The personal, first time told story of Vivien Leigh’s life, career, and her problems now
by David Lewin
The Daily Express, August 1960
*Sent to vivandlarry.com by Tanguy
Miss Vivien Leigh left Pennsylvania Station, New York, aboard the Broadway Limited for Chicago and Los Angeles accompanied by 22 pieces of luggage, a Renoir painting, a Picasso, a carpet bag marked “Mike Todd’s Around the World in 80 Days” and Poo Jones.
Poo Jones is her Siamese cat, and in addition to Miss Leigh’s luggage Poo Jones brought his own: a portable cat house and a collapsible scratch box. Eight other pieces of baggage had gone on ahead with the maid and dresser Trudi Flockert. Miss Leigh said : “I don’t know when I shall be coming back to England so I am taking nearly everything that I think I may need with me.
“The Renoir painting of flowers, the early Picasso and a painting of Cherry Trees (one of them upside down) by F. Olson – which I bought in Central Park for 10 dollars – they all go into my dressing room to make it look lived in.
I always take a collection of books with me. There is ‘The Gardener’s book’ which is an anthology of pieces written about gardens… Bernard Shaw on music… ‘Jessel, Anyone’ by George Jessel… the Life of Ronald Knox. ‘The Prophet’ by an Indian writer, Kahil Gilbran, which is a philosophic work in poetic prose on love, marriage, and work. And the Bible.
“I am innately religious, but not in the church-going sense. I say my prayers and I’m a Catholic. I like the broad range, which is what the word catholic means. I like a great variety of people and things”.
The last time Miss Leigh took the train across America to Hollywood was when she came to make “A Streetcar Named Desire”, with Marlon Brando. Her performance as Blanche DuBois won her a second Oscar (the first was for Scarlett O’Hara in “Gone With The Wind”).
As we sat in “the master dining room” aboard the train writing down our dinner order on the pads provided (“waiters are not permitted to accept oral orders”) Miss Leigh talked about “Streetcar”.
“Cecil Beaton told me about it first. He had just seen the playing New York and telephoned me in London. I read it and thought about it during the Australian tour I was doing with Larry at the time. I knew I wanted to do it and Larry agreed to direct it on stage in London.
“Everyone said I was mad to try it. They are often saying I am mad to try things.
“But Blanche is such a real part, the truth about a woman with everything stripped away. She is a tragic figure and I understand her.
“Every night when I played it in London the reaction from the audience was awful because they saw it just as something unpleasant about sex. English people perhaps are so sexually repressed that the play may have brought out the worst in them.
“Then I was offered the film and I traveled across America with the director Elia Kazan discussing the script and how it should be played. Kazan saw Blanche differently from me : he was irritated by her. I could not share his view and I knew how it should be played after nine months on the stage. I did it my way and Kazan and I were finally in complete agreement.
“It took three months to make the film and I loved every second.
“I couldn’t wait to get to the studio every morning and I hated to leave every night. The script stayed exactly as it had been written without changes and everyone knew it and wanted to help. Right down to the prop man who used to say to me : ‘What sort of things do you think Blanche would have on her table next to her bed? There was such enthusiasm and efficiency and I don’t always find it like that in British studios.
“Brando was rather strange at first. I thought he was terribly affected. He used to say to me, ‘Why do you have to say good morning to everyone ?’ and I’d say because it is a good morning and anyway it is a nice thing to say, so why not ?
“I believe in good manners at all times. It is terribly important. When I was a little girl and I was going to a party my mother always said :’Now do what the host wants, to please him’. and when I was the hostess my mother used to say : ‘now do what the guests want, to please them’. And I asked : ‘When can I do what I want ?’
Not doing what you want is good manners”
She paused for a moment and she thought again about Brando.
“I got to understand him much better as we went on with the filming. He is such a good actor and when he wants to he can speak excellent English without a mumble. He is the only man I have ever met who can imitate Larry accurately. Larry is awfully difficult to imitate. Brando used to do speeches from ‘Henry V’ and I closed my eyes and it could have been Larry.
“Brando also has a nice singing voice : he sang folk songs to us beautifully.
“I became great friends with all the American cast on ‘Streetcar’ and I particularly liked Kim Hunter, who played my sister.
“I like other women. I am not jealous of them at all – except when I’m in love with a man.
“I think on the whole I prefer women. ‘They are more loyal and reticent and they don’t gossip as much as men. I hate gossip. I think it is cruel and generally inaccurate and I won’t listen to it”.
In Chicago we changed trains and had a nine-hour wait before taking the Super Chief of the Atchinson, Topeka and Santa Fé Railroad on to California.
Because of the difficulty of reconciling Eastern Standard Time, Central Standard Time, and the various daylight saving times which also operated together with something different called Train Time, it was something of a gamble to decide at exactly what hour we were due to take off again at night. It could be five, six, or seven o’clock according to choice.
We chose wrongly – and had an hour to wait. We went to lunch at the Pump Room, where waiters in tail coats and red silk breeches, looking like members of a rather superior hunt, served us, and Miss Leigh surveyed the wine list before choosing a 1955 Corton Charlemagne followed by a La Tache ’53.
She is an expert on wines and learned about them first when she was at school in Germany and later on a holiday tour of the French vineyards.
She said : “Once when I came back from France for some retakes on ‘Gone With the Wind’ Larry and I brought six crates of wine with us. They arrived at the railway depot in Los Angeles and we were living something like 300 yards away. But they wouldn’t let us have the wine because California is a wine-producing State. They said : ‘It either goes back or you pay double duty on each bottle. Otherwise it can be thrown away’.
“I can’t remember now what we did, but I know we didn’t have the wine ourselves and I don’t think it went back”.
In the afternoon Vivien Leigh went to see the fine collection of French impressionists and modern paintings in the Chicago Art Museum. Paintings have an emotional effect on her and please her and soothe her.
To relax on one holiday she started to paint, after Sir Winston Churchill had given her his book “Painting as a Pastime”.
“Churchill also gave me one of his own paintings showing three rosebuds in a vase, and I hang it up in front of my bed at home so I can always see it when I wake up in the morning”, she said.
“Whenever I feel particularly low or depressed I look at those three rosebuds. The thought and the friendship in the painting is such a great encouragement to me… and I have the determination to go on”.
On the night before the train reached Los Angeles, Vivien Leigh searched in her carpet bag and pulled out the script of ‘Duel of Angels’ and began to study the part. The holiday was over.
“I love this play”, she said. “At first when we opened on tour in England, I hated it. Then I grew to like it and now it is one of my favourites. It is a play about truth and I think doing it is one of the decisive events in my life”.
I asked her then : “What were the others ?” and unhesitatingly she answered : “Doing ‘Mask of Virtue’, in which I was discovered… meeting Larry… acting Scarlett in ‘Gone With the Wind’… and now, ‘Duel of Angels’ because it was the first time I was alone in New York and I had to do things for myself”.
With the script on her knees, as the train rolled its way across (… article missing…)
… didn’t know what to do. On the first night one critic said I was a great actress and I was angry because I knew I wasn’t.
“Someone in the play had the line to say to me : ‘I shall make many demands on you’ and I said : ‘Not more than the gentlemen, I’m sure’, and it brought the house down and I never knew why. I was that much of an ass. I suppose, though, I must have had some sort of timing to get the laugh.
“Then after that, the OUDS (Oxford University Dramatic Society), invited me to appear in Richard II, directed by John Gielgud and Glen Byam Shaw. I thought it was a great honour and I learned a lot from them. I suppose I made a mark of some kind in Oxford as I kept running my car into several ditches around the country”.
It was during the West End run of ‘The Mask of Virtue’ – the success which brought her a film contract with Sir Alexander Korda – that Vivien Leigh first met Laurence Olivier.
“I went to dinner with John Buckmaster at the Savoy and he pointed across to Larry and he said to me : “Doesn’t he look funny without his mustache?” and I was very indignant and I said rather pompously that he didn’t look funny at all.
“Larry came over as we were leaving and he invited me to join a party at the week-end. I said the two of us – my husband as well – and so we went and we played football and I remember Larry roaring around one minute and then unaccountably falling fast asleep under the piano the next. He always has had that extraordinary ability for complete relaxation whenever he wishes.
“It was during that week-end that I got to know George Relph and his wife, Mercia, who became two of my dearest friends.
“I had never met Larry before but I had seen him on stage and I was impressed because he was such a marvelous actor. I saw him in ‘The Royal Family’ and I sat next to a girl friend and I said : ‘That’s the man I am going to marry’. And she said : ‘Ridiculous. You’re both married already’, and I said it didn’t matter I would still marry him one day”.
The two men with the greatest influence on the life of Vivien Leigh are Laurence Olivier and Alexander Korda.
“I don’t think you can be taught acting – but someone can show how talent can be developed. Larry showed me exactly what great acting should be. Actors are shy people as a rule and rehearsals at first can be an agony. Larry knows how to release the tensions… Just make a complete ass of yourself at rehearsals”, he says. ‘Get it all out of your system, release the inhibitions’. It is the best way.
“Alex Korda taught me about other things. He introduced me to a whole new world of painting and literature and philosophy and politics. He knew so many people with such wide interests and he became a sort of professional father to me.
“When I made ‘Lady Hamilton’ for him in Hollywood during the war there wasn’t very much money about and he gave me a bonus so I could send my mother and my daughter Suzanne, who was six years old, to Canada to get away from the bombing. There aren’t many producers who would do that”.
But even at 19, faced by the great producer Korda, Vivien Leigh knew what she wanted and did not hesitate to say “No”.
After ‘The Mask of Virtue’ Korda offered her a film contract. Miss Leigh said : “Not unless I can also work on the stage”, and an agreement was reached so that she could film for six months of the year and act in plays for six months of the year.
“I like giving pleasure to a live audience”, she said. “Film stars can’t. I know what I want to do and I usually do it. When I first read ‘Gone With the Wind’ as a book I was determined to play Scarlett O’Hara and I gave up the offer of playing Katherine in ‘Henry V’ with Ivor Novello at Drury Lane to be free to go to Hollywood.
“Everyone said I was mad to try for ‘Gone With the Wind’, but I wanted it and I knew I’d get it. The only thing I didn’t want was the seven year film contract that went with it.”
“Didn’t you want to be a film star then ?” I asked her.
Vivien Leigh replied sharply : “I’m not a film star now. I am an actress.
“Being a film star – just a film star – is such a false life, lived for false values and for publicity. Actresses go on for a long time and there are always marvelous parts to play.
“Film stars have a short professional life usually. But I don’t ever want to retire. I want to act until I’m 90”.
“If I have a philosophy I suppose it is ‘Let’s get on with it’ said Vivien Leigh. “Or, ‘Use all gently’, which was Hamlet’s advice to the players, although I don’t always follow that, or perhaps it is ‘Something wonderful will happen’.
“I don’t know though. Actors are shy people and I swing between great happiness and misery. Sometimes – before I did the two Cleopatras on stage, for instance – I am blue with fright and I’m sure it will be a disaster and at that time I even ran a high temperature before the first night.
“I’m scared the first night of any play, but I get the determination to go on from my mother. She is the determined one in the family. When she was 45 and my father died she learned French and started a new career in beauty culture and works hard today from nine until six”.
We were talking now in the peace that followed a successful first night. ‘Duel of Angels’ was playing a month in Hollywood and the town had turned out to give a star a standing ovation. There were parties and there were producers and agents offering Vivien Leigh parts and pictures.
She has decided to film the Tennessee Williams story ‘The Roman Spring of Mrs Stone’, which is about a disillusioned middle-aged woman… “a fragile tragedy”, said Miss Leigh.
She would also like to take ‘Duel of Angels’ and two other plays to Australia and tour there. She will also star as Eva Peron on American TV.
Vivien Leigh makes decisions about plays either for herself or for others, with a deft certainty.
Three years ago, she formed her own company, Vivien Leigh Ltd., to produce plays, in addition to Laurence Olivier Productions of which she is still a director. Her first investment for Vivien Leigh Ltd. was ‘Roar Like a Dove’ which was an outstanding success. She also invested in ‘Taste of Honey’, ‘Make me an Offer’, and ‘The Hostage’.
Occasionally she will regret a decision. “When Larry and I were doing ‘The Sleeping Prince’, on the stage there was talk of filming it. The idea at first was that we should appear in the film too.
“Then I saw Marilyn Monroe in ‘How to Marry a Millionaire’ and I thought, heaven help me, that she was very funny. I said to Larry : “This girl is wonderful in comedy. I suggested that she star in the film ‘The Sleeping Prince’ with him… and I added I thought I might be too old for the part.
“They believed me, and Terry Rattigan and Larry went crazy over Monroe and when I changed my mind and suggested I might play the part after all, they said : ‘Oh, but you’re too old’.
“Filming ‘The Sleeping Prince’ wore Larry out, and it was the time I lost my baby so it was a distressing period all round”.
Miss Leigh makes a critical appreciation of some of her own work too.
“My mistakes, she said, “were doing the films of ‘Anna Karenina’ and ‘The Deep Blue Sea’ and appearing in the farce : ‘Look after Lulu’, which was totally embarrassing. Noël Coward hated writing it and I hated doing it, although it was a big success. I did it because it was expedient to do a play at the time.
“The parts I learned most from, were Shakespeare’s Cleopatra and Lady Macbeth, and also ‘Streetcar’, ‘Antigone’, ‘The Sleeping Prince’ and ‘Skin of our Teeth’ which is my favourite modern play.
“Tragedy is far easier to act than comedy. You walk a tight rope in comedy. Tragedy you can wallow in. So it is simpler to act in ‘Macbeth’ than ‘South Sea Bubble’.
“I always used to worry so much when I acted with Larry in case I let him down. He is a genius you see, and I didn’t think I could keep up with him and so it was a strain. I wanted more that anything else to film ‘Macbeth’ with him but even before I played the part for the first time on stage I said to Larry, ‘If you don’t think I can do it, get someone else’.
“When the film fell through he gave me this ruby ring with an arrow through it”.
She wears the ring on her right hand together with other tokens of memory. “There is a topaz ring which I gave to Larry and he broke, so I wear it because he asked me to keep it for him. There is a ring from India which Lauren Bacall brought back. And a watch from Larry. A ring shaped like tow hand clasping one another which Garson Kanin and George Cukor brought me during the war. And two opera season ticket plaques.
“One from Marlene Dietrich is inscribed : ‘Hon. Mrs Leigh. Opera 1829. Box 2’ and the other from Rachel Kempson, which says : ‘Duchess of Wellington, Her Majesty’s Theatre. Box 36-37. Five people. Saturday’.
“Are you superstitious ?” I asked her and she said : “I like good-luck charms and I am superstitious about some things. Not about whistling in dressing rooms, for instance. I don’t like that because it is a bore and disturbing other people. I don’t like seeing the new moon through glass. I suppose because I’m a country girl and like to be out in the open air.
“My horoscope was done for me three months ago and it said : “You’ll be lonely” and look how right it turned out to be. I was born on November 5 so I’m a Scorpio and under that sign Scorpios burn themselves out and eat themselves up and they are careless about themselves – like me”.
Vivien Leigh works hard and sleeps little – an average of four or five hours a night, that is all – and sometimes the pace becomes more than she can stand.
“When I was making ‘Elephant Walk’ in Hollywood I had a nervous breakdown. I knew it was coming and I couldn’t stop it and at times I found my memory going back to ‘Streetcar’ and I would be saying Blanche’s lines to myself.
“I think the whole thing at the time was over-dramatized. I would have liked to have continued with the film and I think I would have been all right in two or three weeks. But they thought it best to bring me back to London.
“When I get totally depressed and I’m really run down, I’m like a thing, an amoeba, at the bottom of the sea. I stop everything then and only my friends can pull me up. I have wonderful friends”.
Miss Vivien Leigh, great actress and outstanding beauty is now tackling a new way of life. It will be, she thinks now, a long time before she returns to London.
It is her beauty which has affected her most during her life? She rejected the theory and she said to me: “I hated being called pert or pretty, as I was so often. I think they are the two most dreadful words in the language. I do not worry about my looks because beauty is not a thing of age but of spirit. Look at Lady Diana Cooper or Edith Evans, two of the most beautiful women I know.
“Englishmen I think, sometimes dislike beauty in their own women. They don’t mind it in strangers or visitors. They seem to think that if a woman is attractive she cannot act or think.
“When I started as an actress I used to believe my hands were too large and my voice was too small. I learned not to worry about my hands from a book by Ellen Terry, although I wear gloves at rehearsals, and I train my voice still by going for voice lessons before every new play.
“And when I go out in the evening I can make up and dress in ten minutes”.
Perhaps what is decisive for Vivien Leigh now is the thought that perhaps sometime, somewhere, the words of a book she read when she had T.B. years ago will come true.
“I had to rest for nine months at Notley and I said can I have a baby to fill in the time and the doctors said certainly not so I read and I read and I read.
“I read a book called ‘The Martyrdom of Man’ and I underlined a passage then which I came upon the other day. I think of it often because perhaps what is lacking today is the time just to sit and wonder.
“The lines say what I feel and what I hope.
“They are : ‘And the artists shall inherit the earth and the world will be as a garden”.