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Revealing David Niven’s “Missie”

David Niven wrote two of the best “autobiographies” out of anyone in show business.  His first book, The Moon’s A Balloon, is a straight autobiography.  His second book, Bring on the Empty Horses is a compilation of stories about his famous friends.  In Bring on the Empty Horses, Niven tells the story of a famous girl named “Missie” who had a terrible breakdown in Hollywood (there were actually two ‘Missies” in his book but we’re focusing on the second one today).  Whenever I check the stats for, it’s amazing how many people land on the site through a google search for “David Niven Who Is Missie?”

The cat’s out of the bag; “Missie” was Vivien Leigh.

Vivien Leigh aka Missie

In Confessions of An Actor, Laurence Olivier talks about David Niven and Stewart Granger being there with Vivien during her infamous 1953 breakdown during the filming of Elephant Walk.  Because Larry was in Ischia at the time, it took him a few days to get back to Hollywood and collect his wife.
This is David’s harrowing account.  Because Vivien was a good friend of David’s, he used a bunch of red herrings so that people would not easily be able to identify her:

At six o’ clock in the morning Mae called me on the telephone.
“Mista David, you git over here real quick!…Somethin’ terrible’s happenin’ to Missie”
“What?” I asked sleepily.
“She’s possessed-that’s what!… you git over here real quick now!”

Within twenty minutes I drove up to the little white garden gate and jumped out of the car. Mae was waiting for me. She was shaking. She clutched my arm and repeated over and over, “She’s possessed! She’s possessed! She’s throwed me out!…I’m quittin’ …I’m quittin’!”

I tried to reassure her, but nothing would persuade her to come back into the house with me, so I took her key and watched her head quickly down to the tree-lined street in the direction of Sunset Boulevard-she never looked back.

It was still dark, and no lights showed in the small house as I quietly let myself in the back door. I didn’t know what to expect, so I stood inside the kitchen and called out softly a few times, “Missie, it’s David!” There was no answer, then the sound of footsteps above. I pushed the swing door into the hall. Suddenly all the lights went on, and there stood Missie at the top of the stairs. Her hair was hanging down in straggly clumps; the mascara and make up made a ghastly streaked mask down to her chin; one false eyelash was missing; her eyes were staring and wild. She was naked and looked quite, quite mad.

I had never seen real hysteria before and didn’t know how to cope with it. I tried walking up the stairs toward her, but she backed away screaming, “Go away! Go away! I hate you!…Don’t touch me!”

When I tried to reason with her, she sat on the landing, alternately sobbing like a child and snarling down at me through the banisters like a caged animal.

I knew i must get her a doctor, but the very mention of the word brought on the most terrifying reaction. I knew also that she must be overdue at the studio make up department, and any minute the assistant director would be calling up to find out if she had overslept; above all, I knew that if Missie had cracked up, no word of it must leak out to the press or she’d be finished in Hollywood.

In desperation I tried an offhand approach.

“Look darling,” I said, ” you can sit up there on the floor as long as you like, but I’m bored, and I want to watch television.”
At that hour of the morning in the early days of TV, there were no programs on the air, but I had a feeling that I must coax her downstairs and try to keep her busy. I switched on the set, which cracked and hummed and displayed nothing but horizontal lines, and settled myself on the sofa to watch them. After a few minutes the stairs behind me creaked, but I did not look around. I could sense that Missie was standing watching me. The she came shyly into the room, like a child, and curled up on the sofa next to me to watch the blank screen with a funny private smile. We sat there together for a long while. Occasionally she would let out a peal of laughter and point at the set; sometimes she would shrink back in horror; once she screamed with fear and moved up close beside me.

Goosebumps rose on my back.

I put my arm around her naked body to protect her from whatever it was she saw in her poor faraway mind-she was icy cold.

The phone rang in the kitchen. I glanced at my watch. It was only eight o’ clock, but I already felt that I had been in that house for a lifetime.

Having succeeded, so far, in calming her by playing a game of lies, I continued by saying “Oh that’ s for me…I”ll be back in a second.”

It was indeed Mac, the assistant director. He was in a highly choleric condition.

“Where the hell is Missie?” he demanded. “She’s over two hours late!”

By a great stroke of good luck I had worked with Mac and knew him for one of that priceless breed of true professionals who can guide unsure directors, make life pleasant for actors, and save money for producers. Once he had identified himself, I whispered down the phone.

“Missie is sick, Mac, and it’s real trouble, so for her sake don’t say a word to anyone except the producer..Who is he?”

Mac mentioned a fairly obscure name and added, “and he’s a jerk.”

“Tell him to come over right away,” I said. “Not to come up to the house, just blow the horn in the street, and I’ll come out to him.”
I fetched Missie’s husband’s overcoat from the hall closet and joined her once more before the television set. She snuggled under the coat and clasped my hand. “Isn’t she lovely?” she said, pointing at the empty screen. Around nine o’ clock I heard the front doorbell ring. Missie was transformed.

“Don’t let them in!” she pleaded. “They’ll take me away!” I promised that I wouldn’t let anyone in if she would be a good little girl and go up to her room and shut he door. I watched her still gorgeous back view ascend the stairs.

On the doorstep I found a highly strung, fat, youngish man dressed in white slacks and open neck shirt. His black hair was slicked down, and his eyes were obscured by dark glasses.
“What gives, for christsakes?” he asked, and before I had time to phrase an answer, he added belligerently, “and how did you get into the act?”

I brought Missies’ producer up to date and told him that in my opinion she would be unable to report for work for some time.
“Are you screwing her?” he asked. “What the hell do you know about it?…you’re not her goddamn physician..where is she? i want to talk with her.”

He was prevented form doing this and finally left, having jabbed a finger in my chest and promised to sue me, to call the police, to get me barred from all studios and to “take care of Missie for fucking up my picture.”

When he had gone, I found Missie crying among the shoes at the bottom of her wardrobe.

After another hour of empty television I claimed an urge for a cup of coffee and left Missie reacting to the horizontal flashes while I headed for the kitchen and another whispered phone call, this time to the new head of her studio-a quiet, dignified man I had met only once.

He was light years ahead of his image conscious producer.
“The only thing that matters is that girl’s health,” he said at once. “We’ll keep the picture going and wait for hear as long as we can; if necessary, we’ll recast and reshoot Missie’s part, but what about her?”

I underlined the urgent need for a doctor, and he instantly agreed to alert my old friend from Santa Monica, whose office, far from Beverly Hills was unlikely to be infiltrated by gossip columinsts’ spies, eager for the hot news of an impending abortion, a drying out, or a breakdown. He also promised to locate Missie’s husband and get him an immediate message, telling him, from me, in the most urgent but least frightening terms, what had happened to his wife and to urge him to return posthaste. We both agreed it would take him at least three days to make the trip.

Probably from her hours of naked exposure in a drafty house, Missie was coughing intermittently, so I told her that my doctor would be passing by to give me “an injection” and that I’d ask him to check her over at the same time and perhaps recommend something for her cold. To my surprise she agreed without much ado, but when I suggested that she clean up her face for the impending visit, it provoked another screaming spat of abuse: If I didn’t think she was beautiful the way she was, why didn’t I get the hell out?…Who invited me anyway? Et cetera. After she calmed down, we returned to the television set, and Missie ate some cottage cheese.

The doctor arrived punctually, and I went down to the gate to brief him. He followed me into the house, and when Missie saw him administrating my bogus jab, she held my hand during the proceedings. When he turned his attention to her, she babbled incoherently but allowed him to listen to her heart and lungs. He produced a bottle of pills and said to me, “She should take two of these every two hours..she has the beginnings of a nasty infection there..I’ll drop by again around six.”

Missie had been unnaturally clam during his visit but the storm broke when he asked if she had a girlfriend who could come and sit with her “because you might feel drowsy and you don’t want to take a fall.”

She suddenly turned on the poor man and started belaboring him and pushing him toward the front door.   She yelled and screamed and poured out torrents of abuse on him and on all her girlfriends, naming them one by one, reviling them and accusing them of plotting against her.

When she collapsed with the inevitable tear storm, she sobbed, “David’s the only one I trust..and he’s looking after me.”

At the doctor’s car he said, “There’s no question..the girl’s in big trouble and must go in for psychiatric treatment at once.”

The responsibility was being lifted from my shoulders. I was relieved and said so, but he shook his head. “You told me it would be three days before the husband gets here, and by California law the next of kin is the only one who can sign her in. Even I can’t do it.  Till he gets here, she must not be left alone whatever happens. And lock up all the kitchen hardware because she might do anything.”

He paused and said kindly, “It’s going to be tough on you, but you’re the friend of the family, and it looks as though you’re stuck…How’s the sex thing between you?”

“There isn’t any,” I said. “There’s never been.”

He opened the door of his convertible. “She’s going to offer it to you,” he said. “That’s part of the pattern. If you accept , you’ll make matters worse, and if you refuse, she’ll still make matters worse because she’ll feel rejected by the only person she trusts..I don’t envy you the next three days.”

“What the hell do I do?” I asked. “I’ve only been here four hours, and I’m already exhausted…I have my own life to lead, too.”

“Give her those pills,” he said, “and keep in touch with me. Remember, when they’re like this, they’re very, very cunning. Good luck.”

He drove away.

Back in the ouse the nightmare took its course. First the phone rang, and a voice said, “Hold the line for Miss Louella Parsons, please.”

It hadn’t taken long; probably a secretary in the fat producer’s office had heard him pressing the panic button. Louella’s well known drawl came over the phone. She demanded to speak to Missie.

“She’s sick,” I said, putting what I hoped was Filipino houseman’s voice. “She’s sleeping..she no come to phone…you leave message.”

“Tell her to call Louella Parsons as soon as she wakes.”

“Yes, ma’am” I said.

“Who was that?” asked Missie when I went back to the television room.

“Oh, just Louella,” I said off-handedly.

Missie was instantly transformed. “Why don’t you want me to speak to Louella?” she yelled. “She probably wants to do a Sunday story on me…You know I love Louella.” She ran into the kitchen and started looking up the columnist’s number. I grabbed the phone from Missie’s hands, and a battle royal took place for it’s possession. She went for my eyes and testicles with fingers like hooked claws, so during th sobbing period that followed the encounter I took the doctor’s advice and locked up all the sharp kitchen implements I could find.

The dreadful day dragged on.  During the afternoon I finally persuaded her to take two of the doctor’s pills, which she had hitherto regarded with the deepest suspicion, but first she wanted to take a walk around the small swimming pool. Stark naked as usual, she paraded around the garden, and I prayed that prying journalist eyes could not see through the hedge. When the moment to take the pills came, she grabbed the bottle out of my hand and ran off like a naughty child, hid it behind her back, and demanded a kiss in exchange for it. This payment having been extracted, she deliberately emptied the contents of the bottle into the deep end of the pool.

The doctor paid his second visit, and Missie refused to let him inside the house, saying he was one of “them.” I managed to have a few words with him in the garden.

“I’ll get you some more pills,” he said, and showed me where he would leave them by the gate. “They’re strong sedatives; it’ll make your life much easier if she’ll take she eating anything?”

“Only cottage cheese, ” I told him.

“try pounding them up and mixing them in there,” he suggested. “Is she drinking?”

“She asks for a glass of wine now and that bad?”

“Any stimulant is bad of course, but don’t refuse it–water it down.”

He gave news from the head of Missie’s studio.”I’m in contact with him; he sounds like a good guy. He said to tell you that the husband is on his way. He’s due in eight o’clock Sunday morning.”
My heart sank-it was only Thursday evening.

“He said to tell you that he’s put out a press release that she’s in bed with a virus infection under doctor’s care…good luck, Doctor!” he added with a smile. “Try to get a couple of those pills into her stomach and take the phone off the hook.”

Missie made the offer the doctor had predicted during our first night together.

“I’ve something for you,” she said seductively, and ran upstairs, giggling.

Half an hour later she called down. Her face was cleaned at last, her make up redone, her hair brushed and falling into a golden cloud over her shoulders, and she was wearing a short black see-through nightie. She looked lovely.

“Come and get it,” she whispered from the top of the stairs, turning her back in a parody of sexiness and lifting the hem of the nightie. It was not an easy evening for me, to put it mildly , and it ended in a glass and bottle throwing scene with Missie ordering me out of the house, an instruction I longed to, but dared not, obey.

The pills did not seem to have much effect on Missie. Around midnight she ate some cottage cheese which contained a couple and drank some wine into which I had stirred a third, but they slowed her down for only an hour or two; then she was as bright and demanding and as terrifyingly unpredictable as before. I dared not go to sleep for five minutes, and as the long days and interminable nights melded into each other, a dreadful thought began to me-that it was not Missie whose mind had become deranged…it was mine. I became a hollow eyed zombie, sleepless and utterly exhausted, but Missie never showed any signs of tiredness and harried me endlessly to play hide and seek with her, to flatter, her to comfort her, to fight with her, or to go to bed with her.

I found I had come to hate her.

Twice a day the doctor met me in the garden to give me news of the husband’s progress and to inject me with floods of BQE to keep me going. By Saturday evening I could go no further.

I can’t make it through tonight,” I told him. ” The plane’s on time..he arrives tomorrow morning. For God’s sake give her a jab and put her out so that I can sleep… I can’t go on.

He looked at me carefully for a long time. “It’s completely illegal,” he said, “But okay, I’ll do it. “

He outlined the plan. I was to leave the front door open and at 9 o’ clock exactly he would slip in with a trained nurse, who, he said, would act as a witness, help with the injection, and also stay the night to take care of Missie when she came around. The two of them would hide in the downstairs bathroom; then, on some pretext, I would coax her into the hall, grab her, throw her on the ground, and hold her down while the deed was done.

“It’s going to b e very rough,” he said, “and God knows I hate to do it…but it’s the only way.”

Missie seemed to sense that something was going to happen. For the fist time her eyes lost their wild look; she seemed calm, almost normal and very vulnerable. She followed me wherever I went. Also, for the first time, she talked about her husband. She had not mentioned him once during the whole time I had been with her. “I hope he comes to see me,” she said sadly. It was eerie.

A few minutes before nine I told her I was hungry and asked her to come help me fix a sandwich. She left her favorite place in front of the television set and put her hand trustingly and childlike in mine. As we passed through the hall into the kitchen, I caught a glimpse through the curtains of the doctor’s darkened car at the gate.

We puttered about in the kitchen, and I received another reminder of the premonition that had awakened within my charge.

Suddenly Missie said, “You won’t let them take me away, will you?”

For a moment I thought she too might have seen the car.

“Who?” I asked.
“Oh!” she said mysteriously. “They will be coming for me one day…They want to take me away, but you won’t them, will you?”

“Of course not” I said, loathing every second of the dreadful charade that was unfolding. Slowly I ate my sandwich. When I judged that sufficient time had elapsed from my conspirators to be in position and ready, I took Missie’s trusting hand in mine and led her into the hall; a chink of light showed from beneath the bathroom door. Clumsily I swung the poor naked girl around, hooked one leg behind her knees, and flung her to the ground.
After a first startled gasp she fought with incredible ferocity and strength. She didn’t scream, she was spitting like a panther, biting, clawing and kicking. I finally manged to eagle spread her on the floor and pin her arms by kneeling on the elbow joints. I yelled for the doctor.

When she saw two strange forms approaching, one in white uniform and the other bearing a hypoderm syringe, Missie screamed at last, long piercing notes of pure animal terror.

“They’ve come! They’ve come!”

The nurse held Missie’s feet, and between us we controlled her convulsive struggles while the doctor did his work.

It was soon over, and as she began to calm down I avoided her eyes, filled as they were with such blazing hatred at my base betrayal.

Later, when we carried her to bed, her face was as innocent and as peaceful as a baby’s.

The nurse cleaned up my many bites and scratches, and the doctor gave me something that would enable me to go to sleep at last. None of us spoke.

At six the next day, refreshed, but with a leaden conscience and a three day growth of beard, I drove on my way to the airport, through the peaceful emptiness of the early morning streets. A few kids were already abroad, experimenting with brightly colored bikes, and some early risers in curlers and bedroom slippers were retrieving carelessly delivered Sunday papers from beneath bushes in their front gardens.

I felt as though I had returned from far, far away.

It must have been absolutely horrifying for Vivien to go through this sort of thing, and terribly difficult for those who had to live with it. Larry described getting her on the plane back to London for treatment as one of the hardest things he’d ever been through. He also said that after she had shock therapy for the first time, she was no longer the same girl he had married. Terribly sad!

From the LA Times archives: Laurence Olivier looks on horrified as Vivien Leigh is laoded into an ambulance at LAX
David Niven with Larry Olivier at LAX. The LA Times reported that the anguished Olivier broke down and sobbed in David’s arms once Vivien had been loaded onto the plane
Arriving in London after a very tedious journey. Larry was furious that the paparazzi had got wind of the story

Kendra has been the weblady at since 2007. She lives in Yorkshire and is the author of Vivien Leigh: An Intimate Portrait, and co-author of Ava Gardner: A Life in Movies (Running Press). Follow her on Twitter @kendrajbean, Instagram at @vivandlarrygram, or at her official website.

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Comments (16)

  1. oh my goodness, this is absolutely heartbreaking to read. Poor Vivien, David and Laurence. I’m glad that the studio head was nice and that the doctor was able to help David with the medicine and injections.

  2. It’s really sad, and I think the pics above speak a thousand words as well. David was a good friend, and I’m glad Larry was able to count on him to look after her in Hollywood. Poor thing.

  3. I get really confused about this period in Viviens life. To read Stewart Granger’s version of events in his book ‘Sparks Fly Upward’ it would appear that David Niven ended up taking the sleeping pills meant for Vivien and slept through the rest of the events while Stewart let the doctor and nurses in and helped them to sedate Vivien. ‘Love Scene’ by Jesse Lasky recounts Irving Asher’s (the producer of Elephant Walk) side of the story – he was a friend of both Larry and Vivien and extremely sympathetic towards her during this time, not the heartless person that he is painted by David Niven. Other biographies tell of a combination of all the above events and Larry’s biography tells a different version of events again in which he and Danny Kaye are the ones who restrain Vivien before she was finally sedated by the nurses and then recounts the horrors of their journey back to England with Cecil Tennant there to support both himself and Vivien. He ends the tale by saying that she was no longer the same girl that he had fallen in love with and that ‘in so far as she was no longer the person I had loved, I loved her that much less’. very very sad. One can only guess at the horrors Vivien must have gone through herself during this time but full credit to her that she pulled herself back from the brink and continued to fulfil her acting dreams, keeping her illness hidden from the public.

  4. This probably isn’t exactly how it happened–he doesn’t mention Stewart Granger being there, and David was known for embellishing some things to make a better story (and he obviously switched things around and disguised Vivien). but as we can see from the photos above, he WAS there, and it was a terrible experience. larry also said John Buckmaster was in the house with Vivien and that Niven and Granger had kicked him out before Larry got there. So, it is a bit of a muddle, but I think when it comes down to it a lot of that stuff did happen in one sense or another–even if it didn’t happen exactly as David tells it in the book.

  5. It does seem a bit confusing with all the different versions.In Larry’s book, “Confessions of an actor,” he said he and Danny Kaye needed to get Vivien on a plane from Hollywood to London. She had to be sedated, and Larry and Danny had to hold Vivien down, who was terrified of needles.
    David Niven supposedly went through the same nightmare as Larry and Danny, and I plan on reading Stewart Grangers account. Everyone involved in this tragedy is dead and gone, so who knows what really happened.
    It deeply saddens me the hell poor Vivien went through. Tarquin Olivier said Vivien’s condition worsened after she miscarried her and Larry’s first child, but I feel that was`just the icing on the cake. I think Vivien’s problems started when she was just a little girl. From her parents home movies, one can see that Vivien was a very active child, and today would be considered to have ADHD. She was probably more then her parents could handle, so at the age of 5 she was left at a convent school for a period of time. Now, can you imagine what goes through a child’s mind when she desserted by her parents?
    I believe this sent Vivien over the edge, that’s why when she and Larry were far apart from each other, in her mind she felt she was being desserted again. One of her doctor’s during her 1953 breakdown also said something had happened when she was a child that contributed to her mental state.
    Never the less, it was so heart breaking for all involved.

  6. I have to go back and re-read Larry’s book, but I’m pretty sure Danny Kaye helped get Vivien on the plane from NY to London. In the pics with Larry and David in LA, Vivien is on a stretcher. In the pics with her and Danny, she is walking and they are helping her onto the airplane.

    I agree that being left alone at school probably did a number on her, and it seems she was displaying random signs of *something* even before GWTW. I think everyone just thought she was high strung and spoiled. larry said that it was during the 2 Cleopatras in NY, when he’d find Vivien sitting on the bed crying and unable to be consoled, that he started looking for a psychiatrist for her

  7. I already knew of this ghastly episode from the bios I’ve read, but still it was depressing to read it in such detail. Poor Vivien, and poor David. He was an extraordinary friend; few people would have endured such an ordeal for about three whole days.
    That last part, with the doctor and nurse sneaking into the house and sedating her by force, is hauntingly reminiscent of the last scene from Streetcar… So, so, so sad 🙁

  8. Most Anglo-Indian children were sent to school in Europe. It had nothing to do with Vivien’s hyper-activity, but the lack of educational opportunities in the British Raj. What you interpret as Attention Deficit Disorder is just a product of her scampering around quickly on home movies.

  9. More than likely everyone involved with Vivien’s breakdown would have prefered to forget all that happened at this time and that is probably why the story has become confused. Plus everyone see things from their own perspective which can be very different from another persons. But I agree with both Kodis & Kendra that Vivien being sent to a convent school at such a young age must have contributed to her later breakdown. I know it was common practice in those times to send children to boarding school but it was in the holidays that Vivien was left alone with the nuns without the company of other children her own age. That must have been hard on her and not seeing your mother for 1 year and your father for two years, I really cant imagine how this would affect a child. The sense of abandonment she felt must have been real even though most books discount that this affected Vivien in any way. Larry was to later leave her alone at Notley after her first brush with tuberculosis whilst he was performing on the London stage, and so it goes on. Maybe her going to Ceylon was her way of testing Larry’s love for her – if he loved her he would follow her to Ceylon.

  10. She really put Larry through the ringer during Elephant Walk. He did fly out there to see her but didn’t stay very long when he saw she had hooked up with Peter Finch. I don’t blame him. I think that was the most trying period of their relationship.

  11. I bought a painting a few months ago of Vivien Leigh painted by Fred Mason [since became a fan ]and had never seen Gone With The Wind Great Movie if anyone could help me find out some info on Fred Mason I would be Greatfull,thx Bob….Ky.

  12. Reading this is almost like reading a story of my wife who was diagnosed with bi-polar manic depression. I had a day with her very similar if not almost exactly like David had with Missy(viv). in fact our pet name for my wife was Sissy. And just like Viv ..Sissy died at an early age. We had divorced 3 yrs before her death but were able to re-kindle a good friendship before her passing.At first discovering who Vivien was and eventually larry the love of her life..I was resentful towards him because he left Viv…but eventually i saw how hypocritical i was because I did the very same thing to save my own sanity.Ironic huh? If anyone would like to share their similar experiences or thoughts on Vivien..please feel free to email me @

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