According to Stephen Galloway, Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh’s was “the romance of the century”. Although some might award the accolade to Edward VIII and Wallis Simpson and others to Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, no one can deny that Olivier and Leigh were a golden couple, whose admirers were as enthralled by their private lives as by their stage and screen performances. . On their heyday, they received 1,000 fan letters a week.
They have been much anatomized, with more than 30 individual and joint studies. Truly Madly adds little to its predecessors, other than a detailed analysis of Leigh’s mental illness, but it is a pacy — at times, racy — account of a couple who began as Romeo and Juliet, roles they went on to play on the Broadway stage, and ended up sparring as bitterly as Edgar and Alice in Strindberg’s The Dance of Death.
Both had troubled childhoods: Leigh was born in India and “abandoned” in an English convent school at the age of seven; Olivier lost his beloved mother when he was 12. Both made early marriages: Olivier to the actress Jill Esmond; Leigh to the lawyer Herbert Leigh Holman. Leigh had a daughter, Suzanne, and Olivier a son, Tarquin, to neither of whom they were close. Both were conscience-stricken at breaking their marriages, but whereas Leigh rationalized it — “To do it once is forgivable, but never again” — Olivier was guilt-ridden all his life from him. The opening words of his memoir from him are “Bless me, Reader, for I have sinned.”
After admiring each other on the stage, they fell in love during the filming of fire over england. Their nascent passion engenders Galloway’s most novelettish prose: “Hands, lips, limbs reached for each other with an urgency neither could control.” They were obliged to restrain themselves when they traveled to Hollywood for their breakthrough roles: Olivier in Wuthering HeightsLeigh in Gone with the Wind; although, when news of their affair finally broke, it didn’t have the disastrous reputational impact that producers and publicists had feared.
The couple were at their zenith in the 1940s. Galloway charts their careers, focusing on their films, most of which, to quote Peter Ustinov’s description of spartacus, appear to have been “as full of intrigue as a Balkan government in the good old days”. The stage, however, remained their home. They acted together in Shakespeare and Sheridan, and Olivier directed Leigh in Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire. But Leigh’s performances of her were belittled by the influential critic Kenneth Tynan, who accused Olivier of sacrificing his talent to promote his wife. Olivier blamed Tynan for “pushing Vivien over the edge.”
Leigh’s mental problems had manifested themselves as early as 1937. At the time, bipolar disorder was little understood. “We all thought she was just behaving badly,” said the actress Maxine Audley. Noël Coward was even more insensitive, suggesting that Olivier should have given her “a clip in the chops”. Olivier was out of his depth of her, and the cracks in their marriage became chasms as she began a tempestuous affair with Peter Finch and he a more temperate one with Dorothy Tutin. When he subsequently fell in love with Joan Plowright, Leigh finally gave him a divorce.
Galloway paints a sympathetic portrait of a couple who loved each other too much and understood each other too little. For all her improprieties of her, Leigh emerges as the more attractive character of her. Olivier, as ever, remains an enigma: a man who could be foul to his co-stars (disparaging Merle Oberon’s “pockmarked face” — to her face from him), jealous of his friends and competitive with his wife, but capable of acts of great generosity.
Despite his marriage to Plowright and three children, he remained devoted to Leigh’s memory. A friend of her, visiting him shortly before his death of her in 1989, found him watching one of her films of her with tear-filled eyes. “This, this was love,” he said. “This was the real thing.”
Truly Madly: Vivien Leigh, Laurence Olivier and the Romance of the Century by Stephen Galloway, Sphere, £25, 416 pages