Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh 49th parallel

Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh watching rushes for Powell and Pressburger’s The 49th Parallel

It was pouring down rain when I arrived at the Victoria and Albert Museum on the morning of November 5. One of the museum’s press officers met me in the lobby and escorted me up the stairs, through the darkened jewelry exhibition, and into the Theatre and Performance gallery. I was there to see curator Keith Lodwick, the lucky person overseeing the newly acquired Vivien Leigh archive. Having met Keith a few times prior to this meeting, I was looking forward to an interesting and lively discussion about the selection of material currently on display to commemorate Vivien’s centenary. He didn’t disappoint. Keith’s passion for his job is palpable; a plus for researchers doing work in the Theatre and Performance archive at Blythe House, as well as Vivien Leigh fans who have been and will be lucky enough to hear him talk about the treasures in his care.

Vivien’s papers had been handed down from her daughter, Suzanne Farrington, to her three grandsons. The V&A entered into negotiations for the acquisition in 2002, but the Farrington family suddenly withdrew for undisclosed reasons. Luckily, the negotiations started again in 2012 and the collection was purchased for an undisclosed sum earlier this year. As an international celebrity, Vivien’s cultural appeal remains as prominent in America as it is in Britain. Keith mentioned that Suzanne came in to the museum not long before the display went up and said that she was glad the papers stayed in the UK to be preserved for the nation. There are over 10,000 items in the archive, including press cuttings books compiled by her mother Gertrude Hartley, diaries beginning in 1929, thousands of photographs (including 1000 color stereoscopic slides taken with Vivien’s own camera in the 1950s and 60s), over 7,500 letters, awards, and other ephemera.

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Last Thursday I had the opportunity to give a lecture about Vivien Leigh at the National Portrait Gallery here in London to kick off the opening of the “Starring Vivien Leigh: A Centenary Celebration” exhibit, which I was also invited to co-curate. Vivien proved to be a very popular subject last month, with a hugely successful BFI film retrospective, some of the V&A items going on display, and now the NPG show. There have been numerous articles and mentions of her life and work in newspapers, magazines, on the radio, and across the web. I feel honoured to be involved and to have been able to contribute to the resurrection of Vivien’s memory in some way.

Needless to say, the free lunchtime lecture at the NPG (they have them every week, usually to coincide with one of the exhibitions) was hugely popular. The house was completely full, and apparently about 50 people had to be turned away due to lack of space. This was my first-ever big lecture, and I was terrified. Kind of like Vivien used to do before her performances, I was shaking and grasping my boyfriend’s arm with ice cold fingers before I went on stage. But once I got into it, I felt a lot better and was glad that the audience was so responsive. It was a wonderful learning experience and it has given me confidence for my next major talk in February at the Victoria and Albert Museum, as part of a Vivien Leigh symposium (more on that soon).

I really enjoyed speaking about my love for Vivien, and I hope you enjoy it, as well. If you’re in or around London between now and the end of July 2014, I highly encourage you to stop by the NPG to see the Starring Vivien Leigh display. It’s free and it’s a great selection of photographs and ephemera showcasing her unique career.

Waterloo Bridge

Last week, I was invited to go into the BBC to talk about Vivien Leigh for the Film Programme on Radio4. It was a bit surreal because I never imagined I’d be doing this sort of thing! I was interviewed by Film Programme host Francine Stock, who had recently seen Waterloo Bridge and was keen to know more about it. This was a welcome surprise as Vivien is usually mentioned in the same breath as Gone With the Wind or A Streetcar Named Desire rather than her “lesser-known” films.

The Film Programme on Radio4 (my segment starts around 23:40)

We had a Vivien Leigh fan meet-up here in London over the weekend and one of the activities was viewing Waterloo Bridge on the big screen. I’m curious to know whether the version that we saw was the original UK release because pretty much every allusion to Myra Lester being a prostitute was omitted. It was very strange. Not only did it accelerate the ending, it also took away from the overall emotional impact of the story and left us wondering why Myra decided to take such drastic measures.

Awkward censorship aside, Vivien’s centenary has really brought her out into the spotlight this month. The BFI film season is selling very well, and the V&A has put some of the Vivien Leigh Archive items on display — stay tuned for an interview with curator Keith Lodwick, which should be up on the blog very soon! I had a lot of fun participating in a panel discussion about researching Vivien’s life with Keith and curator Nathalie Morris last Tuesday at the BFI. The Starring Vivien Leigh: A Centenary Celebration exhibit is opening on November 30 at the National Portrait Gallery, and I’m busy preparing my NPG talk, which takes place next Thursday!

I feel lucky to be part of this amazing resurgence of interest in Vivien’s life and work. It’s been a wonderful experience so far.

Vivien Leigh as Shaw's Cleopatra

Vivien Leigh continues to fascinate modern audiences 100 years after her birth. Kendra Bean, author of Vivien Leigh: An Intimate Portrait, looks back over the too-short career of one of Britain’s brightest stars.


This autumn, cultural institutions across London are shining the spotlight on British actress Vivien Leigh. From a photography and ephemera exhibit at the National Portrait Gallery to the high-profile acquisition of her papers by the Victoria and Albert Museum, the future of Leigh’s legacy as a 20th-century performing arts icon shows no signs of fading. Beginning on 6 November, the BFI will be paying tribute with a 13-film retrospective that explores the evolution of Leigh’s screen career, from her early days as a contract player for Alexander Korda to becoming a two-time Academy Award winner and international star.

Leigh’s rise to fame was swift. After a brief stint at RADA, she was offered her first professional acting job as an uncredited walk-on in the 1935 Gaumont British film Things Are Looking Up, starring Cicely Courtneidge. That same year, her debut on the West End stage led her to be declared the greatest discovery since Meggie Albanessi. What she initially lacked in talent she more than made up for in potential. Critics were unanimously won over by her presence, and so was Alexander Korda. The producer offered her a headline-making £50,000 film contract, and she would later describe him as having been one of the most influential men in her life.In 2001, the American Film Institute named Vivien Leigh one of the 25 greatest female stars in Hollywood history. Quite an honour considering she made only 19 films in a career that spanned over 30 years, and over half of those films were British. Today she is mostly remembered for her Oscar-winning performances in Gone with the Wind (1939) and A Streetcar Named Desire (1951). But film stardom meant little to Leigh, who subscribed to the popular attitude of the time that theatre was the real actors’ medium. During her lifetime, her popularity stemmed as much from her stage work and her marriage and professional partnership with Laurence Olivier, as it did from her screen appearances.

In the mid-1930s, Korda worked to create a star system based on the hugely successful Hollywood mould. Leigh soon became one of the most prominent actresses on contract at London Films, working with the likes of German producer Erich Pommer, directors Victor Saville and Tim Whelan, and established stars such as Charles LaughtonRobert TaylorFlora Robson and Conrad Veidt. Fan magazines like The Picturegoer and Film Weekly continuously referenced her beauty and star quality, and paradoxically alluded to her Hollywood potential while at the same time voicing the hope that she’d stay in England to help bolster a fledgling national cinema.

Up until 1938, Leigh publicly expressed disinterest in going to Hollywood. As would become a recurring theme in her career, however, once she found a part that she felt an innate connection with she became determined to make it her own. Such was the case with Scarlett O’Hara in Gone with the Wind. Winning the most coveted role of the 20th century was a one-in-a-million chance, but watching the film today, it’s difficult to imagine any other actress playing the part. Gone with the Wind launched Leigh to international stardom. At the tender age of 26, she became the first British best actress Academy Award winner and the most sought-after woman in films.

Vivien Leigh 1944

Had Leigh not returned to London during the war, she may have become as prolific asKatharine HepburnBette Davis or Joan Crawford. Looking back at her career, one almost regrets that she didn’t make more films. Her performances, particularly after Gone with the Wind, took on an imminence and naturalness that was displayed by few other Hollywood stars of the time. However, her idea of success was fundamentally linked to the theatre, and that perception was propelled by her relationship with Laurence Olivier.

The most popular celebrity couple of the post-war era fell in love while making the 1937 William K. Howard film Fire over England. Over the course of the next 20 years, they fluidly transitioned from England to Hollywood, and from stage to screen. Their theatrical contributions and artistry led them to be dubbed ‘theatre royalty’ and they successfully brought Shakespeare, Shaw and Sheridan to modern audiences. Leigh’s performances were not strictly bound to the classics. She excelled in modern plays by Thornton Wilder, Terence Rattigan and Tennessee Williams. This last partnership also led to one of her greatest, albeit most destructive, film performances as Blanche DuBois in A Streetcar Named Desire (1951).

While popularity with audiences came easily, Leigh continuously fought an uphill battle to be recognised by theatre critics for her talents rather than her beauty or star status. As a perfectionist, she pushed herself to give the best performance that she was capable of giving, and then pushed herself to do better. On a personal level, she found it difficult to take criticism in stride. This became especially challenging in the late 1940s and 1950s when she came up against The Observer’s Kenneth Tynan, who took out a vendetta against her that was fuelled by his hero worship for Olivier. In 1953, Leigh was diagnosed with manic depression, which heavily affected her career and eventually led to the demise of her marriage in 1960.

Perhaps one of Leigh’s most admirable qualities was her resilience. In the remaining seven years of her life, she embarked on her own journey away from Olivier’s shadow. Professional risks earned rewards. She won a Tony Award in 1963 for Tovarich, her first and only foray into musical theatre. On screen, her performances in The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone (1961) and her final film, Ship of Fools (1965), took on a mature and poignant reality. She met the fears of ageing and loneliness head-on, and allowed the camera to project her own vulnerability. For this last film she was given the French Étoile de cristal.

To the end, work remained Leigh’s driving force. She died of tuberculosis in 1967 at the age of 53 with much left to contribute. When we imagine her in offered roles such as Bathsheba Everdene in Far from the Madding Crowd and Agnes in Edward Albee’s A Delicate Balance, it seems a pity that such potential remained unfulfilled. But as Sir Alec Guinness said, “If you can focus on the small shelf on which her volumes rest, you really are staggered: Well, I am staggered at all that she accomplished in so short and selective a career and in so short a life.”

* This post was written for the BFI and originally posted on November 5, 2013.

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Vivien Leigh biographer Kendra Bean
Photo by Jodie Chapman

After five years of having this dream of putting together a photography book about Vivien Leigh, it finally happened. Vivien Leigh: An Intimate Portrait hit stores on October 10 here in the UK, and on the 15th in the US. We had the launch party at the quaint Daunt Books in Holland Park on the 15th and I was overwhelmed by the turnout and the support – so much so that I may have even cried on my mom’s shoulder (she made her first ever trip to London with her sister just for this event).  Others that came to help celebrate included my boyfriend Robbie, some of the best friends I’ve met over the past few years, Claire Bloom, Louise Olivier and her kids, her mother Hester who came all the way from Devon, Trader Faulkner, Richard Mangan, Terence Pepper from the National Portrait Gallery, Keith Lodwick from the V&A, several people who knew Vivien and worked with her, people I’ve known through for a while and got to meet for the first time, my agent, my publicist, and many more. My publicist estimated around 100 guests. It was, without a doubt, one of the most memorable nights of my life.

Now it’s over. Kind of.

Inevitably there has been some criticism, but thus far the response to the book has actually been really positive, and for that I’m grateful. If people “get it,” are moved by it, and appreciate the effort that went into it, then I feel I’ve succeeded in some way. It’s not perfect – nothing is – but it was a labor of love and of that I’m proud.

And it’s gotten some wonderful coverage!

So, what’s next? When I was trying to get a publisher for the book, the general sentiment from many people in the business was that Vivien just isn’t relevant anymore – not like Marilyn or Audrey Hepburn, or Grace Kelley. But as she did many times during her lifetime, I think Vivien is going to surprise everyone. There are quite a few events happening around London in November to mark her centenary, and I feel really lucky to be involved. Here’s where you can find me next month:

  • November 5 – 7.00 pm, St Paul’s The Actor’s Church, Covent Garden – Actress Susie Lindeman will be performing a 45 minute version of her one-woman show Letter To Larry, followed by readings and remembrances by people who knew Vivien. I’ll also be there signing books.
  • November 12 – 6.20 pm, BFI Southbank, NFT3 – Keith Lodwick from the V&A will be giving a talk about the newly acquired Vivien Leigh Archive. Afterward, I’ll be joining him and the BFI’s Nathalie Morris for a panel discussion about researching Vivien’s life.
  • All of November – BFI Southbank – I’ve got tickets to every talk and one screening of every Vivien film. You’ll find me sleeping in a tent in near the bar.
  • November 17 – Vivien Leigh fan meet-up. We’ll be going to the V&A to look at the Vivien archive materials on display, followed by the BFI screening of Waterloo Bridge, and then an informal dinner. Attendees are responsible for booking their own film tickets. To RSVP for the meet-up, please email me at vivandlarry{at}gmail.
  • November 28 – 1.15 pm, National Portrait Gallery – Vivien Leigh: An Intimate Portrait lunchtime lecture followed by a book signing.

I’m going to try and keep everyone here updated with photos and stories from these and other upcoming events, but you’ll definitely be able to find daily updates over on the Facebook page.

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