Vivien Leigh and Bipolar Disorder
April 11-17 marks Depression Awareness Week in the UK. The week-long event is organized by the Depression Alliance UK in effort to raise funds for mental health research and provide education in the hopes of reducing the stigma attached to depression and other mental illnesses.
As I’m sure most vivandlarry.com visitors know, Vivien Leigh was a victim of bipolar disorder. Unfortunately, understanding and treatment of major mental illnesses was crude in Vivien’s time. This post is not meant to be a definitive manual on what it’s like living with bipolar disorder. I’m not a psychologist and don’t claim to be any sort of expert. Rather, my goal with this post is to use medical information as well as reports from those close to Vivien to piece something together in hopes of better understanding what Vivien went through. I also hope it sheds light on the difficulties Laurence Olivier had in coping with Vivien’s illness, which eventually played a large part in the disintegration of their marriage.
The National Institute for Mental Health (NIMH) characterizes bipolar disorder as such:
Bipolar disorder, also known as manic-depressive illness, is a brain disorder that causes unusual shifts in mood, energy, activity levels, and the ability to carry out day-to-day tasks. Symptoms of bipolar disorder are severe. They are different from the normal ups and downs that everyone goes through from time to time. Bipolar disorder symptoms can result in damaged relationships, poor job or school performance, and even suicide. But bipolar disorder can be treated, and people with this illness can lead full and productive lives.
Bipolar disorder often develops in a person’s late teens or early adult years. At least half of all cases start before age 25.1 Some people have their first symptoms during childhood, while others may develop symptoms late in life.
Bipolar disorder is not easy to spot when it starts. The symptoms may seem like separate problems, not recognized as parts of a larger problem. Some people suffer for years before they are properly diagnosed and treated. Like diabetes or heart disease, bipolar disorder is a long-term illness that must be carefully managed throughout a person’s life.
One of the first things that comes out of many people’s mouths when they find out Vivien Leigh is my favorite actress is “Wasn’t she crazy?” My answer is usually, “She was bipolar.” There are many reports of her unstable behavior during manic episodes: nymhomania, physically attacking people (the most famous example of that is probably toward the end of her marriage to Olivier when she beat him across the face with a wet towel causing him to lose control and toss her across the bedroom. She caught the corner of her eye on the corner of a night stand and appeared in public the next day wearing a black eye patch), and at least one very famous incident of full-blown psychosis. But does this make her or anyone else suffering from bipolar or a similar mood disorder such as schizophrenia “crazy”? Many experts are hesitant to use the term “insane” in favor of a proper diagnosis of a mental disorder listed in the DSM.
The common consensus seems to be that the onset of Vivien’s bipolar disorder was triggered by a miscarriage she had in 1944 while filming the Gabriel Pascal epic Caesar and Cleopatra. In fact, evidence suggests that she may have been displaying periodic warning signs as early as 1937 (perhaps even earlier). While performing in Hamlet with the Old Vic at Elsinore in 1937, Laurence Olivier reported that, while in her dressing room, Vivien verbally lashed out at him without warning. Somehow this episode was different from anything that had happened before. Olivier remarked to a fellow cast mate that Vivien had gone suddenly crazy. She soon went back to normal and no explanation was given for her outburst. In 1939 while under extreme stress due to the filming of Gone with the Wind, Vivien took an overdose of sleeping pills. Her live-in secretary, Sunny Alexander, made a frantic call to Olivier in New York. The tone of the letter he wrote to Vivien that day denotes his frustration at the incident, and suggests that similar things may have happened in the past:
How dare you take four pills like that you hysterical little ninny (and I know perfectly well you knew people would get alarmed and ring me up and put the fear of God into your poor old Larry at five o’clock in the morning)…Oh my Vivling. What did your poor three friends think, hey? Poor Sunny was demented. I’m afraid you lead your loving ones one hell of a dance and that’s terribly naughty. You’re awfully spoilt yes you are, and it’s all because you’re so pretty.
In a letter written shortly before GWTW wrapped and Vivien was scheduled to fly to New York, Olivier wrote:
I do not think there is a solitary second when my mind is not completely buried in you. You are really on my brain–I suppose if you happened to represent something dangerous I should be locked up–but no it’s not quite like that. I am not always thinking sweetly of you. I am thinking angrily or indignantly or sulkily, quite often, but I am never not thinking of you. More often than not I am just worried about you, concerned and distressed about my baby lamb being tired or unhappy…
Studies have shown that stress is a major factor in triggering manic bipolar phases. Lack of sleep (which Vivien displayed since infancy) and substance abuse are also common among people suffering from depression and related illnesses. In Vivien’s case, her periodic episodes of strange behavior were chalked up to simply behaving badly. Those close to her did not know at the time that such behavior might be part of a developing mental illness.
People with bipolar disorder may also experience periods of psychosis. Psychosis occurs when one can no longer distinguish reality from what’s going on in his or her head; it’s also commonly referred to as having a nervous breakdown. Delusions, hallucinations and thought disorder are common in a psychotic state. Vivien infamously experienced a psychotic break in 1953 during the filming of Elephant Walk. David Niven, Stewart Granger and Laurence Olivier all later wrote about the horrific incident in their respective autbiographies. People in a psychotic state can pose a very real danger to both themselves and others. Today, psychosis is treated with antipsychotic medication and, if needed, hospitalization (electroconvulsive therapy is still used, although only in extreme circumstances). After Vivien’s breakdown, she was flown back to England where Laurence Olivier had her committed at the exclusive Fairdene-Netherne mental asylum in Coulsdon, Surrey. At the time, the only treatment for psychosis was ECT. Vivien spent three months at Fairdene where she was administered several doses of ECT . Over the years, it is possible that the medication she was prescribed to treat chronic tuberculosis could have had a negative effect on her bipolar disorder. A letter from Olivier to ex-wife Jill Esmond describes the hardship in transporting Vivien back to England in 1953:
25 March, 1953
I am most deeply grateful to you for your most generous thoughtfulness in writing such a lovely letter to me. You were right in guessing that I do most desperately feel the need of friends just now. It has been a very bad time.
Getting her home was an incredible nightmare. As you may have gathered, she set up the strongest resistance, and of course as naturally follows when things go wrong, I was to her her worst enemy. She has suffered terribly and will be very ill for some time.
But none of the horrors of the last ten days compare to the feeling of relief that somehow the mission was accomplished and that she is now safe in, I believe, the best hands in England. No one can see her for a bit so I am taking the time to recharge the batteries against whatever the future may hold—just in fact what you prescribe.
I had the loveliest time with Tark. He was terribly sweet and dear to me and for the first time neither of us minded the silences in conversation. I think he sensed that all was not well with me.
Vivien’s nervous breakdown didn’t just happen out of the blue. Olivier later wrote that it was in early 1952 while in New York with the Tow Cleopatras that he noticed Vivien in a heavy depressive state. It did not take many of these repeated incidents before he went searching for a psychiatrist. In June 1952 while on holiday in Jamaica, Olivier confided in Noel Coward that he was extremely worried about Vivien and feared she was heading for some kind of nervous breakdown. Noel wrote in his diaries about having a long chat with Vivien and when the Oliviers left, Noel, too, was concerned. Vivien’s telegrams to Olivier in early 1953 while working on Elephant Walk in Ceylon are erratic and her behavior caused a lot of worry for Olivier who often had a hard time getting in touch with her from London. “Darling, it seems asking for the moon is a simple request compared to talking with you by phone,” he wrote. It was at the point that Vivien started an affair with co-star Peter Finch.
Like other serious illnesses, bipolar disorder can be difficult for spouses, family members, friends, and other caregivers. Relatives and friends often have to cope with the person’s serious behavioral problems, such as wild spending sprees during mania, extreme withdrawal during depression, poor work or school performance. These behaviors can have lasting consequences.
Caregivers usually take care of the medical needs of their loved ones. The caregivers have to deal with how this affects their own health. The stress that caregivers are under may lead to missed work or lost free time, strained relationships with people who may not understand the situation, and physical and mental exhaustion.
Stress from caregiving can make it hard to cope with a loved one’s bipolar symptoms. One study shows that if a caregiver is under a lot of stress, his or her loved one has more trouble following the treatment plan, which increases the chance for a major bipolar episode.50 It is important that people caring for those with bipolar disorder also take care of themselves.
Lack of proper understanding and support for Vivien’s illness understandably caused much stress for Olivier as her primary caregiver at this time. As a coping mechanism, he increasingly buried himself deeper into his work. It is likely that Vivien’s perception of Olivier’s increasing detachment from their once overwhelming passion and her subsequent clinginess/outbursts caused further stress for both of them. Near the end of his life, Laurence Olivier appeared on the American news programme 60 Minutes to talk about his life and career. During the episode, he poignantly put into words what eventually caused him to leave Vivien. “I think I likened it to someone reaching out to someone else in a life raft, and I said ‘No, I’m sorry. I can’t pull you out. If I pull you out, you’ll pull me in. It sounds so easy to say something like that. Flip–glib. But it actually took some years to formulate that image.”
When Vivien agreed to a divorce in 1960, Olivier wrote in a letter to Jack Merivale:
My dear boy,
A few minutes ago I finished your letter and something hapened to me that I don’t remember happening bfore. I broke down and sobbed with relief at the purest kind of gratitude I have ever known. Thank you for giving me that. No need to tell you how happy I am for her, you, and for myself. It was so sweet of you to take such trouble to explain how it happened. I really had been able to divine something very like that but even if I had not or you had not explained it there could never be anything remotely like bitterness in my feelings for her. I have at times (had such feelings) but somehow they have always left me. Much to my misery I have found that though they went they left behind a feeling of growing despair which in time I know would disipate and destroy my faith…
I’ve talked a lot about what it was like for Olivier to live with Vivien during this time, but what about Vivien’s POV? Unfortunately, she didn’t write an autobiography, but there are some snippets of letters from later in Vivien’s life which reveal that she was indeed aware of her illness.
1960–Whatever may happen let us be friends my dearest one. Conachy (her doctor) has done a very marvelous thing for me–and I am feeling as I have not felt for many many years. Perhaps all the interim mistakes have made just too much difference for our life together–I do not know–and you must leave it up to me to do what I think is best for the future in my own time…I understand very well how difficult–even impossible–it had become…Let us face that.
Monday February 11, 1963 Boston Ritz Carleton
Darling Darling Larry–
You cannot ever know how very much your letter meant to me today–How really adorable of you to take time to write–when you have such a fearsome amount on your plate at this time. It was so lovely to have such a lot of news of you. I have been so really worryingly low and with your dear letter with me my spirits took a leap.
Thank you darling so very much.
Whether or not she ever acknowledged that her illness played a large part in the break up of her marriage is debatable, but we do know that she continued with shock therapy off and on for the rest of her life, and that it did pose a large obstacle in both her career and personal relationships. Luckily, Vivien had many loyal friends who were there in her times of need. Katharine Hepburn drove her to doctors’ appointments. Lauren Bacall, Noel Coward and Kaye Kendall made sure there was never a dull moment in the time shortly after the divorce, etc. Considering the circumstances, Vivien made the best of things, and I’ve always found it very admirable that she didn’t let her bipolar disorder completely destroy her life. Perhaps it’s true that things would have been much easier for her and Larry if there had been better treatment and understanding of such conditions in their day.
- Olivier by Terry Coleman
- My Father Laurence Olivier by Tarquin Olivier
- NIMH — Bipolar Disorder
- Self Portrait by Gene Tierney. Gene suffered a similar mental illness and was treated by the same doctor as Vivien Leigh. Her insight into living and coping with a major mental illness is well worth a read.