“O my darling little love I do long for you so, oh my hearts blood it is unbearable without you,” wrote Olivier to Leigh early in their affair, a very passionate one in the beginning but ending with a devastating downfall, which shocked a whole world that used to adoring “Larry and Viv.” An auction of Leigh’s archive by Sotheby’s in 2017, which consists of several scrapbooks, photographs, diary and love letters between Leigh and Olivier, shed new light upon the charismatic couple’s love story.
1936 was the year that Olivier and Leigh first met when the actor stopped by to congratulate on her stage performance in The Mask of Virtue in London. They took an instant liking to each other, even though both of them were married at the time. According to Michelangelo Capua in Vivien Leigh: A Biography, after the meeting, she confided to a friend, “That’s the man I’m going to marry!” Leigh’s friend then reminded her of their marital status, to which she replied, “It doesn’t matter. I’ll still marry him one day.”
As stated by the 2003 biography, from then on, Leigh was completely drawn to Olivier’s “charm and magnetism,” while Olivier himself was deeply enamoured of her. “I couldn’t help myself with Vivien. No man could,” Olivier said in Lord Larry: A Personal Portrait of Laurence Olivier. “I hated myself for cheating on Jill, but then I had cheated before, but this was something different. This wasn’t just out of lust. This was love that I really didn’t ask for but was drawn into.” Life later imitated art, when both of them were cast in the 1936 film Fire Over England, which resulted in their being dramatic lovers on screen while having a sultry off-screen romance. At this time, their relationship had become an open secret in Hollywood.
In 1939, Olivier was offered the role of Heathcliff in the adaptation of Wuthering Heights. The part of Isabella, a secondary character, was also offered to Leigh, but she turned it down, disappointed for not receiving the lead role opposite her partner. It was at time of Olivier leaving England that Leigh began to show some first signs of her lifelong mental illness. According to The Guardian, the love letters exchanged between the couple during their time apart were extremely provocative, with one that Olivier wrote, “I woke up absolutely raging with desire for you my love … Oh dear God how I did want you. Perhaps you were stroking your darling self.” To which Leigh responded, “Oh dear sweet, I haven’t done anything … If we loved each other only with our bodies I suppose it would be alright. I love you with much more than that. I love you with, oh everything somehow, with a special kind of soul.”
Leigh’s career took a turning point when Olivier recommended her for the role of Scarlett O’Hara in Gone with the Wind. She successfully got the part after some consideration. During her filming in Los Angeles, Leigh often wrote to Olivier to discuss her difficulties. The actor advised her not to think poorly of herself. “You have got to be damn smart to make a success of your career in pictures which is ESSENTIAL for your self-respect,” Olivier wrote. “… I am afraid you may become just boring. Never to me… But to yourself and because of that to others.” Several good news came to the both of them in the next year, with Leigh becoming the first British woman to win an Academy Award for Best Actress. The divorces the couple had requested back in England were also granted. Their wedding was later held on August 31st, 1940 in Santa Barbara, California, in a ceremony attended only by Ronald and Benita Colman, Katharine Hepburn and Garson Kanin. According to The Guardian, Olivier gave his advice to Leigh in a letter. “We are a popular scandal, or rather a public one,” he wrote. “Therefore it is only reasonably good taste to be as unobtrusive as possible. 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 thereof [sic].”
In 1945, Leigh suffered a miscarriage while filming Caesar and Cleopatra. This sent her into a severe depression and worsened her mental instability, which led to Leigh not being able to recall any of her yelling and enragement happening. She decided to take a break from filming after learning the symptoms. While Leigh’s career slowly slid downhill, Olivier’s occupation rapidly thrived, during this time, she only accompanied him to watch his performances. In the 1947 Birthday Honours at Buckingham Palace, Olivier was appointed Knight Bachelor for services to the stage and films, which granted Leigh the title of Lady Olivier.
During the six-month tour of Australia and New Zealand in 1948, Leigh was subjected to critical insomnia. Nonetheless, she still tried her best to complete the work. But it was their relationship that could not keep up with the demands that were Leigh’s constant mood swings, which often provoked heated arguments between them. Their worst one happened backstage in Christchurch, New Zealand, when Leigh refused to perform because of her missing shoes. Distressed and irritated on both sides, Olivier and Leigh slapped each other in public. The actor later admitted that he “lost Vivien” in Australia.
The fire within their romance continued to die down, even more so after Leigh confessed her affair with actor Peter Finch, a co-worker in the film Elephant Walk, to Olivier in 1953, according to The Guardian, and another miscarriage after her final performance onstage in 1956. She decided her marriage to be over by 1958 and began seeing actor Jack Merivale. At the same time, Olivier started an affair with actress Joan Plowright. Their divorce was finalized in 1960 and Olivier moved on to wed the younger actress. It was in the same year that Leigh threatened to commit suicide, for her mental condition only turning worse due to constant pressure and instability. “Vivien is several thousand miles away, trembling on the edge of a cliff, even when she’s sitting quietly in her own drawing room,” Olivier once said.
In 1967, Leigh was rehearsing for the play A Delicate Balance when her tuberculosis reoccurred, which forced her to rest for several weeks. On the night of 7 July 1967, her partner Merivale left her at their flat to perform in a play as usual. When returning home just before midnight, he found her asleep. Half an hour later, he entered the room to discover her body on the floor. According to Vivien Leigh: A Biography by Anne Edwards, she had attempted to walk to the bathroom and, as her lungs filled with liquid, she collapsed and suffocated. At the time Olivier was receiving treatment for prostate cancer, but on receiving the sudden news, he immediately left the hospital and went to the flat. Seeing her lifeless body on the bed, he “stood and prayed for forgiveness for all the evils that had sprung up between us,” he expressed in his authorized biography. “It has always been impossible for me not to believe that I was somehow the cause of Vivien’s disturbances.” Olivier then helped Merivale make funeral arrangements and stayed with Leigh until her body was removed. For Leigh’s part, she once told an interviewer, “I would rather have lived a short life with Larry than a long one without him.”
According to The Guardian, in the last letter to Leigh, written only five weeks before her tragic death, Olivier signed, “Sincerest love darling, your Larry.” In 1986, three years before his passing, when a guest paid a visit to the baron at his Sussex home, they found him weeping over a Leigh film on television. “This was love,” he said. “This was the real thing.”
Below are the photos capturing the memorable love story of the couple: