“Most of us have compromised with life. Those who fight for what they want will always thrill us.”—Vivien Leigh.
Vivien Leigh always fought for what she wanted. Not only did she fight for the role of Scarlett O’Hara in Gone With the Wind, she also fought to be able to be with the man she loved. On top of that, Leigh fought her own mental illness in order to have a successful career as an actress during the Golden Age of Hollywood. Here are 27 facts about the woman behind Scarlett O’Hara, Vivien Leigh.
1. Not-So Southern After All
Leigh was born in 1913. Although she became known for embodying the ultimate Southern Belle, Scarlett O’Hara, she was actually born in India, which was, at the time, a British colony. Born Vivien Mary Hartley, her parents’ names were Ernest Hartley and Gertrude Frances. While her father was Scottish, her mother was Irish, and also possibly Armenian or Indian, according to conflicting sources.
2. Center Stage
Leigh’s first performance came at the age of 3 years old, when she took to the stage for her mother’s theater group and recited “Little Bo Peep” for the audience. The acting bug clearly bit this one early.
3. Acting Buddies
When Leigh was 6 years old she was sent to the Convent of the Sacred Heart school in London, where she met her friend (and one-day fellow actress), Maureen O’Sullivan. While at school together, the young Leigh told O’Sullivan that she wanted to be “a great actress someday.”
4. Traveling Lady
Leigh could speak at least three languages, including English, French, and Italian, the latter two of which she picked up on her travels with her family around Europe.
5. An Education
The Hartley family once attended a performance of A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, where Vivien confessed to her father that she wanted to be an actress. The supportive pop promptly put his daughter into the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art.
6. Marriage: Take One
Leigh met her first husband—Herbert Leigh Holman—while she was at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. He was a lawyer, 13 years older than her, and didn’t particularly care for people in the theater. Despite all of this, they got married on December 20, 1932. Leigh was just 19 years old.
7. It’s a Girl!
Leigh gave birth to her first and only daughter, Suzanne, on October 12, 1933.
8. Extra Extra
Leigh’s first film role was as an uncredited extra in Things Are Looking Up, where she played a schoolgirl.
9. The Birth of Vivien Leigh
As she started to act, her agent told her that Vivian Holman was not a name for an actress. And to be completely fair to her agent, he was probably right. Vivian Holman doesn’t necessarily sound like the woman who’d go on to play Scarlett O’Hara. After rejecting several suggestions from her agent, Leigh took her new last name from her husband’s middle name and became Vivien Leigh.
10. What’s in a Name?
Among the names that her agent suggested to her that Leigh could have wound up as were Suzanne Hartley, Mary Hartley, April Morn, or April Maugham. It’s easy to see why she shot those all down.
11. English Girlhood
In 1935 Leigh was cast in the play The Mask of Virtue, and quickly received critical acclaim. One reviewer took note of the “lightning change came over her face”—a trait that would become Leigh’s acting trademark. One day, poet laureate John Betjeman said “she is the essence of English girlhood,” and Sir Alexander Korda, a British film director who had earlier refused to cast Leigh because she didn’t have talent—saw the error of his ways.
12. Don’t Let It Get to Your Head
How did Leigh feel about this sudden burst of critical acclaim? She thought it was too much pressure to put on an actress so young. Leigh was once quoted as saying, “some critics saw fit to be as foolish as to say that I was a great actress. And I thought, that was a foolish, wicked thing to say, because it put such an onus and such a responsibility onto me, which I simply wasn’t able to carry. And it took me years to learn enough to live up to what they said for those first notices. I find it so stupid. I remember the critic very well and have never forgiven him.”
13. Fake It Til You Make It
In 1937, Leigh read Gone With the Wind, and when she found out David O. Selznick was planning to make a movie of it, she told her agent to make sure she got an audition for that part. “I’ve cast myself as Scarlett O’Hara,” she told a journalist, saying “Olivier won’t play Rhett Butler, but I shall play Scarlett O’Hara, wait and see.” I guess she truly spoke it into existence.
14. Too British? Try Me
Selznick saw Leigh in a few of her theater performances and said she was an incredibly talented actress, but overall found her “too British” to play Scarlett O’Hara. Oh, but that wasn’t the end of it. Leigh then moved to L.A., half because her main squeeze Olivier was there, but also half-because she was determined to convince Selznick he was wrong.
15. Does This Count As Nepotism?
Luckily for her, Selznick’s older brother Myron was Olivier’s agent. He took Leigh to meet his little brother David and apparently told him, “Hey, genius, meet your Scarlett O’Hara.” Myron just knew that Leigh would be the perfect Scarlett O’Hara. She got herself a screen test, and the director loved her “incredible wildness”—Leigh won the role, beating out established movie stars like Katherine Hepburn. That’s not to mention the over 1,400 other women who had interviewed for it at national casting calls.
16. And the Oscar Goes to…
Leigh won her first Academy Award for Best Actress for her role as Scarlett O’Hara in Gone With the Wind.
17. Years of Blanche
Leigh first played Blanche DuBois in Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire on the stage in London. Critics loved her performance as DuBois, and eventually, she found her way into the same role on film. Leigh wasn’t the first choice for the director, who originally thought she didn’t have enough talent for the role, but she quickly changed his mind.
He grew to admire her saying she had the greatest determination of any actress he had known. Williams, who had written the play also loved Leigh’s performance, saying Leigh had portrayed Blanche as “everything that I intended, and much that I had never dreamed of.”
18. We Have a Winner
Leigh picked up her second Academy Award for Best Actress for her role as Blanche DuBois in A Streetcar Named Desire.
19. Sparks Over England
One big thing that happened to Leigh during the time she appeared in the play The Mask of Virtue: she met Sir Laurence Olivier. Later, the pair ended up sparking a friendship that turned to an affair when they played lovers in Fire Over England. Both were still married at the time, but that didn’t matter to either of the actors. They eventually began to live together, with neither actor’s spouse granting them a divorce, and they kept their affair from the public eye.
20. Together at Last
In 1940, Olivier’s wife and Holman agreed to divorce their respective spouses, and by August of that same year, Leigh and Olivier were married. Kathrine Hepburn was the matron of honor.
21. Mental Illness
Leigh spent her entire life dealing with bipolar disorder. The first time Olivier saw signs of it was, fittingly, when she was playing Ophelia in a production of Hamlet before the making of Gone With the Wind. Her manic behavior frequently disrupted the set of Gone With the Wind and other productions she was on. The illness put a strain on her marriage, and ultimately, Olivier blames the illness for the reason they divorced.
22. Friends in High Places
Olivier and Leigh acted together often: sometimes to critical and financial success, and other times to critical and financial disaster—which only goes to prove even the greats have bad days. In 1941, the couple filmed That Hamilton Woman, a movie that was very pro-British, yet did well critically in the United States and the Soviet Union. Among the fans of the film was British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, who became a lifelong friend of the couple.
23. Falling Ill
In 1943, while volunteering for allied troops in North Africa, Leigh fell ill. It wasn’t until 1944 that she was diagnosed with tuberculosis. She spent some time in the hospital and doctors thought that she’d recovered, so they released her so she could return to her work.
24. Tragedy Strikes
In 1945, Leigh and Olivier found out that they were expecting a child. This happiness was soon shattered when Leigh miscarried. She fell into a deep depression which signaled her first true breakdown as a result of bipolar disorder.
25. Romancing Scarlett
Leigh and Olivier divorced in 1960, but before that Leigh started up a relationship with actor Jack Merivale. He was well aware of her bipolar disorder, and assured Olivier he’d take care of Leigh. But while Leigh seemed content with Merivale, she once was quoted as saying, “I would rather have lived a short life with Larry [Olivier] than face a long one without him.”
26. Injury on Set
While filming Ship of Fools, Leigh was going through a manic episode. During an assault scene, she struck fellow actor Lee Marvin in the face so hard with a high heel that it scarred his face.
27. Gone With the Wind
In 1967, Leigh’s tuberculosis reoccurred, and she died her home. Her lover Merivale called her family first and then Olivier, who immediately went there and stayed with her body until it was taken out of the home.