This is the second of two posts detailing the private view of the V&A’s Vivien Leigh: Public Faces, Private Lives traveling exhibition, which took place last Saturday at Nymans in Sussex. You can read part 1 here.
I’ve spent a fair bit of time these past few weeks in the V&A and British Library going through fan letters written to Vivien Leigh. It’s research for my chapter in the upcoming V&A/Manchester University Press book Vivien Leigh: Actress and Icon, but I’m also getting pleasure from reading these letters. As a fan who interacts with a lot of other fans on this crazy platform called the Inter Web, I know that we come in all ages, shapes, sizes, nationalities, sexualities, religions, etc. We are all bound together by our mutual interest in Vivien Leigh.
Yet despite my admittance to being a fan, I’ve never written a fan letter to anyone (save for the one I drafted to Leonardo DiCaprio at age 14 and recorded in my middle school diary that I was too nervous to send as my mom probably wouldn’t approve because she thought I was ‘obsessed.’ I was). And I’m not sure, if I had been alive during Vivien’s time, that I would have written one.
The fan letters in Olivier’s and Leigh’s respective archives bring out a range of feelings – wonder at the poetic, eloquent language used by even young people, and the far corners of the globe from which they were sent (India, Japan, Korea, South Africa, Australia); shock at the audacity of some of the writers; happiness at the little gifts of affection sent from around the world and the truly astonishing drawings included in some of the letters. One thing is clear: Vivien was adored by film lovers and theatre-goers far and wide, and they thought her accessible. And while they were just temporary blips on her radar, Vivien meant everything to her fans.
I’m posting the transcribed text from two letters here which have emerged as my favorites thus far. They’re wildly different. The first was penned by a young soldier in the National Service just after the war. The other, by a seven-year-old boy in Australia whose mother, Flora Griffiths, was a frequent correspondent.
What do you think of these letters? I’d love to read your responses below.
November 9, 1946
Dear Miss Leigh, Lady Olivier, what you will,
I am sorry that it has come to this: I despise all fan mails and all fans as a general principle and so I despise myself for writing; tomorrow I shall regret it and say what a fool I have been. What is it that makes me write to night, I do not know: perhaps it’s loneliness, perhaps it is the remains of an adolescent crush, perhaps, and I hope, it’s just a foolish, youthful impulse – for I’ve tons of these and I am, thank God, young.
Then what one should say in a fan mail I don’t know: I could tell you that you are the best actress and the most beautiful thing in this hurly burly world, I could compare you with the sheer beauty of the pale moonlit hills: all these things would be true perhaps – true at least in my mind, but I’ve no doubt Mr. Olivier and others have imaginations too. I’m not jealous, for I have a little sense in my young head. But I would like to tell you one thing and if you haven’t already torn this up, just listen a moment and I’ll let off steam.
Here am I, a conscript in an ugly camp, remote from all the folk and things I love, watching all my principles of art and pure thought get dashed and square bashed to the ground: just now and then I look back home, as every soldier does, and then when the others look back to their respective sweethearts — I don’t. I look to an ideal of culture, of physical beauty and of intellectual [illegible]. I see you very clearly: I don’t want to dash and throw myself at your feet and say ‘Vivien, I love you’ or anything: I just want to see you and know that beauty, real active living beauty is still in the world. And all I want to do now, is tell you that you give me great confidence in the world. You are one of my loveliest memories: One day I’ll marry and love someone, perhaps with dark hair and light expressive eyes, but I promise you now that you’ll still hold a place in my memory box. So thank you.
You’ve probably lost interest so I’ll let off more steam: You realize, I suppose, why Romeo and Juliet failed? Because you thought you could do it without acting to the satisfaction not only of yourselves but of the public. You were wrong and maybe then you decided not to act Shakespeare together again – for I don’t think you have, have you? So by one failure you are disheartened and you are coward enough, the pair of you, to quit a possible production of absolute and complete perfection. Do you not realize that only once in a million years could such a pair as you and Mr. Olivier meet and act? Do you not realize that you have a chance of setting up a romantic masterpiece, the like of which has never been seen? And yet you create only good performances singly, throwing away this chance of perfection. I like to think of you smiling, but only because I know your talent: I like to think of Mr. Olivier as the brave Henry V, but only because I realize he could be other things.
There is a play better than Hamlet; far far better than your Lady Hamilton, and it is time somebody did it properly. It’s called Macbeth: I know it backwards because I’ve studied it (and I mean study) and because I’m a Scotsman and understand. I know I could create a film given the suitable actors and actresses which would be more than a nine days tale. Mr. Olivier has once ruined the part by ranting in the last act but he would know better by now. If I am so confident, surely he could bring the thing about. You could get the experts to give you colorful sets, which would certainly ruin the thing unless they found someone who understood the thing and could control them. But supposing they were careful and were controlled, and deciding you two did decide not to throw away a chance in a hundred centuries, the history of films would be…dated as Before and After Macbeth.
Are you still reading? If so, use your own judgment and choose one of the two courses.
a) leave a passionate adolescent to stew in his own nonsense.
or b) encourage an idealist.
If a) is chosen, stop reading. If b), continue.
When I started this letter I said to myself, I won’t lower myself to asking for a reply: I still don’t. I leave it to you. (But I promise you that this letter was not written for the sake of this final paragraph). You can write me a stereotype letter with photo attached – but for God’s sake don’t autograph it in front, for that would bring you to the same place as Miss Grable’s legs or Miss Lake’s [illegible]. Give me it in the usual way, only untouched and I will keep it as the symbol of the idealist and philosopher of beauty. I will keep it with a picture of the mountains in the rain, that I have, as another side to nature.
But use your motherly judgment, Mrs Olivier. Don’t send it if you think it’s bad for me. I leave the address in the vain hope: some day, some happy day when I see a stage and have the additional fortune of seeing you on it, I’ll come round behind the stage and look sheepish, and say I enjoyed the show, and shift from one foot to the other. No, I don’t think I will.** Anyway, you’re very beautiful as I see you now: as Lady Macbeth you’d look wonderfully villainous though – or can’t I tempt you?
I’ve let off steam, I’ve acted on the impulse: there remains only the question of stamp and address. Then bonsoir, et encore une fois madame, grand merci. Vous étés un joli rêve. Yours with all necessary apologies and with I fear, sincere affection.
1706700 Ptc Kennaway J(ames)
10 pln 2 Coy, 30th training Batt.
Pinefields Camp, Elgin, Morayshire
** It is unknown whether James Kennaway ever saw Vivien perform on stage. The future novelist and screenwriter was 18 when this letter was written. However, it is quite possible that they crossed paths at some point in the 1960s. Kennaway’s first novel, Tunes of Glory, which was partially based on his experience in the armed forces, was made into a film in 1960, starring Alec Guinness and directed by Ronald Neame. Sadly, Kennaway died unexpectedly at age 40 in 1968.
June 17, 1957
Dear Lady Olivier,
I am seven now and I thought I would write to you. Mummy said you live in London where the King lives. Once Prince William and Prince Richard lived in Australia. When I am a man I shall come to London to see you because you are so lovely and Sir Laurence is a beaut sword fighter, he is like a Knight in my King Arthur book. When you come to Australia will you tell me first. Sir Laurence is going to tell the Melbourne boys. The sea is very rough and it is rainy tonight so we have to stay inside. I hope you like your pineapple. I love it. We do not seem to send anything to Sir Laurence perhaps Mummy does not know what he likes, my Dad sometimes likes beer.
I will write again soon,
Philip Blackburn Griffiths**
Semaphore, South Australia
Would you ask Sir Laurence if he had time to write me and tell me how to sword fight.
P.S. Later. We have had snow in the hills the most for 50 years. Mummy said we were not here then. I have never seen snow if we had a car we could have got to Mt. Lofty before it melted. Please if you do not save stamps will you keep this one for me and I will get it when I come to London.
**A photograph of Philip, attached in one of his mother’s letters to Vivien, showed a blonde haired boy in a cowboy costume, looking quite like Ralphie from A Christmas Story.
Speaking of Christmas, I’d like to wish you all a merry one, or a happy whatever you celebrate!
You must have seen, lately, his wonderful portraits of glamorous ladies pop up on different sites on the internet. Queen Madonna herself retweeted the latest portrait he has drawn of her…But what interests us, here, is that Alejandro Mogollo Diez is a great admirer of Vivien Leigh. He is following our page from his hometown, Sevilla (Spain). And he has put his art in action to celebrate our favorite star’s beauty.
We wanted to know more about him, so we sent him some questions and he answered very generously and even let us present some new drawings, in exclusivity… Fiddle dee dee.
Alejandro, can you tell us more about you?
I was born in Seville, Spain, in 1966. Since I was a child I was obsessed with drawing and painting. So much so that, although it was something my parents didn’t think was easy to make a living off, they encouraged it because I had such a passion for it. I studied Fine Arts specializing in Graphic Design here in Seville. When I finished college I got a scholarship at Cornell University, Ithaca, New York, and studied there for a year. When I came back from the States I began working as a graphic designer and art director in a publicity studio, and I’ve been working there ever since. My illustration work is something I’ve been developing these last years. But only on personal projects and on subjects of high interest to me, like my recent contribution with a series of illustrations to the Encyclopedia Madonnica published by Matthew Rettenmund.*
* Matthew Rettenmund is a writer, editor and blogger who lives in NYC with his Shih Tzus, his Madonna collection and his emotional baggage. His book, “Encyclopedia Madonnica”, is considered the bible on all things Madonna, covering every aspect of the star’s life and career and presenting never before seen and rare images with fresh interviews…
Can you tell us more about these personal projects and why you have started to share and post your drawings on the internet?
Although my job is fulfilling and requires creativity on my part, I sometimes miss the shear pleasure of drawing. The illustration software is so sophisticated now (Adobe Illustrator) that it allows me to create images very close to the organic ones, giving it a distinctive touch, close to airbrush. The process, though digital, remains the same, beginning with the blank canvas, but replacing the pencil or brush with the mouse. In those personal projects I wanted to blend my two passions, graphic art and movies. So I started doing these movie portraits that I shared only with friends, just for fun. Then I started sharing them online. One of the first blogs I followed was Boy Culture, run by Matthew Rettenmund. Because I’m a fellow Madonna fan like him, I once sent him an illustration I did of her and he loved it.
You seem to be a great fan of movies and of the star system? How did your passion start?
I have four sisters and a brother and, since my parents were movie fanatics themselves, we were all exposed to classic cinema from a very young age. Also, unlike today, many of these classics were actually shown on TV on a regular basis. The first memory I have of my obsession with movies happened one afternoon when I came back home from school. I was probably 7 or 8 years old and they were showing Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. I was instantly awestruck with Marilyn Monroe, although I didn’t know who she was at the time. Imagine a little kid who hated outdoor activities and sports suddenly encountering this film. The whole look of this movie appealed to me big time. Like Alice in Wonderland, I wanted to cross the TV screen to escape to that world of wonder, fantasy and glamour. I belonged to that world.
As I grew older I started to get interested in the moviemaking process. As a teen I read everything from essays to biographies of movie directors to learn about the craft and about its history. I also played with the process myself and did some short films in Super 8. I loved all the european “auteurs” like Truffaut, Visconti, Fellini, and mainly Bergman, my favorite, but at the same time I was fascinated by the golden age of Hollywood and its stars. I remember my father complained I spent my whole monthly pay buying books about old movie stars and started drawing them compulsively. I understood his concern, not only is art a hard sale, but also who would be interested in portraits of old movie stars, right? He preferred I stick to landscapes and still lives, which I hated.
I consider myself a movie buff. Don’t ask me about my favorite movie because there are too many. To give you a hint: All about Eve, The Apartment, Brief encounter, La Nuit Américaine, Adam’s Rib, The Godfather, Blade Runner… the list would be endless. If we talk about today’s cinema there are plenty of directors I’m excited about, like Pedro Almodóvar, Michael Haneke, David Fincher… Although I love the moviemaking process and I’m interested in how a movie is made, I still enjoy movies first and foremost like a little kid, completely immersed in that world. Like Alice.
How did you first discover Vivien Leigh?
It’s kind of a funny story actually. In 1980 there was a rerelease of GWTW in Spain. I was 14 years old and had never seen the movie or even acknowledged its importance. I had bought this movie magazine that featured the famous Laszlo Willinger photo of Vivien (the one in Kendra’s book cover) to announce the rerelease. My older brother insisted I should see that movie, he thought I’d love it and pointed out at the photo to say how beautiful the lead actress was. Most beautiful woman ever, he declared. I went to see the movie with my sister and her then boyfriend but it was sold out. I was pissed off but didn’t think any more about it. Only that everyone around me kept talking about the movie, and my brother kept insisting I’d try again and bragging about Viv’s beauty and talent. I started developing a grudge about the whole thing and arguing she wasn’t that beautiful. “She looks like a bad witch“ I ended up saying, surely to get back at him for not leaving me alone. I said I knew if someone was beautiful or not, and he wasn’t the judge of that, and he was completely wrong with Vivien. Yeah, I was a stupid brat.
Finally, a couple of days later I went to see it on the big screen, and boy, it changed my life. I had never experienced such a thrill at the movies, and Vivien was everything my brother and the rest had said and even more. I was in love. I came back home completely enthralled. When my brother asked me how it went I couldn’t hold it any longer, forgetting my pride and everything I had said, I told him he was absolutely right, Vivien Leigh was the most beautiful woman ever. To this day, my brother still laughs at me about it.
What continued your admiration and fascination with her?
Once my fascination had started, I read a biography and tried to collect as many magazine articles that featured her as possible. I also watched all of her movies (the ones available in VHS) and all her portraits. I was never really interested in the personal life of stars. Many of them just focus on the tragedies of their lives and contain a great deal of gossip. I prefer to read about their work, that’s what inspires me. The making of a movie, with its creative process and obstacles really resonates with me. A high point in that regard was the wonderful documentary about GWTW “The Making of a Legend”. Watching Vivien get the grip of the role from the screen tests to the final movie was so thrilling. It built my admiration for her as an actor.
Drawing Vivien Leigh! How would you describe the experience?
I probably started drawing her right then and there. She is a very difficult subject to convey. Her beauty is not static. Unlike Hedy Lamarr or Lana Turner, whose classic beauty can be measured in a still photo, Vivien had this sparkle that pierces the camera. You are not sure what it is but it cannot be easily grasped. So my first attempts were unsuccessful. Although it didn’t stop me for trying. That’s the reason I tried different styles throughout the years. Trying to capture what makes her special is a tough task and one that requires every skill you had and every medium. I tried watercolor, pencil, acrylics and then when I began exploring computer graphics I used every tool that the digital world allowed.
The secret of her beauty?
In terms of beauty, she is like this delicate, exotic butterfly that you are afraid to approach for fear she would fly away. Many times I have been drawing her thinking I had got it, to realize in the end that the resemblance had vanished. It is quite frustrating, but imagine the joy when you succeed!
Can you share a bit on the process behind your drawings?
I don’t like to use a single picture of her and try to copy it. I gather all the pictures I can get of the subject and try to determine what appeals to me in them. The drawing process can take a few hours or even days, depending on what I want to accomplish. I usually start composing and framing the figure roughly and then start with the face right away. The eyes are my main concern because once you get them, the rest fits into place. As it happens in my case, the illustration eventually starts to speak to me, telling me what it needs until I decide it is done. I am almost never completely satisfied with the result, so I’m not a good judge of my work. It’s only when people start praising them that I think I’ve succeeded.
But for me as an artist the most important thing of the process is that the final result be unique, not an exact replica of an existing photo or pose, but an original interpretation of the subject that has also my personal style attached to it. That way there’s this strange communion between the subject and the artist.
At the end it’s not just Vivien, it’s my Vivien.
For more of Alejandro’s work, follow him on Facebook and Instagram. You can also purchase shirts, mugs, iPhone cases, totes and prints featuring his illustrations of Vivien and other old Hollywood stars in his online shop (a great gift idea for the holidays).
Vivien Leigh’s country estate, Notley Abbey, was sold in 1960 pending her divorce from Laurence Olivier. While on the hunt for a new country retreat, her friend, the actor Dirk Bogarde, told her of a gorgeous Queen Ann-style house in the Sussex downs. It was too small for him, he said, but she might love it. Love it Vivien did, and she moved in with Jack Merivale in 1961.
Although Tickerage was very much a private space, Vivien occasionally allowed photographers into her country life. Thomas Wilkie and George Douglas were two such photographers. I profiled Douglas here last summer when it was announced that his archive had been discovered by Shan Lancaster and Guardian photographer Roger Bamber in Brighton. Since then, I’ve had the privilege to get to know Shan and follow the great work she and Roger are doing to raise George Douglas’ profile.
In a mutually beneficial effort to help spotlight Douglas’ wonderful work, and because everyone likes pretty pictures, here is the full set of Douglas’ shoot of Vivien Leigh as found (thus far) in the George Douglas Archive. (Getty Images are also licensing some of Douglas’ color photos from this shoot via the Popperfoto collection.)
“Good news of Tickerage every week, which I long to see again.” – Vivien Leigh to Radie Harris, February 6, 1962
“Tickerage Mill was just as romantic a setting as Notley, if on a smaller scale. The lake close to the house provided for her the essential ingredient of water always present, and she assured me that she was comforted by the knowledge that it was there, even when obscured by the mist of autumn, the winter fogs. There was also a miniature wood filled with carpets of anemones and bluebells that she had planted, which burgeoning in the spring might have been created for Titania [the character Vivien played in A Midsummer Night’s Dream in 1937]. Like my mother, Vivien had green fingers, and in an enviously short time, the garden, which had been sadly neglected till the arrival of the new owner, took on a blossoming look of someone who knows that she is cherished.” – Godfrey Winn, 1965
“Another beautiful album of Tickerage for Vivien! It really is stunning and she is delighted with it, as I have no doubt she has told you in the letter which Jason and I have just walked up the lane to post…All is well here I think. We have had our dramas; the Cooks, who have been with Vivien for eleven years as gardener and ‘help’, upped and left and the cottage has been empty for a month. However the replacements arrived yesterday to start work to-morrow and if they are satisfactory we shall at last be able to go to the big city for a few days and catch up on some shows. We have hardly left the place for weeks. Also the poodle ran away last week and got run over for his pains poor chap. Luckily not much damage done except that he was concussed and had amnesia. He came back yesterday from the kennels in Buxted and seems fairly all right. I say ‘fairly’ because we think he still has a touch of amnesia since he forgot himself in the kitchen before lunch in a pretty substantial way.” – Jack Merivale to Arnold Weissberger, October 10, 1965
It was with sadness that I learned last week of the death of Suzanne Farrington, Vivien Leigh’s only child. She passed away presumably at home in Lower Zeals, Wiltshire, of unstated causes at age 81. Many people know of her, but few outside her family and immediate circle seem to know much about her. The death announcement in the Telegraph told us that she lived a life of love and laughter and is survived by her three sons, 12 grandchildren and numerous friends, while a longer obituary in the same paper focused more on Suzanne’s tenuous relationship with her famous mother than her individual accomplishments as a woman, wife and mother.
Who was Suzanne Farrington, really? While conducting research for Vivien Leigh: An Intimate Portrait, meeting Suzanne was like trying to reach the summit of Mount Everest when I wasn’t an experienced climber. There was a shroud of protective secrecy surrounding her that was carefully held in place by several gatekeepers.
“Have you talked to Suzie?” many people asked me. I had not, I said, but I hoped to. I questioned everyone I interviewed about her. Is she nice? What’s she like? She was indeed nice, they said, but she never talks about Vivien, “I mean, she was basically abandoned by her mother.” And there was often the added reminder that “she doesn’t look much like Vivien.” Trader Faulkner told me of an embarrassing gaffe he made when he met Suzanne once at Notley Abbey. “You’re not like your mother, are you?” he said to her, without thinking. “No,” she responded. “Thank God.”
Whether Suzanne’s reluctance to talk about her life stemmed from lingering feelings of resentment over the atypical relationship she shared with Vivien, or the constant and unfair comparisons to her mother, or some other reason entirely, I was aware from the beginning and respected her want for privacy. And so I explained to my interviewees that my goal was not to push for information about her private life but rather to get her blessing for a project that was very near and dear to me. See, in my experience, I find it better to meet people in person rather than rely on formal letters through lawyers or other intermediaries. I feel that a face-to-face meeting (or even a direct email or phone call) allows people to see what I’m really about and helps me to assure them that I’m not some random crazy person out to write a tabloid-style exposé on their famous relative or friend.
There were several of Vivien Leigh’s letters in the Laurence Olivier Archive that I was determined to use; I felt that even if I couldn’t quote the letters in full, extracts would add something special to my book. This being my first foray into book writing, I wanted to make sure I did everything the right away. I figured the powers that be would recognize that if I had wanted to write some sort of trashy tell-all about Vivien, I wouldn’t even bother asking permission for anything. Right? So I carefully drafted a letter to Suzanne stating my mission and telling her about myself and the work I’d done so far. Then I sent the letter via her lawyer, who passed it on for me (though not, I strongly suspect, with any sort of word of encouragement. It is, after all, a firm that represents high profile clients like Rupert Murdoch). Then I waited. And waited, and waited some more. There were moments of great stress thinking about what she might say, if anything. I even remember dreaming about it once – of receiving a letter that said yes, you can use my mother’s letters! After about three months, I received a curt email from the lawyer saying he regretted to inform me that neither Suzanne nor Joan Plowright (who I hadn’t enquired about) was willing to let me use anything under their copyright. No explanation as to the reason why. Just a swift “No, sorry.” I was at the BFI Library going through Vivien’s letters in the Jack Merivale papers at the time, and I went into the bathroom and cried. It seemed like the worst thing that could happen; that possibly all the time and effort I’d already put in to research and making contacts was for nothing and this book would never come to fruition.
It was a crushing blow, but I refused give up.
Some of my interviewees, after our meetings, were eager to help. Vivien’s sister-in-law, Hester St John-Ives (who sadly passed away just after Christmas last year), was friendly with Suzanne and offered to phone and vouch for me. She wasn’t able to reach her, but I greatly appreciated the kind effort. Others flat out told me that Suzanne wouldn’t want to meet with me; and there were also those who didn’t feel like they could even talk about Vivien because they were good friends with Suzanne and had already talked to x biographer ages ago.
“I wish you had been doing this when Peter Hiley was still alive,” Hester said to me while we had lunch at her house in Devon one January day back in 2013. Hiley, who had worked for both the Vivien Leigh and Laurence Olivier estates since the two of them were still alive and married to one another, had been the link between biographers like Hugo Vickers (and I assume others) and Suzanne. Alas, Hiley died in 2008, just a year after I launched this website and a year before I decided I was going to embark on the journey of publishing a book about Vivien. Full disclosure: in 2009 I hadn’t the slightest idea how to go about getting a book published so even if Hiley had still been with us, I probably wouldn’t have known to get in contact anyway.
In the end, I never got to meet Suzanne. But as Mick Jagger once aptly pointed out, “You can’t always get what you want. But if you try, sometimes you just might find you get what you need.” Days before my submission deadline, I was contacted by Hugo Vickers who had encouraged my enthusiasm from the beginning. Having presented Suzanne with second a letter I had written, she finally said yes. For that I’m eternally grateful.
This brings us back to the question “Who was Suzanne?” As a Vivien Leigh fan, I know I speak for many when I say that it would have been great if she’d opened up about her mom in a documentary or something. As a writer, in the absence of a direct interview, I relied on interviews and quotes she gave to the press in the years before Vivien’s death (this one continues to be one of the most popular posts on this site for some reason).
I think it’s natural for us fans to wish Suzanne had spoken more about her relationship with Vivien, but I also believe her silence is to be equally respected and admired. By keeping herself from the spotlight, Suzanne was able to live her own life away from Vivien’s ever-present shadow. She put her family and friends first, and reaped the benefits. Those of us who never had the privilege of meeting her may never know who she really was. But she did bequeath us with an extraordinary gift in the form of her mother’s papers, now safely ensconced at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London. And that, I think, is more than enough.
If any of you had the privilege of meeting Suzanne, please feel free to comment. I’d love to hear your story!
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