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The Vivien Leigh and Jack Merivale Papers

Posted in - book news, london, vivien leigh on October 29th 2010 6 Comments

I don’t talk about Jack Merivale on vivandlarry.com very much at all, mostly because he came after Laurence Olivier in Vivien’s life and since the site focuses on Vivien and Larry, Jack has always been sort of peripheral.  But in this instance I think he deserves some space of his own.

Today I had the opportunity to look through the Vivien Leigh/Jack Merivale papers at the BFI Library in central London.  These papers, among those of many other British film luminaries, are held in special collections and are only viewable by appointment after having purchased a BFI membership and library card.  As a researcher of Vivien Leigh or anyone else in the film world, really, the BFI and other similar archives are essential to getting an in-depth, inside look at someone’s life and career.  The project I have been working on for ages (I think I’ve mentioned it here before in passing) has required extensive archival research, particularly of photographs.  The Leigh/Merivale collection only had a handful of photos related to Vivien, but the rest of the material was equally as fascinating.

The papers were donated to the BFI by Merivale’s wife Dinah Sheridan, whom he married after Vivien passed away, and they contain letters from Vivien to Jack (in her always difficult to decipher handwriting)–letters from the Civil War centenary/GWTW re-premier in Atlanta talking about drinking mint juleps and eating at “Aunt Fanny’s Cabin”, from New York, from India, from everywhere.  It seems she and Jack traveled solo about as much as she and Larry had previously–hundreds of condolence letters from Vivien’s friends and fans after her passing, letters from Larry Olivier to Jack on the eve of his and Vivien’s divorce, a psychiatric report from a couple different psychiatrists, and a few photographs of Vivien in the late 1950s.

Knowing to some extent what Vivien went through in her struggle with bipolar disorder, I’m really glad she had Jack to just…be there when she obviously needed someone to keep an eye on her.  I think he was a gentle and kind soul, a genuinely good guy, and just what she needed at the end of her life after all she’d been through with her divorce from Larry and life in general.  I know Larry was grateful for Jack’s presence in Vivien’s later life.

Sometimes it’s hard to believe that Vivien Leigh lived such a full life in such a short time, but the letters from her famous friends and fans after she passed away are a true testament to just how much she gave to the world.  Jack got letters from Lauren Bacall, Celia Johnson (who I didn’t know was even friends with Vivien), Cole Leslie, Binkie Beaumont, Rachel Kempson, Diana Cooper, Deborah Kerr, Ursula Jeans and Roger Livesey, John Mills, David Niven, and Victor Stiebel, among others.  In these letters, many of her friends mentioned how they knew she loved him very much and how he made her happy in the last few years of her life and enabled her to carry on as long as she did.  And he responded to every single letter that was sent to him.  Jack Merivale, I salute you.

The archive is nowhere near as extensive as the Olivier archive in the British Library, but for what it’s worth, I thought it was informative and obviously lovingly cared for.  If you’re ever doing a project on Vivien Leigh’s later life, this is a good place to start.

As of now (6) people have had something to say...

  • Sylvia Kodis - Reply

    October 29, 2010 at 7:43 pm

    I know how much Larry worried about Vivien, and Jack told him he would take care of her. Larry said he cried tears of relief and was very grateful to Jack. Yes, Jack did seem like a very nice guy, from what I read he was very loving and patient with her. Thank God Viv had him in the short time she had left!

  • Kendra - Reply

    October 29, 2010 at 8:06 pm

    That particular letter was included among the artifacts in the collection, and it was really interesting to read the whole thing in full because Larry described their current situation as an extremely unpleasant one (he used the word “shit” lol).

  • Laura - Reply

    October 29, 2010 at 9:42 pm

    I’m so glad that you had that opportunity. Jack seemed like such a gentlemen. xxxx

  • […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Classic Film Reader, The Oliviers. The Oliviers said: A glance inside Vivien Leigh's life after Larry http://fb.me/zBjd9FfK […]

  • Rebecca - Reply

    November 1, 2010 at 7:34 am

    I am bipolar and because of complications from that and health problems it wore down my (excellent) husband…and eventually destroyed our marriage. I relate to Vivien’s story deeply. I now have another very kind man in my life. It is never the same as the love of your life, but it is comforting and there is a quiet peace there. I am glad she at least had that. She so deserved it. This is a very difficult illness to deal with and medication does not completely “fix” it, despite the medical advances today. I have a friend who is also bipolar and opts for the shock treatments. She says they help. That’s how desperate one can get.

  • Carole Heath - Reply

    February 12, 2015 at 2:36 pm

    I think that Rebecca’s comment is very enlightening bipolar is a very hard illness to live with for both the person with and the people around that person. My friend also has the illness and her marriage like Vivien’s and others with the illness broke down sadly. Jack Merivale did seem a very calming influence on VL and helped her as best he could. It is sad she died so long only in her 50’s I am sure their relationship would have gone on to be a long lasting one. The tragic circumstances of her brake up with LO I think was very sad as they had I think a very deep love for each other. Jack Merivale after VL died went onto marry Dinah Sheridan the actress.

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