Vivien Leigh is the porcelain beauty, whose frailty and doll-like youth made her the quintessential damsel in distress. She was born Vivien Mary Hartley on November 5, 1913, in Darjeeling, Bengal, British India. She was the only child to Ernest Hartley, an officer in the English cavalry, and Gertrude Yackje. After a childhood in India, Gertrude returned to England with young Vivien, enrolling her in a prestigious private school. Her father, however, collected her after only a few short years, believing travel and international experience better than formal education. Vivien traveled with her father around Europe, attending schools in whatever country they happened to occupy. She returned to England just after her 18th birthday.
Throughout her childhood, both parents exposed Vivien to art and literature, often taking her to community theater performances and reading her various canonical works in writing. This exposure developed her interest in theater and the arts, which she expressed upon her return to England. Her father enrolled her in the famed Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts where she began her formal acting training.
Not long after starting school, she met a fellow Londoner by the name of Leigh Holman. The two were married and celebrated the birth of a daughter in 1932. Although Vivien was married with a child by 19, she was not contented by the domestic lifestyle. She dropped out of school and began auditioning as a theater actress. Her first significant role was in The Mask of Virtue in London, for which she received favorable reviews. Among the audience members was Laurence Olivier, who met Vivien backstage to congratulate her on her performance. The two developed a strong friendship thereafter.
Although her first love was undoubtedly theater, Vivien sought a career in film. She was taken on by theatrical agent, John Giddon, who suggested she change her name to April Morn. After rejecting Giddon’s suggestion, Vivien decided to take her husband’s first name as her last name, becoming Vivien Leigh.
Despite her success as a stage actress, many filmmakers dismissed Leigh as an onscreen candidate, saying she had little potential or inexperience. She appeared in a few small films without making significant headway.
In 1937 she appeared in Fire Over England with friend and fellow thespian, Laurence Olivier. The two initiated an affair that would last over two decades. After filming, they began onstage and offstage affairs, moving in together despite their respective marriages.
In 1939, Hollywood was desperately searching for a candidate to play Scarlet O’Hara in the production of David O Selznick’s Gone With the Wind. The project had begun filming without the principal lead and the search became widely publicized. Leigh had read the book and was desperate to play the roll. Her relationship with Selznick didn’t help her. Because her fame was almost exclusively British, no one had ever seen her perform without a British accent, let alone a character who is quintessentially southern American.
After much prodding, Leigh got herself a screen test, which landed her the part. Among the 10 Academy Awards won that year for the film, was her award for Best Actress. Gone With the Wind is still ranked as the single most successful film of all-time.
Leigh’s ironic stint as the southern belle continued when she won the role in the film adaptation of Tennessee William’s play, A Streetcar Named Desire (1939). This performance earned her a second nomination and win for Best Actress. After a string of successful films, Leigh returned to England where she resumed her stage career with Olivier. The two were formally married in 1940.
After suffering a miscarriage, Leigh fell into a major depression. Her emotional swings worsened as if she had absorbed the character of Blanche in Streetcar. She was erratic and out of control. After two different stage productions of the story of Cleopatra, Hollywood assigned the role of the iconic Queen to Vivien Leigh. However, one of her emotional bouts caused them to reconsider and offer the role to Elizabeth Taylor.
In 1960, Leigh and Olivier divorced. Leigh remarried, but never was the same person. In 1967 Leigh developed a terrible case of tuberculosis and was found dead on the floor by her husband. Her lungs had filled with fluid and suffocated her.
Leigh’s 30 year career in the theater was unprecedented. She was not a movie-star, but an artist. The legacy of the southern belle was born and will die with Vivien Leigh.