articles the oliviers

Heart Throbs In The Headlines

31 days of Vivien Leigh and Laurence OlivierI have a bunch of magazine and newspaper articles left over from my dissertation research, so I’ve decided to do “31 Days of the Oliviers.” Each day I will post a new article or blog post, ending with Vivien Leigh’s birthday on November 5. These articles (most of which have Vivien as the main subject) span the years 1937-1967 and come from both American and British sources. I hope you enjoy reading them as much as I do!

{Day 5} Vivien Leigh’s and Laurence Olivier’s romance was speculated in the press from the outset, but because of Selznick’s iron grip on his new discovery, news of just how involved they were did not reach the public until after Gone with the Wind premiered.

This short article in Motion Picture is surprisingly accurate for the most part (aside from Larry being called “Laurie”, but perhaps this was the Hollywood press not understanding a British accent?). 1930s Hollywood did not look kindly on adultery, but here it was, very thinly veiled, being reported on as wildly romantic. Many celebrities back then and even today would not have gotten such a free pass in the media.

[Discussion Question]: Why do you think the press and public were so enamored with Larry and Vivien despite knowing they left spouses and children to be together?


Heart Throbs in the Headlines

The exciting romance of Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh blazes brilliantly on the Hollywood Horizon.
Modern Screen, February 1940

There are three important steps in every love affair. I see you, I know you, and I want you. Laurence Olivier took them all at a leap–and landed in the arms of Vivien Leigh.

Laurence first met Vivien in the summer of 1936 during the production of a British film in which they both appeared. The instant his brooding brown eyes lit on her fiery green ones, he was smitten by that powerful something which stops men cold. Now, love is alright in its place but its place, he knew, was not in the heart of a man who is the supposedly devoted husband of another woman. Laurence had been married to Jill Esmond for six years and she had borne him a son. He didn’t want to hurt her. Neither did he care to upset Leigh Holman, his beloved’s spouse and father of her little daughter, Suzanne.

But Vivien’s fascination was greater than Lauries good intentions. He found he couldn’t live without her. And he wasn’t a bit angry when he found she couldn’t live without him. Before long, they left their mates and their children for each other. There was no alternative.

Vivien and Laurence are a likable, honest pair. They have never attempted to conceal their romance. Perhaps their mutual “well-do-as-we-please-and-drat-public-opinion” attitude has played a huge part in holding them together. For example, it is no secret that Vivien left London and followed Laurie to Hollywood because she couldn’t endure the separation caused by his work in Wuthering Heights. Nor is there any mystery about her “chance” meeting with Agent Myron Selznick, and her eventual “Scarlett” assignment. Laurie arranged that. He pulled every string he could find to keep her by his side and, when the omnipotent David O. awarded her the most discussed role since Bernhardt played Camille, it was his off-the-set encouragement which led her to a magnificent performance.

Some months ago, Jill Esmond Olivier filed suit for divorce, and more recently Leigh Holman took similar steps. Before the year is out Vivien and her inamorato will be free to head for the altar–and it’s a cinch they’ll waste not time getting there.

Kendra has been the weblady at since 2007. She lives in Yorkshire and is the author of Vivien Leigh: An Intimate Portrait, and co-author of Ava Gardner: A Life in Movies (Running Press). Follow her on Twitter @kendrajbean, Instagram at @vivandlarrygram, or at her official website.

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Comments (3)

  1. Regarding the discussion point… my first thought was I wonder if it was for a similar to reason to why I (and I would hazard a guess many others, although I am loathe to speak for anyone else) feel the same way.

    In the ‘real world’ I look on things like infidelity and desertion with disdain, although I admit you never really know what happens behind closed doors, and circumstances can be very different from one case of affairs to the next. However, somehow the romantic ideal I feel many of us are still taught through film and novel to look up to, perhaps even aspire to, outweighs the negative connotations of their adultery. Here are two unbelievably beautiful souls, darlings of the stage and screen, from a time when actors were true idols, I would go so far as to say ever so much more than today. [Speaking to my Grandmother today about Vivien and Larry, her reaction was quite a precious one. ‘Oh, what a beautiful pair they made, your Grandfather was quite smitten with Vivien Leigh you know, and took me to the pictures to see her films quite regularly.’] And they are desperately in love.

    I had begun to wonder whether we nowadays adore them and their love story mostly due to the benefit of hindsight. No matter how beautiful they were together, and the wonderful , heart-warming words you read in their letters, we know the tragic end of their tale too. Perhaps that makes ‘modern day’ fans more captivated. There have always been great, tragic romances but personally I always find when reading or watching those stories, I can at least comfort myself when I am sufficiently moved beyond tears, that it was at least just that… fiction. But Vivien and Larry were real souls and knowing how things ended is quite the heart-wrencher, especially without the comfort of saying ‘It’s just a story.’

    However, as the question is actually regarding the press at the time, and they of course had no way of seeing the future of the Oliviers, I can only reason that it was a mixture of the promise of a real life passionate love affair playing out before their eyes, in as much as they were both public figures. Perhaps the press back then were to an extent ‘blinded’, for want of a better word, by their grace, beauty and eloquence. The charm they both exuded is still evident today, and I for one am captivated by them quite enough that I often forget – or forgive – their less than chaste beginnings.

  2. Well, Gore Vidal features a photo of the duo from “That Hamilton Woman” in one of his books (mid-1990s) with a caption stating that they were the most beautiful and talented couple of their day. Hard to argue with that! (Vidal chose to show the film on TCM when he was guest programmer more recently, and I think his intro is still available on line.) This was also the age of “The woman I love” – yielding a throne in favor of romance – and attitudes about morality were rather relaxed during the Depression compared to the hypocritical post-war era when Ingrid Bergman was denounced in the U.S. Congress for her love match with Rossellini. Then again, there’s the question of image: Scarlett and Heathcliff were not exactly the priest and nun of The Bells of St. Mary’s, in life or in the public’s imagination. (And remember that Jennifer Jones remained a popular star, even though she left Robert Walker, with whom she had two children, for David Selznick, who also had two children – and she had been St. Bernadette on screen!)

    Perhaps the bigger surprise is that Vivien and Larry bombed on Broadway as Romeo and Juliet! They were not without competiton as beautiful couples go; the film “Bahama Passage” (1941) had this tagline:

    “The two most gorgeous humans you’ve ever beheld – caressed by soft tropic winds – tossed by the tides of love!”

    Sterling Hayden was Madeleine Carroll’s second husband, and she was Sterling’s first wife.

  3. It’s an interesting question.Probably in Hollywood this issue was handled with great ability by Selznick, who dropped the courtain only when they both were well established as romantic stars , so much to be almost identified with Heathcliff and Scarlett. In addition ,in my opinion, American press and American audiences were (and still are) a bit in awe of British performers, especially stage performers. British press? when they began their romance Laurence and Vivien weren’t really famous and after they were considered the Golden Couple par excellence.

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