A waiting beauty

by Reynolds Price
Allure, November 2002
* Sent to vivandlarry.com by Laura M.

I’m an almost sleepless connoisseur of the Beautiful, and my taste for beauty is more catholic than may be normal for a middle-class white man born in a North Carolina village in 1933. A day, for me, can be literally lifted by a sudden sight of a doe and her fawn strolling through my backyard at dusk, a strangely bright rock overturned in a moment’s spading in the garden, my neighbor’s new Jaguar rolling magestically down his drive, a friend’s newest painting, or the face of a three-year-old godson in the plaza of the Getty Museum (more beautiful, for me, than any painting in the galleries behind him). The human form, in its almost endless potential, is the start and finish of beauty for me. And while I can console myself at certain moments of defeat with the memories of beautiful faces and bodies I’ve been honored to glimpse- or know more closely- I find myself, as I move toward 70, recalling more often the grandest face from my private gallery of faces.

My judgment is hardly eccentric; the face is one that millions of living persons have filed in their cabinets of wonder. I saw it first in 1940 when my parents took me to the premier showing in our small town of David O. Selznick’s long- heralded film Gone With the Wind. Older Americans had known of the wildly touted search for exactly the right actress to play Scarlett O’Hara; and the candidates had ranged absurdly-from Tallulah Bankhead and Lana Tuner to Paulette Goddard, who was apparently on the verge of being signed for the role. Then, on the night when preliminary shooting began with the titanic scenes of the burning of Atlanta, Selznick’s brother Myron stepped forward from the back-lot-darkness and presented a young English actress with the deathless words, “David, meet your Scarlett O’Hara.”

She was Vivien Leigh and the brilliance with which she, physically and spiritually, met every requirement of the longest role ever given a mainline film actress is one of the most famous facts in the history of movies. Gone With the Wind reamins,
if we adjust for six decades of inflation, the most successful film ever made. The beauty, intelligence, and fierce vitality of Vivien Leigh is- after narrative strength of the novel and the screenplay- the greatest component of the film’s endurance.

I was seven years old when I first saw her face and heard her wheedling blend of English and Georgian accents- the scene that starts the four- hour progress through the whole Civil War, Reconstruction, and its aftermath. Why did a boy as young as I seize on her face and her small but always ready-to-ignite body and set them up at once in my mind as a paragon I’d need to see again, as often as possible, to satisfy some previously unknown hunger deep in me? I had a loving mother- admittedly a women with similar dark hair and glowing eyes- and number of other caring women in my extended family. I was not yet driven by any conscious sexual needs. What had overcome me?

To be entirely clear now, I didn’t set out at once to collect pictures of Vivien Leigh or facts about her. My mother would buy, for herself, an occasional movie magazine; but I couldn’t read yet and I recall no immediate signs of firm commitment I’d somehow made to Leigh’s beauty- or the silent vow that she and I had somehow made to one another in the air that lay between a movie screen and my young eyes. Video taped films were an unimaginable reality then; and since my family lived in a series of small North Carolina towns with somewhere between one and three movie theaters, I could seldom see the woman I’d chosen as my embodiment of something so mysterious that I hadn’t begun to try to name it.

Still, Gone with the Wind was a phenomenon of such magnetism that it returned to our towns every few years; and I always stole into those dark premises at every opportunity and steadied myself for the excitement of the film’s matchless opening-
the title itself, moved across the screen in tall letters that were literally wind swept by Max Steiner’s score. And I saw Leigh in the few other films she made during the difficult years of World War II- Waterloo Bridge, That Hamilton Woman, and Caesar
and Cleopatra. Though she looked more beautiful in That Hamilton Woman than in any of her early films (there she performed with her husband , Laurence Olivier, another of the world’s most beautiful creatures) – and though each of her performances marked her as a great deal more than a one-role wonder- none of those later films matched the power of Gone With the Wind. Yet, eventually she’d excel, in 1951, in a performance of shattering intensity in Tennessee William’s A Streetcar Named Desire. There, she surpassed even the loutish brilliance of Marlon Brando as she owned up tacitly to both her own periodic mental derangements and the beginning of beauty’s decay.

As I grew older, apart from seeing films on the rare occasions when they came near me, I began to assemble pictures of her and keep them in carefully laid-down scrapbooks. By then I’d become aware of the components of her spectacular beauty- the dark brown hair that gave her a widow’s peak and formed her pointed face in the shape of a perfect heart, the tilted green eyes, the pale skin, the long and slender but never less than powerful neck, and the small body so clearly filled with a combined strength of fury and love. My attachment to her was hardly that of a merely intoxicated fan, and I certainly never expected to meet her, but she steadily remained my paragon of beauty- the embodiment of my sense that one of the two or three generous gifts God has given us is beauty, and a beauty expressed in the most common of human endowments: flesh and bone and the hidden blood beneath.

Early in my freshman year at Duke University, I learned that she and her equally famous husband were to come to the New York stage in alternating nights of Shaw’s Caesar and Cleopatra and Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra. I was as broke as the average college boy, but I sold a few paintings (I was then a painter) and sent my check to the box office at the old Ziegfield Theatre on Sixth Avenue. The demand for tickets was said to be ferocious, but almost at once, mine arrived and I made plans to go to the city for my Christmas break.

I’d paid my first visit to New York the previous year and had seen the moving performance of Ethel Waters and Julie Harris in Carson McCuller’s The Member of the Wedding. And I’d seen Olivier in nearly as many films as Leigh, including his recent Hamlet. So, despite my youth, I was hardly unprepared for first-rate dramatic experiences. A few months short of my nineteenth birthday, I was nonetheless excited by the thought of being in the same space-however large- with the archetype who’d accompanied me so intensely, yet so distantly, through most of my life. And luckily, because of the shortage of tickets, I was seeing the plays out of chronological order- I’d see the far greater Shakespeare play, with the mature Cleopatra, the night before Shaw’s almost childish queen.

Just before I left for the theater then, I sat down in my dim room in the nearby Taft Hotel and wrote Miss Leigh a fairly fervent letter (by then, Olivier had been knighted and she was technically Lady Olivier). I told her of my years of admiration and asked if I might come back briefly after the performance and see her. I have no copy of the letter, but I’ll wager that I said “see” and not “meet”- in my imagination, she was still more nearly a fabulous object than a human being. I’d visited Ethel Waters in her dressing room after The Member of the Wedding and thought that I’d at least learned the procedure for backstage visits. Impressive a figure Miss Waters was, however, she’d never occupied Vivien Leigh’s place in my affections and awe, and I walked toward the Ziegfield with a real case of nerves.

For awe was the major part of my feeling and expectation by the time I reached the theater- the first patron there. I gave the letter to the usher and asked her to deliver it to Miss Leigh. A few minutes later, the usher returned to my seat, pointed to a door beside the stage and said, “When you go back, go through there.” The plain confirmation that a meeting- or a seeing- was possible instantly converted my awe into fear, or maybe, dread. No, I wouldn’t go. I’d far overextended a postadolescent boy’s fascination into stage-door- Johnny rashness. I’d see the play, work off my reactions in a few hours of wandering through the in- those- days relatively un-bizarre streets of Times Square, then hope to sleep.

It’s a long play and, with intermission, it can’t have ended before 11:30. But I was riveted throughout. As a stage actress, Leigh was often treated condescendingly by reviewers. The fact that she was the most beautiful woman in the English-speaking theater from the mid-1930s till her death in 1967 proved, perversely, a kind of curse. Somehow, in the eyes of many critics her beauty was supposed to render her performances les admirable then, say, those of a fine actress like Peggy Ashcroft, who was admittedly, not beautiful, or Irene Worth, who was decidedly not so.

Leigh’s small stature did present occasional problems in her ambitions to excel in Shakespearean tragedy and her delivery of iambic pentameter sometimes fell into a peculiar kind of chanting. But her broad conception of the older Cleopatra met, with impressive fullness, the wide variety of emotions required; and in the exalted verse and movements of the queen’s supreme death scene, her beauty came into place as the final revelation of this not-at-all admirable character’s worth and weight in our heart’s and history, When the curtain descended at last on Leigh- dead on her throne, still cocooned in her gold robe- it rose again slowly to give us one last sight of Shakespeare’s “lass unparallel’d”. And finally, young as I was, I had the sense to know I should try to see this woman even closer.

I went the way usher had shown me and found a group of some dozen others-all considerably older than I- waiting at the foot of a flight of steps, blocked by the stage manager. Over the next half-hour, I hung back while he led others up to what I assumed were the Oliviers’ dressing rooms- the first to go were the Duke and Duchess of Windsor (the abdicated king looking supremely miserable, like a stick of chalk in a tuxedo, and the “woman he loved” looking hard as a crystal doorknob in her own black attire). When all the others had come and gone, I was still at the foot of the stairs, still waiting. But the plump stage manager never returned. I waited another five miserable minutes, then concluded I should leave- my hope had crashed. I’d never know whether my paragon had decided not to see me or the plump man had forgot.

As I took the first step to go, however, a tiny woman in a black-and-white lady’s-maid uniform rushed to the top of the stairs and, in what I remember as an almost comic French accent, called out “Mr. Price? Mr. Price?”

I was the only man in sight, much less the only Mr. Price. I raised my hand as if called on in class.

And the maid said, “Oh, thank God. Miss Leigh is afraid you have left her. She is waiting for you.”

The most beautiful woman alive is waiting for me. I turned, climbed the iron steps and-faster than I could have imagined- followed the miniature maid through an open door. Before I could stop, I was standing four feet from Vivien Leigh in a room no larger than an especially modest monk’s cell and brightly lit by an overheard bulb that would have crazed poor Blanche DuBois.

She was wearing a long dark brown robe; and she stood in the midst of the space, extending her strangely large hand (I’d read she hated her oversized hands). “Mr. Price, how kind of you to come here- and to write me such a lovely note. You were meant to come first.” (she truly said that).

It was unmistakably Vivien Leigh; was her beauty here with us, though? She was 38 years old, yet much less worn than she’d seemed in Streetcar, which had already been filmed and released a few months earlier. Her hair was wet and combed straight back, and she seemed to wear no eye makeup. But of course I fixed on the famous green eyes, and she held on mine with no sign of flinching. We spoke a few sentences I no longer recall (I can’t have stayed with her for more than five minutes). I praised her performance and told her I’d see the Shaw play tomorrow. Then I asked her to sign the book I’d bought- a recent combined edition of plays, with pictures from the recent productions. She found a pen on her neat makeup table and signed her name in the unmistakably imperious script she’d continue to use through the 16 more years of life she’d get. Then I thanked her again, and again she held her hand out toward me. For the first time in my life, I bent to kiss a lady’s hand; and Vivien Leigh calmly bore my gesture. (I’d heard you bent to kiss a lady’s hand; never lifted it toward you).

Then I was out into the January air, even colder at midnight. The first paragon of beauty in my life had not only given a splendid performance in a supreme play, she’d also managed to maintain the face and body of an actual goddess (even in the face of the harrowing battles with manic depression which eventually destroyed her marriage and contributed to her early death). And how could I have guessed?- she’d actually worried that I’d somehow disappeared before our meeting and had sent her anxious maid to find me.

Find me, she did. In succeeding years, I’d see her a further six times on stage; and I met her twice more, but that first meeting remains a height in my memory. And 51 years since, here and now, Vivien Leigh remains a peak of absolute beauty in a life like mine, which has seen and touched and tasted much beauty. Her picture hangs beyond my bed, and I thank her memory each morning and night.

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