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Vivien Leigh: Actress and Icon

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Vivien Leigh: Actress and Icon

Excellent news! Remember about a year ago when I put up a fan survey as part of my research for a chapter in an upcoming Vivien Leigh compilation book? Well, that book has finally appeared on the Manchester University Press website and is slated for publication in November of this year.

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The Ultimate Fan Letters

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The Ultimate Fan Letters

I’ve spent a fair bit of time these past few weeks in the V&A and British Library going through fan letters written to Vivien Leigh. It’s research for my chapter in the upcoming V&A/Manchester University Press book Vivien Leigh: Actress and Icon, but I’m also getting pleasure from reading these letters. As a fan who interacts with a lot of other fans on this crazy platform called the Inter Web, I know that we come in all ages, shapes, sizes, nationalities, sexualities, religions, etc. We are all bound together by our mutual interest in Vivien Leigh.

Yet despite my admittance to being a fan, I’ve never written a fan letter to anyone (save for the one I drafted to Leonardo DiCaprio at age 14 and recorded in my middle school diary that I was too nervous to send as my mom probably wouldn’t approve because she thought I was ‘obsessed.’ I was). And I’m not sure, if I had been alive during Vivien’s time, that I would have written one.

The fan letters in Olivier’s and Leigh’s respective archives bring out a range of feelings – wonder at the poetic, eloquent language used by even young people, and the far corners of the globe from which they were sent (India, Japan, Korea, South Africa, Australia); shock at the audacity of some of the writers; happiness at the little gifts of affection sent from around the world and the truly astonishing drawings included in some of the letters. One thing is clear: Vivien was adored by film lovers and theatre-goers far and wide, and they thought her accessible. And while they were just temporary blips on her radar, Vivien meant everything to her fans.

I’m posting the transcribed text from two letters here which have emerged as my favorites thus far. They’re wildly different. The first was penned by a young soldier in the National Service just after the war. The other, by a seven-year-old boy in Australia whose mother, Flora Griffiths, was a frequent correspondent.

What do you think of these letters? I’d love to read your responses below.

November 9, 1946

Dear Miss Leigh, Lady Olivier, what you will,

I am sorry that it has come to this: I despise all fan mails and all fans as a general principle and so I despise myself for writing; tomorrow I shall regret it and say what a fool I have been. What is it that makes me write to night, I do not know: perhaps it’s loneliness, perhaps it is the remains of an adolescent crush, perhaps, and I hope, it’s just a foolish, youthful impulse – for I’ve tons of these and I am, thank God, young.

Then what one should say in a fan mail I don’t know: I could tell you that you are the best actress and the most beautiful thing in this hurly burly world, I could compare you with the sheer beauty of the pale moonlit hills: all these things would be true perhaps – true at least in my mind, but I’ve no doubt Mr. Olivier and others have imaginations too. I’m not jealous, for I have a little sense in my young head. But I would like to tell you one thing and if you haven’t already torn this up, just listen a moment and I’ll let off steam.

Here am I, a conscript in an ugly camp, remote from all the folk and things I love, watching all my principles of art and pure thought get dashed and square bashed to the ground: just now and then I look back home, as every soldier does, and then when the others look back to their respective sweethearts — I don’t. I look to an ideal of culture, of physical beauty and of intellectual [illegible]. I see you very clearly: I don’t want to dash and throw myself at your feet and say ‘Vivien, I love you’ or anything: I just want to see you and know that beauty, real active living beauty is still in the world. And all I want to do now, is tell you that you give me great confidence in the world. You are one of my loveliest memories: One day I’ll marry and love someone, perhaps with dark hair and light expressive eyes, but I promise you now that you’ll still hold a place in my memory box. So thank you.

You’ve probably lost interest so I’ll let off more steam: You realize, I suppose, why Romeo and Juliet failed? Because you thought you could do it without acting to the satisfaction not only of yourselves but of the public. You were wrong and maybe then you decided not to act Shakespeare together again – for I don’t think you have, have you? So by one failure you are disheartened and you are coward enough, the pair of you, to quit a possible production of absolute and complete perfection. Do you not realize that only once in a million years could such a pair as you and Mr. Olivier meet and act? Do you not realize that you have a chance of setting up a romantic masterpiece, the like of which has never been seen? And yet you create only good performances singly, throwing away this chance of perfection. I like to think of you smiling, but only because I know your talent: I like to think of Mr. Olivier as the brave Henry V, but only because I realize he could be other things.

There is a play better than Hamlet; far far better than your Lady Hamilton, and it is time somebody did it properly. It’s called Macbeth: I know it backwards because I’ve studied it (and I mean study) and because I’m a Scotsman and understand. I know I could create a film given the suitable actors and actresses which would be more than a nine days tale. Mr. Olivier has once ruined the part by ranting in the last act but he would know better by now. If I am so confident, surely he could bring the thing about. You could get the experts to give you colorful sets, which would certainly ruin the thing unless they found someone who understood the thing and could control them. But supposing they were careful and were controlled, and deciding you two did decide not to throw away a chance in a hundred centuries, the history of films would be…dated as Before and After Macbeth.

Are you still reading? If so, use your own judgment and choose one of the two courses.

a) leave a passionate adolescent to stew in his own nonsense.

or b) encourage an idealist.

If a) is chosen, stop reading. If b), continue.

When I started this letter I said to myself, I won’t lower myself to asking for a reply: I still don’t. I leave it to you. (But I promise you that this letter was not written for the sake of this final paragraph). You can write me a stereotype letter with photo attached – but for God’s sake don’t autograph it in front, for that would bring you to the same place as Miss Grable’s legs or Miss Lake’s [illegible]. Give me it in the usual way, only untouched and I will keep it as the symbol of the idealist and philosopher of beauty. I will keep it with a picture of the mountains in the rain, that I have, as another side to nature.

But use your motherly judgment, Mrs Olivier. Don’t send it if you think it’s bad for me. I leave the address in the vain hope: some day, some happy day when I see a stage and have the additional fortune of seeing you on it, I’ll come round behind the stage and look sheepish, and say I enjoyed the show, and shift from one foot to the other. No, I don’t think I will.** Anyway, you’re very beautiful as I see you now: as Lady Macbeth you’d look wonderfully villainous though – or can’t I tempt you?

I’ve let off steam, I’ve acted on the impulse: there remains only the question of stamp and address. Then bonsoir, et encore une fois madame, grand merci. Vous étés un joli rêve. Yours with all necessary apologies and with I fear, sincere affection.

1706700 Ptc Kennaway J(ames)
10 pln 2 Coy, 30th training Batt.
Pinefields Camp, Elgin, Morayshire

** It is unknown whether James Kennaway ever saw Vivien perform on stage. The future novelist and screenwriter was 18 when this letter was written. However, it is quite possible that they crossed paths at some point in the 1960s. Kennaway’s first novel, Tunes of Glory, which was partially based on his experience in the armed forces, was made into a film in 1960, starring Alec Guinness and directed by Ronald Neame. Sadly, Kennaway died unexpectedly at age 40 in 1968.

June 17, 1957

Dear Lady Olivier,

I am seven now and I thought I would write to you. Mummy said you live in London where the King lives. Once Prince William and Prince Richard lived in Australia. When I am a man I shall come to London to see you because you are so lovely and Sir Laurence is a beaut sword fighter, he is like a Knight in my King Arthur book. When you come to Australia will you tell me first. Sir Laurence is going to tell the Melbourne boys. The sea is very rough and it is rainy tonight so we have to stay inside. I hope you like your pineapple. I love it. We do not seem to send anything to Sir Laurence perhaps Mummy does not know what he likes, my Dad sometimes likes beer.

I will write again soon,

Love from

Philip Blackburn Griffiths**
Semaphore, South Australia

Would you ask Sir Laurence if he had time to write me and tell me how to sword fight.

P.S. Later. We have had snow in the hills the most for 50 years. Mummy said we were not here then. I have never seen snow if we had a car we could have got to Mt. Lofty before it melted. Please if you do not save stamps will you keep this one for me and I will get it when I come to London.

**A photograph of Philip, attached in one of his mother’s letters to Vivien, showed a blonde haired boy in a cowboy costume, looking quite like Ralphie from A Christmas Story.

Speaking of Christmas, I’d like to wish you all a merry one, or a happy whatever you celebrate!

Year-end wrap-up 2013

book news vivien leigh

Year-end wrap-up 2013

Another year over, but what a year it was! 2013 was definitely the Year of Vivien Leigh – at least around here. The events that occurred this autumn to celebrate Vivien’s centenary proved that her legacy hasn’t been forgotten. She was brought back out into the much-deserved spotlight as people from around the globe descended upon London to pay tribute to this unique artist and woman.

On a personal level, 2013 was one of the most fulfilling years of my life. It was also a year of many firsts: I moved in with the person I love, we got a cat, and of course, there was all that business with Vivien Leigh: An Intimate Portrait. When I signed that book contract for Running Press last year, I could never have foreseen the rich experience that would follow. I’ve travelled, met a plethora of extraordinary people, had many discussions revolving around a shared appreciation for Vivien Leigh, and had the honor of collaborating with the National Portrait Gallery, the British Film Institute, and the Victoria and Albert Museum.

I’m really excited to see what 2014 will bring. But first, here’s a round-up of things that happened this year:

Travel

2013travel

2013travel2Devon  // Notley Abbey // Rome // Shaw’s Corner // East Sussex // Conwy and Chatsworth // Barcelona // Paris 

Book Launch

Vivien Leigh: An Intimate Portrait book launchPhotos by Jodie Chapman

October 10, 2013 saw the culmination of five years of dreaming and working. Daunt Books in Holland Park hosted the launch party for Vivien Leigh: An Intimate Portrait. Emotions ran high (I cried!) as I was overwhelmed by the turnout and support. So many friends, fans, and distinguished guests came along to toast the publication of my first book. My mom and her sister made their first-ever trip to London just for the occasion. My friend Marissa travelled from New York. Someone even came from Finland to join the party! Imagine my surprise when Claire Bloom walked in the door! I’d offered to take her to lunch a few times since she agreed to pen the foreword, but she always had something else going on, so it was an honor to finally meet her in person.

Writing a book is only half the journey. Once it’s published, there’s still promotion to do. That in itself has been an interesting adventure. The overall reception has (thankfully) been really positive and I’ve learned so much along the way. Here’s the full list of press mentions and interviews.

Starring Vivien Leigh: A Centenary Celebration

Starring Vivien Leigh

I never thought I’d be asked to co-curate an exhibit at a museum, let alone a show about my favorite actress. So you can imagine my surprise when I received an invitation over the summer from curators Terence Pepper and Clare Freestone to help with the Starring Vivien Leigh: A Centenary Celebration exhibit at the National Portrait Gallery. I’d been a fan of Terence’s photography books for years (Beaton Portraits, anyone?). Needless to say, I’ve enjoyed every minute of my time working on this project and helping out in the Photographs department. It’s been a wonderful learning experience. Thank you for reaching out, Terence and Clare!

New Friends and Old

Vivien Leigh fans

Without a doubt, one of the best parts of this year was connecting with so many fellow Vivien Leigh fans. You guys are dedicated! Whether I’d met you before, had “known” you for years and only now got the chance to meet you in person, serendipitously met you at an event, or have only corresponded with you via email, I’m glad to call you my friends. All of the hard work in putting a book together and maintaining this website and the associated Facebook page isn’t worth much without other people to share in this passion. I’m sure Vivien would be happy to know she’s still loved by so many!

Thank you for your support and continued interest throughout this long and challenging journey. I hope 2013 has been fulfilling for all of you and wish you the best for 2014 and beyond.

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The aftermath of publishing a biography about Vivien Leigh

Vivien Leigh biographer Kendra Bean
Photo by Jodie Chapman

After five years of having this dream of putting together a photography book about Vivien Leigh, it finally happened. Vivien Leigh: An Intimate Portrait hit stores on October 10 here in the UK, and on the 15th in the US. We had the launch party at the quaint Daunt Books in Holland Park on the 15th and I was overwhelmed by the turnout and the support – so much so that I may have even cried on my mom’s shoulder (she made her first ever trip to London with her sister just for this event).  Others that came to help celebrate included my boyfriend Robbie, some of the best friends I’ve met over the past few years, Claire Bloom, Louise Olivier and her kids, her mother Hester who came all the way from Devon, Trader Faulkner, Richard Mangan, Terence Pepper from the National Portrait Gallery, Keith Lodwick from the V&A, several people who knew Vivien and worked with her, people I’ve known through vivandlarry.com for a while and got to meet for the first time, my agent, my publicist, and many more. My publicist estimated around 100 guests. It was, without a doubt, one of the most memorable nights of my life.

Now it’s over. Kind of.

Inevitably there has been some criticism, but thus far the response to the book has actually been really positive, and for that I’m grateful. If people “get it,” are moved by it, and appreciate the effort that went into it, then I feel I’ve succeeded in some way. It’s not perfect – nothing is – but it was a labor of love and of that I’m proud.

And it’s gotten some wonderful coverage!

So, what’s next? When I was trying to get a publisher for the book, the general sentiment from many people in the business was that Vivien just isn’t relevant anymore – not like Marilyn or Audrey Hepburn, or Grace Kelley. But as she did many times during her lifetime, I think Vivien is going to surprise everyone. There are quite a few events happening around London in November to mark her centenary, and I feel really lucky to be involved. Here’s where you can find me next month:

  • November 5 – 7.00 pm, St Paul’s The Actor’s Church, Covent Garden – Actress Susie Lindeman will be performing a 45 minute version of her one-woman show Letter To Larry, followed by readings and remembrances by people who knew Vivien. I’ll also be there signing books.
  • November 12 – 6.20 pm, BFI Southbank, NFT3 – Keith Lodwick from the V&A will be giving a talk about the newly acquired Vivien Leigh Archive. Afterward, I’ll be joining him and the BFI’s Nathalie Morris for a panel discussion about researching Vivien’s life.
  • All of November – BFI Southbank – I’ve got tickets to every talk and one screening of every Vivien film. You’ll find me sleeping in a tent in near the bar.
  • November 17 – Vivien Leigh fan meet-up. We’ll be going to the V&A to look at the Vivien archive materials on display, followed by the BFI screening of Waterloo Bridge, and then an informal dinner. Attendees are responsible for booking their own film tickets. To RSVP for the meet-up, please email me at vivandlarry{at}gmail.
  • November 28 – 1.15 pm, National Portrait Gallery – Vivien Leigh: An Intimate Portrait lunchtime lecture followed by a book signing.

I’m going to try and keep everyone here updated with photos and stories from these and other upcoming events, but you’ll definitely be able to find daily updates over on the Facebook page.

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Win a signed copy of Vivien Leigh: An Intimate Portrait!

a Rafflecopter giveaway

Hi, everyone! The UK publicist for Vivien Leigh: An Intimate Portrait sent me an advance copy in the post and I’m so excited to finally be holding it in my hands! Five years from idea stage to finished book – it feels surreal! I couldn’t have done this without the support of Vivien’s fans here and elsewhere on the web. To say thanks for helping to build and sustain this great community, I’m teaming with Running Press and Perseus to give away three FREE signed copies! There are several ways to enter, as listed above. The contest is open to entrants worldwide and will end at midnight on October 10, the date of publication in the UK.

So far, advance reception of the book has been really positive. Kirkus Reviews called it “a worthy tribute to this eternally fascinating star.” That’s encouraging! Not long now until it’s in bookstores!