This is the second of two posts detailing the private view of the V&A’s Vivien Leigh: Public Faces, Private Lives traveling exhibition, which took place last Saturday at Nymans in Sussex. You can read part 1 here.
Vivien Leigh’s country estate, Notley Abbey, was sold in 1960 pending her divorce from Laurence Olivier. While on the hunt for a new country retreat, her friend, the actor Dirk Bogarde, told her of a gorgeous Queen Ann-style house in the Sussex downs. It was too small for him, he said, but she might love it. Love it Vivien did, and she moved in with Jack Merivale in 1961.
Although Tickerage was very much a private space, Vivien occasionally allowed photographers into her country life. Thomas Wilkie and George Douglas were two such photographers. I profiled Douglas here last summer when it was announced that his archive had been discovered by Shan Lancaster and Guardian photographer Roger Bamber in Brighton. Since then, I’ve had the privilege to get to know Shan and follow the great work she and Roger are doing to raise George Douglas’ profile.
In a mutually beneficial effort to help spotlight Douglas’ wonderful work, and because everyone likes pretty pictures, here is the full set of Douglas’ shoot of Vivien Leigh as found (thus far) in the George Douglas Archive. (Getty Images are also licensing some of Douglas’ color photos from this shoot via the Popperfoto collection.)
“Good news of Tickerage every week, which I long to see again.” – Vivien Leigh to Radie Harris, February 6, 1962
“Tickerage Mill was just as romantic a setting as Notley, if on a smaller scale. The lake close to the house provided for her the essential ingredient of water always present, and she assured me that she was comforted by the knowledge that it was there, even when obscured by the mist of autumn, the winter fogs. There was also a miniature wood filled with carpets of anemones and bluebells that she had planted, which burgeoning in the spring might have been created for Titania [the character Vivien played in A Midsummer Night’s Dream in 1937]. Like my mother, Vivien had green fingers, and in an enviously short time, the garden, which had been sadly neglected till the arrival of the new owner, took on a blossoming look of someone who knows that she is cherished.” – Godfrey Winn, 1965
“Another beautiful album of Tickerage for Vivien! It really is stunning and she is delighted with it, as I have no doubt she has told you in the letter which Jason and I have just walked up the lane to post…All is well here I think. We have had our dramas; the Cooks, who have been with Vivien for eleven years as gardener and ‘help’, upped and left and the cottage has been empty for a month. However the replacements arrived yesterday to start work to-morrow and if they are satisfactory we shall at last be able to go to the big city for a few days and catch up on some shows. We have hardly left the place for weeks. Also the poodle ran away last week and got run over for his pains poor chap. Luckily not much damage done except that he was concussed and had amnesia. He came back yesterday from the kennels in Buxted and seems fairly all right. I say ‘fairly’ because we think he still has a touch of amnesia since he forgot himself in the kitchen before lunch in a pretty substantial way.” – Jack Merivale to Arnold Weissberger, October 10, 1965
It’s officially spring, but winter still reigns in England. With freezing temperatures and even snow on occasion, it hasn’t been a very pleasant time to be outside. However, I recently treated myself to a new camera lens and was eager to try it out. As I was going to visit Robbie near Buckinghamshire anyway, I had a spur-of-the-moment idea (as usual) of going out to Notley Abbey for a photo shoot. Unfortunately, they were booked up with bridal viewings on Sunday, so I went this past Monday, instead, and was met by my friend Zara who came up from London.
I’ve been to Notley a few times now in various seasons, but am always struck by the beauty that surrounds it. Walking around the manicured grounds, it’s equally easy to imagine Vivien Leigh and Laurence Olivier in their heyday, and why they loved this place so much. I tried to capture some of the old world charm in my photographs. It really is a stunning house.
All photos © Kendra Bean, 2013
The past couple of months have been very busy. With my Vivien Leigh book deadline looming, I’ve had little time to blog or, indeed, do much of anything outside of writing and worrying about my writing. So when the opportunity to get out of the city and drive down to the countryside presented itself, I took it!
Last Thursday, my boyfriend Robbie and I rented a car and drove down to Devon where I had been invited to interview Vivien Leigh’s sister-in-law Hester St John-Ives. Hester was married to Laurence Olivier’s brother Dickie and they lived in the cottage at Notley Abbey, where they helped to run the farm. I’d previously spoken to their daughter Louise, who had lots of good things to say about her uncle Larry and godmother Vivien.
After a 3 1/2 hour journey, we arrived in a small but beautiful old town half way between Dartmoor and the coast, and were greeted at the door by Hester and two adorable cocker spaniels. Hester is 80 and so full of life. She reminded me of Renee Asherson in some ways: humorous, gentle, and honest. Through conducting interviews for this book, I’ve run across two types of people: those who think they know all, and those who are up front about the context of their memories. Both Hester and Louise fell into the latter group, and it was really refreshing.
We spoke of the parties at Notley, Vivien’s capacity for love and friendship, what it was about her that kept people around despite the bad times, the loyalty she inspired in those around her, and how attentive she was to Louise as a child. Hester was in the unique position of being a family member, trusted by both Larry and Vivien. Based on the stack of letters she loaned me for research purposes, Olivier felt he could reveal his feelings about leaving Vivien to her. They are equally fascinating and heartbreaking to read. I won’t divulge too much, but there were also things that surprised me. For example, Dickie and Vivien didn’t get along very well. I asked why and Hester said she believes it came down to jealousy on both sides – a want for Larry’s attention. We all laughed when she recalled her mother once saying to her, “The way Dickie goes on about Vivien, you’d think she was Larry’s mistress and not his wife!” However, Hester says that Vivien was very kind to Dickie when he was ill.
Hester kept in touch with both Vivien and Larry for the rest of their lives. While writing his memoir Confessions of an Actor (which she didn’t care for because she found it factually inaccurate and lacking some pretty key elements), Larry stayed in a hotel on Dartmoor and Hester kept him company on occasion. She confirmed my long-held suspicions when she said, “he kept me awake all night coming into my bedroom and what he was talking about was Vivien. I think he never quite got over her.”
As an interviewee, Hester was wonderful. As a person, she was equally as lovely. Louise popped in for lunch and we all sat down to a delicious meal and good conversation. It’s so wonderful to meet people who have amazing stories and yet have remained so grounded. I could have sat and chatted for hours but the sun was shining and it was recommended Robbie and I take a drive along the coastal road for some scenic views on the way to our hotel in Paignton (completely dead seaside town in the winter, by the way).
On Friday, we stopped in Glastonbury on the way home and climbed Glastonbury Tor, which features in the Arthurian Legend. I’m a geek for history and mythology so it was a really exciting experience for me. And we got some good photos! All in all, a really successful trip, and even though Robbie was ill, he powered through it like a trooper. Robbie, if you read this, you really are amazing! Thank you for indulging me in my nerdiness!
All photos © Kendra Bean, 2013
It’s so nice to be back in California for the holidays. I grew up in the north but went to college and spent quite a few years living down in Orange County. A lot of my friends still live in the area, and even though my visits over the past couple of years have been few and far between, it’s great to know that you can pick up exactly where you left off with some people and that time and distance just don’t matter.
My friend Marissa is doing great things. Those of you who attended the Weekend with the Oliviers event in London in 2010 may remember her. She’s really bright, loves classic cinema, and last year moved from New York to LA to pursue and MA in archiving (exactly the kind of thing I’d love to do!). Move over, Keeper of the Archive at Anything-Film-Related!
Recently, Marissa wrapped up an internship sorting and cataloguing costume sketches at Western Costume Company, and took me along for a backstage tour. Western is celebrating its centenary this year, having been an integral part of the Hollywood community since the early silent film era. Founded by L.L. Burns and Harry Revier in 1912, Western started off providing Indian garb for western genre actor, screenwriter, director, and producer William S. Hart. They would go on to create costumes for many of the most influential films in Hollywood history, including all of the Civil War costumes for D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation, and the men’s costumes for Gone with the Wind. They also sewed the sequins onto the ruby slippers worn by Judy Garland in The Wizard of Oz.
Today, Western encompasses both past and present. Downstairs in the cavernous warehouse, everyone from designers to milliners and seamstresses are hard at work keeping film and TV stars costumed. Upstairs is the Research Library and archive, where Marissa and I spent most of our visit. The department is headed by Bobi Garland, a former costume designer who bears a resemblance to Edith Head. When the company moved to its current location in Burbank, Garland took charge of organizing the “Star Collection” – 6000 historic costumes worn by famous celebrities ranging from Rudolph Valentino to Laurence Olivier, Ava Gardner to Julie Andrews and everyone in between. She has also served as the go-to expert on matters of costume history for many of today’s top costumers and designers.
The crowned jewel of Western’s historic collection is the blue-gray “buckboard” dress designed by Walter Plunkett and worn by Vivien Leigh as Scarlett O’Hara in Gone with the Wind. I’d seen several of Vivien’s costumes from this film but never at such close proximity. You can see from the photo above how petite she really was. I was fascinated to see that the dress was constructed from what looks like corduroy, and, like all of the costumes I saw at Western, is remarkably well preserved.
Other highlights for me included Jack Lemon’s dresses for his alter ego Daphne in Some Like it Hot, all of the Laurence Olivier costumes, one of Charmian Carr’s outfits from The Sound of Music, everything Julie Andrews, and Jean Simmons’ beautiful ivory gown from Elmer Gantry. Unfortunately, I couldn’t try any of them on this time, but it was enough just to see such a huge, integral part of film history in one place.
Having spent over two years living in a country that prides itself on preserving its national heritage, it always makes me sad when I think of how big celebrity and film culture is in the States, yet so much of its history no longer exists. I’m glad to know that there are people working at places like Western Costume Company who make it their life’s work to see that what we do have left is well taken care of.