Category: the oliviers

Inside the Oliviers’ Love Nest

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Inside the Oliviers’ Love Nest

Today’s post comes to us courtesy of Lena Backström, a long-time fan of the Oliviers from Sweden. Over the years I’ve gotten to know Lena fairly well. When this site first launched she kindly contributed scans from her private collection to the Photo Gallery – many of which I had never seen before. It was a real treat. Since then, we’ve met in person a couple of times, catching up over lunch and swapping stories whenever she’s in London for a visit.

Recently, Lena did some extended research into Durham Cottage, the Oliviers’ love nest in Christchurch Street, Chelsea, west London. Laurence Olivier bought the house (the former coach cottage belonging to the larger Durham House next door) as a London base for he and Vivien Leigh. Using quotes from biographies and excerpts and rare photos from vintage Swedish magazines, Lena was able to plot out what the house looked like when the Oliviers lived there from 1937-1956.

Below is Durham Cottage as we’ve never seen it, but there are some lingering questions: where, exactly, was Laurence Olivier’s study? When did they decide to have separate bedrooms (or were there always two)? Can you help us with the answers?

Oliviers Durham Cottage Oliviers Durham Cottage Oliviers Durham Cottage Oliviers Durham Cottage Oliviers Durham Cottage Oliviers Durham Cottage Oliviers Durham Cottage Oliviers Durham Cottage Oliviers Durham Cottage Oliviers Durham Cottage Oliviers Durham Cottage Oliviers Durham Cottage Oliviers Durham Cottage Oliviers Durham Cottage Oliviers Durham Cottage Chelsea

Thanks for the job well done, Lena!

If you’ve got a unique idea for a guest post and would like to contribute to the content at, please get in touch.


Loving Vivien Leigh and Laurence Olivier – A Fan’s Perspective

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Loving Vivien Leigh and Laurence Olivier – A Fan’s Perspective

Today’s post is brought to you by my friend Irina N., a long-time fan of the Oliviers and at one time administrated a fan site called Vivien Leigh: A Lass Unparalleled – sadly no longer online :(. Here she talks about what continues to drive her interest in Vivien and Laurence Olivier.


As with many other fans, my interest in Vivien Leigh and Laurence Olivier started when I first saw Gone With The Wind. I was 12 and had read the book first and was spellbound by the story and the character of Scarlett. I could not wait to see the movie, but I was also hesitant for fear of being disappointed. One night, my mom who had seen and already loved the movie rented the VHS. We started in the evening and watched it all the way through and well into the night! I was certainly not disappointed. No performance, before or since, has made such a huge impression on me as that of Vivien Leigh as Scarlett O’Hara. Of course, I also thought she was the most beautiful actress ever. I really think that had it not been for her performance, GWTW would not have become the phenomenon that it did. I didn’t find either Clark Gable or Leslie Howard or Olivia de Havilland particularly good matches for the descriptions I remembered from the book (even though I really like these actors in other movies). I pictured Rhett a little differently and Ashley, of course, handsomer and younger. Olivia de Havilland seemed too pretty and lively for Melanie.

Scarlett O'Hara

But all of these reservations were completely swept away by the force and authenticity of Vivien Leigh’s Scarlett. She makes the movie. She is the one responsible for its enduring success and the classic it’s become. A young British newcomer, whose talent has carried the most celebrated movie though decades, whose performance in one of the most beloved and coveted roles stands the test of time without ever looking dated or unbelievable for even a second. That’s the definition of a classic performance and that’s what Vivien Leigh’s work is: classic. Her Scarlett alone is an achievement that diminishes heaps of performances by other actors. But it was just an early, albeit huge success in Vivien Leigh’s incredible career of quality rather than quantity.  

Being primarily a British stage actress and having made only 19 films, eight of them after GWTW, Vivien nevertheless won two Oscars and secured a place among the very few true Hollywood legends. That is a pretty impressive success rate. Her Scarlett and Blanche DuBois are often called the greatest performances by any actress ever captured on film. There’s a phrase – “to capture one’s imagination.” This is what Vivien Leigh did to me, first through her work and then through her incredible life, which I learned about as my interest in this great actress developed.

To learn about Vivien is to be transported into London’s theatre life of the 1930s through 1960s and to be widely exposed to the history of theatre and its participants. Of course, one of the major players in British theatre as well as in Vivien Leigh’s personal life was Laurence Olivier. I find it fascinating to read about their professional partnership and especially about their genuine dedication to theatre.  Their personal love story is a separate subject all on its own, in my opinion having more in common with great fictional romances like those in GWTW and Wuthering Heights than with any real-life relationship that I personally ever heard of.  


Perhaps it is inevitable that all too often, Vivien Leigh’s life and achievements are framed in terms of her marriage to Laurence Olivier. There’s no doubt he was a major influence on her growth as an actress. But I’m convinced she would’ve achieved the same great success if he had no part in her life. In her early films, which had nothing to do with Olivier she gives very lively and convincing performances. She played Scarlett when she was only 25 and all credit for that is certainly hers alone. Laurence Olivier himself considered her to be very talented and got very upset when critics couldn’t get past her beauty. Alas, the British stage was often an uphill battle for Vivien Leigh, where she fought against the critics’ prejudices that she was better suited to be a beautiful Hollywood movie star than a serious English actress. I for one prefer to judge her on her merit and not on her looks. And her accomplishments on the stage were stellar if you choose to trust the words of people like Laurence Olivier, John Gielgud, Richard Burton or Orson Welles. Many have said that her Lady Macbeth and Cleopatra were among the finest they’ve ever seen. We are fortunate to have a glimpse of her Sabina, and thus can gauge two of her stage performances – Sabina and Blanche albeit captured in later productions. They’re but a small example of the versatility she displayed throughout her career as she played Shaw, Wilder, Williams, Shakespeare and finally Chekhov.

At the end of her life, despite devastating personal setbacks, frail health and an age when most actresses’ careers do indeed decline, she found enough personal strength and professional expertise to lead Old Vic tours all over the world, act in films and win a Tony in a musical. Surely, beauty alone could not have sustained such a consistent, quality-driven career, made all the more extraordinary by her circumstances. This is what amazes me about Vivien Leigh and why I have such great respect for her – this ability to get up and go about her life and work, with the same unwavering commitment to being an actress, nothing less and nothing more. She never rested on her laurels or took short cuts. It would’ve been very easy for her to settle for a comfy life as a Hollywood superstar. She instead chose to come back to war-time England and get back to her first love, which was the theatre. I believe that decision was hers just as much as it was Olivier’s.


What I think she may have perhaps taken from Olivier, is being a grounded and practical professional. It is revealing to read Olivier’s letter to Tennessee Williams in Terry Coleman’s book, where he sounds more like a detail-oriented engineer than an “inspired artist”. His approach was sensible and crafty, always centering on the audience, not some vague “self-expression”. To me, this just shows how well he knew what he was doing. I saw the Three Sisters recently, which he directed after his National Theatre production, and the whole flow of the movie and of course the acting of the ensemble are outstanding, just as you’d expect from a British theatre company. It is people like Laurence Olivier, with their technique and no-nonsense approach that helped to uphold and secure the reputation of the British theatre.

Given my high regard for both Vivien Leigh and Laurence Olivier, I find it both sad and puzzling that these two great actors are largely remembered only by their dedicated fans, rather than by the public at large, unlike, say, Marilyn Monroe or Audrey Hepburn. It might’ve been somewhat understandable had Vivien Leigh been just a well-regarded stage actress. But she was a movie star and a great beauty, one of only a handful of truly naturally beautiful actresses. I’m sure part of it has to do with simple publicity and media exposure, but I think there is also the fact that Vivien Leigh herself was always after being a serious stage actress, rather than a movie star. She steered her career and her lifestyle towards that aim, never having much interest in fame and publicity. When people recognize the name Vivien Leigh, they think of her roles rather than some image derived from her personal life. Vivien’s personality disappears behind her professional achievements, and it is up to the fans to find out more about her. She’s not an icon or a persona or a symbol. She’s just an actress.

When we think of Audrey Hepburn, we think of her own personal style. When we think of Vivien Leigh, we think of Scarlett and Blanche and for those who are aware of her theatrical triumphs – her Cleopatra, Lady Macbeth, Paola, Sabina, etc. Similarly, Laurence Olivier, having been a handsome romantic Hollywood leading man, easily went between that and Shakespeare, modern and classic plays, leading and supporting roles. There’s no persona of Laurence Olivier, but there are Hamlet, Richard, Heathcliff, Hurstwood, etc. These were real and private people who simply concentrated on doing their job well. I personally find this dedication to their profession worthy of great respect and admiration and I actually cannot think of any other famous stars who always remained primarily committed to their original choice of being an actor, rather than someone famous. It is unfortunate that people of lesser talent and accomplishment are the ones that are remembered today, just because neither Vivien Leigh nor Laurence Olivier ever cared about being legends, but simply went about their work.


Irina has been a fan of Vivien Leigh’s for over 20 years. She maintained a comprehensive website about VL called a “Lass Unparallel’d” in the early 2000s. This website contained one of the largest online collections of VL photos at the time, which Irina mostly scanned from different books and some other printed materials. She had to take somewhat of a break from her hobby, but is very happy to return to it now and to the vibrant community of fans that have gathered around Kendra’s FB page and

In Focus: Yousuf Karsh

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In Focus: Yousuf Karsh

Yousuf Karsh seemed destined to become a photographer. Born in 1908, Karsh fled the ravages of war in Armenia and Syria and at age 17 emigrated to Quebec where he lived with his uncle Nakash. Karsh had planned to study medicine, but the gift of a cheap camera from Uncle Nakash set him on an alternative path. Karsh wrote:

While at first I did not realize it, everything connected with the art of photography captivated my interest and energy — it was to be not only my livelihood but my continuing passion. I roamed the fields and woods around Sherbrooke every weekend with a small camera, one of my uncle’s many gifts. I developed the pictures myself and showed them to him for criticism. I am sure they had no merit, but I was learning, and Uncle Nakash was a valuable and patient critic.

An apprenticeship with John H. Garo of Boston  was instrumental in Karsh developing his skills as a portrait photographer. Garo encouraged him to hone his photographer’s eye by studying the works of great painters in order to get a sense of (natural) “light, design and composition.” He was also taught the technical aspects of photography, including how to develop his own photographs using different techniques.

In 1931, Karsh set up a modest independent studio in Ottawa where his work first appeared in print alongside political commentary in an illustrated periodical called Saturday Night. His interest in photographing stage actors developed soon afterward when he was invited to join the Ottawa Little Theatre as a company photographer. It was a prodigious occasion. Not only was he given the opportunity to photograph Lord and Lady Bessborough- whose son was a member of the company – and thereby have his first portraits published in major magazines such as The Tatler and The Sketch, he also met his future wife, the French actress Solange Gauthier.

Further opportunities to photograph luminaries followed in 1942, including sittings with US President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill. In the years following, Karsh continued to capture leading figures in politics, science and the arts, and in 1958 he published a retrospective of his work titled Portraits of Greatness. It is from this book that the following anecdote about photographing the Oliviers at Durham Cottage in London is reproduced.

“When Sir Laurence Olivier greeted me at his London home in 1954, he appeared fatigued. Small wonder, since he had been directing and himself acting in his film production of Richard III all day long. Besides, he said, he had been wearing a false nose and various other uncomfortable disguises which converted a handsome contemporary Englishman into the hunch-back villain of feudal times.

Sir Laurence, and his petite wife, Vivien Leigh,  made a charming couple and did not grudge me their time, even though they were packing for their departure next day to California.*

Soon after the sitting began, their Siamese cat named Boy leapt upon Sir Laurence’s head and completely obscured his face…obviously a privileged character  of the household. I snapped a few pictures of this frivolity to remind me, later on, of a great actor mastered by a pet which alone could steal a scene from him.

Presently, while I waited for the right moment for my portrait, Sir Laurence began to talk about the photography used in Hamlet. The magnificent depth of field in this film, the sense of grandeur, of distance and mystery were due, he said, to the use of a special lens and highly imaginative lighting. (He did not mention, of course, the depth, grandeur, and mystery of his direction and acting.) A play like Hamlet, he added, was much better filmed in black and white than in color, for color would undermine the atmosphere of high tragedy.

Several years later, I had the opportunity to meet Sir Laurence again, when he was performing in John Osborne’s play The Entertainer on Broadway. I had wondered why so great an artist had agreed to act a rather sordid part, created by one of England’s ‘angry young men.’ Sir Laurence saw the play in another light. He said he greatly admired Mr. Osborne’s work; in fact, it had been written especially for him, at his own request.

I asked him if he felt that the angry young men were significantly affecting the English drama. ‘Undoubtedly,’ he said. ‘But the term “angry young men” is a feeble press epithet and a misnomer. Some of the critics are greatly distorting the fine work of these playwrights. I think they are definitely contributing something to the stage, in form, in content, and in action.’

When I asked him what difference he found in British and American audiences he gave me a quick reply: ‘I could think of much much more pleasurable ways of finishing my career than answering that one!’ What, I said, did the movies offer to the serious artist? ‘From experience among my friends I would say financially it is fairly all right in both fields and the choice would be entirely one’s own inclination. For myself I enjoy both the theatre and the film media equally but I should say as a general rule that the ilm is the director’s medium and the theatre is the actor’s medium.'”

Unfortunately the shots of Boy the cat on Olivier’s face haven’t been published, but a few prints from his session with he and Vivien have.

*The Oliviers did not go to California in 1956 as intended, much to Vivien’s disappointment. They went to Spain where Olivier was finishing work on Richard III, and then flew to Paris for business.

NPG P490(60); Laurence Kerr Olivier, Baron Olivier; Vivien Leigh by Yousuf Karshvia the National Portrait Gallery

NPG P253; Laurence Kerr Olivier, Baron Olivier by Yousuf Karsh
via the National Portrait Gallery

The Oliviers photographed with Karsh at the London Palladium, 1958

Karsh had these words to offer about the people who appear in his book:

Often, in my experience with distinguished subjects, I have wondered whether the great possess any traits in common. It is my conclusion that they do indeed share certain traits. The physical details of the faces of artists and thinkers vary, of course, but anyone who examines these portraits will observe in them all, I think, an inward power, the power that is essential to any work of the mind or imagination. In all my subjects I indeed expected to find evidence of such power and I was not disappointed. But these faces often bear too the marks of struggle, of the reach that always exceeds the grasp – and sometimes in them is the loneliness of the explorer. They also bear, or so it seems to me, the trace of the fierce competition characteristic of human affairs in our era; sometimes the gleam of arrogance; always the sign of the uncertainty and ceaseless search for truth which, you might say, are the hallmark of the thoughtful man confronted by the dilemma of his species as it is presented today.

NPG P490(43); Augustus John by Yousuf Karsh
Augustus John, Painter. Via the National Portrait Gallery

Ernest Hemingway, American writer.

Georgia O’Keeffe, American painter.

Robert Oppenheimer, American physicist instrumental in the creation of the atomic bomb.

NPG P490(61); Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh by Yousuf Karsh
Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh.

Former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt

John Steinbeck, American writer.

For more about Yousuf Karsh and his work, visit his page on Artsy.

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Vivien Leigh: An Intimate Portrait

A Love Worth Fighting For

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A Love Worth Fighting For

The Romantic Truth about Vivien Leigh and Laurence Olivier

by Ruth Waterbury
Photoplay, December 1939

What happened to romance in Hollywood?

Oh, I know that love, love, love is shouted from the Beverly Hilltops; that caresses are recorded by scores of news cameras; that people are proclaimed “this way” and “that way” in headline type. But most of these are mere flash flirtations quickly entered into and even more quickly forgotten.

But what has happened to the old-time romance that defied the studios, challenged the conventions – and diverted the public? What has happened to the love that laughs at locksmiths, that must find a way to happiness in the face of every obstacle society can place in its path?

True, there have been many recent Hollywood marriages founded on abiding love. But they are, most of them, quite definitely marriage of convenience, mergers of affection blended with a keen consideration of the future. Hollywood, built upon the quicksands of public approval, dedicated to one of the most precarious professions in the world, has grown shrewd and cautious. That’s why, today, Hollywood is startled at the sudden intrusion of real romance into its present calm.

For the greatest love story in town today is far from cautious and calm. The love between Vivien Leigh and Laurence Olivier is romance – that high, tumultuous romance that laughs at careers, hurdles the conventions, loses its head along with its heart, and laughs for the exhilarating joy of such wildness.

These two are the most provocative, least known, most potential personalities now exciting filmdom. The lucky insiders who have already seen “Gone With the Wind” are afire with enthusiasm over Vivien Leigh’s Scarlett O’Hara. They proclaim that her work therein makes her one of the greatest stars in the entire film firmament. And the surly, smoldering Heathcliff of “Wuthering Heights” that Olivier revealed last winter, backed up by his later going to the opposite extreme and giving a high comedy performance in “No Time for Comedy” on Broadway, makes him the rarest, most valuable of combinations, the handsome man with sex appeal who is also a superlative actor.

Such being the case, it would be sensible for Miss Leigh and Mr. Olivier to forget each other or to avoid going, as they are about to, through the British divorce courts (which are not nearly so polite as our own).

Yes, indeed, it would have been much more sane if they had let the bright flame burning between them die down, dampened by the demands of their careers and of smug respectability. It would have been sensible, but it would not have been glory and fever of the blood and the intensity of living. And therefore it did not, and it will not, happen with Larry and Vivien.

Shortly before the approaching new year, unless something goes seriously amiss, their respective mates will go to court to free them. They have waited many months for this moment, and they don’t know yet what freedom may cost them. They each have a child which perhaps they will never be permitted to see again. They may have to listen to some pretty severe things said about them, the English not being inclined to mince such matters. Larry and Vivien care terribly about all that. There is a passion and vitality that touches both of them, that makes them care terribly about all things. But they care more for each other. They care more for each other than they do for money or careers or friends or harsh words or even life itself. And this is the story of why they do.

They met, three years ago, when they were cast opposite in a London play called “The First and the Last Time” [KB The First and the Last, released in the US as 21 Days Together]. Three years ago, Vivien Leigh aged twenty-four, wife of Herbert Leigh Holman, distinguished barrister, was a promising young actress. Three years ago, Laurence Olivier, aged twenty-nine, husband of Jill Esmond, was London’s most distinguished young actor. Their artistic lives were in a mess, but they were very British, both of them, brought up in the best traditions of the Empire, of a good school tie and all that, so they never discussed such subjects.

Mr. Olivier, leading man, was presented to Miss Leigh, leading lady, and they said nothing more on that momentous occasion than any other well-bred English pair would have said, which means saying nothing whatsoever in a very brittle way. Nevertheless, one pair of exotic, green eyes looked deep into a pair of passionate, hungry brown eyes and forthwith said more than the entire unabridged Oxford dictionary.

Even at that, nothing might have come of it had not their work and their families and even fate itself tried so hard to keep them apart, thereby bringing out the rebellious determination within each of them, making everything about each other seem glamorous indeed if for no other reason save that to experience this happiness was forbidden.

For they came together at the exact psychological moment when each was seeking freedom and self-expression.

Both of them, initially, had married too young. Vivien, who had taken her husband’s name for her stage work, had been born Vivien Hartley, the most respectable and beautifully brought up young daughter of a British Cavalry officer stationed in India. She had absorbed the best education money could and social position could buy. At eight she had been sent to a convent school just outside London and stayed there until she was fourteen, when she was transferred to a school on the Italian Riviera. That was followed by a year in art school in Paris and another at the Royal Dramatic Academy in London. She left that, confident of conquering the world and all the London managers, but the best she got was “walk-ons.” Thus, when Herbert Leigh Holman came along and proposed to her, her unemployed dramatic instinct told her that it was most fascinating to think of being a married woman before she was twenty, and later, before she was twenty-two, to be a mother.

Laurence Olivier’s wife was Jill Esmond, the actress. The Olivier-Esmond love had been much written about. Larry was originally very much in love with Jill, but he was undoubtedly much in love with the actress as he was with the woman. He had always adored the theater. Coming up in London, getting the occasional bits to play, he was enormously impressed with meeting Jill Esmond, daughter of a famous acting family, and almost overcome when he realized that she was falling in love with him. Jill was all that he was not – important, established, well-trained theatrically. When she got an opportunity to come to America for a show, Larry made his debut with her in “Private Lives” on the New York stage. When she went back to England, he returned, too. Then he got a chance at a movie test for RKO, but Jill stood in with him on it, and when it came time to draw up the contracts, it was Jill they wanted most, although they both signed up.

It was Larry’s good luck, in disguise, that made everything turn out badly. RKO advertised him as a “second Colman” and since he was nothing of the sort both the studio and the public were disappointed upon seeing him. Jill didn’t set the screen on fire, either, so when their options weren’t taken up the Oliviers went back to London.

Then Hollywood beckoned again. Laurence was needed for the lead opposite Garbo in “Queen Christina.” The rush was so great that he had to cable his measurements so that his costumes could be ready for him on landing. He came across the ocean on the fastest boat, across the country on the fastest plane. Everything was ready for him except Garbo. Garbo insisted on John Gilbert for the role.

The bitterness engendered in Larry Olivier by this went toward making him the great performer he was in “The Green Bay Tree.” To act magnificently now became an absolute compulsion. Through frustration, his brilliant mind developed a sardonic twist. His naturally pleasant personality became fierce and rebellious. When he met Vivien Leigh, also disillusioned and revolutionary at heart, it was flame meeting flame. A conflagration was bound to result and did.

They instantly discovered each other and the ambitions and dreams they had in common. The bright sun of mutual success shown upon them. They were triumphant artistically and commercially. They even did a production of “Hamlet” together, Vivien playing Ophelia to Laurence’s melancholy Dane. Long before that they had known that they were in love, but after that production all London and their respective mates knew it.

When Laurence Olivier came to Hollywood for the third time last winter, everyone saw the change in him. He was no longer shy or inhibited. He did not mingle with the few friends he had made out here on his previous visit. He did exactly as he pleased, staying by himself because he was so much in love he needed no companionship.

The Vivien Leigh came visiting Hollywood, and met Myron Selznick, brother of David, and through the accident of that meeting got the test that resulted in her being chosen as Scarlett. That was thrilling, but actually she lived through a lonely winter because almost as soon as she arrived, Larry’s stage play took him away from her. But he left the play as soon as he possibly could to come westward to be near her, since “Gone With the Wind” was not yet finished.

They still don’t see many people. They dine a lot with director George Cukor and see a few members of the English colony but they are still at that stage where they prefer to be alone together. And therein, too, they act not at all like the lovers of Hollywood who always seem to make their vows at the Troc or to exchange their first kiss Frida night at the fights. The emotion between them is too intense and sincere for any of that calculated demonstration. They dine in the quietest restaurants and do no calling save upon each other. They are moody, too, with the moods of true romantics – all laughter and joy one moment, all fiery intellect or fierce conversation the other.

They will have to wait at least another full year before they can marry. So during that year watch for some very great performances, Larry’s as Max de Winter in “Rebecca” and Vivien in any one of the several big productions Selznick is planning for her. They will inevitably give great acting portrayals, living as they are now through those exciting, vivid moments of human life that breed true artistic creativeness.

As for what will happen to them after they wed – well, we were talking of romance – and matrimony is quite a different story.

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Vivien Leigh: An Intimate Portrait

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The Oliviers: Britain’s most celebrated dynamic duo

Oliviers Life

This post is for the Dynamic Duos blogathon currently being hosted by Once Upon a Screen and Classic Movie Hub and I’d highly encourage reading the entries from all the other fabulous bloggers. I apologize in advance if what I wrote below seems a bit disjointed. There is so much to say about the Oliviers that one could literally fill an entire book.


On May 22, 1960, Vivien Leigh released a shocking statement to the press: “Lady Olivier wishes to say that Sir Laurence has asked for a divorce in order to marry Miss Joan Plowright. She will naturally do whatever he wishes.” The reasons behind Olivier’s request remained unknown to the general public until 1977 – ten years after Vivien’s death – when biographer Anne Edwards revealed Vivien’s long-fought battle with manic depression (better known today as bipolar disorder) and Olivier’s inability to cope with the strain of her illness. In 1960, however, it was only clear that one of the most celebrated and respected relationships in show business had come to what seemed like an abrupt end. Many fans were so bowled over by the news that they decided to take matters into their own hands. Olivier’s papers in the British Library contain a multitude of hand-written letters from people around the globe imploring him not to go through with the divorce; they simply couldn’t handle the disillusionment.

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