The British Southern Belle?



By Guest Blogger Spencer Blohm

The Oscar winning actress Vivien Leigh, famous for her roles as Scarlett O’Hara in Gone with the Wind and Blanche DuBois in A Streetcar Named Desire, would have turned 100 on Nov. 5. Despite her convincing and famous performances as a Southern Belle, Vivien was actually born in British India and spent a majority of her life living in London. Let’s take a look back at the life and legacy of one of England’s finest actresses.

            Vivian Mary Hartley was born on November 5, 1913 in Darjeeling, British India to an English member of the Indian Cavalry and an Irish and Parsee-Indian mother. At the age of six, she was sent to attend the Convent of the Sacred Heart in Roehampton where she formed a friendship with another future actress, Maureen O’Sullivan. She then spent a few years attending various schools across Europe as she travelled with her father. Upon her return to England, she began her schooling at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. During this time she met and married Herbert Leigh Holman in 1931 and in 1933 gave birth to her daughter, Suzanne.

            Shortly thereafter she began her acting career and changed her name to Vivien Leigh. To her dismay she wasn’t deemed talented enough by her agent to do film, so she began her career on the stage. Shortly after her acting debut she starred in the 1937 play Fire Over England with Laurence Olivier. Their chemistry on stage translated off, and the two began an affair. They soon fell in love and moved in together despite the fact that neither one of their spouses would grant them a divorce.

            In 1938, the search for a Scarlett O’Hara had swept up Hollywood, and most of its actresses, in a tizzy of excitement. Vivien approached her agent and asked for his permission to play Scarlett, to which he replied that she was far too British to ever pass off being a Southern belle. However, she packed her bags for Hollywood to both visit Olivier and also attempt to get the part. Her audition and screen test were a hit and she won the role of a lifetime. However, her frequent clashes with both director Victor Fleming and her costar Leslie Howard took its toll on her, as signs of her notorious manic behavior first began to appear.
            She was able to finally marry Olivier in August of 1940 after both of their spouses agreed to divorce. That same year, she was a certified Hollywood star after the release of her critically and commercially successful film, Waterloo Bridge. Vivien and Olivier then starred in the thinly veiled pro-British propaganda film The Hamilton Woman (photo above), which was meant to stir pro-British sentiment among Americans. The film was favored by Winston Churchill, who became close personal friends with the couple. For her part in the war efforts, Vivien toured North Africa during 1943, performing for the allied troops before falling ill with tuberculosis.

Following a miscarriage in 1945 while filming Caesar and Cleopatra, Vivien’s bipolar disorder revealed itself to her husband, who was often the victim of her violent verbal and physical attacks. Following this, the couple began a theatrical tour in Australia and New Zealand where tensions among the couple rose as they were driven to the point of exhaustion by their schedule. However, upon her return to England, Vivien was cast in the West End production of A Streetcar Named Desire as Blanche DuBois (photo below). Soon after the play had finished its run, she was cast in the film adaptation in the same role. She earned rave reviews for her acting and secured her second Academy Award as well as a BAFTA.

In 1953, she took a role in the film Elephant Walk with Peter Finch. The two began an affair, and shortly after filming began Vivien suffered a mental breakdown and had to withdraw from the film. Her recovery took several months, during which she began working on the stage again with Laurence. However, in 1956 she suffered a second miscarriage which plunged her into a depression which lasted for months. It was during this period that her marriage to Olivier fell apart and by 1960 the couple had divorced. In his memoirs, Olivier discussed the toll that Vivien’s bipolar disorder took on their marriage and how it ultimately lead to its demise.

By this point she had started a relationship with actor Jack Merivale (photo below). Their relationship proved to be a calming one for Vivien, who was still enjoying success on the international theater circuit. In 1963, she won a Tony Award for her role in the musical Tovarich. She continued to balance her stage roles with film roles during the mid 60’s before she suffered from another bout of tuberculosis in 1967. She was found dead in her home by Merivale on July 7, 1967 after her lungs had collapsed.

Vivien was cremated and her ashes were scattered on the lake at her house near Blackboys, East Sussex. Her legacy lives on through the impressive body of work she produced and her incredible beauty. Although she was the perfect image of an English lady, she will always be remembered for her most successful screen roles as strong Southern belles.

About the Author: Spencer Blohm is a freelance entertainment, fashion, culture, and lifestyle author for Despite his fascination with Old Hollywood even he was surprised that the ultimate Southern belle, Ms. Leigh, was in fact a Brit! He lives and works in Chicago where he is still mad at Scarlett for not getting of the stairs and chasing Rhett.

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