general discussion laurence olivier the oliviers vivien leigh

Larry, Vivien and the Rumor Mill

As of late, there has been much debate/discussion on the Vivien Leigh and Laurence Olivier Facebook page regarding Laurence Olivier’s sexual orientation. There have been many rumors about both Larry and Vivien for as long as anyone can remember. Just recently a book called Damn You, Scarlett O’Hara was published that’s overflowing with them. But the main rumor that’s pervaded the scene since Donald Spoto published his biography of Laurence Olivier is that Larry was bisexual. The subject of sex and famous people’s sex lives is the hot ticket, especially in this day and age. I don’t focus on this topic here at very often, if at all, but since it keeps popping up elsewhere, and since it was pointed out yesterday that I “have virtually ignored [the subject] in my research as hearsay”, I decided it might be best to just put my two cents here, and simply refer people to it when asked so as not to have to keep repeating myself in long-winded arguments.

Why I don’t focus on Laurence Olivier’s sexual orientation:

  • I don’t care if he was straight/gay/bisexual/queer/asexual/fill in the blank. It doesn’t matter to me because it has no bearing on his work or the fact that he obviously cared for Vivien Leigh, and there’s nothing wrong with being bisexual anyway (fact: bisexual people are as capable as anyone else of being attracted to/falling in love with a member of the opposite sex as they are with a member of their own).
  • It’s just a damn rumor. The Merriam Webster dictionary defines rumor as: talk or opinion widely disseminated with no discernible source; a statement or report current without known authority for its truth.
  1. The rumor that Larry allegedly had a 10 year affair with Danny Kaye, which started in the Spoto bio, has been reprinted in many biographies, and this is usually the basis and main piece of evidence that people wildly throw onto the table. This rumor was recently debunked by Terry Coleman in his authorized biography.
  2. Some may say, “Well, because it’s authorized, his family could have censored what went in or was left out.” True. Except that didn’t happen. In touching on the subject and debunking the Kaye affair rumor, Coleman makes reference to some letters in the archive at the British Library (which previous biographers did not have access to for their research and what is, speaking from personal experience, the definitive archive for resources on Larry’s life) that were written to Olivier by an older gay actor called Henry Ainley. These letters are explicitly homoerotic in nature, and reveal Ainley’s obvious crush on Larry. Based on these letters, Coleman suggested that Larry may have had a fling with Ainley at some point in his younger years. However, Coleman also acknowledges that there is no evidence of how or even if Larry reciprocated these feelings. Just as it’s possible that he did have a fling with Ainley, it’s also just as possible that he didn’t. Because there isn’t any evidence to confirm either way, we can’t claim it as a fact that he indeed did have an affair with henry Ainley. Tarquin tried to have this censored, but it didn’t end up happening.
  3. People may say, “But I saw  documentary that said he had many homosexual affairs.” True, there are documentaries that say as much (the LIFE Great Romances doc. immediately springs to mind), but none of those documentaries say where they got that info, and many documentaries about famous people have just as much BS in them as they do truth.
  4. People may say, “But when asked about it, Joan Plowright didn’t deny or confirm it, so that must mean she secretly meant “yes”. No one knows what Joan Plowright really thinks because she has never publicly come forward and said “Larry was bisexual.” She also stated publicly that no man alive or dead has come forward claiming to have had an affair with Larry, although the list of females who have done so is about a mile long.
  5. In conclusion, we just don’t know either way. And that’s a-okay.
  • I brush it off as hearsay because it’s exactly that: hearsay. I just gave 4 reasons why it’s hearsay. It’s hearsay because we don’t have any actual proof that it’s a fact. Facts and rumors are two very different things. Facts can be backed up with primary sources, actual sources. Rumors are only backed up by word of mouth, whether voiced or in print. So, just because it’s printed in a book or on wikipedia doesn’t necessarily make it true. If the book that’s cited on wikipedia contains a citation to a resource that can be viewed as actual fact, such as a primary source document or several people who knew the subject well who agree on a certain point, then we might be on to something). I don’t know whether he was bisexual or not, therefore, I can’t just put it out there that I think he was and state it as if it’s a fact, because it’s not.
  1. People may say, “Well, your opinion that it’s hearsay isn’t backed up by research.” Except it is. The entire website is made up of research. The goal of the site is to present a rounded portrait of Vivien Leigh and Laurence Olivier based on various sources so that readers can form their own, hopefully well-rounded opinions. If something has been documented and sourced as an actual fact, I will treat it as a fact. if it’s been documented as a fact but was not sourced from actual evidence, I can only treat it as a rumor.
  • It usually has nothing what-so-ever to do with the topic at hand.

Why am I even bothering with this?

  • There are many fans of Vivien Leigh who are convinced that Laurence Olivier was, indeed bisexual. This is fine, as everyone is entitled to their own opinion. However, I do have a problem with people layering rumors upon rumors and suggesting things such as Laurence Olivier’s bisexuality drove away Vivien Leigh, or that he betrayed her too many times with all of his homosexual affairs, and she simply wasn’t able to put up with his homosexuality, or that it contributed to her bipolar disorder.
  • What is wrong with this sort of argument? As we don’t know either way whether or not Laurence Olivier was bisexual, we certainly have no evidence to back up the claim that such a thing drove a wedge in his relationship with Vivien, let alone that it played a role in worsening the chemical imbalance in her brain. Who are these people that he was supposedly sleeping with? When did tis supposedly happen? One can speculate and even be convinced of such things, but that doesn’t make them true. I need you to back it up with evidence or at least an acknowledgement that you don’t have any.  There are, however plenty of documented and legitimate factors that played a role in her bipolar disorder and the subsequent break-up of their marriage. I made a (mildly sarcastic) pie chart to visually explain:

  • To state rumors as facts, whether it deals with the Oliviers or any other historical figure, is irresponsible. If someone goes and digs through some archives and comes up with some legitimate factual evidence that Laurence Olivier was not only bisexual but that it indeed played a harmful role in his relationship with Vivien Leigh, I will be the first to high five you for a research job well done. Until then, these things remain nothing but a rotating cog in the rumor mill, and as the maintainer of a public website about two dead people who can’t defend themselves, I have no choice but to dismiss them as such.


Disclaimer: If this post wildly differs from your own opinions and therefore offended you, I apologize.

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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