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Vivien Leigh

A Tragic Tale of Mental Illness

Scarlett & Rhett

by Dennis Pollock

She has been called the biggest star of the biggest film Hollywood has ever produced. She didn't just play Scarlett O'Hara in the mega-blockbuster movie Gone with the Wind; in the eyes of nearly everyone, including the book's famous author, Margaret Mitchell, she was Scarlett O'Hara. At her peak in the 1940's Vivien Leigh and her husband, Laurence Olivier, were the most glamorous, successful, and admired couple to be found in the world of acting. Hugely popular in England and America, in films and in plays, Vivien Leigh and Laurence Olivier seemed to have everything going for them. Yet behind the glamour and the applause and the glowing articles, there was something very much wrong, a seed of destruction within the British actress that would lead to the breakup of her marriage, the dissolution of her health, the loss of her reputation, and would eventually take her life.


In her early years Vivien Leigh was the quintessential precocious child. She was smart, she was pretty, she was filled with energy, and she had an undeniable charisma. At the age of eighteen Vivien was walking with friends when a thirty-one-year-old lawyer named Leigh Holman rode by on a horse. He was a dashing figure and very handsome. She told her friends she was going to marry this man. One replied that he was "nearly engaged" already, but Vivien was not put off. "He hasn't seen me yet." Not long after they met at a social function in town, and Leigh was enchanted by the beautiful and flirtatious Vivien. His current girlfriend was immediately forgotten, and the couple made plans to see each other. Within a short time they were engaged to be married.

The capture of one of the area’s most eligible bachelors had been a great adventure. Setting up household with him proved less so. Leigh Holman, by nearly every account was a good man. He was loyal, decent, kind, and willing to overlook the considerable impetuosities of his young bride. But Leigh’s view of marriage and Vivien’s proved to be diametrically opposed. As in many marriages, their opposite natures had attracted each other initially, but as time passed their differing views, goals, and expectations pulled them apart. Vivien's lawyer husband wanted a domesticated wife who would bear him several children, manage the household efficiently, entertain his friends occasionally, and be content to stay home most of the time, greeting him with a kiss at the door when he returned from a hard day at work. He had no idea of the blazing ambition that burned within Vivien, an ambition which she had carefully kept hidden during their courtship. Even at eighteen Vivien had been bitten by the acting bug, and was eager to find the shortest possible path to fame, riches, and honor through performing in dramas on the stage.

When she first approached Leigh about attending an acting school, he reacted strongly. But Vivien was not used to being denied, and she persisted until she finally wore him down and convinced him to allow her to attend a prestigious drama academy. With her astounding beauty and her flair for the dramatic, she soon was getting small parts in various dramas, and after paying her dues, she eventually landed a leading role in a play called “The Mask of Virtue.” The play was good, but not great. Vivien’s acting was solid, although not exceptional. But her incredible charisma and youthful beauty, which had served her so well over the years, seemed to grab everyone’s attention, and soon the young actress was the talk of England. All the big shots in the world of British drama sat up and took notice, including a promising young actor by the name of Laurence Olivier. Leigh Holman reluctantly had to admit two things: 1. His wife could act, and 2. There was no way he was going to be able to keep her home as the dutiful, domesticated wife he had originally envisioned.

Laurence Olivier

Olivier and LeighTo his credit, Leigh accepted what he could not change. He loved Vivien dearly, and adjusted to her new fame and lifestyle. Vivien, however, was changing in ways Leigh could not yet imagine. As the world of stage success opened before her, her husband seemed to lose more and more of his appeal. Next to the energetic, sophisticated actors she was meeting, Leigh Holman seemed pretty boring. Soon her eyes lit upon Laurence Olivier. She saw him in a play and was overwhelmed. His dashing good looks, his incredible passion as an actor, and his ability to capture the entire audience enthralled her. She told her friend, “I'm going to marry that man.” He was married, she was married, and by now she had a young daughter. But to the young lady who was used to getting whatever she wanted, those were small things. Now she wanted Laurence Olivier, and she would get him!

As it turned out, it didn’t take much. She managed to get backstage at one of his plays, and was invited into his dressing room. He had seen her in Mask of Virtue and admired her; he was delighted that the lovely young actress felt the same way about him. Just to make sure he got the point, before she left she lightly kissed his shoulder. Olivier did indeed get the point. When they were cast in the same play some time later, they were soon involved in a passionate affair. This time Vivien was sure she had found her perfect match, her soul-mate. They both were beautiful to look at, they both were ambitious, driven actors, and they were both willing to throw away families, spouses, and if need be, reputations in order to be with each other.

Scarlett O'Hara

Vivien left her husband, moved in with Olivier, and began a relationship with him that would last twenty-three years. In the early years it was incredibly passionate and tender. Vivien idolized her “Larry” and considered him a mentor to her, as well as lover, friend, and companion. Olivier loved Vivien deeply and it was said that even during play rehearsals they could hardly keep their hands off each other. In the early days of their affair Vivien learned of plans to film the popular book Gone with the Wind. The producer was searching high and low to find the perfect Scarlett, around whom the movie would revolve. He had even sent talent scouts throughout the Deep South, holding tryouts for walk-ins, looking for the perfect southern belle.

Vivien read the book and loved it. She couldn’t help noticing some of the similarities between Scarlett and herself. And although in later years she tried to deny any likeness to the strong-willed heroine, in truth Scarlett was a mirror image of Vivien Leigh. Film historian Tony Sloman noted: “Viven and Scarlett were so alike they were peas in a pod. Vivien’s whole life was willful regardless of consequences, just as Scarlett’s was. Vivien would do anything to get what she wanted just as Scarlett had to.” Now Vivien set her will of steel toward the pursuit of the role of Scarlett O’Hara in the upcoming film Gone with the Wind.

She managed to get some time off from a play she was doing, and made the trip to America. Laurence Olivier’s agent, Myron Selznick, was the brother of the producer of Gone with the Wind, David Selznick. Olivier introduced the two, and Myron was immediately convinced. “My God, you are Scarlett!” he exclaimed, and made plans to introduce her to his brother. David Selznick was also impressed. Vivien looked precisely as he had imagined Scarlett. After her auditions Selznick was convinced, and Vivien Leigh was given the role of a lifetime. To Vivien it must have seemed as though she could truly have whatever she wanted in life. To this point every obstacle had yielded to her will. With the landing of the Scarlett O’Hara role, she had come in late and run right past the 1,400 actresses who had been considered for this role, and landed the major role in what would become the biggest movie ever to come out of Hollywood. The strong-willed actress had the world in her pocket, and her future could hardly appear rosier.

Filming a Classic

Leigh in Gone with the Wind

The filming of Gone with the Wind did not turn out nearly as glamorous as young Vivien anticipated. Until then she had been primarily a stage actress, and the necessity of doing take after take until the director was satisfied was exhausting. Another aspect of filming which seemed alien was the way scenes were shot completely out of sequence. In a single day she might be a young Scarlett, then an older Scarlett, and then a young one again. Being the star of the movie, Vivien was in nearly every scene. There were few days off for her, and she was required to rise early and stay late to keep the filming on schedule. But worst of all, she was away from her beloved Larry.

Vivien decided to hasten the movie's completion and finish it as quickly as possible by working even longer hours that she was required. She often worked sixteen and eighteen hour days, gamely plodding on, as she portrayed the irrepressible Scarlett O'Hara, constantly changing from one bulky costume to another. One of the more well known scenes of the movie is where Scarlett, after eating a dirty radish in the fields of Tara, vows never to be hungry again. One might think it a simple scene that should have been filmed in an hour or two at the most. But to satisfy the director it required Vivien's longest day on the set – twenty-two hours without rest. Afterwards she went home, slept four hours, and then came back to film a younger Scarlett at the war's beginning.

Finally the movie was completed. Although Selznick had strong reservations about Vivien and Olivier being seen together, at the premiere she put her foot down and demanded that Olivier be allowed to accompany her. Selznick, probably worn down by dealing with the strong-willed young lady over the last year, capitulated. As it turned out, America was so enamored with the movie, they hardly cared about the stars' private lives. And they absolutely loved Scarlett O'Hara. Her image soon appeared everywhere, on photo blow-ups, on candy boxes, on cardboard, life-sized reproductions, and even on store mannequins fully dressed as Scarlett.

As soon as their divorces were finalized, Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh were married. By that time Laurence and his first wife had a baby boy. Vivien’s daughter was five years old. Both knew they would have to leave their children with their spouses. In those less tolerant days adultery was looked upon as a mark of immorality and instability, and the courts rarely let the offending parties have custody of their children. They would go on to many spectacular triumphs in both movies and plays. The couple became a sort of acting royalty both in England and America, and were, throughout the forties and early fifties, the most glamorous, popular, and admired couple in that strange and artificial world of stage and screen. The parties they held at their famous Notley Abbey estate were legendary, and all the famous and "beautiful people" ended up there sooner or later. They would eat, drink, and play games until three or four in the morning, and then fall in bed exhausted.


As Vivien aged a dark cloud appeared in the brightness of her skies, a cloud which would eventually overshadow her happiness and destroy her most precious relationship. As with most type A personalities, Vivien had always had a temper but in her earlier years it was seen only irregularly. Most of her friends and co-workers simply considered her "high-strung." But as the years rolled by, anger and temper transformed into rage and even hysteria. Biographer Anne Edwards describes the first episode of pure rage and hysteria seen by Olivier:

One night they were dining alone at home, chatting quite pleasantly when her mood suddenly and terrifyingly shifted… Her voice changed, becoming strident and harsh; and when he tried to calm her she turned on him, first verbally and then physically. He was at a loss for what to do… After a time that felt like an eternity but was actually no more than an hour, she crumpled into a heap and sobbed hysterically on the floor, not letting him come near her. When her attack of hysteria was over she could not recall what she had done or said. It terrified them both… In her hysteria she was accusatory, shrewish, saying mindless, hurting things – almost totally paranoid.

In time these episodes became more frequent, and were not limited merely to her private time with her husband. Friends, co-workers, and frequent guests all began to realize that something was desperately wrong with Vivien. At times she would become violent, and so physically threatening that those around her would have to lock themselves in a room to avoid her attacks. After a few hours she would collapse, the fit of anger would leave, and things would be back to normal. In many cases she would remember nothing, and would ask, "Whom have I hurt? Whom have I offended?" Upon being told what she had said or done, she would write a letter of apology to those who had tasted her inexplicable wrath.

There were times of depression when she would lose her normal enthusiasm for life, lying around and crying without really knowing why she was crying. To casual friends who didn't cross her she could still be the charming Vivien who had won the hearts of the British in her early days. And she could also turn on and turn off her moods to some degree. Many times she was nearly hysterical just before she was called to go on stage. But when she was called, Vivien would give a masterful performance, seemingly in full control of herself and her considerable abilities. In those days there was no effective treatment for her disorder, and she often submitted herself to shock treatments, known as electroconvulsive therapy. Sometimes she would undergo shock treatments in the afternoon, and perform on stage in the evenings, with the slight burn marks on her forehead still showing. Had she had the medications available today she would no doubt have fared much better, but in the forties through the early sixties shock treatment was about the only remedy the medical field had to offer. And it's effects were strictly temporary.

The Shaping of the Will

Vivien LeighOne might be tempted to think that Vivien's troubles were entirely due to her mental illness, but in truth, even when she wasn't experiencing one of her extreme moods, she was not an entirely likeable person, at least not to those who knew her well and tasted her more ordinary temper. Today we have a number of books written about the strong-willed child. Vivien was a grown-up version of this phenomenon. Her naturally strong will had been hardened still more by the incredible successes she had experienced in her youth and early adulthood. For the first twenty-five years of her life she had attained nearly everything she had wanted and succeeded at almost everything she attempted. When she had wanted the handsome Leigh Holman she snatched him from his current girlfriend instantly. When she decided to become an actress, she quickly become the darling of England. After seeing dashing Laurence Olivier and setting her cap for him, she snared him easily. And when, against all odds, she determined that she would play the part of Scarlett O'Hara in Gone with the Wind, she beat out 1,400 other women who had eagerly tried out for the role.

Early puritan minister Cotton Mather once wrote, "Prosperity is too fulsome a diet for any man… unless seasoned with some grains of adversity." Vivien Leigh had not had enough of these "grains of adversity" in her younger years, and it seemed to spoil her for her later ones. Outwardly she always appeared a delicate, refined, genteel lady, but upon closer inspection that was more of a façade. She swore frequently and colorfully, and used to shock people by her constant dropping of "f-bombs." Friends who knew her well described her as a charming, lovely lady, who could also be a "scorpion, a "viper," and other words not fit for publication. Although she considered Laurence Olivier the great love of her life, this did not stop her from getting into a torrid affair with an Australian actor. At one point she was so enraptured with him that she told Olivier, "I don't love you anymore." However she still wanted to be married to him; she just wanted it known that her passion for him had dissipated.


When Vivien and Olivier had first become a couple it seemed that they were a perfect match. But like all couples there were areas of difference – areas which seemed miniscule in their early days but which became progressively larger as they aged. Larry was totally devoted to his career and shined brightest when acting on a stage. As a performer in plays, there was no way Vivien could match her talented, dramatic, powerfully-voiced husband. Although she won two Oscars for best actress and was no doubt the better film actor, she longed to equal her husband on stage, but simply could never keep up. As the years went by and Olivier came to be known as Britain's premiere stage actor, he poured more and more of his energy and time into his career. He still loved Vivien, but no longer idolized her, as he had at the beginning. Vivien, who always loved to have the preeminent position, had a difficult time accepting second place to Olivier's career.

The two were different socially as well. Vivien was the ultimate party animal. When not working, she loved nothing more than inviting a dozen or more people to their mansion on the weekends. She planned every detail of these occasions, even staying up later than anyone else to make sure that the breakfast menu was prepared and that flowers were placed on each guest's breakfast tray. She was the ultimate micro-manager and left nothing to chance. Larry seemed to enjoy these parties in their early days, tolerated them later, and by the last years of their marriage came to despise them. He was no recluse, but he did not relish the idea of staying up until four in the morning, especially when he was concentrating on a new stage production. Biographer Jesse Lasky Jr. relates Olivier telling a friend: "I go to these parties that Vivien gives in our home. All these people coming in to drink our wine and eat our food. It's go, go, go… I remember one night talking to some aristocrat and I literally had one eye propped open with a finger to keep awake."

Vivien's rages and hysteria, her times of depression and crying, her parties and the unending parade of guests in their home drove Olivier more and more to escape it all and concentrate on his career. During those times when they were acting together in a play it wasn't much better. There were times when the glamorous couple performed before the audience while cursing each other under their breath.


Eventually the inevitable happened. Vivien was with her husband in his dressing room after a performance, and he casually told her, "I suppose you should know I am in love with Joan Plowright" (an actress he had met while performing in the London production of The Entertainer). Vivien kept her cool at this announcement, but later fell to pieces, coming to realize too late that she loved him more than she had realized. After their divorce she seemed to feel that she was paying the price for her earlier transgression of snatching Olivier from his pregnant wife, and leaving her own daughter to be with him. She told a friend the marriage was doomed "because you cannot build a house on shifting sands… on the unhappiness of two other people. We were beautiful, we were ambitious, we lived for each other. It was a selfish seizure – and it has turned to dust." When Olivier first left Vivien, British stage playwright and actor Noel Coward wrote: "Larry has left her, but I for one don't blame him…she has been so spoiled and pampered for so many years… For all  her beauty and charm and sweetness, she has let Larry down for years and really tormented him."

After the divorce Vivien took up with another man, Jack Merivale. He was handsome, he was kind, and most importantly he was able to put up with her moods, her temper, and her depression. Her fits of rage would have driven off most men, but Jack seemed to have a gentle disposition which tolerated these terrible storms, knowing that they would pass. Anne Edwards writes: "During these violent attacks she wanted to get rid of Jack because she thought of him as her custodian. But at the same time, because deep down there was still an awareness of the love they had for each other, she wanted him to be there… One moment she would be screaming for him to go away, to get out, and the next shrieking that he must never, ever leave her."

Apparently her love was not enough to keep her true to her latest man, however. According to one friend she had frequent sexual trysts with other men. Friend Joan Thring related: "Once she rang me and asked me to have tea with her. I arrived half an hour later, but by the time I got there she was gone... She came back. It had been pouring with rain - she was bedraggled, she looked terrible, she was covered in mud, and she had been in the square with somebody, and things like that happened all the time."

Finally, at the young age of fifty-three, Vivien Leigh succumbed to tuberculosis. Friend Sheridan Morley stated:

You were sorry for yourself at losing her, but you weren't entirely surprised. Somewhere in the background there was a kind of relief. You thought, "Oh God, she's out of it." Because there had been so much emotional pain, so much physical pain, so much agony, so many disastrous moments with the press, so many problems, you thought, "Thank God she can rest." 


Christians don't speak much about mental illness. We often seem to feel that if you come to Jesus, you will have so much joy and peace that all misery, depression, loneliness, anger, delusions, panic attacks, and any and every form of mental illness and instability will be instantly removed. The reality is far different. Just as being born again does not necessarily heal you of a broken leg or blindness, neither will the new birth guarantee that afflictions of the mind and the emotions will automatically be relieved. In fact some of the greatest Christian ministers have suffered from depression. Charles Spurgeon, known as the prince of preachers, and considered arguably the greatest preacher/teacher the church has produced, suffered frequent bouts of depression, as did the author of Pilgrim's Progress, John Bunyan. The great theologian, Jonathan Edwards, in speaking of famed missionary David Brainerd, wrote: "He was, by his constitution and natural temper, prone to melancholy and dejection of spirit…"

The problem with Vivien was not merely that she had a tendency toward depression and manic episodes. She could hardly have helped that. Her problem was that she had no spiritual resources to fight these moods and the destructive behaviors they inspired. There is zero evidence that Vivien knew Jesus Christ. She did not have the Christian "weapons of our warfare," which are "mighty in God for pulling down strongholds."

The Bible speaks of a man who seemed to have fits and rages similar to Vivien's, King Saul. We are told that an "evil spirit" troubled him. Young David was hired to play the harp for him. The Bible tells us that when the evil spirit was upon Saul, David would play the harp, and "Saul would become refreshed and well, and the evil spirit would depart from him." At times even David's harp playing didn't do the job however, and twice Saul hurled his spear at David, trying to pin him to the wall. What the Bible is describing here is rage: blind, irrational, illogical, rage that makes otherwise perfectly reasonable people do unthinkable things. In Vivien's day they labeled her "manic-depressive."

Today her condition would be called "bi-polar." Regardless of the label, the problem was essentially anger multiplied exponentially until it overrode all bounds of caution, reason, or self-control. Such anger is incredibly destructive, both to the person tormented by it and all those around him or her. It must be fought with every weapon available: medical, spiritual, psychological, and any other legitimate means that can make a difference. For Vivien the shock treatments were all she had, and they provided very temporary relief. She had no Christian brothers and sisters to pray for her and encourage her. She knew no Bible promises upon which to stand. Worst of all she did not have that Good Shepherd, the Lord Jesus Christ who gives us grace to resist the evil one, and comforts us with His love even on our worst days. Vivien was defenseless before her enemy, and it ravaged her life, destroyed her marriage, sapped her strength, and ruined her reputation.

Once a friend asked her, "Have you any religion?" Vivien replied, "No, and I sometimes think I ought to get one." But Vivien did not really need religion. What she desperately needed was Jesus Christ, and the powerful resources He provides through His indwelling Holy Spirit. No, it is not likely that receiving Jesus by faith would have brought an instant victory over her mental illness, but it certainly could have leveled the playing field – indeed more than leveled it, for He who is in the believer is greater than he who is in the world. And even if she had continued to struggle throughout her life, she could have looked forward to an eternity with Jesus at the end of her short, earthly life in that place where there is no mental illness, no suffering, no strange moods and inexplicable hysteria.

The Bible teaches us that when we receive Jesus as our Savior we are given a new heart. This includes new attitudes, new desires, a new perspective on life, and a keen interest in God and all that has to do with Him. It seems impossible to me that Vivien could have experienced such a transformation and been left the same. Had she received Christ in her youth, her life clearly would have taken a different path. She may have still struggled with emotional issues, but a church-attending, God-worshiping, Bible-reading, Scripture-memorizing Vivien surely would not have finished out her years in the pathetic and tragic way that the godless Vivien did.

There are some people who for unexplainable reasons are forced to carry the burden of mental instability throughout their days on earth. Like a heavy weight it hinders their careers, spoils important relationships, limits opportunities, and sours major accomplishments. Often people who are thus afflicted wonder, "Why me?" While that is a question only God can answer, if we are in Christ we have the joy of knowing that this life on earth is merely a warm-up for the real thing, a brief moment of time we must endure before entering eternity with God. With our compassionate Father there are divine and eternal consolations for those who suffer and struggle in this life through no fault of their own. And at the moment of our entrance into His presence, every weakness, every disability, and every handicap shall be stripped from us as we receive our new bodies, minds, and assignments which Jesus has prepared for us and made possible through His cross and resurrection. Knowing this, let us "be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that (our) labor is not in vain in the Lord" (1 Corinthians 15:58).


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