general discussion vivien leigh

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 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

Darling Jill

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.

NIMH reports:

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.


Suggested Reading:

  • 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.

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 (27)

  1. Interesting read. I hate how everyone blames Larry. I remember seeing that 60 Minutes interview and him saying that lifeboat comment. It may be just the romantic in me, but he always seemed to have a sadness in his eyes when he spoke of her after her death. Everyone always thinks it is so odd that he went from Viv to Joan Plowright, who was quite plain and unglamorous at the time. But really, it makes sense. He needed peace. He needed a simple, stable life. And she seemed to be the answer.

    How very odd that right before I read this here, I saw this article on Catherine Zeta Jones that was released today:,,20481540,00.html

    A lot of people think she is a good choice to play Viv in a biopic, I’ve always thought that while she is quite pretty her features are a bit too harsh for Viv, but I find it very ironic that she has been diagnosed with bipolar disorder as well!

    1. I totally agree about the sadness in his eyes when he talked about Vivien in his later years. It seems to me that, although I’m certain there was a huge amount of anger/sadness/bitterness for both of them at the breakup of their relationship, over time all of the negatives sort of faded away and he was left with good memories of her.

      It’s interesting–I didn’t know CZJ was bipolar. Bipolar II isn’t as severe as bipolar 1 (which is what Vivien had, from the description), but it’s great that she recognized when she needed help. I think that was one of the problems for Vivien. She hated going to the doctor’s. Although she did voluntarily go for ECT in her final years, she never took time out to rest or anything unless it was forced upon her.

  2. absolutely beautiful. very informative and great to see that somebody sees her illness for what it actually was. it’s heartbreaking what they both went through during those times.

    1. It was really sad, and hard for both of them, I think. Things probably would have been easier if they had proper treatment and understanding of it back then

  3. Olivier himsef said that the marriage to Vivien had been heaven the first ten years- hell, the second. I too think he never forgot her but I also think that the wounds inflicted upon him by Vivien’s illness and by the deterioration of their union probably were partially responsible for his frail health in later life.What I find very moving it’s that her friends (tha majority of them) , Larry,Leigh Holman, Tarquin, they all went on caring for her.. She never experienced loneliness, she was loved until the end and that’s really a a bliss for everyone.

    1. I think her wounds most definitely contributed to his too. It must have been so hard for him also. You say she never experienced loneliness, whereas I think dealing with her illness probably made her the most lonely out of everybody. Sometimes a room can be filled with people and you feel as if you are the only one there. Especially with her condition, she probably felt so isolated because nobody truly understood her. It’s so sad.

      1. I agree with this completely, and I’m sure he went through periods of depression during that time, as well. He mentioned quite a few incidences where he tried talking to his friends and even Vivien’s parents about it, but that no one really took her illness seriously. he must have felt like he was the only one dealing with it quite often, just as she must have felt no one understood her. Sad times all around!

    2. I agree matilde with your comment. Vivien Leigh unfortunately was in a hospital after she became ill in the 1950’s near where I live. She was I believe there for quite awhile. I know she had stock treatment quite a few times. In those days it was sometimes standard practice for people with her type of illness. The drugs used today weren’t around then sadly. I think Olivier found it hard to talk about his life with Vivien at times. I remember the tv programme Laurence Olivier a life before his death in 1989. He became quite emotional when asked about Vivien and their union. He just wanted to move on in the interview. And who can blame him.

      1. Carole heath was the hospital where Vivien Leigh was in the 1950′ at coulsdon surrey. There was a big one there called netherene I think it was called. My sister lived not far from there and she had heard the story about a famous actress having been a patient there and had treatment there but wasn’t sure who it was.

        1. Yes that is correct Anita that is the hospital where Vivien Leigh was sadly because of her bi-polar illness.

  4. that’s not what I meant. Of course Vivien, like others who suffer from this kind of illness must have felt isolated; who really knows what someone plagued by mental disorder is going through? I mean that all the people I mentioned kept on loving her and supporting her as best as they could and that must have been a great comfort, as she herself often said. adding to be very grateful for it. I think she was an highly complicated woman but she never took anyone for granted

    1. sorry yeah i didn’t mean it to sound like that, must have come across wrong! of course it was lovely for her to have had such good friends, i just meant she must have also felt so lonely having to deal with such an awful illness in a time when no-one understood what it was or how to deal with it. I completely agree with you about larry too, poor guy he must have been through hell.

    2. I think she took Larry for granted quite often in the last decade of their marriage. She didn’t think he would actually leave her. Colin Clark said that she worshipped Larry and adored him, but she couldn’t resist needling him like a bullfighter with a bull, and he couldn’t keep up in the really long run. All things considered, I think she’s lucky he stayed around as long as he did. She certainly had a magnetism about her that kept people faithful to her in one way or another. It’s fascinating!

      1. yes, in the last years she did take Larry for granted, that’s true,probably she never really thought he was beyond recall ..

  5. Kendra, I just want to commend you for another beautifully written and well researched piece. This was very interesting, and despite so much having been written about Vivien’s illness already, you have brought something fresh and original to the discussion as always. I particularly like the personal letters of Vivien and Larry that you chose to illustrate your various points … very effective, and completely heartbreaking! But more than anything, I appreciate the point you made in your conclusion, which to me is something about Vivien that doesn’t get emphasized nearly enough — namely, that she “made the best of things, and … didn’t let her bi-polar disorder destroy her life”. I suspect that remark would have pleased her more than almost anything else you could have said in praise of her!

    1. Thanks, David. I think their letters speak volumes about their situation throughout their relationship, and I appreciate that Vivien wasn’t totally in denial about her issues. I really do think she made the best of things and she was very brave with it all. It’s sad that they didn’t turn out exactly as she wanted them to, but life rarely happens that way.

      I’ve always personally felt that it was for the best that she and Larry split in the end because I think sometimes people need to save themselves. Yes, Vivien was the sad one and yes, it was a great strain on her, but some good things did come of it: Jack Merivale was able to care for her and Larry found peace and quiet with Joan.

  6. I have bipolar disorder. Even articles like this and books don’t really describe it well enough. I’m 21 and I’d been told by doctors for years that I might be bipolar. I never accepted it. I had met bipolar people before. Bipolar people are crazy that’s not me. I refused to believe it and refused to get help. Stubborn, stubborn, stubborn.
    I’ve always been obsessed with classic movies and all of my friends know it. They kept telling me I should watch this four hour movie on the Civil War from 1939. No I said. They stole all the oscars from the Wizard of Oz my favorite movie since I was five. Who wants to sit and watch a four hour movie anyway? Stubborn, stubborn, stubborn. I refused to watch it.
    Finally last year after leaving my job due to a nervous breakdown (which I never admit to anyone) I had a lot of time on my hands. I rented the four hour movie and settled in front of my televison to watch it. Normally I have problems sitting still but I found myself enchanted for four hours mostly by the star who was a tiny woman with big green eyes and dark curls. I looked her up afterwards “Oh!” I said with shock “she was English I never would have known that!” I love people from the UK every English person I’ve met is just wonderful. I watched more of her movies and read some books about her. “Oh!” I said with shock. “She was Bipolar, I never would have known that!”
    The truth is people who are mentally ill could be anyone. True we can act sometimes like we have perpetual PMS but speaking for myself I very rarely get really crazy. Maybe once a year or so. But this tiny English woman helped me find the courage to accept my problems and find a doctor. I’m still looking for the right medication, still trying to find another job, and still looking for my Rhett Butler. But the point is, I’m still here. Thanks Vivien Leigh!

    1. Thanks for sharing your story, Katie. I’m sorry you’re dealing with bipolar disorder but it sounds like you’re on a positive track with it and I hope you’re able to get everything sorted soon. It’s true, anyone can be mentally ill, and most people suffer from depression at least once in their lives. It’s important to acknowledge and be aware of such things, which it sounds like you are! I’m glad Vivien has proved inspirational to you.

  7. Just read this and as someone suffering from the illness myself and a super fan of Viv I really think you hit the nail on the head dear Kendra! Marvelous article!

  8. Hi Kendra I just got done reading this. I feel so sorry for Vivien. One of my brothers friends has BP my mom and I saw his mom out and about and we talked about it. She was so upset.
    I also had to do a report on Bipolar this past school term. I found it very interesting and the teacher found the report very well researched. Anyways I was wondering if Vivien and Gene Tirney had the same thing? Thanks:) Keep up the great work.

    1. I think Gene Tierney did have bipolar, as well. I’d definitely recommend reading her autobiography “Self-Portrait” as it gives good insight into what it was like living with mental illness and being treated in mental hospitals at the time. Gene’s experience as an in-patient was different from Vivien’s, namely that Gene was mixed in with other patients on the ward, whereas Larry paid for Vivien to get exclusive treatment. I think she was lucky in that respect.

  9. I was as taken as any male when I first saw her with the Tarlton twins on the porch at Twelve Oaks. But years later, after my own bouts with PTSD-induced hypomania and ratty depressions, I took the time to read two biographies, as well as magazine and Internet articles. Knowing as much as I do now, I’d have to suggest that bipolar described only part of Leigh’s trait set. Borderline personality is typically co-morbid with bipolar in females, and her relentless flip-flopping of perceptual orientations toward others suggests as much. Histrionic personality — a close cousin to borderlinism — is highly typical of performing artists, and almost invariably highly stressful. While she may not have displayed classic obsessive-compulsive disorder, she seemed to have a hugely stimulus-seeking, possibly addictive personality in the manner of obsessive-compulsive personality disorder (as per the DSM-III and IV). Finally, one can see the strong likelihood of the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder and undue autonomic nervous system tilt toward the sympathetic (“fight or flight”) branch, not from child abuse but quite possibly for her experiences with tuberculosis… and as the result of never letting up off the gas because to slow down might mean feeling emotions she believed she could not tolerate. RG, Psy.D.

  10. Many people blame Joan Plowright also for the breakup of Laurence and vivien’s union. Joan has said publicly. She was not the kind of person that broke up people’s marriages . I think that is true. Unfortunately the marriage was disintigrating in the late 1940’s and Vivien leigh’s affair with peter finch in the 1950’s made the situation worse.

    1. I agree Carole with your comment. Some people like to lay the blame in certain areas when these things happen unfortunately. I think there where other factors as you say. The teo people who really knew the true where Olivier and Leigh.

  11. I have been a fan of Laurence Olivier and vivien Leigh since the early 1960’s. I had heard their names as a child and I think i saw Olivier in wuthering heights on TV once. Then one evening a film came on which brought to my attention this actor called Laurence Olivier. The film was Richard 111 an adaptation of shakespeare’s play. I knew nothing about Shakespeare’s plays as at my school it wasn’t taught. I was so taken back by Olivier’s performance I decided to find out more about him. I brought a book called the Olivier’s which was published in the 1950’s. I then read about Vivien Leigh his then wife the famous actress of gone with the wind fame. I have read lots of books on them both and still find their lives and careers so interesting to read about. It was very sad about her illness and the breakup of their marriage. I liked them in lady Hamilton the film about her love affair with nelson the chemistry between vivien and Laurence was wonderful I think.

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