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vivien leigh

The Sixth Sense is Dress-Sense


Vivien Leigh in a magenta velvet with turquoise tulle gown by Victor Stiebel | Photo by John Rawlings

A couple months ago I wrote a guest post for The Girl Who Stole the Eiffel Tower titled Style Icon: Vivien Leigh, in which I explored Vivien’s side-job as a fashion model and style maven. Like many actresses who become famous, however briefly, Vivien graced the pages of fashion and women’s magazines. Vogue, Harper’s Bazaar and Ladies’ Home Journal, among others, reported how their readers could relate to Vivien Leigh, star-as-woman, by observing her unique fashion choices.

In doing research for my dissertation on how “Vivien Leigh” was created through the media, I’ve come across many references to fashion being an integral part of a female star’s image. Throughout her career, Vivien was classified by Vogue and other magazines as a certain “type” of woman. She was “exotic,” “strange,” “beautiful” outwardly “flawless”  and these traits came across in the characters she played on film.  Today I spent some time in the Westminster Reference Library with my friend and research partner in crime, Sammi, flipping through old bound  issues of Vogue in effort to find blurbs about Vivien. The following is one of my favorites because it describes her to a T.

The Sixth Sense is Dress-Sense

Vogue, December 22, 1937

Miss Vivien Leigh strikes a particularly vibrant note, in a fey style of her own. She is a pixie rather than a fairy: her feline, wispish face, both elfin and worldly, has that breathless quality of perfection we associate with film stars. She has a quality of burnished metal…of finely tempered steel. She wears vivid, dragon-fly clothes that are either tautly draped around her flawless, hipless figure, or nipped into her wasp waist to billow out as does Stiebel’s tulle and velvet skirt in her picture on page 14. Her mannerisms are as perfectly tuned to her personality as her clothes. A darting glance from those strange Persian cat eyes, a shrug of those perfectly poised shoulders…a pouting moue…What assurance, what knowledge of her type lies in each one…an actress to her fingertips, in spite of what some disagreeable critics say. An actress, moreover, who knows how to change her mood with her frock. She can wear all sorts of clothes of any period, and on her lovely head, the most hysterical hats seem logical.

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Destination: Notley Abbey

Although A Weekend with the Oliviers officially ended on Sunday the 29th, there was still one last treat in store for those who were free on Monday morning. I think it would be accurate to say that the one place many Vivien Leigh and Laurence Olivier fans want to visit is Notley Abbey, the 15th century country estate near Aylesbury in Buckinghamshire. The Abbey was bought by the Oliviers with Larry’s salary from Henry V just before the end of the war. It has been widely reported that Larry loved the house from the beginning but it took some time before it started to grow on Vivien. It had been in a state of neglect and was in desperate need of refurbishment.

Over the years Notley became a weekend retreat from the hustle and bustle of busy London but the glamorous life was never far behind. The Oliviers hosted their famous fashionable parties for the who’s who of the entertainment business. You weren’t famous unless you were invited for a weekend at Notley. But it was also a place that offered quiet solitude when needed. Vivien’s heartbreak at the idea of having to sell the Abbey  gives a good indication of just how much it meant to her:

On top of all this it seems as if Notley is sold. I can hardly write the words. A Canadian couple saw it some weeks ago, made an immediate and perfectly good offer and want to move in at the end of April. It doesn’t seem possible, does it? Of course it is looking particularly beautiful. We have had the most glorious crisp and dazzling winter days…I walk from place to precious place and gaze at the beloved views with tears pouring down my face. What memories for all one’s life—such unbelievable rare happiness, sweetness and quietude there has been here. I don’t forget the other times too, but they seem to me outweighed by blissful togetherness. Dear God it is a heartache…the fact that we have known for some time now that it would have to go doesn’t seem to help in the least.It is fifteen years—a great part of one’s life…Oh the hundreds of times my beloved Larry and I have wandered here in wonder and grateful amazement at the beauty all around us—the feeling that we were a little responsible for creating it too made it all so doubly dear. It is hard to imgine life without such an oasis.

Today Notley Abbey is a wedding venue, which means the inside is more like a hotel than a home. The outside, however, retains its old-world romantic charm. Many of the touches that made it such an “oasis” still remain: the lime walk drive, Vivien’s folly, rose bushes and exotic trees. The beauty of the countryside is like something out of a Jane Austen adaptation. The canopy of trees hangs over you as you walk down the long gravel drive. The lazy river with its reeds and lily pads meanders through the pastures. Vines of flowers cling to crumbling garden walls. If you listen closely, you might just hear the ghosts of the past whispering in the spring wind.

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Wrap-up: A Weekend with the Oliviers Part 3

Sunday morning had an early wake-up call. Our first adventure was a walking tour of London. We met at the ungodly early hour of  9 am at the Laurence Olivier statue in front of the National Theatre and at 9:30 set off to see some of the places where Vivien Leigh and Laurence Olivier worked and lived. Our route took us across Waterloo Bridge (sorry, guys, not seen in the 1940 film) to Aldwych, down to the Strand, up to Covent Garden, over to Soho and Piccadilly, down through St James’ Park to Westminster, over to Belgravia and finally to Chelsea. The list of sites:

  • Aldwych Theatre — where Laurence Olivier directed Vivien Leigh in A Streetcar Named Desire, 1949
  • The Savoy Hotel — where Vivien Leigh and Laurence Olivier formally met in 1935 while having dinner in the famous Grill Room
  • St. Paul’s The Actor’s Church, Covent Garden — The plaque dedicated to Vivien Leigh, which was given by John Mills after Vivien died, is special because it is, in a sense, the only sort-of grave marker that she has.
  • St. Martin-in-the-Fields, Trafalgar Square — The beautiful church where Vivien Leigh’s public memorial service was held
  • The Noel Coward Theatre — Formerly the New Theatre in St. Martin’s Lane. This is where the Old Vic company performed during and after the war while waiting for bomb damage at the Old Vic to be repaired. The stage at the New Theatre is where Laurence Olivier officially became a theatrical superstar during the 1944-1945 season.
  • The Ivy — This famous, exclusive restaurant near Covent Garden was frequented by London’s smart set, including Vivien Leigh who could often be spotted dining alongside Noel Coward and other theatrical luminaries.
  • Ambassadors Theatre — Just next door to the Ivy, Vivien Leigh became an overnight star when The Mask of Virtue opened here in 1935.
  • The Phoenix Theatre — This Soho theatre is ticked away in a not-so-nice alley, but it is noteworthy because this is where Vivien Leigh performed in The Skin of Our Teeth in 1945 before falling ill with tuberculosis. When the play was revived in 1946, it was performed at the Piccadilly Theatre.
  • The Apollo Theatre — This Shaftesbury Avenue theatre is where Vivien Leigh performed in Duel of Angels during the London run of the play.
  • The Lyric Theatre — Vivien Leigh performed here in Noel Coward’s South Sea Bubble in 1956.
  • Theatre Royal, Haymarket — When The Doctor’s Dilemma came to London in 1943, it opened at this theatre and ran for over a year because audiences were thrilled to be able to see Scarlett O’Hara in the flesh.
  • St. James House – The former site of the St James’ Theatre. It was demolished and rebuilt as a modern office building, but the alley between the office and the pub next door boasts a relief of the Oliviers in the Two Cleopatras as well as a plaque commemorating the protest to save the theatre that was led by Vivien Leigh in 1958.
  • Westminster Abbey — The final resting place of Sir Laurence Olivier, O.M.
  • 54 Eaton Square — This flat (flat D) in one of the most expensive neighborhoods in London, was purchased by the Oliviers in 1958. After their divorce, as part of the settlement, Larry continued to pay rent on the flat so that Vivien and Jack Merivale could continue to live in London in style. Vivien Leigh died here in July 1967. Today, Academy Award-winning actress Louise Rainer occupies No. 54 and the bench Gertrude Hartley dedicated to Vivien upon her death still sits in the garden. You can see more photos of Eaton Square here.
  • The Royal Court Theatre — This off-the-beaten-path theatre in Chelse’a Sloane Square was the birthplace of kitchen sink dramas in the late 50s and 60s, starting with John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger. Laurence Olivier performed here in The Entertainer in 1958. Vivien Leigh also performed here in a different sort of play in 1959, Noel Coward’s Look After Lulu.
  • Durham Cottage — Laurence Olivier’s and Vivien Leigh’s love nest is situated on a quiet street just off the King’s Road in Chelsea. It was purchased in 1937 and served at their London base before relocating to Belgravia in 1957.
  • For a full photo tour of London’s Theatreland, click here.

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Vivien Leigh’s Tickerage Mill

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Vivien Leigh’s Tickerage Mill

**Warning: This post is image-heavy

I woke up this morning with every intention of going to the library and studying. Instead, Sammi Steward and I took an impromptu trip to Sussex to snap some photos of Vivien Leigh’s final resting place. The weather was perfect: 65 degrees and sunny. What better thing to do on a sunny spring afternoon than go to the countryside?

We met up at Victoria Station and boarded the next train to Croydon where we changed (and missed the hourly train to Sussex by literally 30 seconds) and headed to Uckfield. Sussex is a beautiful area. I remembered how I’d loved it when I did a summer abroad in Brighton my junior year in college. How time flies! On the train down, Sammi and I were having a discussion about Vivien Leigh and Laurence Olivier something or another when suddenly, the man in the seat across from us said, “I take it you’re going to Tickerage Mill?” How did he know? Apparently our indoor voices aren’t that quiet. He introduced himself as Duncan, the mayor of Uckfield. He said his in-laws very nearly bought the house next door to Tickerage Mill, and was very kind in not only telling us the easiest way to get out there, but arranged a little meeting between us and his friend who runs the Picture House cinema in town–apparently it’s one of the oldest indie theatres in England. Duncan also told us a lovely story about his friend’s claim to fame: Said friend had been up in London for work and had had a few drinks before catching the train back home. As Uckfield is the end of the line, he was roused out of his nap by a shake on the shoulder and a man saying, “I think you’re getting off at Uckfield.” The man was none other than Sir Laurence Olivier on his way to visit Vivien Leigh (conveniently, Uckfield is just between Brighton and London), and he offered Duncan’s friend a ride home in his hired car. We knew Larry went to visit Vivien on occasion!

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Vivien Leigh’s favorite Siamese

The Siamese Cat–A Popular Pet: “New” and its Celebrated Owner

Illustrated London News
March 13, 1948


Having "an outline of great beauty and eyes of brilliant blue," "New," a fine Siamese cat, poses for the camera and displays its "lucky charm" collar

Mr B.A. Sterling-Webb, Hon. Treasurer of the Siamese Cat Club, in “The World of Science” article writes of the Siamese cat that it “is easily the most distinctive and popular of all breeds, combining, as it does, a unique appearance with an intelligence of a very high order,” and describes its many charming characteristics. Here we reproduce photographs of a typical animal of the species with its owner, the celebrates actress and film-star, Miss Vivien Leigh (Lady Olivier). The cat was given to Miss Leigh three years ago. It became a popular figure at the Shepperton Studios during the 5 1/2 months it took to shoot the London Films production, Anna Karenina.

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