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Vivien Leigh Faces Her Biggest Fight

In March 1953, Vivien Leigh suffered a total nervous breakdown due to exhaustion in Hollywood while working on the film Elephant Walk. Friends David Niven and Stewart Granger were there to witness the horrific event, and to assist in keeping Vivien safe until doctors could sedate her. Laurence Olivier came directly from Ischia where he was vacationing with the the Williams Waltons to be at Vivien’s side. His flight took three days, and once he arrived Vivien was immediately loaded onto a plane at LAX en route to New York and London. The world press chronicled the event, and years later, Olivier, Granger and Niven all wrote about it in their respective autobiographies. There was another person who also shared her opinion shortly after the event. Vivien’s daughter Suzanne Holman Farrington, then 19, wrote an article for the Sunday Chronicle in which she reflected on her mother’s situation and her own choices as an aspiring actress following in her mother’s footsteps.

Vivien Leigh Faces Her Biggest Fight

by Suzanne Holman
Sunday Chronicle, March 22, 1953

Next Tuesday evening I am going to seek out a quiet corner and, at the age of 19, take stock of my life.

For the misfortune that has come to my mother has made me ask myself this question: “Shall I go on with my dream of becoming a great actress or should I be wiser to take up a career where there may be no triumphs, but where there would certainly be fewer heartaches and tears?”

I must not think of making this vital decision until I have appeared at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art’s annual performance on Tuesday afternoon.

This is the climax of my two years’ study at the Academy. Although I shall not feel much in the mood for playing my part because of worry about my mother. I cannot quit at this point for the sake of the rest of the cast.

Always More

It was only sheer collapse that has forced my mother to give up–at least for the time being.

She has put tremendous energy into every stage and film role she ever played, and as the years passed she found that more and more calls were made on her services.

She was caught up in time schedules and felt, I know, that she could not stop or even let up for a while.

You can’t relax when you’re on top, as mother was.

In the last six months or so I could see she was living on her nervous energy. While she was as gay and vivacious as ever I could feel that she was driving herself too hard.

On top of this she had a horror of flying. That dates back some 12 years when she was flying with Sir Laurence Olivier from New York to London. The engines of the aircraft caught fire, and the plane had to make an emergency landing near Boston.

Breaking Point

Then came the 72-hour flight from Ceylon to Hollywood to complete the studio scenes on the film Elephant Walk. The ordeal of that flight was the breaking-point.

Now that she is back in London I feel sure that all she needs is a period of complete rest before she makes a complete recovery. Larry, of course, is wonderful.

When she is well again, she, too, may have a big decision to make. Will she take up her career or will she be content to rest on her laurels, as she can well afford to do?

But knowing mother as I do, I am sure she will make a supreme effort to appear in the West End with Sir Laurence in the new Rattigan Play “The Sleeping Prince.”

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Vivien Leigh: An Intimate Portrait

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 (9)

  1. I have so enjoyed this read. I love the movies of Mrs. Leigh. It almost hurt’s to look upon her you can almost see the pain she hide’s in her eye’s. Such a loss at a young age. At last we have her film’s to watch. Such a shame there is no film of her stage work, that she loved doing so much more then film.

  2. She was the most beautiful woman I have ever seen, also a great actress…I have started watching some of her movies not so well known and they are really good

  3. Everyone loves Vivian Leigh. She will always be a memory to old and young. I am so sorry that her life was not perfect. She was and is a classic. You do not have many people who can match that. God Bless Scarlett.

  4. Todo mi vida he sentido una profunda admiración por la meritísima Vivian leigh, realmente que tuvo muchos problemas emocionales, mentales y de salud en general, pero ello no logró que su espiritu y su fuerza dejaran de existir, por el contrario con todos esos conflictos fue la mas valorada por su esfuerzo y dedicación, nunca abandonó sus sueños, siempre perseveró para conseguir sus metas y las obtuvo, hermosa, querida por todos, aún en sus años adultos mantuvo esa juventud y sonrisa que nunca perdió. Ha sido y será un ejemplo para las futuras generaciones . Que dios tenga a Vivian en un lugar merecedor de su talento y de su gran calidad de ser humano.

  5. I am now 91 years . Vivien Leigh is and will always be my favorite actress. Her beauty and acting were beyond comparable. I have a dvd collection of most of her movies and watch them often. They make me feel happy. God bless and keep her in the palm of his ha

  6. Vivian Leigh’s psychiatric symptoms were NOT caused by a nervous break down or stress. It was caused by her Tuberculosis medication Isoniazid. She was on this medication (an antibiotic still used today) to keep her TB in check and one of the common symptoms is toxic psychosis and other mental illness. This fact wasn’t widely known until years after she had died. She only became psychotic AFTER starting this medication and she continued to drink while on it which made all the symptoms worse. It really irritates and hurts me that everyone perpetuates this lie that she had a mental illness when it was her TB medication causing it the whole time. Vivian was subjected to horrific “treatments” for her toxic psychosis including ice baths for hours and tons of electroshock therapy and more medication to sedate her while all the while she was still taking the Isoniazid. If the doctors would have stopped that medication she would have returned to her normal self within a week. It breaks my heart what she went through at the end of her life. I hope her daughter knew that. Google Vivian Leigh, Isoniazid, and Tuberculosis and do the research fir yourself. Here’s a link to start you off.

    1. Hello. I’ve actually written an entire book on Vivien Leigh and have extensively researched her life in archives (primary sources, not just Google searches). I appreciate you taking the time to comment here, but don’t really need to be told to “do the research for yourself”.

  7. One can see the cry for help in her eyes. The older she became, the hard this was to hide. Love her to this day!

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