remembering vivien leigh july 7, 2010

essays vivien leigh

A useful life: Remembering Vivien Leigh

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.

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 (23)

  1. What a lovely post. Vivien Leigh has influenced my life more than I even know. She is a huge inspiration to me. I especially love the fact that she learned her trade instead of passing it off as “talent”. Talent, in my opinion, only goes so far. It takes drive and passion and a force beyond what your average person possesses. Vivien Leigh was definitely not your average person. You do a wonderful job on this site. I can’t wait for your book to come out. Thank you!

    1. Thanks for the comment, Haley!

      I agree with you that the truly remarkable actors and actresses aren’t content to just sit on the heels of their talent, but strive to always be better through hard work. It’s amazing how many people Vivien continues to inspire so long after her death.

  2. Vivien Leigh–as impossible to resist as she is to replace.

    Beautiful tribute, Kendra. Vivien’s legacy will never be forgotten while ever her influence can be expressed so thoughtfully and poignantly as in the article above. You do our lady proud…

  3. Kendra,
    Wonderful tribute to a legendary actress, beauty and woman . She was all of theses things and more. That she died so young in 1967 at the age of 53 is a tragedy . And a loss for us all.
    How proud she would be to realize the lasting elegant impact she had on all who admired her.

  4. Vivien Leigh is a legendary star and legends will live for ever.But,Kendra, you obviously do care about her as a human being and that’s what will make your coming book all the more precious; not only the hard work of your researches but the genuine interest in another person..

    1. Thanks, Rita. it’s true, I think she was a fascinating and beautiful person as well as a great actress. She certainly had that something that enraptured audiences and the people in her life. In the movies they’d call it charisma. But she seemed to have been a genuinely beautiful soul.

  5. “A useful life. Someone to love me… forever.” The exact words of Mary Treadwell, in her last movie, SHIP OF FOOLS. Speaking of similarities between actress and character… Brilliant and moving tribute Kendra.

    1. Thanks, Tanguy. I know, I was a bit taken aback when I read that quote in a letter years before Ship of Fools was made. She chose characters who she connected with on a deeper level.

  6. Kendra,
    A very lovely tribute for a beautiful and talented lady. Vivien will always be remembered for her many contributions to stage and screen, a true legend!

  7. Thank you for this neat site ! I have GWTW on Tivo & whenever I need a “hit”, so to speak, of Vivien I just play a bit of it & settle in. This may be a sacrilege but I actually see Lucille Ball in Viviens acting. Lucy was very under rated as an actress, her incredible comedic skill really over shadowed wonderful acting. They both use their eyes in the most expressive way & their reactions to another actors dialogue is remarkable. Lucy as the Vita Meta Vegemin demonstrator
    is a masterpiece, totally convincing shivers as she reacts to the foul taste at first, then this gradual inebriation that gives way to the “stuff” not tasting so bad after all. Look at Vivien on stage
    in Waterloo Bridge her reactions to Robert Taylor in the audience is pure Lucy. Perhaps I should describe it as Lucy channeling Vivien though. Viv is lucky to have that physical trait of being able to lift one eyebrow, a very seductive skill, (wish I could do that) I am not sure if Lucy could do that. Finally both are beauties, Lucy is overlooked, her being a comic but separate her from that & she is quite lovely. Must say though that Lucy did not age well at all she became gravel voiced, & flabby in the face. It can be hard to compare them on latter day looks because Viv died at 53 & Lucy was close to 80. I love them both !

  8. Ms. Leigh must have been a gracious woman who was kind to her fans. I have a story to share:
    An elderly friend several months ago showed my wife and me a picture of a movie actress which was autographed. Our friend mentioned that in his youth he had a schoolboy crush on the woman in the photograph. Don was advanced 30 years from us born in 1933 and so we weren’t certain who the celebrity was. Of course it was Vivien Leigh. He mentioned that he lived where he could never meet her in person to ask for her signature, but that he so wanted her autograph. He got the idea to send his request to her via U.S. Mail. His letter went out and after a week or so had passed , to his surprise, he received a package from Ms. Leigh containing the 5×7 autographed picture signed to him wishing him the best. Don cherished this picture as it was his first celebrity autograph. He later opened a Hallmark store as well as an autograph/memorabilia business. Our friend had been sick for a few weeks and lost his life two nights ago. Don’s daughter gave us the picture of Ms. Leigh for being good friends to their family through the years and it means so much to us because it meant so much to the whole of his interests and who he became. Her kindness through the gesture became his story which is now our story. I hope it becomes special to someone who loves us like we loved him. R.I.P. Don~we already miss you dearly.

    1. What a lovely story and I’m sorry to hear about the passage of your friend. Vivien Leigh was very generous with her fans and kept long-lasting, written relationships with several of them. I hope her signed photo continues to bring joy as well as memories of Don.

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