A whirlwind visit to America with a promise for the future from these two who lived and served on borrowed time–Vivien and Laurence Olivier
by Radie Harris
Photoplay, October, 1946
It was a cold, drizzly morning in early May. At La Guardia Airport, a group of us huddled together anxiously watching the clouded sky. Suddenly, the whirl of motors was heard and a Pan American Constellation winged its way toward the landing field. Exactly seventeen hours after it took off from England, landed in New York–ten minutes late.
There were twenty six passengers aboard–all members of London’s celebrated Old Vic Repertory Theatre, but for everyone waiting, the focal point of interest centered on two people–Vivien Leigh and Laurence Olivier. As they disembarked, Vivien came first, looking beautiful in a Paisley snood that framed her classic features and wearing the same mink coat she had work when she had left New York six years ago. Larry followed, grinning from ear to ear. And then a lovely thing happened. As if a switch had suddenly been turned on, the sun came out in all its brilliance. It seemed to say, “This is a very special day. Welcome back!”
Six years. It was hard to believe so much time had elapsed since that May afternoon in 1940 when they had left. Now that they were here again, it was as if they had never left. Yet, how much water had flown under the bridge in that interval! The war–and Larry, a Sub Lieutenant in the Fleet Air Arm. Vivien, spending gruelling months entertaining the troops in the embattled Mediterranean area. Their home in Chelsea blitzed, but luckily not to the ground, nor when they were in it. Blackouts, ration points, food shortage, clothes coupons, no petrol, buzz bombs and debris. Was there ever a lifetime before this? And then, miraculously, civilians again, and back to work, conscious of the gap left by rows of wooden crosses. Larry shooting “Henry V”–ten months of exhaustive effort to make this masterpiece which he directed, starred in and produced against the odds of wartime restrictions and hazards. Vivien, shooting “Caesar and Cleopatra,” working nine tedious months under the same handicaps but relieved of the personal responsibility that was Larry’s.
Hollywood beckoned via cable and transatlantic phone. “Come back. Write your own ticket. Why stay in London now? In Hollywood, the only ‘blackouts’ are on the stage of the El Capitan Theatre. There is no rationing of anything–including ‘hams.’ You only stand in line for movies and nylons.”
Utopia–trimmed in green!
It was tempting bait, no doubt of it. Post-war London is still a grim city. Hollywood, with all its gaiety and glamour, would be a welcome contrast. And the gold in those Beverly Hills shouldn’t be overlooked either. Vivien could have a new mink coat. Larry could go berserk in Sulka’s. They could add a new wing to their country home, a Fifteenth Century manor in Buckinghamshire.
But when you have lived on borrowed time as the Oliviers did for five years, you clutch on to happiness, appreciating every minute of it when you have it–not after it is gone. For Vivien and Larry, their happiness was in London, doing the work they enjoyed for the inner satisfaction it brought to them rather than for any personal glory. So Larry joined the “Old Vic,” England’s most famous repertory theatre since 1880. Vivien started rehearsals in “Skin of Our Teeth,” re-creating the role that Tallulah Bankhead had originated on Broadway. Their combined salaries were in no way commensurate with what they could have earned separately in Hollywood. But because they are the kind of true artists who have a passionate love of the theatre and would rather act well than eat well, they were blissfully content. Larry, as Richard III, was hailed as the greatest actor of his time. Vivien as Sabina was the toast of the West End. It was such happiness as dreams are made of. Until the day it turned into a nightmare.
Larry had gone to Germany for an ENSA tour with the Old Vic. Vivien remained in London, packing them in at the Phoenix. It was one of their rare separations. They couldn’t reach each other by phone, but they wrote every day–tender messages between two people, who resent every moment that keeps them apart. And then came the post where there was no letter from Vivien, but the shocking news that she had collapsed at the theatre and was desperately ill. Larry was frantic. He couldn’t quit the Old Vic in the middle of an Army tour. For the first time he hated his profession and its tradition “the show must go on.” In between performances, he managed to fly to Paris to see Lynn Fontanne and Alfred Lunt, who were there in “Oh Mistress of Mine.” They had just seen Vivien in London and talked to her doctors. They assured Larry it was nothing serious. The past five years of strain and work had finally caught up with her. All she needed was quiet and prolonged rest and she’s be perfectly well again. Larry continued his tour a caged animal, until the tour was over, at long last, and he was in London again with Vivien.
As soon as the news of her illness broke–magnified, of course, out of all proportions–she was deluged with invitations from her countless Hollywood friends to come to California, where good nourishing food was plentiful and the sun would bathe her back to health. Deeply touched as she was by the unbounded hospitality, she refused everyone. She couldn’t leave England without Larry. To be near him was better than all the medical prescriptions in the world. So she stayed at their country home in “Bucks” where for eight dreary months she went about the business of getting well. This was a job she had to do, and with her indomitable will and courage, she did it.
It is why, when they stepped off the plane at La Guardia Airport, Vivien was more beautiful than ever and well again.
Vivien and Larry are now back in London, their six weeks’ visit a kaleidoscopic pattern of thrilling memories. Reunions with old friends, Lynn Fontanne and Alfred Lunt, Ruth Gordon and Garson Kanin, Getrude Lawrence and Richard Aldrich, Kit Cornell and Guthrie McClintic, Margalo Gilmore and Robert Ross, Thornton Wilder…Late supper at the Colony, “21” and the Stork, with menus that looked like museum pieces to their unaccustomed eyes…Shops on the Avenue–a fairyland to explore and emerge with “Bundles for Britain”…the happy well fed, well clothed look of everyone–such a contrast to London…Their suite at the St. Regis, filled with fresh flowers from Helen Hayes’s Nyack gardens, and gift tokens piled high from intimates and strangers alike…the din of the city–not from buzz bombs but from chauffer-driven cars…The Century Theatre and the personal triumph of “Henry V”…the broadcasts of “Richard III” and “Peer Gynt” with Larry taking two thirds of his salary so that other members of the Old Vic could have more, because that’s the kind of right guy he is…the tangible tributes–an M.A. degree from Tufts University, the first time such an award has been given to an actor since 1883 when it was conferred on Otis Skinner…and the Variety critics’ poll, which nominated him the finest actor of the Broadway season…Vivien, in the background, fiercely proud of her husband’s greatness.
As a friend of Larry’s ever since his very first visit to America when he played a supporting part to Gertrude Lawrence and Noel Coward in “Private Lives,” I was proud–remember the time he came to Hollywood to test for the lead opposite Garbo in “Queen Christina” and was turned down because some master mind thought he looked too much like Ronald Coleman. In London, we toasted “our friendship always” in the bar of his new home overlooking the Thames in Chelsea. I sat in his dressing room of the Barrymore Theatre when he was playing in “No Time for Comedy” and watched the glow in his eyes as he showed me the stills of Vivien as Scarlett O’Hara. And my heart ached for his empty success on Broadway without her, and hers in Hollywood without him. I finally caught up with his future bride on the set of “Gone with the Wind.” Being a friend of Larry’s automatically made me a friend of Vivien’s.
It is because of this personal friendship that I was privileged to dine with Larry and Vivien during their hectic non-stop Mad-hattan whirl. Facing Vivien, one wonders how it must feel to get up every morning and see that vision reflected back in the mirror. Her green print dress matched the emerald of her eyes. Her dark hair, oblivious to new fashion modes, was worn as she had always worn it–long, with loose natural waves, and heightened the alabaster of her skin.
Out of the blue, Vivien said, “You know, next to the gaiety and luxury of New York, I feel frightfully drab.”
I almost fell off my chair. “Vivien! Don’t you know that the mayor ought to pay you for improving the looks of the city!”
Larry smiled agreement. “You, too,” I added. “It’s flattering to have such prejudiced friends,” he retorted.
Vivien giggled. “We know he isn’t beautiful, but he certainly can get himself up looking mighty pretty. Maybe, it’s just as well he’s going to do ‘King Lear’ next.” And she threw him a naughty wink.
“Is it because of King Lear that you’re going back to London?” I asked.
“Yes, it is to be my own production this time and as in the picture ‘Henry V,’ I am accountable for every detail. I pray that it comes out as I hope. it is my farewell appearance for the Old Vic for the season. I feel that it is only fair to bow out and let some new talent get a crack at the invaluable experience of this wonderful repertory company.”
“Larry supplied the answer. “I am very lucky to have as a good friend, Gar Kanin, who also happens to be the author and director of Broadway’s biggest comedy success, ‘Born Yesterday.’ I have tied up the English rights and Gar is coming over to stage it as brilliantly as he has the Max Gordon production.”
“Will you play the Judy Holiday role?” I asked Vivien.
“No, I am re-opening in ‘The Skin of Our Teeth’ and I expect to continue it until we leave for Hollywood after the holidays. We’re due here in January.”
Vivien and Larry back in Hollywood! What welcome news to their American public, who have been clamoring for their return! How wonderful for all their friends! David Niven, Benita and Ronnie Coleman, Mary Lee and Doug Fairbanks, George Cukor, Lilli and Rex Harrison, et all, who will dust off the red velvet carpet as it has never been dusted off before.
Will they appear in a picture together or will Heathcliff and Scarlett go their separate ways again? What of the rumor that Vivien was to be Peggy Cummins’s successor in “Forever Amber”?
These questions are not rhetorical. Let Vivien and Larry answer for themselves. First, about “Forever Amber.” “I’m told that Darryl Zanuck offered me a million dollars to take over the role,” said Vivien. “If he has, it’s all news to me. I wish he had. I’d feel so elegant turning down a million dollars!
“I imagine I’ve been suggested for the part because Amber is supposed to be like Scarlett O’Hara. But actually, they have nothing in common except their physical attraction. Scarlett was born too soon. Her fiery spirit and independence were out of place in the Civil War period. She would have been a wonderful career woman today. Amber was born to be a courtesan, whether the year was 800 or 1946. In any event, I’m sure she will be compared to Scarlett and if for no other reason than that, I wouldn’t play the part. I don’t ever want to be pigeon-holed by typecasting.”
“Have you any story that you especially like?”
From the expression on Vivien and Larry’s faces it was obvious they had.
“There is a novel called ‘Earth and High Heaven’ which we’d love to do. It’s a timely, sensitive love story with with wonderful parts for both of us. Sam Goldwyn, who owns the screen rights, wants us for it, but we can’t give him any definite answer as of yet. We saw David Selznick last night and he also has several stories lined up. So have a lot of other producers. We haven’t had a minute to read any scripts here but when we get back to England on our fortnight holiday at Bucks we’ll have time to wade through some and keep the best. We hope our first will be together, but if it isn’t we don’t mind being separated as co-stars so long as the separation stops there. You see, we’re old-fashioned. We don’t believe that being apart is conducive to a happy marriage.”
At this moment, the telephone which blessedly had not interrupted during the whole dinner hour rang. Larry’s car was waiting to take him to the theatre, where in half an hour he would be transformed into the wizened, tottering Justice Shallow of “Henry IV, Part II.” He got up, kissed Vivien and the three of us drank a toast to our next reunion in January.
It will be a time to look forward to, for there are no two more real people in a land of make-believe.