Vivien Leigh
Mental illness: Cleopatra, Elephant Walk

Vivien Leigh in a big green dress.


Whatever mental reserves Leigh had had were depleted when she miscarried.

One of the dominant traits of Leigh's character was her diligence. She worked as hard as she possibly could, no matter what. Overworking did not serve her well, and she made a mistake of pushing herself too hard when pregnant.

In 1945, she was playing in an overpriced flop called Caesar & Cleopatra. After finding out that she is pregnant, numerous people warned her to take it easy, but she continued to give it her all. One day, Viv fell on the set, which might have contributed. Two days after the incident, she miscarried.

This experience can be devastating to a mentally healthy woman and Vivien suffered twice that. For a short time, she became extremely depressed.

Philippe Halsman episode

During the making Caesar & Cleopatra, one incident has shown how much on the edge she was at the time.

Beside Laurence Olivier, a genius photographer Philippe Halsman (one of the greatest ever in his field) was one of the first people who had a doubtful pleasure of meeting the second Vivien, of having a direct contact with her when she was in her alternate state.

When after a long illness she came with Olivier to the United States, she had a planned meeting with Halsman who was supposed to take beautiful pictures of her. Those were to be used in the promotional campaign surrounding the American release of Caesar & Cleopatra.

First session didn't work out well - Vivien looked extremely tired and there was no way of hiding it. The second one was a success though. Halsman, full of respect to Leigh and confident in the result, made a mistake and showed them to her before they went to print - which he almost never did.

Leigh flipped, became extremely infuriated and started screaming at him, insulting him and threatening that if these photos see the light of day, she will destroy his career.

Fortunately, even though the pictures ultimately saw the light of day, that didn't happen. When Laurence Olivier found out about the whole thing, he came to pay Halsman a visit, saw the pictures, found them wonderful and gave Philippe green light for printing.

Beginning of clinical treatment

Viv's family didn't let her mental issues go unattended and urged her to begin treatment. She went to visit many doctors.

Psychiatry at the time was much less developed than it is now and to compensate for the lack of medicine that would at least alleviate the symptoms, barbaric methods of questionable effectiveness were used. Fortunately, shock treatment, which had moderate success rate with just that - temporarily alleviating the symptoms - was already being used.

She undertook many kinds of treatment, some not too pleasant. After one attack, Vivien was tied and put in a bathtub full of ice for the entire night. Later, she admitted that she left the hospital in worse state than when she came in.

After many years of different diagnoses and trying multiple treatments, in 1953 a psychiatrist finger has been finally pointed at what is wrong with Vivien Leigh. She was suffering from manic depression, today known under a different name: bipolar disorder.

Dr. Arthur Conachy

That diagnose came from dr. Arthur Conachy, who did not believe in what other doctors did - that Vivien Leigh is schizophrenic.

When naming the dearest people in Leigh's life, the name Conachy is probably on nobody's list, but he certainly was one of the most important ones.

After wandering from one doctor to another, he was the one she began trusting. It wasn't just a social bond (in fact, they weren't socializing with each other much) - his diagnosis was better and his methods more effective. After few visits, she became dependent on him so much that sometimes she would say she won't visit any other doctor. When mania was creeping in, his voice heard through the telephone line could on its own ease her symptoms.

Thanks to his expertise, Vivien dodged many bullets that she probably wouldn't be strong enough to dodge on her own, and that came especially valuable when the marriage with Olivier started to crumble.

The Elephant Walk meltdown

Another colorful episode came in 1954, but this time unfortunately a discreet photographer wasn't the only person who witnessed it.

During the making of Elephant Walk under the scorching sun in Ceylon, Vivien was on her own, without Olivier providing emotional support. On paper, this adventure was of the lovely return to the roots type. Coming back near where she was born and had a careless childhood would on itself qualify as therapy, but this time India was a different beast.

Shortly after arriving in Ceylon, Vivien's mental state began deteriorating. Numerous cast and staff members saw her acting erroneously, talking without any sense and having hallucinations. Unfortunately, because it was so out in the open, soon someone notified the press which was very eager to follow the story.

After a short, yet punishing, period of filming outside, it was time to continue inside the studio, but instead of getting better, Vivien's condition deteriorated further.

Her friend David Niven revealed in his memoir a scary episode from that period. Once, he went to visit her in her rented house on Hanover Drive. She was sitting with her former crush Jack Buckmaster, which was the first alarming sign, for Jack himself had serious mental problems. As it turned out, both were acting completely crazy, talking without making any sense, and when they did make sense, it was even more scary (like Buckmaster suggesting they jump of the window and fly).

Seeing that he probably won't be able to manage the situation on his own, David soon recruited Stuart Granger (another of Vivien's many friends). The first thing both did was making sure that Buckmaster leaves the house quickly. Then they consulted Vivien's doctor, but Vivien said she won't take any medications and could not be persuaded.

Leigh's state was so terrible that when Olivier found out about it all, he quickly understood that a prolonged treatment is unavoidable. The problem was that they had very little money at the time, so the most probable scenario was that she will need to get treatment in England, where it would cost substantially less.

Shortly after, she tried to pull herself together and continue working, but it was to no avail - her condition did not improve at all. England it was.

Flying was one of Vivien's biggest fear when she was herself and sober, so one could only imagine how she will take it in such a dreadful state. Worst speculations came to reality and then some - she had a terrifying panic attack during which she started stripping, all part of a plan to escape the terror of flying by jumping off the plane.

As a result, she had to be held and forced to take sedatives just to get her through the flight. After arriving, she was taken to Netherne Hospital, a place with great track record of treating mental illnesses. She stayed there for three weeks.

Because Leigh was unable to continue working, Elizabeth Taylor had to replace her in what turned out to be an average movie.

People who knew Vivien well were fully aware how terrible her condition must have been for her not to be able to continue filming. Normally, she had a discipline of a superhuman and was able to prolong the crash until the filming is done, or when the play closes. Even if she would be in pieces, she would magically pull herself together and do her bid.

This time, she couldn't even make it through the initial shooting stage.