A useful life: Remembering Vivien Leigh
November 5th, 1913 — July 7th, 1967
Vivien Leigh’s death was shocking in its unexpectedness. The last few weeks of her life had been spent on mandatory bed rest. Friends and loved ones poured in to 54 Eaton Square to visit, noting that her bedroom resembled the Chelsea Flower Show– a rose bower fit for a queen. She had battled chronic bouts of tuberculosis several times over the years, always bouncing back with characteristic optimism. No one had reason to believe she wouldn’t recover this time. The script of Edward Albee’s A Delicate Balance sat on her bedside table. She was set to star opposite Michael Redgrave as Agnes, a middle-aged upper-class socialite who feels herself on the brink of madness. Had the play come to fruition, those who knew her might have pointed out the similarities between actress and character. And Vivien may have acknowledged the truth in these words in some way before plunging ahead. After all, life’s experience, she said in 1960, was the best tool an actor could have.
The press mourned the loss of “the greatest beauty of her time”; her colleagues mourned an actress with grit and determination; moviegoers around the world mourned a luminous star, the eternal Scarlett O’Hara; and those who knew her well–and many who didn’t–mourned for a woman who, despite the shadows that often threatened to overwhelm her, enriched their lives in a profound way by simply being present.
It’s difficult to name a star who was as universally loved as Vivien Leigh. She had her detractors, it’s true. Many were jealous when she ran off with the most coveted role in film history. Others were quick to point out her learned, rather than natural, acting abilities. Once Kenneth Tynan and his ilk came onto the scene in the 1950s, Vivien became a virtual moving target for criticism all because she dared to act opposite the love of her life and her greatest mentor, who also happened to be England’s Greatest Actor. But for every jealous barb thrown her way, for every negative review or misunderstood tantrum, there were ten people willing to stand up for her, to protect her and to comfort her. “To know Vivien was to love her,” Terence Rattian eulogized in the New York Times, “to have loved Vivien was also to have been loved by her, and loved with a true devotion and a passionate loyalty that might well put your own wavering emotion to shame.”
Peter Finch once said that when Vivien walked into a room, all eyes immediately fixated on her. It wasn’t just her beauty. She had an aura–an intense magnetism that drew people in, and it is perhaps this quality that accounts for the legions of fans she has retained and continues to attract. Forty five years after physically departing this world, Vivien lives on in the film roles she made immortal. Whether clawing her way back to the top as civilization crumbled around her in Gone with the Wind, or fighting and ultimately succumbing to the harsh realities of the present in A Streetcar Named Desire (and many other roles in her 19-film career), Vivien had the unique power of immediacy which has kept her performances fresh– and thus helped keep her in the spotlight– long after many other stars of her generation have faded from memory.
Writing about Vivien today on the anniversary of her death, I contemplated how to give new life to a post I’ve made every year since this site launched. What is there to say about Vivien Leigh that hasn’t been said already? And then I remembered a letter I’d read recently while doing research for my book. On the eve of her divorce from Laurence Olivier, Vivien gave voice to her anxieties about the future, writing that she hoped her life would prove useful–to many people.
If only she were alive today to witness the lasting effects of her legacy.