Breakdown: the private anguish of Vivien Leigh

by Alexander Walker
The Advertiser, July 4, 1987

Whatever rifts were opening in their private and professional lives, the Oliviers in public were still a celebrity couple. They did gala shows for charity. They opened government exhibitions. They were included in the Royal entourage when Queen Elizabeth laid the National Theatre’s foundation stone in June, 1951. They were treated like uncrowned royalty.

Olivier grew bored easily – Vivien never did. People were often nervous of her fashion-plate perfection. “I think,” says Stanley Hall, Vivien’s intimate friend, “that women felt they couldn’t stand up to her mentally or physically. She could do it all.”

The Oliviers took their two “imperial” plays, Caesar and Cleopatra and Anthony and Cleopatra, to New York at the end of 1951. The very unloading of 27 tonnes of scenery from the liner Mauretania made their landfall look like a Roman triumph before the critics hailed the plays.

Some critics had seen them in London and thought Broadway had got the better deal. Vivien’s Shavian queen had “grown in subtlety” since then, said Richard Watts jun. And indeed she dominated the notices for this play – there was no Tynan on the aisle at the Zeigfeld Theatre.

At the Academy Awards ceremony in March, 1952, Vivien won her second Oscar – for A Streetcar Named Desire. But all the time Vivien’s fragile mental condition was deteriorating. Her manic-depressive state oppressed her.

Olivier was at last forced to acknowledge the gravity of her disorder. He found the pain she was suffering too much to face.

Gertrude Lawrence had lent them her New York apartment – a chilling place, to Olivier’s way of thinking, decorated in inhospitable tones of grey, which made it feel like living in a brain-cell. Returning one night to the apartment, he heard sobbing. Passing from one “cell” to another, he reached the bedroom to find Vivien hunched and desolate, perched on the corner of the bed, wringing her hands and weeping inconsolably.

Their visits to a recommended psychiatrist proved fruitless. Vivien was terrified a lurking photographer would catch her entering the discreet door of the analyst’s rooms and her defences wouldn’t permit her to yield to his professional probing. Olivier could only sympathise with this.

As he was now nervous about her behavior, he sent out an SOS to Noel Coward. At the end of the run, on April 13, 1952, he and Vivien arrived to stay with Coward at Montego Bay, Jamaica. To Noel, the father-confessor, he unburdened himself of his fear for Vivien’s sanity. Instead of offering sympathetic counsel, Coward rebuked him severely. “Nonsense . . . if anyone’s having a nervous breakdown, you are.”

Olivier realised Vivien had got to Coward by the sly backdoor that the schizoid personality quickly learns to use. It was his first intimation that she could plot against him. They returned to Notley on Shakespeare’s birthday and she entered a fresh manic spell in which she would sometimes weep copiously at him and on occasions leave the house and not return overnight. Olivier had begun preparing his first singing role, as Macheath in the film version of The Beggar’s Opera. It was to have been a challenge: increasingly, with Vivien in the state she was in, he found it becoming a refuge. In desperation he sanctioned a project for Vivien that he recognised in retrospect he never should have entertained. But he told himself that it was better for her to deploy her surplus energy in work.

She was being offered a film, Elephant Walk, to be shot partly in Ceylon. It would take her back to the Asian world of her birth and childhood – perhaps that would be tranquillising. The question of who should play opposite her was discussed. Vivien appeared to give this some thought and then said, as if a good idea had suddenly struck her: “Why not Peter Finch?”

Early in January, 1953, Peter Finch and his wife Tamara were awakened after midnight by a continuous, insistent ringing of their doorbell. Outside stood Vivien, a mink coat inadequately covering a thin silk evening dress that indicated she had come from some function.

According to Finch’s wife and to his biographer Elaine Dundy, she was in a state of high excitement. She came immediately to the point. Finch must be ready to leave within a fortnight, she said, to co-star in Elephant Walk with her.

Whether Vivien planned to recruit him in this way or not, she certainly judged her man well. Finch belonged to the breed of hell-raisers coming into rowdy prominence in postwar theatre and movies: he loved the unexpected, the unconventional, the gamble that scorned the safe bet for the exhilarating hazard of high odds. He agreed within the hour. Vivien didn’t leave until first light appeared in the sky: she seemed oblivious to time and place.

The deal he had struck still seemed good to Finch after he’d repaired his interrupted night’s rest. At the end of the first week of February, 1953, he and Vivien were seen off at Heathrow by Olivier. “Take care of her,” he called to Finch as Vivien blew him a wistful kiss. As Olivier said later, the penny had dropped.

His situation was now rather like that of Leigh Holman (Vivien’s first husband) nearly 20 years earlier. Holman had stood by in a state of numbed perplexity while his wife, whom he loved dearly, scarcely bothered to conceal even in his presence her passion for the youthful “Larry Olivier”.

Ceylon’s moist, sensuous heat began seeping through Vivien’s thin tropical dress and, so it seemed to her, into her very bones. Her latent manic-depression started to show itself. At first it was thought that she was exhibiting the normal tourist’s elation at the profusion of tropical scenery.

Then a hysterical edge appeared as each wave of brown Singhalese faces broke on her vision. Their eyes frightened her, she said. The exotic location, fringed by deep jungle, acted on Vivien’s nervous system like a stimulant. The presence of Finch only heightened her condition.

He was playing her screen husband, an English planter, while Dana Andrews, as the plantation manager, played her lover. She insisted on staying up all night, lying out on the hillside with Finch, but she paid for it in the morning when close-up camera shots became impossible. Her behavior could no longer be ignored, as it was starting to cost the film company money.

She began striking mock-erotic postures, “vamping” the director William Lieterle and – very unusually for her – fluffing her lines. Finch was appealed to by the producer Irving Asher but even he was unsettled when Vivien started calling him “Larry”.

Asher sensed the coming breakdown and shot around Vivien to give her a chance to rest. But when they didn’t send for her to come to the set she grew suspicious, then resentful. A telex was sent to Olivier via Colin Tennant, Olivier’s manager.

Arriving at Colombo on February 17, 1953, Olivier was assailed by a sudden sense of hopelessness. He couldn’t even work up any indignant reproach to Finch. His sheer exhaustion probably dispelled his hostility.

He felt only pity for Vivien and a sort of paternal understanding for Finch – and perhaps thankfulness that someone else was now sharing the strain. He leftin four days, grimly wishing everyone good luck.

With his going, Vivien relapsed into mania, berating Finch in ribald language. Asher couldn’t face the thought of filming the scene with her and a giant (though defanged) anaconda and he called a retreat to Hollywood on March 27. As the aircraft took off for the extremely long flight, a disturbed Vivien was seen battering at the windows to be let out.

The most sensible thing would have been to have her sedated and put into hospital; but no-one was able (or willing) to take charge and suffer the buffets of the sensational publicity that would ensue. On reaching Los Angeles Vivien was allowed to move into the rented mansion where Finch’s wife and small daughter were expected imminently.

At Paramount a replacement for Vivien was being sought desperately. Meanwhile, oblivious to everything , Vivien treated Tamara Finch sometimes like a house guest, sometimes like a rival in love, alternately having heart-to-heart chats about Finch and then closing herself away in her room to peer darkly at the bewildered woman and child trying to relax at the pool. Eventually Tamara and her daughter moved into another house.

Vivien attempted to return to work and gave what seemed a level-headed interview to Louella Parsons. But Finch had been asked to break the news gently to her that she was being replaced. She sat in her dressing room and listened, not showing any sign of understanding. He faltered.

In a moment her face contorted, her teeth clenched, she flew at him and, in the Mississippi accent she had mastered for Blanche DuBois, snarled the terrifying lines from A Streetcar Named Desire: “Get out of here quick before I start screaming fire.”

Olivier was summoned. He had burrowed himself protectively into the company of the composer William Walton and his wife in Italy and now had to make a weary journey in stages to Los Angeles, interrupted by a stopover in New York with Danny Kaye. It was there that David Niven called him from Hollywood with a story which might have come straight out of a Tennessee Williams play.

It isn’t clear whether Olivier had already called on the support of staunch chums such as Niven or whether Niven acted on his own initiative. But Niven had telephoned Stewart Granger, then living in Hollywood.

“Viv is very sick,” Niven had said. It was 2 a.m. but Granger was immediately ready to do anything to help. Actually, Vivien was not the only sick one. John Buckmaster, Gladys Cooper’s son and Vivien’s old flame, had turned up out of the blue and moved into the house with her – it was as if two people riven with traumas had heard each other’s call signs and answered like vessels in distress.

The year before, Buckmaster had been briefly incarcerated in a New York mental hospital after a policeman who had tried to apprehend him for carrying a couple of carving knives on Second Avenue had been accidentally cut by flying glass. He had been paroled by Noel Coward, who had promised to keep an eye on him. But Coward’s eye was thousands of miles away by the time Niven and Granger arrived at Vivien’s home.

Each of them has independently given an account of what then ensued – and it would have been a highly comic scene if Vivien’s sanity hadn’t been so visibly and cruelly impaired.

In his second volume of memoirs, Bring on the Empty Horses,published in 1975, Niven concealed Vivien’s identity under the pseudonym “Missee”. Granger was more direct when he wrote Sparks Fly Upward in 1981: he set the facts down without literary embellishment and they are heartbreaking.

As the two film stars marched into the house, their first sight was of Buckmaster, naked except for a towel, defending Vivien’s bedroom door like a High Priest making his last stand before the infidels come to ravish his earthy goddess.

Declaring that he represented a higher power – and probably flexing his muscles to indicate its source – Granger ordered him to “get the hell out”. To their relief, he did so and was driven back to his bungalow at the Garden of Allah, from where Granger called a doctor.

The plan was to slip Vivien a sedative to render her more amenable when the ambulance arrived. But on returning Granger found her clad only in a bathrobe and sitting in front of a TV screen as blank as her own mind.

He prepared coffee and scrambled eggs, both heavily doped, which she then, with inconvenient wiliness, insisted on feeding first to Niven – with the result that he dropped off within minutes. She then stripped off and went out to sit by the pool into which she tossed or spat the remaining sedatives Granger pressed on her.

With the arrival of the paramedics the scene turned ugly. One nurse sought to soothe her by talking to her in the way a parent talks to a belligerent child. “I know who you are, you’re Scarlett O’Hara, aren’t you?” Vivien, according to Granger, screamed: “I’m not Scarlett O’Hara. I’m Blanche DuBois.”

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