David Niven wrote two of the best “autobiographies” out of anyone in show business. His first book, The Moon’s A Balloon, is a straight autobiography. His second book, Bring on the Empty Horses is a compilation of stories about his famous friends. In Bring on the Empty Horses, Niven tells the story of a famous girl named “Missie” who had a terrible breakdown in Hollywood (there were actually two ‘Missies” in his book but we’re focusing on the second one today). Whenever I check the stats for vivandlarry.com, it’s amazing how many people land on the site through a google search for “David Niven Who Is Missie?”
The cat’s out of the bag; “Missie” was Vivien Leigh.
In Confessions of An Actor, Laurence Olivier talks about David Niven and Stewart Granger being there with Vivien during her infamous 1953 breakdown during the filming of Elephant Walk. Because Larry was in Ischia at the time, it took him a few days to get back to Hollywood and collect his wife.
This is David’s harrowing account. Because Vivien was a good friend of David’s, he used a bunch of red herrings so that people would not easily be able to identify her:
At six o’ clock in the morning Mae called me on the telephone.
“Mista David, you git over here real quick!…Somethin’ terrible’s happenin’ to Missie”
“What?” I asked sleepily.
“She’s possessed-that’s what!… you git over here real quick now!”
Within twenty minutes I drove up to the little white garden gate and jumped out of the car. Mae was waiting for me. She was shaking. She clutched my arm and repeated over and over, “She’s possessed! She’s possessed! She’s throwed me out!…I’m quittin’ …I’m quittin’!”
I tried to reassure her, but nothing would persuade her to come back into the house with me, so I took her key and watched her head quickly down to the tree-lined street in the direction of Sunset Boulevard-she never looked back.
It was still dark, and no lights showed in the small house as I quietly let myself in the back door. I didn’t know what to expect, so I stood inside the kitchen and called out softly a few times, “Missie, it’s David!” There was no answer, then the sound of footsteps above. I pushed the swing door into the hall. Suddenly all the lights went on, and there stood Missie at the top of the stairs. Her hair was hanging down in straggly clumps; the mascara and make up made a ghastly streaked mask down to her chin; one false eyelash was missing; her eyes were staring and wild. She was naked and looked quite, quite mad.
I had never seen real hysteria before and didn’t know how to cope with it. I tried walking up the stairs toward her, but she backed away screaming, “Go away! Go away! I hate you!…Don’t touch me!”
When I tried to reason with her, she sat on the landing, alternately sobbing like a child and snarling down at me through the banisters like a caged animal.
I knew i must get her a doctor, but the very mention of the word brought on the most terrifying reaction. I knew also that she must be overdue at the studio make up department, and any minute the assistant director would be calling up to find out if she had overslept; above all, I knew that if Missie had cracked up, no word of it must leak out to the press or she’d be finished in Hollywood.
In desperation I tried an offhand approach.
“Look darling,” I said, ” you can sit up there on the floor as long as you like, but I’m bored, and I want to watch television.”
At that hour of the morning in the early days of TV, there were no programs on the air, but I had a feeling that I must coax her downstairs and try to keep her busy. I switched on the set, which cracked and hummed and displayed nothing but horizontal lines, and settled myself on the sofa to watch them. After a few minutes the stairs behind me creaked, but I did not look around. I could sense that Missie was standing watching me. The she came shyly into the room, like a child, and curled up on the sofa next to me to watch the blank screen with a funny private smile. We sat there together for a long while. Occasionally she would let out a peal of laughter and point at the set; sometimes she would shrink back in horror; once she screamed with fear and moved up close beside me.
Goosebumps rose on my back.
I put my arm around her naked body to protect her from whatever it was she saw in her poor faraway mind-she was icy cold.
The phone rang in the kitchen. I glanced at my watch. It was only eight o’ clock, but I already felt that I had been in that house for a lifetime.
Having succeeded, so far, in calming her by playing a game of lies, I continued by saying “Oh that’ s for me…I”ll be back in a second.”
It was indeed Mac, the assistant director. He was in a highly choleric condition.
“Where the hell is Missie?” he demanded. “She’s over two hours late!”
By a great stroke of good luck I had worked with Mac and knew him for one of that priceless breed of true professionals who can guide unsure directors, make life pleasant for actors, and save money for producers. Once he had identified himself, I whispered down the phone.
“Missie is sick, Mac, and it’s real trouble, so for her sake don’t say a word to anyone except the producer..Who is he?”
Mac mentioned a fairly obscure name and added, “and he’s a jerk.”
“Tell him to come over right away,” I said. “Not to come up to the house, just blow the horn in the street, and I’ll come out to him.”
I fetched Missie’s husband’s overcoat from the hall closet and joined her once more before the television set. She snuggled under the coat and clasped my hand. “Isn’t she lovely?” she said, pointing at the empty screen. Around nine o’ clock I heard the front doorbell ring. Missie was transformed.
“Don’t let them in!” she pleaded. “They’ll take me away!” I promised that I wouldn’t let anyone in if she would be a good little girl and go up to her room and shut he door. I watched her still gorgeous back view ascend the stairs.
On the doorstep I found a highly strung, fat, youngish man dressed in white slacks and open neck shirt. His black hair was slicked down, and his eyes were obscured by dark glasses.
“What gives, for christsakes?” he asked, and before I had time to phrase an answer, he added belligerently, “and how did you get into the act?”
I brought Missies’ producer up to date and told him that in my opinion she would be unable to report for work for some time.
“Are you screwing her?” he asked. “What the hell do you know about it?…you’re not her goddamn physician..where is she? i want to talk with her.”
He was prevented form doing this and finally left, having jabbed a finger in my chest and promised to sue me, to call the police, to get me barred from all studios and to “take care of Missie for fucking up my picture.”
When he had gone, I found Missie crying among the shoes at the bottom of her wardrobe.
After another hour of empty television I claimed an urge for a cup of coffee and left Missie reacting to the horizontal flashes while I headed for the kitchen and another whispered phone call, this time to the new head of her studio-a quiet, dignified man I had met only once.
He was light years ahead of his image conscious producer.
“The only thing that matters is that girl’s health,” he said at once. “We’ll keep the picture going and wait for hear as long as we can; if necessary, we’ll recast and reshoot Missie’s part, but what about her?”
I underlined the urgent need for a doctor, and he instantly agreed to alert my old friend from Santa Monica, whose office, far from Beverly Hills was unlikely to be infiltrated by gossip columinsts’ spies, eager for the hot news of an impending abortion, a drying out, or a breakdown. He also promised to locate Missie’s husband and get him an immediate message, telling him, from me, in the most urgent but least frightening terms, what had happened to his wife and to urge him to return posthaste. We both agreed it would take him at least three days to make the trip.
Probably from her hours of naked exposure in a drafty house, Missie was coughing intermittently, so I told her that my doctor would be passing by to give me “an injection” and that I’d ask him to check her over at the same time and perhaps recommend something for her cold. To my surprise she agreed without much ado, but when I suggested that she clean up her face for the impending visit, it provoked another screaming spat of abuse: If I didn’t think she was beautiful the way she was, why didn’t I get the hell out?…Who invited me anyway? Et cetera. After she calmed down, we returned to the television set, and Missie ate some cottage cheese.
The doctor arrived punctually, and I went down to the gate to brief him. He followed me into the house, and when Missie saw him administrating my bogus jab, she held my hand during the proceedings. When he turned his attention to her, she babbled incoherently but allowed him to listen to her heart and lungs. He produced a bottle of pills and said to me, “She should take two of these every two hours..she has the beginnings of a nasty infection there..I’ll drop by again around six.”
Missie had been unnaturally clam during his visit but the storm broke when he asked if she had a girlfriend who could come and sit with her “because you might feel drowsy and you don’t want to take a fall.”
She suddenly turned on the poor man and started belaboring him and pushing him toward the front door. She yelled and screamed and poured out torrents of abuse on him and on all her girlfriends, naming them one by one, reviling them and accusing them of plotting against her.
When she collapsed with the inevitable tear storm, she sobbed, “David’s the only one I trust..and he’s looking after me.”
At the doctor’s car he said, “There’s no question..the girl’s in big trouble and must go in for psychiatric treatment at once.”
The responsibility was being lifted from my shoulders. I was relieved and said so, but he shook his head. “You told me it would be three days before the husband gets here, and by California law the next of kin is the only one who can sign her in. Even I can’t do it. Till he gets here, she must not be left alone whatever happens. And lock up all the kitchen hardware because she might do anything.”
He paused and said kindly, “It’s going to be tough on you, but you’re the friend of the family, and it looks as though you’re stuck…How’s the sex thing between you?”
“There isn’t any,” I said. “There’s never been.”
He opened the door of his convertible. “She’s going to offer it to you,” he said. “That’s part of the pattern. If you accept , you’ll make matters worse, and if you refuse, she’ll still make matters worse because she’ll feel rejected by the only person she trusts..I don’t envy you the next three days.”
“What the hell do I do?” I asked. “I’ve only been here four hours, and I’m already exhausted…I have my own life to lead, too.”
“Give her those pills,” he said, “and keep in touch with me. Remember, when they’re like this, they’re very, very cunning. Good luck.”
He drove away.
Back in the ouse the nightmare took its course. First the phone rang, and a voice said, “Hold the line for Miss Louella Parsons, please.”
It hadn’t taken long; probably a secretary in the fat producer’s office had heard him pressing the panic button. Louella’s well known drawl came over the phone. She demanded to speak to Missie.
“She’s sick,” I said, putting what I hoped was Filipino houseman’s voice. “She’s sleeping..she no come to phone…you leave message.”
“Tell her to call Louella Parsons as soon as she wakes.”
“Yes, ma’am” I said.
“Who was that?” asked Missie when I went back to the television room.
“Oh, just Louella,” I said off-handedly.
Missie was instantly transformed. “Why don’t you want me to speak to Louella?” she yelled. “She probably wants to do a Sunday story on me…You know I love Louella.” She ran into the kitchen and started looking up the columnist’s number. I grabbed the phone from Missie’s hands, and a battle royal took place for it’s possession. She went for my eyes and testicles with fingers like hooked claws, so during th sobbing period that followed the encounter I took the doctor’s advice and locked up all the sharp kitchen implements I could find.
The dreadful day dragged on. During the afternoon I finally persuaded her to take two of the doctor’s pills, which she had hitherto regarded with the deepest suspicion, but first she wanted to take a walk around the small swimming pool. Stark naked as usual, she paraded around the garden, and I prayed that prying journalist eyes could not see through the hedge. When the moment to take the pills came, she grabbed the bottle out of my hand and ran off like a naughty child, hid it behind her back, and demanded a kiss in exchange for it. This payment having been extracted, she deliberately emptied the contents of the bottle into the deep end of the pool.
The doctor paid his second visit, and Missie refused to let him inside the house, saying he was one of “them.” I managed to have a few words with him in the garden.
“I’ll get you some more pills,” he said, and showed me where he would leave them by the gate. “They’re strong sedatives; it’ll make your life much easier if she’ll take them..is she eating anything?”
“Only cottage cheese, ” I told him.
“try pounding them up and mixing them in there,” he suggested. “Is she drinking?”
“She asks for a glass of wine now and then..is that bad?”
“Any stimulant is bad of course, but don’t refuse it–water it down.”
He gave news from the head of Missie’s studio.”I’m in contact with him; he sounds like a good guy. He said to tell you that the husband is on his way. He’s due in eight o’clock Sunday morning.”
My heart sank-it was only Thursday evening.
“He said to tell you that he’s put out a press release that she’s in bed with a virus infection under doctor’s care…good luck, Doctor!” he added with a smile. “Try to get a couple of those pills into her stomach and take the phone off the hook.”
Missie made the offer the doctor had predicted during our first night together.
“I’ve something for you,” she said seductively, and ran upstairs, giggling.
Half an hour later she called down. Her face was cleaned at last, her make up redone, her hair brushed and falling into a golden cloud over her shoulders, and she was wearing a short black see-through nightie. She looked lovely.
“Come and get it,” she whispered from the top of the stairs, turning her back in a parody of sexiness and lifting the hem of the nightie. It was not an easy evening for me, to put it mildly , and it ended in a glass and bottle throwing scene with Missie ordering me out of the house, an instruction I longed to, but dared not, obey.
The pills did not seem to have much effect on Missie. Around midnight she ate some cottage cheese which contained a couple and drank some wine into which I had stirred a third, but they slowed her down for only an hour or two; then she was as bright and demanding and as terrifyingly unpredictable as before. I dared not go to sleep for five minutes, and as the long days and interminable nights melded into each other, a dreadful thought began to me-that it was not Missie whose mind had become deranged…it was mine. I became a hollow eyed zombie, sleepless and utterly exhausted, but Missie never showed any signs of tiredness and harried me endlessly to play hide and seek with her, to flatter, her to comfort her, to fight with her, or to go to bed with her.
I found I had come to hate her.
Twice a day the doctor met me in the garden to give me news of the husband’s progress and to inject me with floods of BQE to keep me going. By Saturday evening I could go no further.
I can’t make it through tonight,” I told him. ” The plane’s on time..he arrives tomorrow morning. For God’s sake give her a jab and put her out so that I can sleep… I can’t go on.
He looked at me carefully for a long time. “It’s completely illegal,” he said, “But okay, I’ll do it. “
He outlined the plan. I was to leave the front door open and at 9 o’ clock exactly he would slip in with a trained nurse, who, he said, would act as a witness, help with the injection, and also stay the night to take care of Missie when she came around. The two of them would hide in the downstairs bathroom; then, on some pretext, I would coax her into the hall, grab her, throw her on the ground, and hold her down while the deed was done.
“It’s going to b e very rough,” he said, “and God knows I hate to do it…but it’s the only way.”
Missie seemed to sense that something was going to happen. For the fist time her eyes lost their wild look; she seemed calm, almost normal and very vulnerable. She followed me wherever I went. Also, for the first time, she talked about her husband. She had not mentioned him once during the whole time I had been with her. “I hope he comes to see me,” she said sadly. It was eerie.
A few minutes before nine I told her I was hungry and asked her to come help me fix a sandwich. She left her favorite place in front of the television set and put her hand trustingly and childlike in mine. As we passed through the hall into the kitchen, I caught a glimpse through the curtains of the doctor’s darkened car at the gate.
We puttered about in the kitchen, and I received another reminder of the premonition that had awakened within my charge.
Suddenly Missie said, “You won’t let them take me away, will you?”
For a moment I thought she too might have seen the car.
“Who?” I asked.
“Oh!” she said mysteriously. “They will be coming for me one day…They want to take me away, but you won’t them, will you?”
“Of course not” I said, loathing every second of the dreadful charade that was unfolding. Slowly I ate my sandwich. When I judged that sufficient time had elapsed from my conspirators to be in position and ready, I took Missie’s trusting hand in mine and led her into the hall; a chink of light showed from beneath the bathroom door. Clumsily I swung the poor naked girl around, hooked one leg behind her knees, and flung her to the ground.
After a first startled gasp she fought with incredible ferocity and strength. She didn’t scream, she was spitting like a panther, biting, clawing and kicking. I finally manged to eagle spread her on the floor and pin her arms by kneeling on the elbow joints. I yelled for the doctor.
When she saw two strange forms approaching, one in white uniform and the other bearing a hypoderm syringe, Missie screamed at last, long piercing notes of pure animal terror.
“They’ve come! They’ve come!”
The nurse held Missie’s feet, and between us we controlled her convulsive struggles while the doctor did his work.
It was soon over, and as she began to calm down I avoided her eyes, filled as they were with such blazing hatred at my base betrayal.
Later, when we carried her to bed, her face was as innocent and as peaceful as a baby’s.
The nurse cleaned up my many bites and scratches, and the doctor gave me something that would enable me to go to sleep at last. None of us spoke.
At six the next day, refreshed, but with a leaden conscience and a three day growth of beard, I drove on my way to the airport, through the peaceful emptiness of the early morning streets. A few kids were already abroad, experimenting with brightly colored bikes, and some early risers in curlers and bedroom slippers were retrieving carelessly delivered Sunday papers from beneath bushes in their front gardens.
I felt as though I had returned from far, far away.
It must have been absolutely horrifying for Vivien to go through this sort of thing, and terribly difficult for those who had to live with it. Larry described getting her on the plane back to London for treatment as one of the hardest things he’d ever been through. He also said that after she had shock therapy for the first time, she was no longer the same girl he had married. Terribly sad!
Kendra is the designer and webmistress of vivandlarry.com. She lives in London and is the author of Vivien Leigh: An Intimate Portrait (Running Press, October 2013). Follow her on Twitter @kendrajbean, on Facebook at Vivien Leigh and Laurence Olivier, or at her official website.
VivAndLarry.com is an historical archive and film blog dedicated to preserving the memories of classic screen and stage stars Vivien Leigh and Laurence Olivier, and to the discussion of classic Hollywood and world cinemas. The site is designed and edited by Kendra Bean, a film scholar, writer and photographer living in London. What you'll find here: A cabinet of curiosities brimming with vintage articles, video footage, the largest archive of Vivien Leigh and/or Laurence Olivier photos on the Web, and much, much more.
This site is updated frequently, so pull up a chair and stay a while! Or, subscribe to be notified whenever new posts are made.
The current header was designed and drawn by the brilliant Laura Loveday.
My book, Vivien Leigh: An Intimate Portrait, is now available for purchase at fine book sellers in the US, UK and Canada. You can also order online!
Read Vivien Leigh: Becoming Scarlett by Kendra Bean in issue no. 75 of Bright Lights Film Journal
Read Kendra's article Style Icon: Vivien Leigh at The Girl Who Stole the Eiffel Tower
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