Drugs, chaos, and Gone with the Wind

by Bronwyn Cosgrave
from Made for Each Other: Fashion and the Academy Awards
February 7, 2007

The Times, the daily London newspaper to which Vivien Leigh subscribed, carried no news of the Academy Awards, although from 1937, as she followed its ongoing report of the epic, two-year global casting search David O. Selznick conducted to find the right actress to play Scarlett O’Hara in Gone With the Wind, she acquired the necessary characteristic to clinch the part—blind ambition. I HAVE NO ENTHUSIASM FOR VIVIEN LEIGH, wrote Selznick in a February 1937 cable he sent to Kay Brown, his New York production executive, initially rejecting Leigh. John Gliddon, Leigh’s agent, relayed the news, but she took it in stride. Leigh, obsessed by Margaret Mitchell’s fictional Southernbelle heroine, was convinced the role was hers.

RADA-trained Leigh’s film career was minor, but she was a member of London’s Old Vic theater troupe and could hold her own onstage with her lover, the actor Laurence Olivier. A Vogue regular (Cecil Beaton often photographed her for the British edition), she had bright green eyes that lit up her face just like Scarlett O’Hara’s. Leigh’s piercing beauty prompted Myron Selznick, Olivier’s agent, to arrange for her to meet his brother, David. So in December 1938 Leigh crossed the Atlantic, and through the stormy passage aboard the Queen Mary she practiced Scarlett’s feline expressions into a makeup mirror and made notes on the tumultuous era through which she’d lived. On December 10, Leigh, Myron, and Olivier arrived at Selznick Studios to watch the first night of Wind’s production—the pivotal burning-of-Atlanta scene. “Before the fire had died down, Vivien had stepped, phoenix-like out of the embers and presented herself to David O. Selznick,” wrote Alexander Walker in Vivien: The Life of Vivien Leigh. Legend has it that just as Leigh uttered, “Good evening, Mr. Selznick,” a breeze blew open her chocolate brown mink coat, revealing her slight frame clad in a becoming beige silk dress that clung to her Scarlett O’Hara–narrow waist. A professional makeup artist had also beautified Leigh to resemble Scarlett. “Her eyes were lined with deep green shadow, making them seem more catlike than usual,” noted biographer Anne Edwards. Gruff, thirty-six-year-old Selznick was a snob and not easily impressed. But Leigh walked off his studio lot with the part she so longed for. “I took one look and knew she was right,” recalled Selznick, who soon authorized Leigh’s winning screen test. “Her tests showed that she could act the part right down to the ground, but I’ll never recover from that first look.” By February 1939, two weeks into work on Wind, Leigh regretted her careerist determination. Selznick had abruptly fired Wind’s director, George Cukor, with whom he ceaselessly argued, appointing Victor Fleming as his successor. Fleming and Selznick agreed a heaving cleavage would be necessary for Leigh to effectively portray Scarlett. The pair envisioned a “tougher . . . more dangerous” Scarlett than the “tender wanton” Cukor had imagined. Trouble was, Leigh’s flat chest had gone undetected during her screen test and preproduction. But before Fleming’s cameras, the tops of Scarlett’s antebellum gowns caved in, most especially the long, burgundy velvet dress her husband, Rhett Butler, in a jealous rage, forces her to wear to the birthday celebration of her beloved Ashley Wilkes. “Wear that!” Rhett orders Scarlett, removing it from her bedroom wardrobe and tossing it at her….So on Selznick’s command, Fleming insisted that Walter Plunkett, Wind’s costumer, bind Leigh’s breasts together with adhesive tape. “Dear Vivien stood patiently while we pushed her breasts together and a fitter strapped adhesive tape to keep them in that uncomfortable position,” recalled Plunkett.

Talented Plunkett, Hollywood’s leading authority on period costume, could have whipped up Leigh’s Oscar fashion dream in the “garment factory” he operated on the back lot of Selznick Studios, where over two years his team produced the fifty-five hundred costumes that made up Wind’s wardrobe. “It took countless people,” he recalled. “I had two women to assist me, cutters and fitters, each of whom had their own crew of seamstresses, plus a crew of milliners. Almost everything was made from scratch.” Experts skilled in corset making, hoopskirt production, and pleating fashioned Scarlett’s wardrobe from bolts of pretty calico, jewel-toned silk velvets, and French petticoat lace—textiles explicitly produced in small, costly quantities by obscure mills Plunkett discovered, after intensive research. It has long been assumed that Plunkett designed Leigh’s Oscar dress, but when Wind ceased, she stepped out of his costumes for good. Leigh and Plunkett’s relationship was based on mutual adoration, but she grew resentful of the attention her upper proportions generated once clad in his work, as well as Selznick’s exacting standards. Intensifying Selznick’s perfectionism was his propensity to ingest energy-inducing artificial stimulants, principally the prescription drug Benzedrine, which Evelyn Keyes, who played Suellen, Scarlett’s younger sister, watched him swallow “like popcorn.” Consequently Wind became a nightmare project for its cast and crew, but most especially for Leigh.

Clark Gable in Gone with the Wind (1939); MGM/The Kobal Collection “I have perfectly good ones of my own!” she protested to Plunkett’s assistant, claiming the adhesive tape cut off her circulation. On set Leigh complained that she could not breathe in Scarlett’s wardrobe and grew to loathe the man who on Selznick’s orders orchestrated her daily torture—Victor Fleming. Leigh had become a fast, lifelong friend of George Cukor, who protected her from the barrage of production memos Selznick wrote. In them he frequently mentioned the “breast work situation” and the “chest experiment,” pondering matters relating to its size, shape, and position in costume. A veteran Broadway stage director, Cukor, said Leigh, “was after all, like Olivier—first of the theatre.” Macho Fleming finished his day on set drinking whiskey with his pal [Clark] Gable, whom Leigh loathed kissing because his false teeth left his breath reeking. “Ham it up!” Fleming told her when she approached him for guidance. Outraged by Cukor’s dismissal, Leigh threatened to resign, but relented after a meeting with her new agent, Myron Selznick. He told Leigh, “If you quit this film, you will be in court till your last day on earth. You will never work again on stage or screen. You will never be free. David will see to that. And so, too, Miss Leigh, will I.”

Venting her rage about the trials of film acting, Leigh wrote letters to her mother, Gertrude, and her husband, Leigh Holman, with whom she remained on amicable terms despite their impending divorce. Shooting, she related to Holman, operated “at a snail’s pace” and was “exhausting and miserable.” She compared the rules and regulations that governed her life in Hollywood to those she’d endured at the string of boarding schools she’d attended in England and on the Continent. She felt like a prisoner in the North Camden Drive, Beverly Hills, home Selznick rented for her and arranged for it to be watched by a twenty-four-hour guard so that her relationship with Olivier could be kept top secret. In London, Leigh and Olivier lived together openly.

In Hollywood, Selznick feared a similar domestic setup might prove gossip fodder and create a scandal that could jeopardize Wind’s success. So after filming Wuthering Heights, Olivier moved to New York to appear in a Broadway production of S. N. Behrman’s No Time for Comedy, an assignment Leigh’s biographers claimed Selznick arranged to keep the lovers apart.

With Olivier gone, Leigh grew intensely lonely. She made tearful, long-distance telephone calls to him, suffered from exhaustion, hysteria, and what was later classified as a minor nervous breakdown. On set her emotional strain became apparent as she experienced radical mood swings. “For God’s sake, leave me alone!” she shouted at Lydia Schiller, a continuity assistant, after she attempted to adjust the fringe on Scarlett’s green velvet bonnet. “She whacked me,” Evelyn Keyes wrote, recalling the force Leigh applied to slapping her face during a cotton-picking scene. “My cheek wore the imprint of Vivien’s fingers for the rest of the afternoon.”

Dealing with volatile Leigh pushed Victor Fleming to the breaking point. One morning on his way to Selznick Studios, he nearly drove his dove gray Cadillac off a cliff near Malibu. He took two weeks off to recuperate. Sam Wood took over as Wind’s director, but the production spun out of control. Selznick shifted his obsessive attention from Leigh’s chest to her eyes, pressuring Monty Westmore, his head makeup artist, to apply excessive amounts of green eye shadow to her lids, to enhance the color of her hazel irises. Studying the rushes, Selznick concluded that Leigh’s eyes looked “violet, gray, blue, tan, and nearly every other color in the spectrum” other than the requisite green, which he explained during the first of a series of nocturnal telephone calls he made to Westmore. “Monty, I hope I’m not disturbing you,” Selznick usually began their late-night conversations. “Why, no, Mr. Selznick,” Westmore customarily replied. “What would make you think you were disturbing me? It’s only three in the morning.”

Fueled by more than adrenaline, Selznick was binging on methedrine and barbituates. “Whatever was handy,” noted Patrick McGilligan, George Cukor’s biographer. Though not embittered by his dismissal, Cukor was repulsed by Selznick’s habit of “crushing up Benzedrines and licking the pieces from the palm of his hand, a grain at a time.” For a week, Selznick forced Leigh and some of Wind’s cast and crew to wake at two thirty A.M. to reshoot the daybreak scene during which she uttered, “As God is my witness, I’ll never be hungry again.” Her delivery was perfect. Selznick, however, was displeased with the look of the sunrise in the background. On June 27, 1939; Wind’s final shooting day, Olivia de Havilland, who costarred as Melanie Hamilton, walked straight past Leigh, failing to recognize her. “She looked so diminished by overwork,” remembered de Havilland. “Her whole atmosphere had changed. She gave something to that film which I don’t think she ever got back.”

Selznick made up for his bad behavior on Wind’s set by picking up the tab for the wardrobe custom-made by Irene Gibbons for Leigh and all the women appearing at the series of gala premieres and after parties feting Wind’s December 1939 release in Atlanta, New York, and Los Angeles. “Irene” was the couturier who operated the French Salon, the exclusive ladies’ dress department at Bullock’s Wilshire, the downtown Los Angeles luxury department store. While Irene fitted Leigh with an ermine-tipped, black velvet gown and golden tulle ensemble for Wind premieres, Leigh discovered in the designer’s spring 1940 collection what became her Oscar dress. Leigh’s Oscar bid—one among an unprecedented total of thirteen nominations Wind received—factored onto a list made up of box office draws, including Bette Davis, Greta Garbo, Greer Garson, and Irene Dunne. Vying for her third Oscar with her laudatory performance in Dark Victory, Davis was considered Leigh’s only challenger.

No actress contender had yet modeled an Irene gown at the Academy Awards. But Dolores Del Rio and Ginger Rogers as well as Paramount stars Claudette Colbert and Carole Lombard had already sashayed in her featherweight floating gowns on Hollywood’s social scene and across the big screen. “I’ve designed clothes for everyone in Hollywood, really everyone,” Irene claimed in 1939. She refused an offer to head up the costume department at Paramount Pictures after Travis Banton decamped to work freelance for Twentieth Century–Fox’s wardrobe department in 1938. Edith Head, his right hand, assumed Banton’s position at Paramount, but the studio’s leading ladies viewed the bespectacled former schoolteacher as “the assistant” and insisted that their costumes be made by tall, tawny-haired Irene, who had acquired a decade of experience operating her own Sunset Boulevard boutique after a stint studying fashion design in Paris. Marriage in January 1937 to Elliot Gibbons, the scriptwriter brother of Cedric Gibbons, MGM’s art director who conceived the Oscar trophy, increased Irene’s stature. “Believe me, she was as good as the best,” claimed the finicky Colbert. “Irene was the only woman at the time who could be compared to Coco Chanel.”

Beneath the swaggering crystal chandeliers in Bullock’s art deco–accented French Salon hung Irene’s evening gowns. Cut from exotic Bianchini printed silk, adorned with fourteen-karat gold buttons, and generously slit, they carried the fashion industry’s highest price tags. At $450 each, her gowns were over twice the price of a Paris couture model. But cost seemed irrelevant to Irene’s customers. “I should have ordered more dresses!” wrote Marlene Dietrich on the back of a Paris postcard she sent Irene after a Bullock’s shopping spree. “Every star and social butterfly who could afford her prices went to Irene,” recalled fashion photographer John Engstead. Every piece of clothing owned by Edie Goetz, David Selznick’s discerning sister-in-law, came from Irene’s atelier, including the skirts she wore playing tennis on the court behind her Bel Air mansion. Carole Lombard tied the knot with Clark Gable in March 1939 in an Irene gray flannel skirt suit. She planned to attend the early fall 1940 show the couturier staged in September 1939 to scout for pieces for Wind’s premieres, but she was busy working. “I’m damn mad that I can’t get to the show,” wrote Lombard, who sent regrets by a note typed on her emerald-green-embossed personal stationery. “You better save a lot of good things for me or we will have to do originals.” Irene, however, set aside the best dress for Leigh.

Irene’s show commenced in Bullock’s lounge with a whisper: “Doesn’t she look smart?” Edna Woolman Chase, Vogue’s editor, had just arrived, eliciting the comment of approval from someone among the crowd of about one hundred well-dressed Hollywood wives. Chase’s visit to Bullock’s also marked a turning point for the Los Angeles fashion scene because it was the first time she traveled to the West Coast to view fashion produced by a Los Angeles designer. Leigh, on her way back to Los Angeles from London to shoot retakes of Wind’s opening scene, wasn’t there. So aside from silver-haired, sixty-three-year-old Chase, the show’s guest of honor was MGM leading lady Greta Garbo. Reclusive Garbo, clad in slacks and a floppy sun hat, rarely ventured beyond MGM’s lot. The presentation of Irene’s collection was the only L.A. fashion show she attended. By her side was the man with whom the L.A. Examiner’s Louella Parsons reported she was swiftly moving “that-away” toward marriage—her nutritional guru, Gaylord Hauser, who later penned the best-selling raw-food diet book Look Younger, Live Longer. Outside Bullock’s a pack of reporters waited on the pavement to capture Garbo and Hauser’s exit. The pair refused to sit alongside Irene’s audience assembled in Bullock’s lounge. So just before the dimmer switch flipped the chandelier light low, signaling show-time, French doors were swung back to create a private enclave for the VIPs.

Irene’s program described Leigh’s Oscar dress, which debuted as look fourteen on a pale blond model, simply as “Red Poppy Evening Gown.” Green-stemmed red poppies exploded like fireworks upon the long chiffon gown. Its vibrant floral print carried on a theme Irene had been exploring for a while. She produced sexy gowns drenched with big, bold blooms including a frisky white dance dress dotted with perky black-eyed Susans in which Ginger Rogers boogied alongside Fred Astaire in 1937’s Shall We Dance. A year later, at a San Francisco hotel party, Marlene Dietrich caused a sensation in a low-cut, spaghetti-strapped Irene frock of white silk enlivened with purple hydrangeas. “The bigger, the better” was Irene’s pattern philosophy.

Leigh adored flowers. They brought to mind fond childhood memories of times spent with her mother in the vast garden behind their family mansion in Calcutta. Leigh had lived there happily until her parents sent her off to a string of continental boarding schools. Throughout her life, gardens and wildflowers brought her comfort. “A garden for her had qualities of beauty and tranquillity,” observed Alexander Walker. “In whichever parts of the world she later found herself, ‘the garden’ was present or re-created in the bouquets on first nights, in vases arranged to welcome her to strange hotel suites, in flower paintings by French Impressionists which traveled with her in her luggage and were then stood on bedside tables or hung on the walls of rented apartments to turn them into a reminder of home, the minute she opened her eyes.” As Leigh’s travails with Selznick and Fleming intensified on Wind’s set, she retreated to the rambling, terraced garden behind George Cukor’s Beverly Hills mansion. Surrounded by its high, wisteria-and-ivy-covered walls, Cukor and Leigh reclined side by side on padded pool loungers most every Sunday, her day off, commiserating about Wind’s chaos. Cukor’s garden became Leigh’s haven, and on Oscar night, Irene’s dress was its equivalent rendered in silk.

Within its bodice was a light, inner support necessitating that nothing need be worn beneath it. “[Irene’s] soft crêpes and chiffons were meant to be worn without a brassiere—a discreet construction underneath them lifted the breasts delicately,” wrote Hollywood costume expert David Chierichetti of the frocks Irene built for maximum comfort because so many of her movie star clients, like Leigh, spent long days on film sets bound in tight-fitting, corset-topped period costumes.

On the night of the twelfth Academy Awards, between Red Poppy Evening Gown and Leigh’s skin mingled merely the rose and jasmine scent of Jean Patou’s Joy, her favorite perfume. She splashed it on and fastened an aquamarine pendant. Olivier had purchased the semiprecious piece in New York from Van Cleef & Arpels, the Fifth Avenue jeweler, and sent it to Leigh in Los Angeles as a token of his affection as she suffered through Wind. On Oscar night it hung from a long gold chain and drew attention to the plunging bodice of Irene’s dress. Like a trophy medallion, it displayed that after a tough seven months of portraying Scarlett O’Hara, Leigh was finally free. She and Olivier set off by limousine to a pre–Academy Awards cocktail party at David Selznick’s sprawling home on Summit Drive. “Everybody was keyed up—they all came in limousines,” recalled Irene Mayer Selznick, David’s wife. Celebrating at Selznick’s lofty abode, Leigh discovered she had won an Academy Award. In banner headlines, the Los Angeles Times’ early edition published results it was meant to print the following day—Wind had set an Academy record, winning an unprecedented nine Oscars. Supercharged by the news, Selznick hustled Leigh, Olivier, Clark Gable, and Olivia de Havilland into the back of a limousine bound for the ceremony at the Ambassador Hotel’s nightclub, the Cocoanut Grove. The Twelfth Academy Awards, February 29, 1940. Veiled in stardust, gowned by Irene, Leigh was ushered into the Ambassador’s lobby by David Selznick as a “near riot of admirers” rushed toward them, wrote Variety’s Alta Durant. Leigh, noted the columnist, was the “star” of an illustrious Academy Awards. “Every name of note in the industry was either a guest or host,” observed the Hollywood Reporter. Bob Hope was debuting as master of ceremonies, a post he would mostly maintain over the next thirty years. Actor Spencer Tracy had arranged to be discharged from the hospital so that he could be on hand to present the Oscar to Leigh. After MGM’s teen queen Judy Garland, recipient of a special juvenile Oscar for her outstanding performance as Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, sang “Over the Rainbow, ” its Academy Award–winning theme, Hope entertained the crowd. “What a wonderful thing this benefit for David Selznick,” he cracked.

Vivien Leigh and Clark Gable in Gone with the Wind. Courtesy of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Inc.It was just after midnight. Selznick had traveled back and forth from his seat to the podium to personally claim most of Wind’s nine Oscars. “Hallelujah!” proclaimed Hattie McDaniel, who, for portraying Mammy, Scarlett’s governess, received the best supporting actress Oscar—which made her the first black actor to win an Academy Award. At one fifteen A.M. it was Spencer Tracy’s turn at the podium. “Need I say this is a privilege and an honor to announce this winner: Miss Vivien—“ Deafening applause drowned out the rest of Tracy’s preamble. Having anticipated the victory moment, Leigh glided gracefully to the podium. “She looked beautiful and glowing, her chiffon gown billowing, her head tossed back, hair loose,” noted her biographer Anne Edwards. Beaming before the crowd, Leigh relied on her theatrical skills and succinctly delivered an eloquent speech. “Ladies and gentlemen,” she began, “if I were to mention all those who have shown me such wonderful generosity through Gone With the Wind, I should have to entertain you with an oration as long as Gone With the Wind itself.” Before departing the rostrum she thanked “Mr. David Selznick, all my coworkers, and most of all Miss Margaret Mitchell.” Back at one of Wind’s two tables, Leigh was as bubbly as the flowing Lanson champagne. Later she claimed to be unnerved by the experience of departing from the podium and making her way through the Cocoanut Grove with her Oscar. She likened the route to the perilous journey she’d witnessed on the night she’d landed her part in Gone With the Wind—Scarlett and Rhett’s harrowing horse-drawn-buggy ride through burning Atlanta. “Only instead of flames,” she said, “it was people reaching out to touch me.”

Journeying home by limousine was no pleasure cruise. Laurence Olivier qualified as an actor Academy Award nominee for Wuthering Heights, but he lost out to Goodbye, Mr. Chips’ Robert Donat. In the back of the limo, as Olivier sat next to Leigh, he grabbed her Oscar and later admitted, “I was insane with jealousy. It was all I could do to restrain myself from hitting her with it.” Life captured Leigh arriving home, where she placed her Oscar atop the mantel above her fireplace.