Vivien Leigh: my girl next door

An enchanting story of the friendship between a Hollywood legend and a ten-year-old schoolboy

By Rod Hall
Mail on Sunday, January 12, 2003
* Sent to by Laura M.

Back in April 1961, I was ten years old and living with my parents and my sister, Ann, on a fruit farm near Uckfield, East Sussex. Life was idyllic but uneventful . . . until the day we were told that a real-life film star was moving into the house next door.

Her name was Vivien Leigh and I’d never heard of her. Until then, I’d only watched cartoons and hadn’t seen Gone With The Wind, in which Vivien played Scarlett O’Hara, nor Lady Hamilton, in which she had starred with her then husband, Laurence Olivier.

Although I didn’t know it at the time, Vivien and Olivier had just divorced after 20 years of glamorous marriage that were overshadowed by Vivien’s manic depressive episodes and ultimately shattered by Olivier’s affair with actress Joan Plowright, whom he eventually married.

Although Vivien always maintained her Eaton Square flat in London, she would use Tickerage Mill, the five bedroom Queen Anne house next to us, as a haven from the sorrow of losing Olivier and the vicissitudes of middle age.

She was 48 years old, but when she first opened the Mill kitchen door to me I thought she looked about 14. Ann and I stood there, clutching our autograph books and our Box Brownie cameras, shy and tongue-tied. Vivien signed our autograph books, then, seeing the camera, said: ‘Darlings, I’m so disheveled today – please come back tomorrow Apart from the fact that I didn’t know what ‘disheveled’ meant, I was thrilled and flattered that this beautiful, grownup woman had actually given me – a little kid from the village – an appointment as if I were also grownup, also important. That was how she made me feel, how Vivien would always make me feel. Important, special, interesting.

We came back the next day, Vivien posed for us and I was able, for the first time, to study her face. Her bone structure was amazing and she was beautiful. Although more than 40 years have passed since I first saw her, I’ve always judged every other woman by Vivien’s standard of beauty. Her voice, too, was part of her allure.

The critic Kenneth Tynan may have once labeled her voice as thin and reedy, but a combination of time, cigarettes and gin had lowered it considerably. Although I wouldn’t have labeled it so at the time, looking back, her voice was devastatingly sexy. Her charm, too, was overwhelming.

Unlike most adults, she paid me attention, looked into my eyes and talked to me as if I were grownup, asking me what I had been doing that day.

Although she always called Ann and me ‘darlings’, we were careful to address her as ‘Lady Olivier’. Despite the fact that she and Lord Olivier were divorced, her Silver Cloud Rolls-Royce still bore the number plate VLO 1, and she still cherished her title. Unaware of this, my mother made the dreadful mistake of telephoning and asking to speak to ‘Miss Leigh’, whereupon Vivien said, extremely frostily: ‘This is Lady Olivier speaking.’

None the less, she didn’t bear a grudge and was an extremely good and kind neighbour. One morning, she rang and invited us to go for a ride in the Rolls. Ann and I were ecstatic when the car, complete with liveried chauffeur, pulled up at our gate. Nestling into the plush leather of the back seat, we drove through the village, waving regally at the villagers out of the window, feeling as if we were Hollywood stars.

From then on, whenever the chauffeur had to pick someone up at the station, Vivien called and invited us to go along for the ride.

She entertained lavishly at Tickerage, setting a trestle table on the terrace overlooking the Mill’s lake in summer, or by a large picture window in winter. Yet despite her illustrious guests, she never forgot us. When Princess Margaret and Lord Snowdon (who had lived at the Mill as a child) came to stay with Vivien, she called us, whispering: ‘If you want to see Princess Margaret, stand by the gate at midday and you’ll see the car go by.’

We did, and the Princess waved to us. Later that day, Vivien’s housekeeper, Mrs Mac, rang our doorbell in desperation, asking if we had any tomato juice.

The Princess wanted a bloody Mary, and Vivien didn’t have any.

Another time, Vivien called to tell us that she would be walking in the woods with Peter Finch, the Australian actor with whom she had a devastating affair, that afternoon and that if we wanted she would introduce us. Peter Finch was handsome, charming and put me at ease to such a degree that I even asked him and Vivien to come to my school play. Looking back, I can’t believe I had such cheek, but Vivien was always so kind and friendly that I often forgot she was so famous, and just thought of her as our neighbour.

But once inside the Mill, I was always reminded that she was far from being a plain and simple neighbour. The walls of her dining room were lined in green silk and oil paintings hung on the walls. She pointed out her original Picassos and her Van Gogh, and explained the background to each painting. I also saw Augustus John’s original painting of her, which was unfinished because, some said, Olivier halted the sitting when John developed a passion for Vivien.

Vivien’s own passion for Olivier, despite their divorce and his remarriage, remained undimmed. Although she had a romantic relationship with actor Jack Merivale, who hosted many of the parties at Tickerage, pouring drinks rather like a butler, I saw very little affection between them and she kept a life-size portrait of Olivier on the wall next to her bed.

Such was her love that when she came back from a trip and her housekeeper told her she had a surprise, Vivien jumped to the conclusion that Olivier was coming to Tickerage to see her. When the Uckfield District Town Band arrived, ready to play for her as a surprise, Vivien was inconsolable. She cried so much that the

band had to be sent away.

She was so kind to Ann and me and would allow us the run of the house. She let us play with her model theatre and took Ann into her dressing room and gave her makeup and perfumes to experiment with. I had never seen a dressing room before and I was so impressed that she had a room in which to do nothing other than get dressed.

In her bathroom, she had a bidet. Neither Ann nor I knew what it was, so Vivien explained – quite without embarrassment – what it was for. She also handed me the Oscar she won for Gone With The Wind. It was heavy, and I didn’t know what it was. ‘Just something I won,’ she explained.

She also let me fish in the lake and weir which ran down to the millpond by the River Uck. When the trout ran out, she restocked the pond just for me.

Other people asked to be allowed to fish there, but Vivien refused. ‘ Darling, you are the only person who is allowed to fish here,’ she said to me. I felt immensely privileged.

The last time I saw Vivien was when she came to our house in June 1967 to do a kindness that was so typical of her. One of my mother’s friends, an old lady named Mrs Dobbins, was desperate to meet Vivien, and my mother arranged it. So Vivien arrived, dressed in a red twin set and wearing the gold snake bracelet from Caesar And Cleopatra. When she met Mrs Dobbins, Vivien gave her all her attention, treating her as if she were the most important person in the world.

That’s how she treated us, two little children from the village – as if we were the most important people in the world. When I heard Vivien had died, just a week after she met Mrs Dobbins, I was devastated. I had no idea Vivien was even ill with the tuberculosis that killed her. She was so young, so beautiful, and then she was dead.

Her ashes were scattered on the pond at Tickerage. The Mill was sold soon afterwards, and the magic was gone.

My mother still lives next door and when I visit, I think of Vivien and am grateful. She gave me an insight into another world. An exciting world, filled with actors and actresses and reigned over by a goddess who made everyone feel very special.

And perhaps it is no accident that, when I grew up, I gravitated towards the theatre. I became a manager at the Greenwich Theatre, a publicist at Penguin Books, and then an agent, representing the writers of The Full Monty, Billy Elliot and Mrs Brown, among others.

Along the way I’ve dealt with many stars, but I’ve never been intimidated.

Of course not. Because I grew up with the greatest star of them all – Vivien Leigh, a star who knew how to treat other people, who was kind to two little children, and who changed my life then and for ever.

%d bloggers like this: