Vivien Leigh and Laurence Olivier – they deserted their partners and abandoned their children for one another, but as a friend would later describe it, theirs was a “marriage made in hell.”
How Did Vivien Leigh and Laurence Olivier Meet?
A West-End Play House, early 1935: Leigh playfully nudges a girlfriend and reveals to her that Olivier, the debonair actor currently occupying the performance stage before them is, “the man I’m going to marry.”
“I just want to remind you that you are married and so is he,” came the reply. But Leigh was unperturbed by such trivialities. “It doesn’t matter. I’ll still marry him one day.”
London, 1936: Olivier finagles an invitation to visit Leigh in her dressing room, ostensibly to congratulate the actress on her performance in The Mask of Virtue. The pair took an immediate liking to one another.
On the affair that followed, Olivier would claim, “I couldn’t help myself with Vivien. No man could. I hated myself for cheating on Jill, but then I had cheated before, but this was something different. This wasn’t just out of lust. This was love that I really didn’t ask for but was drawn into.”
One year later, Leigh and Olivier were cast in the Elizabethan costume drama Fire Over England. In this prestige feature, they played lovers. When Leigh had expressed her enthusiasm about working together, Olivier warned that “We’ll probably end up fighting. People always get sick of each other making a film.”
Instead, the affair continued and the couple travelled to Denmark for a production of Hamlet. He, the eponymous lead, she, the doomed Ophelia. Olivier’s wife, Jill, was their traveling companion.
June 10, 1937: Leigh records but two words in her diary: Told Leigh – the briefest of summaries delineating the moment she informed her husband not only of her affair with Olivier but her intentions to extricate herself from their marriage. One day later, she added another curt entry: Left with Larry.
Afterward, Leigh and Olivier moved in together at Durham Cottage in Chelsea. Their contentment was brief. Their deserted spouses railed at the notion of agreeing to divorces and Leigh began to exhibit the first signs of what many believe to be undiagnosed bipolar disorder.
Marriage, Collaboration, and Continued Problems
August 31, 1940: Leigh and Olivier are finally wed. The ceremony was reportedly presided over by a tipsy municipal judge who had imbibed just a bit too touch while waiting for the bride and groom to arrive. Their chauffeur for the event, Katharine Hepburn, was one of four witnesses.
Subsequently, the duo appeared opposite each other in a number of feature films and theatrical productions. In 21 Days (filmed in 1937 and released in 1940), their illicit lovers were bound together by murder. In 1941’s That Hamilton Woman, they played real-life adulterers, Emma Hamilton and Admiral Horatio Nelson.
Though the former projects were box-office success, a latter attempt at reviving Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet for Broadway proved disastrous and costly. The ensuing years would be no less kind.
In 1944, Leigh contracted tuberculosis in her left lung and during filming of the 1945 epic Caesar and Cleopatra, she tripped and skidded across the studio floor – an incident that is said to have triggered the first of many miscarriages.
The loss of her unborn child exacerbated Leigh’s struggle with mental illness and the resulting decline in her career was not helped by the meteoric rise of her husband’s.
The End Is Nigh
1948: The Oliviers agreed to participate in a six-month performing tour of Australia and New Zealand in aid of raising funds for the Old Vic theatre. In the lead-up to a staging in Christchurch, New Zealand, an incident of domestic violence erupted that saw Olivier strike Leigh in the face and receive the same from her.
Despite her continued slide into ever-increasing manic and depressive states, Leigh agreed to take on the role of Blanche DuBois in the London based, Olivier directed, A Streetcar Named Desire – a decision that she would later say, “tipped me over into madness.”
1950: Leigh informs her husband that she is no longer in love with him. Olivier would later write, “the central force of my life, my heart in fact, as if by the world’s most skillful surgeon, had been removed.
Her declaration did not prevent the two from continuing to perform together, though they did take other lovers. In 1953, Leigh suffered a nervous breakdown on the set of Elephant Walk. This coupled with yet another miscarriage and another incident of domestic violence (both with Olivier) led to the union’s final dissolution.
Vivien Leigh Laurence Olivier – The End
May 22, 1960: In recognition of her husband’s 53rd birthday, Leigh released the following to the press. “Lady Olivier wishes to say that Sir Laurence has asked for a divorce in order to marry Miss Joan Plowright. She will naturally do whatever he wishes.” The divorce was finalized in December.