New details about the storied love affair between British thespians Vivien Leigh and Sir Laurence Olivier are being revealed thanks to never-before-seen letters that the two exchanged during before, after and during their 20-year marriage.
The Hollywood Reporter examined some of the 10,000 letters and documents from Vivien’s estate that were recently made available to the public after being cataloged by London’s Victoria and Albert Museum.
It was back in 1936 that Leigh and Laurence first began corresponding, shortly after the married actors began having an affair.
Over the next 30 years they would stay in constant contact, even after their divorce, writing one another about their love, their lives and their work.
In fact, Leigh’s most famous film ‘Gone With the Wind’ is the subject of many letters between the pair, who both expected the film to be a box office bomb and critically panned upon its release.
Hollywood history: Over 10,000 letters and documents from the estate of Vivien Leigh have been made available to the public by London ‘s Victoria and Albert Museum (Leigh and Laurence Olivier above in 1940)
Pals: Many are letters between herself and husband Laurence Olivier, who she was married to for 20 years from 1940 to 1960 (couple on left in 1959, a post-divorce note from Olivier on right)
Frankly my dear…: In 1938, Leigh and Olivier wrote back and forth about their belief that Leigh’s film ‘Gone With the Wind’ would be a critical and box office failure (Leigh and Clark Gable above in Gone With the Wind)
In one of his first letters from 1936, Olivier writes to Leigh: ‘O my darling little love I do long for you so. Oh my hearts blood it is unbearable without you.’
The actor and director was 29 at the time he and Leigh began their affair, and still married to first wife Jill Esmond, who was also an actress.
Leigh, then 22, was married as well to barrister Herbert Leigh Holman and had a young daughter Suzanne when the two came together on the set of ‘Fire Over England.’
It would be another four years until the two would divorce their spouses and marry, at which point they became one of the most famous couples in the world.
Soon after that Vivien headed off to the United States so she could get to work on ‘Gone with the Wind,’ the much anticipated adaptation of Margaret Mitchell’s novel.
O my darling little love I do long for you so. Oh my hearts blood it is unbearable without you.
-Olivier to Leigh during their affair
Leigh’s talent was apparent to all those who had seen her audition for the role, but she had been deemed to British to pull of the very American and very Southern Scarlett O’Hara.
She made the decision to fly out to Los Angeles to try and convince producer David Selznick that she was right for the role – and she her paramour.
Olivier was in Los Angeles filming ‘Wuthering Heights,’ and his love for Leigh had been taking a toll on his work according to his director.
‘I really am in hell my love – the valley of the shadow. I’ve never felt quite such a grim feeling,’ wrote Olivier.
Leigh eventually did land the role of Scarlett, but just as she moved out to Los Angeles to start production, Olivier headed off to Broadway.
A letter from Winston Churchill to Leigh from her estate thanking her for a glass goblet
Leigh and the Queen Mother meeting in the 1950s, Leigh was close to the royal family
A handwritten note from Queen Elizabeth II to Leigh thanking the actress for flowers she had sent
A telegraph sent by Tennessee Williams to Olivier and Leigh after the starred together in a production of ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’
Most of the letters exchanged while Leigh was filming had to do with the production, and the belief by the couple that ‘Gone With the Wind would be a complete failure.
That fear of the movie being a critical and box office disappointment was then exacerbated by the fact that the studio fired director George Cukor and brought on Victor Fleming to complete the project halfway through filming.
You have got to justify yourself in the next two or 3 films (or even 2 or 3 years) by proving that the presumable failure of Gone W.T.W. was not your fault and you can only do that by being really good in the following parts. To make a success of your career in pictures [is] ESSENTIAL for your self respect, and our ultimate happiness therefore. … If you don’t, I am afraid you may become just — well boring.
-Olivier on the inevitable failure of ‘Gone With the Wind’ in 1938
‘You have got to justify yourself in the next two or 3 films (or even 2 or 3 years) by proving that the presumable failure of Gone W.T.W. was not your fault and you can only do that by being really good in the following parts,’ wrote Olivier in one letter.
‘To make a success of your career in pictures [is] ESSENTIAL for your self respect, and our ultimate happiness therefore. … If you don’t, I am afraid you may become just — well boring.’
Olivier also assured his lover that she had everything she needed to create an indelible character even without her trusted director, Cukor, on the set.
The film was not a flop, proving to be the highest grossing film of all time for decades upon its release in 1939 and earning eight Academy Awards, including one for Leigh in the Best Actress category.
It was the following year that Olivier and Leigh finally wed.
Just before that, Olivier wrote in a letter to Leigh in 1939 that read: ‘I have come to the conclusion you’re very naughty. We are a popular scandal, or rather a public one. Therefore it is only reasonably good taste to be as unobtrusive as possible.’
He went on to state: ‘Can you dance and be gay and carry on like the gay happy hypocrite days? No my love you cannot. Why because of your fame, tripled with our situation – quadrupled with the fame there off.’
It was also in these years before the two were married that people began to notice Leigh’s struggle with an as-yet-undetermined mental condition.
Vivien Leigh and Laurence Olivier with Marilyn Monroe and Arthur Miller in London before filming on ‘The Prince and the Showgirl’
Olivier went on to marry Joan Plowright (left) while Leight was with actor John Mericale (right)
Leigh battle bipolar disorder throughout her life, and was observed by those closest to her to have manic highs and depressive lows.
There was no diagnosis or treatment at the time, which made Leigh’s condition that much more difficult for both herself and those around her
Oh God Vivling, how I do pray that you will find happiness and contentment now. I pray constantly that I may take off from you some of your unhappiness onto myself and I must say it seems to work from this end as your unhappiness is a torment to me; and the thought of it a constant nightmare.
– Olivier after the couple’s divorce
The condition was incredibly draining on Olivier, who spent over a decade caring for his wife as best he could these letters suggest, a far cry from the claims made by some that he left his wife’s wide as her condition deteriorated.
That belief gained a great amount of traction after Olivier turned the play he and Leigh starred in, ‘The Sleeping Prince,’ into a film which he stared in and served as director.
He did not however cast his wife in the role she originated opposite him, but rather Hollywood bombshell Marilyn Monroe, with the title being changed to ‘The Prince and the Showgirl.’
In that second decade of their marriage, the two were still part of the Hollywood elite, with Leigh grabbing another Oscar for her work in ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’ opposite Marlon Brando.
Soon after the divorce, Olivier wrote to his wife saying: ‘I want to say thank you for understanding it all for my sake. You did nobly and bravely and beautifully and I am very oh so sorry, very sorry, that it must have been much hell for you.’
Oliver and first wife Jill Esmond, who was also an actress in 1933
Leugh was married to barrister Herbert Leigh Holman and had a young daughter Suzanne when she began her affair with Olivier
Leigh’s personal copy of Gone with the Wind inscribed by Margaret Mitchell (above)
And even after Olivier had married his third wife, British actress Joan Plowright, he still held a candle for Leigh.
‘Oh God Vivling, how I do pray that you will find happiness and contentment now,’ he wrote in one letter.
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‘I pray constantly that I may take off from you some of your unhappiness onto myself and I must say it seems to work from this end as your unhappiness is a torment to me; and the thought of it a constant nightmare.’
He then closed out by saying: ‘Perhaps perhaps now it may be allowed to gently lift off and blow softly away.’
Leigh would pass away seven years after the two split, losing her life at the age of 53 to tuberculous.
Meanwhile, for those who may not be interested in Leigh and Olivier’s love affair, there are plenty of other impressive mementos in the actress’ trove.
Among them are multiple letters from former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill as well as a handwritten note from Queen Elizabeth II.