Actress. Born Vivian Mary Hartley, on November 5, 1913, in Darjeeling, India. Her father had moved to India from Britain as a young man; when Hartley was six years old, her family returned to England, where she attended convent school. She also studied in Europe, where she became fluent in French and Italian (she later dubbed her own films) as well as English. At age 19, she married Leigh Holman, a prominent British barrister. The couple had a daughter, Suzanne, in 1933.
After an apprenticeship at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, she made her first successful stage appearance in a 1935 production of The Mask of Virtue, as Vivien Leigh (from her husband’s name). She made her film debut in Things Are Looking Up (1935). In 1937, she made her first screen appearance opposite her lover, Laurence Olivier, in the costume epic Fire Over England. Even before she had met him, the beautiful, headstrong Leigh reportedly told friends she would marry Olivier, who was already a successful theatre and film star. By the end of 1935, the two had begun a passionate (and very public) affair, though both were married to other people (Olivier to the actress Jill Esmond).
In 1938, Leigh moved to Hollywood in order to be with Olivier and to campaign for the most sought-after role in history—that of tempestuous Southern belle Scarlett O’Hara in producer David O. Selznick’s film version of Margaret Mitchell’s novel Gone with the Wind. After a two-year nationwide talent search, including auditions by some of Hollywood’s leading actresses, Leigh won the coveted role in December 1938, after filming had already begun. With the premiere of the film a year later, Leigh became a major star, capturing an Academy Award for Best Actress. The film won a total of eight Oscars, including Best Picture, Best Director (Victor Fleming), and Best Supporting Actress (Hattie McDaniel, who became the first African-American ever to capture an Academy Award). Clark Gable, who co-starred as Rhett Butler, and Olivia de Havilland, who played Scarlett’s kindly rival Melanie Wilkes, also earned Oscar nods, for Best Actor and Best Supporting Actress respectively.
Leigh’s new stardom pushed her affair with Olivier into the international spotlight, and in 1940 Esmond and Holman both filed for divorce from their wayward spouses. Leigh and Olivier were married in August 1940. Though she lost the co-starring role in Alfred Hitchcock’s Rebecca (1940) to Joan Fontaine, Leigh went on to appear with her new husband in a U.S. stage production of Romeo and Juliet in 1940 and two films, 21 Days (1940) and That Hamilton Woman (1941). After the filming of the latter, the couple moved back to London to live and act on stage. Their collaborations included a London production of Macbeth, various touring productions in Australia and New Zealand in 1948, and repertory productions of Antony and Cleopatra and George Bernard Shaw’s Caesar and Cleopatra in 1951.
Plagued by tuberculosis (which she began suffering from as early as 1945) and manic depression, Leigh appeared in only eight films after Gone with the Wind. In addition to That Hamilton Woman, she also starred in Waterloo Bridge (1940), opposite Robert Taylor; Caesar and Cleopatra (1946), opposite Claude Rains; Anna Karenina (1948); The Deep Blue Sea (1955); The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone (1961), opposite Warren Beatty; and Ship of Fools (1965). Her best received film after Gone With the Wind was Elia Kazan’s A Streetcar Named Desire (1951), co-starring Marlon Brando, Kim Hunter, and Karl Malden. Leigh first played the aging Southern belle Blanche DuBois in a 1949 stage version of the Tennessee Williams play—she earned her second Academy Award for Best Actress for her emotionally wrenching performance in the film version.
Leigh’s increasingly poor physical and mental health contributed to the demise of her always-turbulent marriage to Olivier. A 1957 London production of Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus marked the last joint onstage appearance by the couple, who divorced in 1960. Olivier went on to marry another actress, Joan Plowright; he died in 1989.
During the 1960s, Leigh continued to make a series of impressive stage appearances, including her 1963 Broadway debut in Tovarich, for which she won a Tony Award for Best Actress. In later years, she grew unable to maintain a show for a long run, as her deteriorating health led her to frequently miss performances. Leigh made her last stage appearance in a 1966 production of Ivanov, alongside her longtime companion, the actor Jack Merivale, with whom she had lived since her divorce from Olivier. Leigh died of tuberculosis in London on July 8, 1967.
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