Vivien Leigh
Wartime contributions

Vivien Leigh in a dress

Before the war

In 1938, scared that a war might break out soon, Vivien Leigh and her friend Ursula Jeans (with whom she had played in Dark Journey one year prior) went to Chelsea Town Hall to sign up for some volunteer civil defence work.

A scene from Dark Journey
Leigh (middle) and Jeans (right)

Just three weeks before Germany invaded Poland, Viv and her husband came to UK, where they tried to convince her mom Gertrude to come to the USA. The official reason was vacation, but Vivien was afraid for her safety. Gertrude agreed.

The war started when Leigh was relaxing in Saint Catalina for a few days. She was invited by Douglas Fairbanks with his wife. All three and Nigel Bruce, David Niven and Bob Coote were together when they heard the terrible news.

Right from the start, Vivien was of an opinion that it is a duty of every Britishman living in the United States to come back and aid their country during war in any way they can.

It was the opposite of what the officials were recommending. The Minister of Information Duff Cooper informed her personally that actors can be much more beneficial in propaganda and morale boosting campaigns than if they serve as regular troops.

Work in the USA

At first, the pair listened to the recommendation and stayed put. In 1940, Leigh played killer's wife Wanda in 21 Days Together (IMDb) and a ballerina-turned-prostitute in Waterloo Bridge (IMDb).

Then, tragic news came. Laurence Olivier's three years old son Tarquin became ill from spinal meningitis, which seemed very serious - in the worst case scenario, the boy could remain paralyzed for the rest of his life.

Fortunately, after few weeks his condition improved greatly, but there was a threat of a rebound and a war-torn city did not seem like the best place to recover.

The pair decided that they need to take both their children away from danger, either to the United States or to Canada. The problem was that both parents were temporarily broke.

One of Vivien's closest friends, director and producer Alexander Korda, came to the rescue. He was looking for people to play in his new picture Lady Hamilton (IMDb) and decided to give both main roles to Vivien and Larry. Furthermore, given that they needed money pronto, he gave them half of the agreed contract sums for their parts straight away.

In the meantime, they got busy with knitting clothes in New York, as part of the Bundles for Britain initiative founded and orchestrated by Natalie Wales Latham. The clothes were being made for civilians so they can lead slightly more dignified lives in those hard times. Below you can find a promotional video material for the initiative.

Still in a state of unrest and not comfortable with passively seeing things unfold from the other side of the planet, on January 1941, Leigh and Olivier went to the United Kingdom.

Work in Britain, Africa

Laurence was even more eager to join the fight than Vivien and months earlier he had started learning how to pilot airplanes. His ambition was to join RAF as a pilot. Soon, his plans were put to rest by the military commission which ruled him out of service due to health concerns.

Five women stand on stage, Vivien Leigh is in the middle
Old Vic Spring Party in Africa

When the pair came back to the United Kingdom, the Blitz welcomed them. The first night they spent in each other's arms with the sound of bombs falling in the background. One of those came down so close that the impact shattered the glass from all hotel windows. It was a drastic awakening, and especially coming from Hollywood where they had enjoyed a comfortable and luxurious lifestyle.

That rough welcoming experience did not change their minds one bit though. They were there to stay. They paid a price for their decision, especially Vivien which was already mentally unstable coming to the UK. Still, they were hanging on.

Shortly after coming back to her home country, actor/director Hugh Beaumont offered her a spot in the Old Vic Spring Party, which was about to tour North Africa. The mission was to give special plays for UK's Eighth Army to raise their morale in the hard military campaign there.

Besides Leigh, there were few other famous faces, including: Beatrice Lillie, Dorothy Dickson and Leslie Henson. The shows of course weren't of the heavy dramatic type that Vivien's husband would prefer, but light and packed with humor.

In the suffocating heat, the group was giving one up to even three shows per day. Despite this being an enormous pressure on everyone involved, Vivien admitted to feeling happy and fulfilled at the time.

Most popular during the entire tournee was a burlesque (Wiki) called Scarlett O’Hara: The Terror of Tara written by Olga Katzin. As the name suggests, it did not hold punches against Leigh's recent blockbuster hit Gone with the Wind.

As for the most emotional show for Vivien, it was the one played in Gibraltar in front of King George VI, who enjoyed it greatly.

A popular anecdote from that period which Viv happily told her numerous friends was that at one point during the tournee the crew got accommodated in Von Arnim's villa in Tripoli. There, she slept in a bed which just few weeks earlier was occupied by the nazi general. It was right before the area was recaptured and Germans had to capitulate.

Another is that the tour manager was strategically left in Algeria due to concerns that he might be a German spy.

When the Sicily invasion started and Eighth Army went there from Africa, the theatrical group was disbanded. Just as Vivien Leigh was about to go back, the proposition came to give extra shows for smaller military units which remained stationed.

On one hand, the actress wanted to go back as soon as possible, but she also felt the need to contribute, so she came to terms with her sense of duty. She stayed, but not the full period of three weeks.