Laurence Olivier’s son Tarquin witnessed the passion–and disintegration–of his father’s marriage to the incomparable Vivien Leigh. The child of Olivier’s first marriage, to the actress Jill Esmond, Tarquin nevertheless became very close to his stepmother, Vivien, and she in turn wrote to him frequently. Her letters, and many others by Olivier to Tarquin, go on sale at Sotheby’s on July 13. Here, Tarquin tells Wendy Leigh about his exciting childhood with two of the world’s most fabulous stars…
by Wendy Leighs
Weekend, June 24, 2000
For 20 glittering years, Britain and the world were mesmerized by the spectacle of Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh, the most romantic couple in the universe. She was alluring, coquettish, and heart-stoppingly beautiful. He was a consummate actor, radiating a darkly disturbing sexuality that captured her the moment she first set eyes upon him.
The year was 1936, and Vivien Leigh was a stage actress, married to a barrister and the mother of a small daughter. Olivier was a stage star, married to the distinguished actress Jill Esmond. Yet when Vivien saw Olivier on stage all thoughts of their respective commitments instantly evaporated. he vowed to have him and, after pursuing him with a determination worthy of Scarlett O’Hara, she did. They divorced their partners, married amid great scandal, and embarked on a dazzling career together. He was knighted and, together, Sir Laurence and Lady Olivier held court at Notley Abbey, their elegant countryside estate in Buckinghamshire.
But behind the gracious facade, the prestigious honors and exquisite style, the reality was very different. Vivien was bedevilled by severe manic depressive episodes which drove her to hate Olivier and to embrace promiscuity, flinging herself into an affair with the actor Peter Finch. Finally, after 20 years, Laurence Olivier left her and married the actress Joan Plowright.
Through it all, there was one person–and one person alone–who witnessed the tragic disintegration of the once passionate love affair between Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh–Olivier’s eldest son Tarquin. Film producer Tarquin Olivier is now 63 and working on a film about the life of Ataturk, the founder of modern Turkey. When I arrange our first meeting (over lunch at a Knightsbridge restaurant), he asks if he can bring his wife, Zelfa.
It is evident that neither Tarquin nor Zelfa are in need of a free lunch (he says that he’s selling the letters from Vivien and his father not for the money, even though they are expected to fetch 60,000 pounds, but because it is “too boring to just keep them hidden away in a box”). He arrives in a well tailored blazer, crisp shirt and wearing a gold ring, embossed with the Olivier crest (a white swan with an olive branch in its beak and a baronet’s coronet on it head). He has a wan, gap-toothed winning smile and is, consequently, slightly sexy. His voice is well modulated. He looks far more like his mother, Jill Esmond, than his father. Zelfa, who is Turkish and 49, is petite, beautiful and stylish. All through lunch they sit close together, laugh at each other’s jokes and finish each other’s sentences. They have known each other for 13 years, became each other’s second spouses 10 years ago and it is clear they are still passionately in love.
I ask Tarquin whether his palpable passion for Zelfa could have been partially inspired by his father’s love for Vivien in its prime. He makes it clear he has no intention of being slotted in an preconceived roles. “No, I’ve always been an incurable romantic. I was three when my father first brought Vivien to see me. I found her irresistible and announced that I wanted a goodnight kiss from her. They looked embarrassed, but I insisted and said: ‘I want it on the mouth…'”
Jill Esmond was present at that first meeting, in a New York hotel room, watching while her son was beguiled by the woman who had stolen her husband.
Through the years, Jill acted toward Vivien with great dignity (even attending her memorial service when she died in 1967, aged 53). She never attempted to poison Tarquin against either Vivien or his father. Not that one would have blamed her, particularly when Olivier sent her the following letter: “Poor darling Viv lost her baby (three months) on the first night of Peer Gynt. We were about to cable you asking if Tarquin’s pram was still in existence, as such things are unavailable, and if you’d mind if we borrowed it.”
“I came across that letter after my parent’s deaths,” says Tarquin. “To ask my mother to give my pram to the baby of a woman who had taken Larry away from her was heartless. I don’t know what was in my father’s head. It is terrible, arrogant, so selfish, and unbelievable. You can’t read it without finding fault in the person who wrote it. But I am sure if he had read it later on in life, he would have asked himself how he could have written it.” So he had a conscience? “Of course. He and Vivien both felt guilty about my mother. Years after his marriage to Vivien broke up, she said to a friend of mine: ‘Our passion was second to none; Intellectually we were together, but spiritually it was never right because the basis of our love was the unhappiness of four other people.’ My father broke my mother’s heart. He ruined her for any other man because she still loved him. And she never got over him. Her career also ended when he left her.”
Yet he is not bitter about his parents’ divorce. “I can’t remember a time in my life not knowing how Larry left my mother for the most beautiful woman in the world, how my mother still loved him and that he was a good man. I never felt bitter about it. Vivien and Larry were so right together. They were marvelous together.”
However, part of the reason why he rote his book, My Father Laurence Olivier (published in 1992) was to mitigate the professional injustice that he felt his father did to his mother. When Olivier and Jill Esmond met, he was a struggling actor and she the successful actress daughter of what was then Britain’s leading theatrical family. Her father, Henry Esmond, wrote 28 plays and was an actor-manager of great note. Her mother, Eva Moore, was a star and an influential hostess. “At one of the parties, everyone was there,” says Tarquin, “George bernard Shaw, Rudyard Kipling, Rider Haggard. My mother knew all those people and my father got to know them as well. My mother created him. He never acknowledged that.”
In his biography, Confessions of an Actor, Laurence Olivier dismissed Jill Esmond’s considerable contribution to his career, and their entire marriage as well. Yet years later, after his mother’s death, Tarquin chanced upon his father’s love letters, written to his mother during and after their marriage. “He was old and forgetful when he wrote that book,” says Tarquin, “and I think he just forgot what my mother did for him.”
At this point I gingerly bring up the subject of the actress Sarah Miles, who, in three autobiographies, details her affair with Olivier, which she said spanned decades and took place during his marriage to Joan Plowright. According to her, Olivier told her: “Jill Esmond gave me my son Tarquin as well as my first leg up the showbiz ladder. I suppose, unconsciously, I used all my wives to further my journey up the ladder.” Tarquin acknowledges that his father told him about Sarah Miles, but says, unwaveringly: “I don’t want to talk about it. After all, it isn’t a nice thing to talk about somebody who is alleged to have had an affair with my father, because Joan is still alive and very loyal to his memory and I wouldn’t like to be associated with that kind of conversation.”
He is far more relaxed and less defensive about the subject of his mother’s sexuality. Through the years it has been intimated that even before Olivier met Vivien Leigh, his marriage to Jill was undermined by her bisexuality. In his 1991 biography of Olivier, Donald Spoto wrote of Jill: “She led a quiet, independent life among a coterie of lesbian producers, agents, writers and actresses.” Tarquin says: “A rather suspect French woman called Ninette lived with her, whom nobody liked. And from the age of 50, my mother lived with a very boring woman. I don’t know if they actually had a tumble or not. I don’t really mind.”
He does, however, appear to mind considerably about Spoto’s allegations that his father had a homosexual liaison with the American comedian, Danny Kaye, insisting: “That is absolute rubbish. If it had been true, Vivien would have been the first to spread it around after Larry left her. Larry wasn’t shy or inhibited with his close friends. Derek Grainger, his official biographer, told me he had asked Larry if he had ever had a homosexual experience. He said he hadn’t, and then asked, ‘What have I missed?’ Derek replied, ‘Frankly, darling, not much.’ I think if he’d had homosexual experiences, he would have told me quite openly. He confided in me and he trusted me.” Tarquin is equally adamant in denying recent claims (made by an American author) that his father has a homosexual affair with Richard Burton.
During the war, Jill Esmond took Tarquin to America, where he became a child actor, appearing in seven films. Tarquin attended Eton, becoming an accomplished classical pianist and a champion rower, and he and his father corresponded regularly. Olivier wrote Tarquin long, moving, instructive letters, including one written for his birthday in which he wrote: ‘I hope that you will have a lovely day. I hope that you will always have lovely days, dear boy, as lovely as possible, particularly on your birthdays, as they should be fine days. Old as I am, I still remember most of mine.’
Tarquin spent weekends and part of his school hoildays with Olivier and Vivien, staying with them at Notley Abbey. One of his happiest memories is visiting his father on the set of Henry V. “I went to see him at the studio. He had a towel over his head, it came off and I suddenly saw he was platinum blond. Outside he had a big American Jeep, and in it was a great length of aluminum. We took it to Notley and used is as a canoe, paddling down the river with it. It was a great adventure and I was very happy.”
During that time he also met Marilyn Monroe, with whom his father was making The Prince and the Showgirl. “I was very disappointed. She had a very trim waist, but the fore and aft were so bulbous. But when the camera was on her she lit up like a lightbulb.” Marilyn was clearly no competition for Vivien, whom he remembered with great emotion. “Apart from her obvious beauty, she was very clever at talking to people. She made you feel you were the center of her attention. She had a wonderful presence. I never found her very sexy…but I loved her beauty, the way she moved, the way she dressed, the way she spoke. She and Larry had a lot in common. Intellectual things, the theatre, books, and their assessment of other people.” Can you give an example? “No, I won’t do that. It was quite ruthless, and very funny, but private.
“People think Vivien was vain, but she wasn’t. She took very little time getting made up and dressed, just like any other professional actress. I remember a fashion show where she tried on a dress which was a bit big and needed to be altered. Then she said, “No good. Far too many things to do. Too many loops, too many straps.’ She took it off and put on a top which had no buttons, and a skirt and belt which looked wonderful. She was very down to earth and very speedy.”
Was she tougher than you would think? “She fought to win. She fought to get Scarlett. She won Larry.” Are you saying she was ruthless? “I prefer ‘determined’. Ruthless implies a wish to hurt. I don’t think she had that. She was also very funny. I brought my first wife, Ridelle, to see her. Ridelle was very beautiful, but I think Vivien found her a little boring. Noel Coward was there and he was entranced by my wife, who sat on his lap. Vivien said: ‘Stop it, you two! Noel–have you changed?’
He mimics Noel’s reply–‘A nice, intelligent girl and very pretty’–and is spot on. I ask whether he regrets not having followed a theatrical path. “Not in the least, mimicry is very different from being an actor.” Can you imitate your father? I cajole. He laughs –a long, warm laugh. “I’ll tell you a story. Larry asked what I thought of his portrait, the one that hangs in the Garrick Club. I said: ‘I think it is a masterpiece. I love the pose; it is very much in character. The classes at a rather camp angle, the tie undone, the twinkle. It has all the humor and the strength.’ He said wonderingly, ‘God! I like that!’ Then, in a completely different voice, he barked, ‘So what did you really think of it?’ I said, ‘I think it makes you look like a bank manager who has just had his secretary…’ ‘I suppose I am meant to scream with laughter,’ he snapped back. That was typical of him, switching moods in mid sentence.”
Tarquin says he believes Vivien became ill following a grueling wartime trip to North Africa where she spent months entertaining troops. Arriving back in England, she became pregnant by Olivier, but lost the baby while filming Caesar and Cleopatra. Once filming was over, she sank into a deep depression, and had violent tantrums during which she attacked Olivier physically. But once the tantrums subsided, she collapsed at his feet. The next day, she couldn’t remember what had happened.
During the next fifteen years, Vivien had terrible bouts of manic depression, which would take the form of hysteria, followed by violence, then deep remorse. “She was quite mad on a number of occasions,” Tarquin says. I ask if he witnessed that and he says that he did, but doesn’t want to talk about it. “It was awful,” he says, “but we loved her and did what we could. Finally, she was in a terrible, terrible state.
“There was no treatment for her in those days. But my father still stuck by her. I remember my mother saying to me at the time that my father had told her that more than anything else, more than becoming a good actor, he wanted to be a good husband and a good father. My mother said, ‘Well, he certainly tried to be a good father, but by God, never has there been a man who was more loyal as a husband than he was to Vivien.”
One night, almost 20 years after he first fell in love with Vivien, Olivier cracked under the strain of coping with her illness. By now madly in love with Joan Plowright, he told Vivien the truth. At first she was calm, sane and received the news with a certain equanimity. Two nights later, she exploded in rage and began slapping him around the face with a wet towel, and screaming hysterically. Olivier spanned and flung Vivien across the room. She fell and hit her left eyebrow on the corner of a marble bedside table, narrowly missing her temple. At that moment Olivier realized the truth. ‘Each of us was quite capable of murdering each other,’ he later wrote in his autobiography. That night Laurence Olivier left Vivien Leigh for ever.
Like Jill Esmond, Vivien remained in love with Olivier for the rest of her life. “She loved him to the end, no question,” says Tarquin. “She had his photograph by her bed all the time she was with her final partner, Jack Marivale. The love of her life was Larry. And she was the great passion of his.”
Olivier always festered with guilt about Vivien. Zelfa, Tarquin’s wife, remembers visiting him in the twilight of his days. ‘The night before, he had been watching The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone [one of Leigh’s films]. I was told that he had wept all night, asking over and over: ‘What went wrong? What went wrong?’ By then, Tarquin had his own family, two daughters and a son. But after ten years of marriage, his wife suddenly announced that she was leaving him. ‘That was March 27, 1975. It was the saddest moment of my life, because I lost my three children. I didn’t want the marriage to end. She wanted to have the children to herself, I think. It was awful.”
Professionally, however, his life was successful, and interesting. He travelled the world, lived with fishermen in the Far East, wrote a book about the experience called The Eye of the Day, wrote news for a Swiss radio service, and then joined the COmmonwealth Development Corporation. In 1970 he joined banknote printers Thomas De La Rue, first as a regional manager and then running the Asia and Pacific Rim market. At 50, he left the firm and went into the film business.
By now, he had met and fallen in love with Zelfa and had also become fascinated with Ataturk. Initially, Antonio Banderas was cast to star in the 35 million pound film, to be directed by Bruce Beresford. Then, after receiving hate mail from a group named The Hellenic Association, Banderas backed out. “I felt it was a blow to artistic freedom,” says Tarquin with some regret. “The Hellenic Association made unfounded allegations against Ataturk, who was one of the greatest men of the last century. I’ve just completed a television documentary disproving those allegations and the film will go ahead with another actor starring instead.”
On July 11, 1989, Laurence Olivier died, aged 82. “He had tremendous towering energy and ambition,” says Tarquin. “He couldn’t sleep. He couldn’t switch off. All he wanted to do was work. The last time I saw him was a couple weeks before he died. He was in pain and hoping to die. I wanted to kiss him, but I didn’t in case he rejected me. I just looked at him and saw this marvelous fire–a paternal love in his eyes. I still miss him. I think about him an awful lot. I think about my mother, and Vivien, of course, as well.
“But if anybody asked my advice about growing up with a famous father, I would say: ‘Get yourself a life, a good one, so that you become more interesting to yourself than your father ever was.’ People ask me about growing up in my father’s shadow. I don’t see myself as having lived in his shadow. I see myself as having grown up in his sunlight.”