In January 1941, at the height of the European war, a pair of British newlyweds, eager to return home, were on a plane weaving a dangerous route from Lisbon to Bristol. About halfway through, the husband later recalled, “a fat little uniformed man came bustling out of the pilot’s compartment, leaving the door open in his hurry, rewarding us with the sight of the cockpit on fire.” Somehow or other, the plane righted itself, but, had it perished in the manner of so many other wartime flights, how would we remember Vivien Leigh and Laurence Olivier? Probably as a pair of star-crossed Hollywood lovers, achingly gorgeous, forever etched by their star turns, respectively, in “Gone with the Wind” and “Wuthering Heights.”
Life had other ideas. The newlyweds survived the war; their careers grew more illustrious, though in different ways; their marriage descended (we’re still on that plane) from Romeo and Juliet into, depending on your perspective, Macbeth and Lady Macbeth (one of their co-starring ventures) or “The Dance of Death.” And the love affair that Stephen Galloway, in the overreaching subtitle of his probing chronicle, “Truly Madly,” calls “The Romance of the Century” became the thing that neither of its parties could quite quit, even as it was killing them.
Only in the theater could they have met at all. Olivier was a parson’s son, still mourning his beloved mother (she died when he was 12) and trying to raise himself, as if for her benefit, from matinee idol to Shakespearean god. Leigh, nee Vivian Hartley, was the Kolkata-born daughter of a British stockbroker, shipped off at an early age to a U.K. convent, then to European finishing schools. She enrolled in the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art and snagged the lead role of a glamorous prostitute in a play titled “The Mask of Virtue.” Olivier, a sentient male, took note. Not long after, they ran into each other at the Savoy Grill. He invited her to a garden party. There followed lunch dates, in which, according to Olivier’s diary, she went from “Vivien” to “Viv” to “Vivling.” Whatever inhibitions still remained — she was married to a staid lawyer, he to a staid actress — melted, thawed and resolved themselves into a dew when they were cast as romantic leads in “Fire Over England,” an Elizabethan costume pic whose title could not have been lost on them. In the middle of a June night, they ran off together, leaving behind in each case not just a spouse but a child.
From the start, then, their bond was as guilt-ridden as it was undeniable. Over 20 years of marriage, they fought often and fought hard and seemed to love each other more when they were apart. The competition could be brutal. When Leigh won her first Oscar, Olivier remembered: “It was all I could do to restrain myself from hitting her with it. I was insane with jealousy.” By common consensus, her talent was smaller and less organized than his, and she had only a quantum of his ambition, yet twice, in the persons of Scarlett O’Hara and Blanche DuBois, she gathered herself for an immortal cinematic portrait of embattled Southern womanhood. She also served happily as an unpaid and unacknowledged adviser on his classic Shakespearean films, and he, for his part, submitted to lesser stage vehicles that would allow her equal luster.
Maybe, given time, they would have worked out a balance, like the narcissistic leads of “Kiss Me, Kate,” but ticking beneath them was Leigh’s bipolar disorder, which manifested itself variously as violent mood swings, tumultuous affairs and, on occasion, psychotic breaks. It was exhausting for everyone involved, and peers were not always sympathetic. ( “Personally,” said Noel Coward, “I think that if Larry had turned sharply on Vivien years ago and given her a clip in the chops, he would have been spared a mint of trouble.”)
It is here, I think, that Galloway, the former executive editor of the Hollywood Reporter, lifts himself clear of previous chronicles, including Olivier’s own self-lacerating memoirs, by supplementing firsthand accounts with retrospective diagnoses by experts like Kay Redfield Jamison and by tracing a genetic link to Leigh’s great-uncle, housed in a Kolkata asylum for much the same symptoms. More lucidly than ever, we can see how, in the grip of her own brain chemistry, Leigh quite literally lost her mind. “Oh, Colin,” she told one friend after a particularly difficult episode, “it’s so nice when it’s over.”
Olivier found solace in liaisons with Dorothy Tutin and Claire Bloom, but it was his stabilizing alliance with Joan Plowright, the actress who played his daughter in “The Entertainer,” that finally emboldened him to petition for freedom. Leigh resisted, then gave in. Her final years, though productive, were also a losing battle with tuberculosis, which claimed her finally in 1967 at the age of 53. “Until her dying day,” said one observer, “I don’t think Vivien believed Olivier was beyond recall.” Ambitious as ever, Olivier went on to multiple triumphs, including, in “Long Day’s Journey into Night,” the searing portrait of a former matinee idol. But in 1989, in his last days, racked with illness, he was discovered by an old friend tearfully watching one of Leigh’s old movies. “This, this was love,” he said. “This was the real thing.”
Louis Bayard is the author of “Courting Mr. Lincoln” and “The Pale Blue Eye.”
Vivien Leigh, Laurence Olivier and the Romance of the Century
By Stephen Galloway
Grand Central. 416 pp. $30
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