love … Oh dear God how I did want you,” Olivier wrote in a letter thought to have been from around 1938-1939. “Perhaps you were stroking your darling self. Oh dear sweet, I haven’t done anything. I’ve often thought of it.”
That particular love letter continues, “But it isn’t that I want to satisfy myself so much because I wouldn’t do that without you, so I’m not going to if I can help it. I know it won’t be right or do any good. “If we loved each other only with our bodies I suppose it would be alright. I love you with much more than that. I love you with, oh everything somehow, with a special kind of soul.”
Olivier had a number of pet names for Leigh, including “jewelkin” and “Woolley Lambkin.” He would sometimes send sketches to her to accompany his romantic messages. “You are in my thoughts and weighing so heavily in my heart all the time. I am only existing until I see you again and only just managing to do that,” read one.
Leigh too had cute names for her lover. “Oh sweet Baba. If we were together I expect this would seem quite exciting, but then that applies to everything in life,” she wrote to Olivier in 1950 while travelling without him. Another letter referred to him as “Larry-boy” and was signed “adoringly, Vivien.”
The letters also detail Leigh’s fear that Gone With the Wind would be a flop. Olivier, it seems, believed that too. While the movie was being filmed he wrote to Leigh, “You have got to justify yourself in the next two or three films (or even two or three years) by proving that the presumable failure of Gone W.T.W. was not your fault.”
Olivier offered Leigh advice in that same letter. “You have got to be damn smart to make a success of your career in pictures which is ESSENTIAL for your self-respect, and our ultimate happiness therefore,” he said. “I am afraid you may become just boring. Never to me … But to yourself and because of that, to others.”
Leigh likewise paid attention to Olivier’s career. “My dearest sweetheart, my love is with you every second and I know tonight will be a great triumph for you, my darling boy,” she wrote to her lover the night before a new play of his was set to open. She signed it, “Your proud and adoring Vivien.”
The letters also reveal some of what the couple really felt about their scandalous affair. “I have come to the conclusion you’re very naughty,” Olivier wrote to Leigh in 1939. “We are a popular scandal, or rather a public one. Therefore it is only reasonably good taste to be as unobtrusive as possible. Can you dance and be gay and carry on like the gay happy hypocrite days?”
Also in the collection are some letters sent to the couple from other famous people who they encountered. None other than British Prime Minister and war leader Winston Churchill once sent them a letter of gratitude after a party. “Thank you for the glass goblet which accompanied the lovely flowers… I so much enjoyed seeing you and your husband the other week, and it was for me a most agreeable evening,” he wrote.
Another letter came to Leigh from writer Tennessee Williams, the man who penned A Streetcar Named Desire. “It is needless to repeat here my truly huge happiness over the picture and particularly your part in it,” he wrote. “It is the Blanche I had always dreamed of and I am grateful to you for bringing it so beautifully to life on the screen.”
While Leigh was in hospital for tuberculosis Olivier worried about her terribly, the collected letters show. “Please, please my angel, send me word of what the doctor said, and if it is possible, ask him to send me a report,” he wrote to her. “You’re the only person in the world who could make hideously selfish me love another more than I do myself.”
But the most heartrending letters are the ones Olivier sent after the couple split up. Although he had instigated the divorce proceedings, the actor was clearly upset nevertheless. “Oh God Vivling,” he wrote in one, “how I do pray that you will find happiness and contentment now[.] I pray constantly that I may take off from you some of your unhappiness onto myself and I must say it seems to work from this end as your unhappiness is a torment to me; and the thought of it a constant nightmare.”
Olivier actually praised Leigh for handling the divorce so well, and apologized to her profusely. “I want to say thank you for understanding it all for my sake,” he wrote to her after the fact. “You did nobly and bravely and beautifully and I am very oh so sorry, very sorry, that it must have been much hell for you.”
Both Leigh and Olivier have passed away now. Leigh died in 1967 of the tuberculosis which had plagued her throughout so much of her life. Olivier was in hospital for prostate cancer at the time, but he hurried to Leigh’s house upon hearing the news. Reportedly, he stayed with her body and prayed over it until it was taken away.
In 1982, a few years before he himself died, Olivier mused on his marriage to Leigh when Time magazine interviewed him. “I can’t tell you why I stayed with her so many years… I didn’t know what else to do, but to stay along and suffer,” he said. “I couldn’t have been in love with her all of the time, possibly.”
But he certainly seemed to have been in love with her for much of his life. Olivier died of renal failure in 1989. He was still married to Plowright at the time, a woman of whom he sang the praises in his Time magazine interview, but Olivier apparently never got over Leigh. A story goes that just before his death he watched one of her old films.
Certainly the love story between Olivier and Leigh was a deeply tragic one. After Olivier remarried, he decided to try and stay away from her. But it seems he couldn’t help but write letters. He sent his last one to Leigh only five weeks before she died. “Sincerest love darling, your Larry,” was his signature.