Vivien Leigh's marriage to Laurence Olivier was one of the most iconic relationships in the history of theatre and movies. It was received as the real life magical love story.
After great opening years of their marriage, things got extremely messy, which gave the press and the fans another source of endless gossip material.
This article presents all the major events from start to finish, all the good and the bad. And there was plenty of both.
Vivien Leigh fell in love with Laurence Olivier the very first time she saw him perform. Since then, she was dreaming about him and hoping to meet and enamor him one day.
She decided not to leave it to chance. Olivier had a habit of dining in Savoy Grill in Savoy Hotel. And so she began to go there too.
One day, Viv saw him. Unfortunately, he was with his first wife Jill Esmond. Vivien was prepared to confront him, as by her side was Gladys Cooper's son John Buckmaster, who knew Laurence personally and was thus able to approach him and introduce the rising Hollywood star to him. The talk was short but pleasant and left Olivier thinking that Vivien and John are a pair and madly in love with each other.
After finding out that Laurence will play in a highly adventurous interpretation of Romeo and Juliet, she knew she has to see both it and him. After the curtain fell, she went to the locker room to congratulate him for his performance.
Getting to know each other
It was at that point that Olivier became enthralled by her (or at least he did not admit to feeling so earlier).
During that conversation, the theatre star said that he saw one of Vivien's performances and he enjoyed it too. Next was a dream come true for the rising star: he offered to meet the very next day!
The actress was fully convinced that this is going to be their first date. She was badly surprised when she got on the spot and saw Olivier together with his friend and business partner John Gielgud. Not only the romance was out, but both men were all work when it came to selecting subjects of discussion.
It was hardly a traumatic experience for Viv though, as she stood up from that table with a role offer and an opened relationship with her beloved.
Becoming a couple
Soon, Vivien was ill for a brief period and during that time Laurence accompanied her by staying at her house and assisting with daily chores and care.
After coming back to full health, the actress was going on vacation. With little rearranging, she managed to meet with Olivier and his wife in Capri during that period. At the time, the two were already pretty interested in each other, but nobody else knew about it so the meeting wasn't awkward.
It was that time in Capri that changed the pair's status from
pretty interested in each other to
in a relationship with each other. Jill was quick to pick up on it, despite the new lovers being very discreet. She was discreet too and perhaps too shy for the occasion, not letting them notice that she suspects it.
Finally having Olivier to herself, Vivien did not want to leave him at all. At that time, the actor was playing in Hamlet and Vivien went to see him in that play... 14 times!
Laurence then started playing in Twenty One Days and the break between shooting scenes he used to play in another incarnation of Hamlet, but this time with Vivien as Ophelia. It was a dream come true for the couple, as they were madly in love with each other and the theatre. Playing lovers on stage enabled them to cherish both at the same time.
At that point, Jill Esmond had no doubts in her mind that the heat is on between the two and assumed (correctly) that being together on stage is part of it. She came unannounced with a plan to confront Vivien in an attempt to try and save her marriage. But not only was it a bit late (the new relationship was already in full motion at that time), but she couldn't gather enough confidence to go with the plan. It ended up being just a social visit.
Laurence Olivier's first wife was worried for a reason: during those plays, the pair got so close and addicted to each other that very soon Vivien let her husband know that she is moving out to live with her new love. Unable to approach her husband face-to-face about it, she let him know by phone and then came for her things when she knew the house will be empty.
During this sneaky offensive, two neighbours saw her appearing, came rushing towards her and told her that they saw her nanny hitting Vivien's child Suzanne during a walk, and doing so with force! The actress started burning inside and waited for them to come back home to give nanny hell.
Among that fire was confusion though, as she herself was in the process of abandoning her own child, and in a most cowardly way too. She didn't feel like an authority on children upbringing, the guilt was eating away at her.
After a romantic journey to one of the most popular lovers destinations - Venice - the pair settled down in a freshly-bought Durham Cottage at 4 Christchurch Street in Chelsea, London.
Soon, the mystery was unfolded and everyone knew about the exciting new theatre star couple. Both Vivien and Laurence decided to ask their married others for divorce, but the perfect love was not to be, or at least not yet: Leigh Holman and Jill Esmond said no.
At first, Esmond and Holman were determined to keep their marriages alive, hoping that its conditions will improve, given time. Seeing how madly in love Vivien and Laurence were with each other, that determination quickly melted down to the point of no more hope. It was just a matter of time and there was no point in delaying it.
The two divorce procedures were carried out simultaneously. In both cases, the halves that have been left were given custody of the children. It was a proper thing to do: Jill and Leigh were much more scrupulous and present parents and neither Vivien nor Laurence even considered fighting for them in court.
The awkward truth was that they weren't interested in their children at all. They wanted to have all the time in the world just to themselves and children would surely complicate things.
Friends and families knew everything about what was going on between the two lovebirds, but the press was still in the dark for some time.
Making sure divorces get finalized ASAP was a very important damage control, from their career perspectives. Romance between the two beautiful prominent and talented young actors was something that could give them plenty of free positive press and in effect bring many more people to occupy theatre seats during their shows.
On the other hand, a perspective of two lustful people destroying two marriages and leaving children without one parent could serve as a powerful deterrent.
Fortunately for them, both the press and the fans completely ignored what was left behind and got extremely energized by the perspective of Vivien Leigh and Laurence Olivier coming together personally even more than professionally. Soon, their romance was the hottest subject of discussion in the theatre circles.
The public was to completely miss out on one pretty important detail, which the couple was super-motivated to keep secret. When their divorces were complete, they quietly went to Santa Barbara (a small town in California) and on August 31, 1940 they became husband and wife.
The ceremony started one minute after midnight due to laws requiring three days to pass from the moment of submitting the application to the wedding.
The only people who knew at the time were Mr. and Mrs. Alvin Weingand, Olivier's old friends and Benita and Roland Coleman, who knew about the relationship for quite some time and helped in arranging the sneaky ceremony.
Benita dissuaded Olivier from buying a ring in Hollywood, letting him know that everyone will quickly find out this way. She offered to buy one herself instead at her jeweler.
Ronald gave them his boat named Dragoon for a month so the couple could make it their honeymoon vehicle. The Colemans waited on board until the freshly wed came right after the ceremony. Champagne and glasses were prepared for a toast.
Despite all the precautions taken, the newly-wed hoped that the information will somehow find its way to public ears nevertheless. And so they kept their radio on, waiting in excitement. They were not disappointed - at 10 o'clock morning news on one radio station, the first public announcement was made.
During the early years of the pair's relationship, they were extremely peaceful with each other and rarely argued about anything. Even closest people to them could count all the serious arguments they remember on one hand.
Once, during a huge party in Beverly Hills Hotel, Vivien took offence and ostentatiously left the room when Olivier found out that Lucinda Ballard decided to marry Howard Dietz soon. He reacted to it with discontent, not being Dietz's biggest fan. It struck Leigh's nerve.
Another time, during a stage performance he accidentally stained her dress. After getting off the stage, Viv gave him a mouthful. But there were few stories like these.
Things started changing when Vivien's mental condition started deteriorating. It struck Olivier deeply from his beloved's very first attack. Viv was changing so much during her attacks that he felt as if he is being attacked by some woman he had never met before.
Theatre was always Laurence Olivier's biggest love, but in their early years together, Vivien came pretty close. In the later years of their marriage, her increasingly unstable personality changed things so much that he started to distance himself from her emotionally more and more, now focusing 100% on theatre.
There grew a big gap in the relationship that was probably mostly caused by the actress' attacks.
Still deeply in love with Laurence, she felt guilty, ashamed and scared, seeing the relationship fall apart. She began competing for his attention more vigorously, but that was changing nothing. This, in turn, caused her mental state to become even worse... which increased the frequency and severity of her attacks. And those made him run away from her even more.
Romances on the side
In response to all that, Olivier began flirting with other women and Leigh with other men. Which one of them started it is not clear, but we know that Laurence had many more lovers than Vivien. This of course damaged the relationship further, probably to the point of no return.
Vivien's most extensive relationship on the side was with Peter Finch. He was part of a group of young actors being brought under the Old Vic umbrella and with a lot of help from Olivier himself. Finch was seeing Laurence almost daily at work, and Viv was there often too and that's how they got to know each other.
Thanks to the movie Elephant Walk (IMDb), they were even able to play along each other. Unfortunately, this wasn't a particularly happy memory for Vivien and her presence on the set was cut short early. Right from when the shooting started, Leigh tortured the set with such fatal psychotic episodes that she had to be let go off quickly.
Behind the scenes, another story was taking place. Normally, the actress was extremely mannerly and even talking openly about sexual topics she considered vulgar, but during the attacks she was becoming a polar opposite of herself. Very often she was provocative, flirty and vulgar. Before Finch, that still did not cause her to cross the line and began an intimate relationship with another man. He was the first.
Their ways parted when Viv was fired and flew home, but in the following year they started hanging out again. Olivier was quick to notice, but Leigh did not spot him reacting to it with anger. Sometimes, she had the impression that it's quite the opposite, that he is happy because of it.
After all, maybe this could give him a clear conscience and even make her be the one who puts an official end to the relationship without him having to do the heavy lifting?
Even Finch himself was amazed that he circles Vivien like electron circles the atom's nucleus, including frequent visits at her and Olivier's home and the host doesn't notice nor minds one bit!
Apogeum of the female star's relationship with Peter Finch came when one day she decided to break up with Laurence and run away with Peter, just like years earlier she did with Leigh Holman to run with Olivier.
The situation was completely different though, as Finch was an exotic and exciting yet toxic affair for her, while with Laurence she was truly in love. During the runaway, Viv got a panic attack in a train and pulled the safety break. She came back home.
One day, Vivien heard rumors that her husband is having an affair and is even supposedly planning to marry English actress Dorothy Tutin, so she confronted him about it the first chance she got. He denied that there's anything between them. Funnily enough, Tutin is the recipient of two Olivier Awards, not that he had anything to do with it.
At that time, the marriage of the two great theatre stars was beyond hope, it was just so in name. The connection between them was long gone. Pushed away by Vivien's endless outbursts, Laurence became emotionally absent. He felt powerless, like there is no way to improve their common condition, let alone bring it back to what it was.
Were Leigh's attacks partly attempts to focus her beloved's attention on her, if not by good will then by force? To that question, even the actress herself probably couldn't produce a straight answer. It is known that by 1956, for quite some time she was aware that this toxic relationship that she is in has no future. Despite that, she fought the idea as hard as she could, she couldn't make peace with it.
Marriage breakup, divorce
In 1957, Olivier got the main part in The Entertainer (IMDb). At first, producers wanted Vivien for the part of Jean Rice, but both Olivier and John Osborne (original play and screenplay's author) felt that she doesn't suit the role at all.
In the end, it was Joan Plowright who got that part, and not without Laurence's help. The speculation was that he wanted her because she is young, beautiful and inexperienced, and the last enabled him to exert control in their common scenes and mold her to his preference.
The press was eager to jump on that ship and suspect a romance between the two, especially because Leigh was lately spending some time with her ex-husband, which had become another good excuse for gossip.
This time, the media outlets were right. After Vivien read the story in one of the newspapers, she went to see her husband immediately in his dressing room and asked him about it. This time though, he confirmed it. What this admittance meant was that for Olivier this must have been something more serious than all his previous affairs.
The marriage was so split that at some point Olivier began doing anything not to have to be in the same room with his wife. They were barely seeing each other and even after long periods of no contact, when the two were in the same town and had a chance to come together, they slept in different locations.
When Olivier said he wants to sell their home Notley Abbey (which now serves as a wedding venue), there was no doubt in Vivien's mind that their marriage is about to end.
Olivier was the one who asked his other half for divorce, knowing that Vivien would never do it herself. He wasn't particularly straightforward about it, as the question came... by mail. The actress' little revenge was brutal - she let the press know she agrees and he found out about it from the newspaper.
With him, it might be considered fair play after a cowardly mail breakup attempt, but she also hurt Joan Plowright bad because of it. The actress did not tell her husband about wanting to leave him for the popular stage actor and together with Laurence, they came to the conclusion that first they finish business with Vivien and then proceed to unchain Joan.
Viv was probably fully aware of the repercussions and the press practically lynched Joan for breaking the glamorous Hollywood and stage dream marriage. This hateful act was especially hypocritical and absurd that what Joan did was almost the same as what Leigh herself did with Olivier!
As a matter of fact, she was the lighter version because she did not blatantly go about pretending to be friends like nothing was happening. And because Joan was less popular and lovable than Vivien, the press did not notice the irony either.
Knowing that Laurence will soon marry his new lover, Leigh managed to get a break from shooting her penultimate picture to take part in the widescreen premiere of Gone with the Wind. The real reason for this visit was her husband though. Probably not having any specific actions in mind, she generally wanted to have a last chance to somehow win him back.
The actor played his cards very well. He not only chose a crowded restaurant as a place of meeting, but brought Joan with him. This shut down her initiative completely. He produced a knockout too, letting her know that Joan and he are getting married in a few days.
The irony there was great too, as Laurence Olivier's first wife also made an unsuccessful attempt to save her marriage from Viv.
As it turned out, Laurence made an even sneakier move that day - the real marriage date was not the one specified by him during that dinner, but few days earlier. And she found out about it afterwards, from the press.
This was the bitter end of one of the most enchanting married couples in the history of both theatre stage and cinema. They did not became bitter enemies. They remained cordial and the relationship naturally warmed up slightly when Vivien became fatally ill.
Vivien Leigh continued to consider Laurence the love of her life even during Jack Merivale years and kept his picture by her bed. Olivier remained happily married to Joan Plowright until his death in 1989.