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A Bird of Paradise

Posted in - vivien leigh on July 7th 2014 10 Comments Vivien Leigh as a gypsy

Vivien Leigh’s death certificate officially lists her date of death as July 8, 1967 (it wasn’t filed until July 10). However, some people (myself included) observe the date on July 7. The discrepancy comes from Vivien’s partner Jack Merivale, who told several Vivien Leigh biographers about returning home from the theatre late on the night of July 7. After checking in on Vivien, he went downstairs to heat up a tin of soup for dinner. He then went back upstairs and found Vivien unresponsive on the floor. Noel Coward gives a more complete picture in his diaries, based on what Jack told Coward’s partner, Cole Lesley:

“Sunday 16 July [1967]

I can’t even remember the date of the morning that Coley came into my suite at the Savoy and told me that Vivien had died. The shock was too violent. I mind too deeply to go on about it very much. She was a lovely, generous and darling friend, and I shall miss her always. Apparently Jacko [Coward’s nickname for Merivale] came back from his theatre, saw her sleeping peacefully and went to warm up some soup for himself…”

The next part of Coward’s diary entry helps to clear up an ambiguous description in Laurence Olivier’s autobiography Confessions of an Actor. Olivier wrote about Jack calling him to 54 Eaton Square on the morning of July 8 and letting him in to Vivien’s bedroom to be alone with her. This is where it gets controversial and understandably angered those who knew Vivien and felt such details were private and inappropriate. Olivier reported noticing a stain on the floor, and remarked that it was ironic that fate should deliver that particular little death blow when Vivien had been so dainty regarding such matters when she was alive.

“When [Jack] came back a few minutes later she was lying on the floor in a welter of blood, having had a hemorrhage [her official cause of death is listed as “chronic pulmonary tuberculosis.” No inquest was made.]. Jacko, with almost incredible courage and tact, cleaned up all the hideous mess because he knew that she would hate anybody, even the doctor, to see her like that. Then he telephoned the doctor. Jacko is a good and kind man.”

But enough with the grizzly details. This post isn’t about death. It’s about celebrating a woman whose life and work continues to inspire 47 years after her departure. Vivien Leigh is currently experiencing a renaissance; a renewed interest in her legacy. We know a lot about her already, but isn’t it fascinating and exciting to think that there’s still more to learn?

In remembrance of Vivien, a photo retrospective of the woman Noel Coward referred to as a “Bird of Paradise.”

*Some of these photos are published in Vivien Leigh: An Intimate Portrait


Vivien Leigh as a gypsy

Vivien Mary Hartley, circa 1918. Photographer unknown.

Vivien Leigh by Marcus Adams

A study by famed child photographer Marcus Adams

Vivien Leigh wedding

Age 19, on the day of her wedding to Leigh Holman, December 1932

Vivien Leigh for Vogue

A fashion photograph taken by Cecil Beaton for Vogue, circa 1936. © The Cecil Beaton Studio Archive, Sotheby’s

Vivien Leigh in Dark Journey

Publicity photograph for Dark Journey (1937)

Gone With the Wind

As Scarlett O’Hara in Gone With the Wind (1939)

That hamilton Woman Leigh Olivier

As Emma Hamilton opposite Laurence Olivier in That Hamilton Woman (1941)

Vivien Leigh Cleopatra

Vivien as Cleopatra, with a Siamese kitten (possibly her cat New)

Vivien Leigh Anna Karenina

Publicity portrait for Anna Karenina (1948)

Vivien Leigh 1949

Photographed by Angus McBean in 1949. Via Harvard

Vivien Leigh Laurence Olivier 1953

With Laurence Olivier, arriving at a party at Binkie Beaumont’s House, 1953

Vivien Leigh Vogue

Photographed at 54 Eaton Square by Norman Parkinson, 1958

Vivien Leigh Lady of the Camellias

As Marguerite Gautier in Lady of the Camellias, 1961. Photo by Anthony Buckley

vivien_july7_16

Candid snapshot circa 1963

Vivien Leigh by Angus McBean

Angus McBean’s writing on the back reads: “Vivien Leigh the last sittings, 1965”

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Vivien Leigh: An Intimate Portrait

As of now (10) people have had something to say...

  • Vanessa Buttino - Reply

    July 8, 2014 at 1:42 pm

    I’m really liking your site’s re-design – it looks absolutely flawless (especially Dale’s drawing as the header)! Reading this post made me sad, wistful, and hopeful that Vivien finally achieved peace once she passed away. What a wonderful woman she was x

    • Kendra - Reply

      July 9, 2014 at 5:56 am

      Thanks, Vanessa! I’m really pleased with the layout and Dale’s skills are amazing. I keep telling him he should peddle his artwork!

      I like to think Vivien found peace, too. As Noel Coward said, “She often reminded me of a Bird of Paradise. Now perhaps she can find her own.”

  • April Lane - Reply

    July 8, 2014 at 1:50 pm

    Thank you, Kendra. She is and always will be, my treasured favorite and somehow, a “kindred spirit”.

    My best wishes on the continued success of your book and the appreciation it inspires for the screen’s greatest actress.

    • Kendra - Reply

      July 9, 2014 at 5:56 am

      Thank you, April! I also think of her as a kindred spirit and I think that’s part of why I find her so fascinating.

  • Herbie Harwell - Reply

    July 9, 2014 at 12:32 am

    A sad day for us, this year no exception. As tragic as the way Vivien passed, thank you for including it. And you are absolutely right about “celebrating” dear Vivien’s wonderful life and spirit! The photos are beautiful. Love, respect and honor always to my true love! Thank you.

  • Herbie Harwell - Reply

    July 9, 2014 at 1:13 am

    A true bird of paradise! Thank you for this special tribute to my favorite actress. I am glad that you included detail of her passing, if not for honesty’s sake. Vivien had a difficult life, but despite her pain and illnesses, her life was seasoned with a body of incomparable, powerful and flawless artistry. To me, Vivien was one of the strongest women ever to live. I am very sad this day. I quietly mourn her passing respectively. Thank you for also saying we should celebrate Vivien. With every breath and every beat of my heart, it is an honor to do so! Thank you, Kendra.

    • Kendra - Reply

      July 9, 2014 at 6:00 am

      Thanks for the lovely comment, Herbie! I think part of what continues to fascinate so many fans is the fact that she didn’t let the hardships in her life destroy her spirit, and she was able to accomplish amazing things (not to mention she was a wonderful actress and had amazing screen presence). Plus, it made her more interesting!

  • Elise Bush - Reply

    July 9, 2014 at 1:25 am

    Thanks for the post and photos on this anniversary. I’ve always thought it was around 11 pm on 7 July that Jack went back upstairs and found her.
    Your book is excellent. I hope someone (you?) will adapt it for a screenplay.

    • Kendra - Reply

      July 9, 2014 at 6:03 am

      Thank you, Elsie. I’m glad you enjoyed the book! Yes, that’s what Jack told various people. If the medical examiner or whoever didn’t show up until the early hours of the morning, it makes sense that her death was recorded as July 8 instead. They didn’t take her away until the next day.

  • Herbie Harwell - Reply

    October 10, 2014 at 4:53 am

    Kendra, In my most heart-felt and reverent regards, I feel that sweet Vivien’s death was without prejudice, a reminder of how severe tuberculosis was and is. My Mother suffered from TB in the mid 50’s and was sent to a sanitarium for radical treatment of the day. The stories she has told me are very humane and grim at the same time. I will forever remember her telling of the ringing the bells patients had by their bedsides while they hemorrhaged in the evening. I feel that chances are Vivien did hemorrhage, but was placed back in her bed for dignity sake. There is no shame in the way Vivien left us. It is part of her story, and I have great respect respect in all her truths. Thank you for a real and respective blog letting in truth while upholding Vivien’s dignity.

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