Category: vivien leigh

The mystery of Suzanne Farrington

featured general discussion vivien leigh

The mystery of Suzanne Farrington

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.

Vivien Leigh and daughter SuzanneVivien with Suzanne in 1935

“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.

Vivien Leigh and daughter SuzanneVivien and Suzanne at Suzanne’s wedding to Robin Farrington, December 1957

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.

Vivien Leigh with daughter and grandsonVivien with Suzanne and first-born grandchild, Neville Farrington, 1958

“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).

Gertrude Hartley and Suzanne farringtonSuzanne and her grandmother, Gertrude Hartley, early 1970s

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!

 ♠ ♣ ♠ ♣ ♠

Vivien Leigh: An Intimate Portrait

Recap: Dressing Vivien Leigh

events vivien leigh

Recap: Dressing Vivien Leigh

2014 has been a wonderful year for Vivien Leigh, and the train is showing no signs of stopping. Just a couple weeks ago (December 5-7), London-based organization Fashion & Cinema hosted an event titled Dressing Vivien Leigh, which focused on – you guessed it – Vivien Leigh and her relationship with fashion, particularly costume design.

I was over the moon when my agent forwarded me an email from the organizers of Fashion & Cinema inviting me to introduce the two films they’d lined up for the weekend. Since Vivien Leigh: An Intimate Portrait was published, I’ve jumped at any opportunity that’s come my way. Not only do I feel like these speaking engagements help me build up a portfolio of experience, they also help me on my quest to get over an irrational fear of public speaking. I feel less nervous each time I do it. So thanks for letting me use your microphones, past and future event planners!

Fashion & Cinema: Dressing Vivien Leigh

Dressing Vivien Leigh kicked off on Friday December 5 with a fantastic lecture at the V&A. I always enjoy listening to curator Keith Lodwick speak about the treasures that he oversees in the V&A’s Theatre and Performance collection. His enthusiasm is so engaging.  This was the third or fourth time I’ve seen him speak and each time I come away from it feeling like I’ve learned something new.

Keith delved into Vivien’s relationships with a handful of costume designers – notably Oliver Messel, Beatrice (Bumble) Dawson, and Roger Furse. He also spoke about past exhibitions that included Vivien-related materials, such as Hollywood Costume (now in Los Angeles), and gave us all a treat by revealing never-before seen color photos taken with Vivien’s stereoscopic camera. And of course tongues started wagging when Keith revealed that the Vivien Leigh Archive is currently being catalogued and will be open to researchers in January. If you’re looking for me, I’ll be at Blythe House!

F&C3_26Introducing Streetcar with Tennessee Williams biographer John Lahr at Cine Lumiere in Kensington

I was thrilled to take part in both film screenings on December 6 and 7. Tennessee Williams biographer John Lahr and I spoke off the cuff when introducing A Streetcar Named Desire, and I had a talk prepared for the Roman Spring of Mrs Stone screening at Ham Yard Hotel in Soho on Saturday the 6th. Fashion & Cinema organizers Joanna Sanchez and Diana Maclean did a great job choosing the venues for these screenings and there were pretty good sized crowds at both of them. In fact, I was happy to see some familiar faces (Terence Pepper and Clare Freestone from the National Portrait Gallery, my agent Laura Morris, fellow film fans Anthony Uzarowski, Katie Sawyer, Alejandro Pappalardo), and it was a bit surreal chatting with Vanity Fair UK‘s online fashion editor Emma Marsh.

Fashion & Cinema: Dressing Vivien LeighIntroducing The Roman Spring or Mrs Stone at Ham Yard Hotel in Soho

I thought Roman Spring was an interesting choice for a screening because it’s not one that people talk about very much where Vivien’s career is concerned. Often overshadowed by her Oscar-winning turn as Tennessee Williams’ wounded butterfly Blanche DuBois, Karen Stone, and the film itself, tends to divide audiences. But it is an interesting film in the context of Vivien and fashion. Here’s what I had to say about it (let it be said that it was more difficult than I had thought to contextualize an entire film in 15 minutes):

The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone, based on the novella of the same name by Tennessee Williams, is the story of a middle age actress who suddenly finds herself too old to play the ingénue roles that made her famous. She decides to flee the profession, settling in Rome following the death of her husband. She takes a palazzo near the Spanish Steps and there, with only the cold comforts of her late husband’s “filthy millions,” she begins to drift – to move through life and through the ageing process alone and without reason. This, according to Karen Stone, was the worst thing that could happen. In her loneliness, she meets with Contessa Magda Terribbli-Gonzales, who introduces her to a gorgeous young Italian called Paulo. She falls in love, but in typical Tennessee Williams fashion, the union isn’t exactly a happy one.

Vivien Leigh actually wasn’t the first choice to play Karen Stone. Williams had Greta Garbo in mind while he was writing the book. But, as is typical in Hollywood, it was some years before the film version went into production. By 1960, Garbo was deep in seclusion in New York. Screenwriter Gavin Lambert later wrote about how Vivien came to play the title character: “While I was working on [the script], various people suggested actresses for the part, but none of them seemed right to Tennessee Williams, or to the director Jose Quintero, or myself. Then, one day, Tennessee said, ‘Vivien must play it.’ We immediately realized she was ideal. Why hadn’t anyone thought of her before?” The reason for this was probably because it had been five years since Vivien last appeared on screen. This was actually typical in her career. She preferred the stage to the screen, although her previous successes, particularly Gone With the Wind, had kept her firmly on top of the star ladder.

It was a risk to cast her. While filming Elephant Walk for Paramount in 1953, Vivien had a nervous breakdown and had to be replaced by Elizabeth Taylor. She was thereafter considered uninsurable – a liability- by producers. But she was a guaranteed box office draw, and for independent American producer Louis de Rochemont and first-time director Jose Quintero, a name like Vivien’s was worth the gamble.

Vivien initially refused the role. She said of Tennessee Williams, “For myself, I don’t believe there’s anyone writing today who can illuminate the soul of a character with greater clarity or greater compassion.” Their relationship dated back to 1949 when she starred as Blanche DuBois in the London stage production of Williams’ Pulitzer-winning play A Streetcar Named Desire, and she won her second Oscar for bringing Blanche to life on screen in 1951. Vivien once told a reporter she’d play in anything Williams wrote, with the exception of Suddenly, Last Summer. She had been considered for the role of Violet Venable in the 1959 film, a part eventually played by Katharine Hepburn. It wasn’t Karen Stone’s story that put her off, but rather Williams’ description of her degradation, which Vivien considered “cruel” and “grotesque.” Only after reading Lambert’s screenplay did she change her mind and accept. Part of her reasoning seems to have been the chance to make a film in Rome. However, owing to anger over La Dolce Vita, Federico Fellini’s recent portrayal of decadence in the Italian capital, the production company was forced to abandon their on-location plan and film most of The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone at Elstree Studios just outside of London.

There were perks for Vivien, though. While her friend Beatrice Dawson designed the costumes for the rest of the cast, Vivien’s star power allowed her to go to Paris to be dressed by her favorite real-life fashion designer, Pierre Balmain. We don’t typically think of Vivien as a fashion icon. She was known for being well dressed and fashion forward in public, but she didn’t have a particular connection with any one designer like Audrey Hepburn did with Givenchy, for example. But any regular reader of Vogue or other fashion magazines between 1936 and 1960 would have come across Vivien frequently posing for Cecil Beaton, Norman Parkinson, and Clifford Coffin, in gowns by Victor Stiebel, Elsa Schiaparelli, Molynoux, Hardy Amies, and Dior, to name but a few.

The costumes she wears as Karen Stone befit the character, described by Williams as glamorous where she was once beautiful. Karen starts her life in Rome wearing well-tailored, classic black. Later in the film, when Karen is in the honeymoon stage of her affair with Paulo, she takes on a more youthful look with a pixie haircut, pastel colors, light fabrics, and Grecian draping. Still later, when Karen accompanies Paulo to a busy restaurant, she sits in a corner wearing a heavy gold silk with lots of jewelry. This scene in particular is pivotal to the story because into the restaurant comes plucky American starlet Barbara Bingham (played by future Bond girl Jill St John), surrounded by paparazzi. Paulo gravitates toward her and Karen has a flash of self-realization: her glamour and money might not be enough to hold a young man like Paulo when there are plenty of younger fish in the sea. The age factor is a very literal element in this film. We are constantly reminded through dialogue and lighting that Karen is no longer a kitten but a full-fledged cougar. The cinematographic and costume techniques used to make Vivien appear younger didn’t sit well with some people.

I have a letter here that I’d like to read. It was written to LA Times gossip columnist Hedda Hopper by a Vivien Leigh fan called Jane Harris from Statten Island, New York on February 20, 1962:

Dear Miss Hopper:

I have just seen “Roman Spring of Mrs Stone” starring my favorite actress Vivien Leigh and newcomer Warren Beatty and had to write to tell you how unfair I think the camera work was to Miss Leigh’s beautiful face.

I realize a great many years have passed since she enchanted audiences with her rare beauty and acting ability as Scarlett O’Hara, but having seen her just two years ago on stage here in N.Y., I know what a beauty she still is. This picture made her look just terrible, and I’m surprised at Warner Brothers for the unfair close-ups of her, she looked so sickly and white, it hardly even resembled her. Why they didn’t let her keep her hark hair I’ll never understand, the ash blonde color even made things even worse, and she looked so much older than she really is. Miss Hopper, I hate to bother you, but you’ve always been my favorite movie columnist, and I’m sure you agree with me that something should be done to assure these well-known actresses that the cameramen will do their best to make them look as good as they can instead of making them look as bad as they can I’m so disgusted with the outcome of this movie, and I hope that the next time Miss Leigh appears on the screen she’ll look as beautiful as she does off-screen instead of like some old hag. I also think it’s a shame that such a fine actress has to degrade herself by playing in Tennessee William’s trashy stories.

If Warner’s was trying to make Vivien look like a very old and very unattractive Mrs. Stone, believe me, they more than succeeded.

But being close to movie people, I hope that you’ll be able to tell the heads of Warner Bros. not to bother starring Vivien Leigh in anymore movies unless they can photograph her as the beautiful star she is instead of as someone’s great Grandmother, what a blow to such beauty and talent.

After seeing some of the so-called new stresses on the screen today, I know why Vivien Leigh is still, and will always be my favorite star, there never was an never will be a greater star on the stage or on the screen, and as for beauty, in her day she was more beautiful than Liz Taylor, Suzy parker, and Marilyn Monroe put together.

I hope something will be done in the near future to protect other stars from the humility Miss Leigh must have suffered because of this film, the photographer should be hung from his toes on Hollywood and Vine.

This letter is really interesting because it illustrated conservative attitudes toward Tennessee Williams’ work at the time, as well as a conundrum that Vivien faced throughout her career, which was attempting to make people take notice of her talents as an actress rather than focusing on her beauty. It was extremely difficult for film stars to break away from their set images generated by producers and audience feedback. Take Ava Gardner, for example. Like Vivien, she was known for her stunning looks, and as a consequence she was never taken very seriously by critics, or given much of a chance by her colleagues at MGM to improve on her talents. Vivien, on the other hand was taken a bit more seriously as a film actress, particularly in America, but audiences were very resistant to accepting such drastic changes in looks and character. While filmgoers like Jane Harris of Staten Island decried what they saw as degrading treatment of a star, Vivien was actually happy to don tatty wigs and unflattering make-up if she felt it would help convey the character she was playing. This was most noticeable in A Streetcar Named Desire, but we also see it here.

What interests most about The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone are the similarities between Vivien and Karen Stone. While this is in no way meant to detract from the work she put into her performance, however knowing what we do about Vivien’s life, it’s difficult not to draw parallels between actress and character. When this film was released in 1961, Vivien was approaching 50 and had just gotten a divorce from her second husband and long-time collaborator, Laurence Olivier. The event made headlines around the world and along with it, speculation of how Vivien was facing the future alone. What fans at the time were really interested in was how she was going to get along in life and work without Larry by her side. He married the much younger actress Joan Plowright. Was Vivien destined to drift through middle age alone? Plot twist – she was with a younger actor called Jack Merivale from 1960 until the end of her life so she wasn’t alone and drifting per se, but she was frequently cited as being lonely. And even Vivien, who had spent the majority of her career on the stage, was not immune to the perils of growing older in the business. “What’s happening,” she noted in 1960 “is that roles come few and far between when an actress gets older. In the past, and particularly in London, producers, playwrights, and directors would think nothing of casting a woman in her forties or fifties to portray a heroine in her twenties. These days age has become such a factor.”

And she wasn’t alone. Think of actresses like Bette Davis or Joan Crawford who took to playing grotesque parodies of their former selves in horror films – Robert Aldrich’s Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? is a classic example of this trend. While Vivien never quite reached that level of shock value, I think she was brave for tacking a role that reflected what was considered a rather sad and perilous time in many actress’ lives and also, in particular, in her own life. Critics agreed. While many thought the subject matter and plot depressing, Vivien was praised for bringing dignity, glamour, and most importantly, believability to a character that was largely unsympathetic. It was hoped that this film would mark the start of a new career for Vivien on the American screen. Unfortunately, she only appeared in one more film before succumbing to tuberculosis in 1967 at age 53. But just think of the potential.

Fashion & Cinema: Dressing Vivien LeighWith Fashion & Cinema’s Diana Mclean before the Roman Spring screening

Fashion & Cinema: Dressing Vivien LeighWe sold some books! Waterstones did a good job of displaying copies of Vivien Leigh: An Intimate Portrait in the lounge area at Ham Yard

Fashion & Cinema: Dressing Vivien LeighFans lined up to get into Streetcar at Cine Lumiere

Fashion & Cinema: Dressing Vivien Leigh
Fashion & Cinema: Dressing Vivien LeighCopies of Vivien Leigh: An Intimate Portrait and Tennessee Williams: mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh on display at Cine Lumiere.

The audiences seemed to largely enjoy both screenings and I was able to meet some interesting people, including an elderly woman who said she purchased a copy of my book as a Christmas present for her sister who has been a lifelong Vivien Leigh fan. As children, she said, her family lived in Alexandria, Egypt. When Vivien Leigh came to town during the Old Vic Spring Party organized by ENSA in 1943, the two sisters went to her hotel and knocked on the door. “A beautiful woman in a flower print dress and high heels” opened the door, asked how she could help, and signed their autograph books. After the war, the family relocated to England and both sisters again wrote to Vivien and Laurence Olivier. They received autographed photos in return. The lady that I met (whose name I didn’t catch, sadly) had wanted to be an actress when she was younger, and wrote Laurence Olivier to tell him so. He kindly responded by saying “Best of luck with your acting career.” The sisters may be in their 80s now, but they still have the photos and the memories.

Dressing Vivien Leigh was a wonderful experience. It’s always nice to witness the appeal Vivien still has for so many people.

Photos © Leodegario Lopez

Fashion & Cinema: Dressing Vivien Leigh

events vivien leigh

Fashion & Cinema: Dressing Vivien Leigh

Isn’t it nice to know that, a full year after the fanfare surrounding Vivien Leigh’s centenary, her contributions to popular culture are still being celebrated? Because that’s exactly what’s happening in England next month.

London-based event company Fashion & Cinema is hosting “Dressing Vivien Leigh” a series of talks and screenings focused on Vivien’s relationships with costume designers. On Friday, December 5, V&A curator Keith Lodwick will be presenting on this very topic. Having been to a few of Keith’s lectures in the past, I’d highly recommend attending this one. This will be followed by screenings of The Roman Spring of Mrs Stone (Saturday, December 6) and A Streetcar Named Desire (Sunday, December 7). The screenings will be introduced by myself and Tennessee Williams biographer John Lahr, author of the National Book Award-nominated Tennessee Williams: Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh.

For the full program, including times and locations, please see the schedule on the Fashion & Cinema website. I’m so excited to have been invited to participate in this event. It’s a great way to introduce different aspects of Vivien’s career, as well as to meet new people and sell books (signings or Mad Pilgrimage and Vivien Leigh: An Intimate Portrait will follow the respective screenings – hopefully).

If you’re in London from the 5th-7th of December, please consider attending. It’ll be a great time!

Tickets are currently on sale. Hope to see you there!

 ♠ ♣ ♠ ♣ ♠

Vivien Leigh: An Intimate Portrait

In Focus: George Douglas

photography vivien leigh

In Focus: George Douglas

“It is refreshing to meet a star who is exactly what I hoped she would be.” So said photographer George Douglas of Vivien Leigh. Born in 1920, Douglas spent his childhood in Rottingdean, East Sussex before relocating with his American father and British mother first to Dallas, Texas, and then to Santa Monica, California. It was there in California that his passion for photography took flight.

Santa Monica was an ideal locale for an aspiring photographer. With its close proximity to Hollywood, it was a playground for celebrities and potential stars eager to be noticed. Douglas could often be found wandering the sun-soaked beach with the $5 Leica he had purchased from a local pawnshop. “We have images from his early shots on Muscle Beach (including Jane Russell who was sunbathing and posed up for young George) through to his breakthrough picture of Angela Lansbury and her fiancée Peter Shaw which made a whole page in Life and launched his career,” says Shan Lancaster of the George Douglas Archive.

Douglas’ career took off in the 1940s when he sold his first image to the Los Angeles Times for $30. From there he went to Sun Valley Idaho, where he became the head of photography for the Sun Valley News Bureau. The following year he returned to California where he began contributing photographs of celebrities to Life magazine. His most prolific partnership, however, was with the British news publication Picture Post, where his quick output earned him the nickname “Speedy.” (He shot 99 features for the magazine in the 1950s alone).

By 1965, Picture Post had long ceased to exist and Douglas was making a living as a freelancer for British women’s magazines and the popular TV Mirror. That summer, while on assignment for Woman, he accompanied Vivien Leigh’s good friend, the journalist Godfrey Winn, to Tickerage Mill in Sussex.

Vivien Leigh Tickerage Mill

In Winn’s eyes, “Tickerage Mill was just as romantic a setting as Notley [Abbey], 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.”

Vivien Leigh at Tickerage Mill

George Douglas “vividly” recalled his visit to Tickerage:

“A long table had been set in the garden for lunch and while we ate Vivien said how she wished she was a writer.

‘I mean working on your own, choosing your own subjects,’ she said. ‘I have read dozens of new plays these last few months and I cannot find one to suit me. An actor or an actress cannot perform without a playwright and a theatre and an audience.

‘All you need, Godfrey, is a pad, a pen and a quiet room.’

‘Too quiet, sometimes,’ Godfrey replied. ‘You begin to dread the solitude.’

‘Yes, I see what you mean. I’m always at my happiest when working with a company,’ Vivien replied. ‘It’s feeling you are part of a production, of a plan, watching it take shape and form.’

“She then gave an illustration of what she meant. At the farewell party that was given at the end of the shooting of The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone, when she came on the set for the last time, the tough camera crew spontaneously cheered her for being such a good trouper: always punctual on the set, always polite, never changing her tone for important people or small ones.”

Vivien Leigh at Tickerage Mill

In his years as a pro photographer, Douglas had earned a reputation for being a gentleman. And he was well versed in photographing celebrities, including Audrey Hepburn, Peter Sellers, and The Beatles. These qualities were surely appreciated by Vivien, who valued professionalism and privacy. Since purchasing the Mill in 1961 she had allowed a select few photographers into her private country sphere, among them Surrey-based photographer Thomas Wilkie. But it is Douglas whose photographs are the most recognizable to Vivien’s fans today, partially owing to one of them being used on the dust jacket for Alan Dent’s nostalgic 1969 tribute, Vivien Leigh: A Bouquet.

Vivien Leigh: A Bouquet

There is a sense of peaceful sadness about the color photographs of Vivien, clad in a lavender sundress with straw hat in hand, sitting in a small row boat on the pond in front of her house. Douglas was able to capture perfectly what Vivien told Godfrey Winn about the significance of Tickerage at that particular time in her life: “This is a breathing space for me, while I refill the reservoir.”

Tickerage Mill 1965

It is unclear exactly what Douglas hoped Vivien would be (a non-pretentious celebrity, perhaps?), but her parting words to his traveling companion left a great impression on him:

“At this time I was not to know that in two years time Vivien Leigh would be dead, but I always remember her last remark,” Douglas recalled. “She was talking to Godfrey and she said, ‘You remember the day we first met? It was a heavenly one, like this.

‘We were both guests at Jeanne de Casalis’ house for the air rally at Lympne, and Noel Coward gave a marvellous party that evening. It was all such fun and we were both so young, and I trusted everyone and I imagined, like the very young always do, that everything lasts for ever.

‘I mean that a day like this will be followed by another, and another and another.

‘And now I know differently. I know that one has to face periods of despondency and that one must not always trust everyone or else one can be very hurt. At the same time, I have learned through life who really are my friends, and that is so very comforting.’”

Vivien Leigh and Godfrey Winn

When his mother fell ill in Santa Monica, Douglas, tired of “chasing deadlines,” retired from professional photography. To make ends meet, he opened an antiques store in southern California and sold goods imported from the UK. In 1985 he was living with his wife, Jill, in Brighton, when Shan Lancaster and her husband, Roger Bamber, moved in across the street. The two couples became friends, but Douglas never went into detail about his former career.

“He talked about photography to Roger my husband but never showed much of his work to him,” Shan says. “We used to take care of his house in the winter when he was away in California.”

Shan and Jill became especially close. “When George died suddenly in 2010 we spent a lot of time with her, she was so lonely, they had no children and were devoted. She came to us every Sunday at lunchtime, and I’d call on her every day. When she died two years later she left us the house and all the photo archive and only then did we realise quite what he had done in his life. The saddest thing was a manuscript, immaculately typed, which began ‘My friend Roger Bamber keeps telling me I should write my life story so here goes…’ and it goes on for 57,000 words but he never showed us a single page of it.”

Earlier this year, Shan and Roger curated an exhibition at Douglas’ former home, which garnered national media attention. Because the George Douglas Archive is currently in its fledgling stage, the possibilities for making Douglas’ work known to a wider audience are many. “We are working on exploring the archive (tons more negatives to sort through) and hoping to find future venues for exhibitions of his work,” says Shan. “His pictures made an enormous impact at the Brighton Festival in May this year. People were moved, delighted, amazed, amused by them. It’s going to be interesting!”

All photos in this post © Roger Bamber, the George Douglas Archive

 ♠ ♣ ♠ ♣ ♠

Vivien Leigh: An Intimate Portrait

A Bird of Paradise

vivien leigh

A Bird of Paradise

Vivien Leigh’s death certificate officially lists her date of death as July 8, 1967 (it wasn’t filed until July 10). However, some people (myself included) observe the date on July 7. The discrepancy comes from Vivien’s partner Jack Merivale, who told several Vivien Leigh biographers about returning home from the theatre late on the night of July 7. After checking in on Vivien, he went downstairs to heat up a tin of soup for dinner. He then went back upstairs and found Vivien unresponsive on the floor. Noel Coward gives a more complete picture in his diaries, based on what Jack told Coward’s partner, Cole Lesley:

“Sunday 16 July [1967]

I can’t even remember the date of the morning that Coley came into my suite at the Savoy and told me that Vivien had died. The shock was too violent. I mind too deeply to go on about it very much. She was a lovely, generous and darling friend, and I shall miss her always. Apparently Jacko [Coward’s nickname for Merivale] came back from his theatre, saw her sleeping peacefully and went to warm up some soup for himself…”

The next part of Coward’s diary entry helps to clear up an ambiguous description in Laurence Olivier’s autobiography Confessions of an Actor. Olivier wrote about Jack calling him to 54 Eaton Square on the morning of July 8 and letting him in to Vivien’s bedroom to be alone with her. This is where it gets controversial and understandably angered those who knew Vivien and felt such details were private and inappropriate. Olivier reported noticing a stain on the floor, and remarked that it was ironic that fate should deliver that particular little death blow when Vivien had been so dainty regarding such matters when she was alive.

“When [Jack] came back a few minutes later she was lying on the floor in a welter of blood, having had a hemorrhage [her official cause of death is listed as “chronic pulmonary tuberculosis.” No inquest was made.]. Jacko, with almost incredible courage and tact, cleaned up all the hideous mess because he knew that she would hate anybody, even the doctor, to see her like that. Then he telephoned the doctor. Jacko is a good and kind man.”

But enough with the grizzly details. This post isn’t about death. It’s about celebrating a woman whose life and work continues to inspire 47 years after her departure. Vivien Leigh is currently experiencing a renaissance; a renewed interest in her legacy. We know a lot about her already, but isn’t it fascinating and exciting to think that there’s still more to learn?

In remembrance of Vivien, a photo retrospective of the woman Noel Coward referred to as a “Bird of Paradise.”

*Some of these photos are published in Vivien Leigh: An Intimate Portrait

Continue reading