How Vivien Leigh's marriage to Olivier turned from passion to tragedy

Naked and quite mad, she alternately sobbed like a child then snarled like a caged animal: In the concluding extract from a dazzling new biography, how Vivien Leigh’s marriage to Laurence Olivier turned from passion to tragedy

How do you prepare to confront your wife’s lover? 

Laurence Olivier chose to invite him for dinner at his imposing marital home, Notley Abbey, near Oxford.

As the three of them ate and chatted, there was no mention of the affair. 

It was only when his wife, Vivien Leigh, left to make coffee that Olivier invited her lover into his old-fashioned library and poured him a glass of port.

And that, unfortunately, is when the actor Peter Finch got the giggles. 

STEPHEN GALLOWAY: Naked and quite mad, Vivien Leigh alternately sobbed like a child and then snarled like a caged animal, after her marriage broke down and she suffered psychosis

There was something about the smell of old leather, and the stern aspect of the wronged husband, that felt like a third-rate farce.

Olivier was not immune: to defuse the peculiar tension, he immediately transformed himself into a rather idiotic lord-of-the-manor. 

And Finch, taking his cue, responded by becoming an elderly, rather seedy butler.

After improvising a comical scene together, both husband and lover ended up hysterical with laughter at their own wit. 

Then, suddenly, Vivien threw open the door. 

At her most imperious, she demanded: ‘Will one of you come to bed with me now?’

Olivier stopped laughing. ‘You’ve got to choose. This isn’t OK,’ he told his wife.

Vivien looked at Finch for a long moment, then told her husband: ‘Darling, his fingernails, they’re dirty!’

Little more was said as Finch rose from his chair, departed for the nearest train station and left their lives — apparently for good.

Finch’s rugged good looks had first caught Vivien’s eye in 1948, when he was 32 and yet to make a name for himself. 

Three years older, she was already a star, having won an Oscar eight years before for playing Scarlett O’Hara in Gone With The Wind.

At first, Finch was Olivier’s protégé, but Vivien soon started inviting him and his wife, a former ballerina, to Notley. 

Unknown to the Finches, Vivien was already suffering from the bipolar condition that would increasingly blight her life.

At first, she would be fine for long stretches, but by 1953 she was experiencing shorter intervals between bleak depression and mania.

Even so, she was still landing movie roles. 

Her latest was Elephant Walk, to be filmed mostly on location in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), and she’d been given carte blanche to choose the male lead.

Vivien Leigh (middle) made moves on the married actor Dana Andrews (left), by knocking on his door while stark naked. Peter Finch (right) had an affair with the Gone with the Wind (1939) actress, earning him the uncomfortable privilege of being invited over by Vivien Leigh’s husband Laurence Olivier so that the two could hash out their differences – a tense exchange that ended in a fit of laughter, according to biographer Stephen Galloway

Finch was in bed with his wife Tamara when their phone rang at 2am. It was Vivien, announcing in a determined voice that she was coming round immediately.

On her arrival — wearing a mink coat with nothing underneath but a thin slip — she handed Finch the Elephant Walk screenplay and said she wanted him as her co-star. 

When he hesitated, not having read the script, she insisted.

Was Vivien planning to pay Olivier back in kind? Shortly before, he’d started a serious affair with the 22-year-old actress Dorothy Tutin.

When Vivien had learned about it, she’d insisted on meeting her rival face-to-face and had threatened to kill herself if Tutin didn’t back off.  

The affair ended soon afterwards, though Olivier kept Tutin’s last letter to him in his wallet until it had frayed away.

Now it was Vivien’s turn to misbehave. 

By the time she and Finch arrived in Ceylon, however, it was clear to the cast and crew that she wasn’t her usual self. 

Unable to sleep, she started self-medicating with alcohol and often wandered about all night.

A friend recalled: ‘She appeared to be racing with time. She never got tired. She never got tight [whereas] Peter looked like a boxer who enjoyed being knocked out.’

Quickly, Vivien began to deteriorate. One of the film technicians was surprised when his 64-year-old Cockney assistant came to him ‘shaking like a leaf’ and swore that Vivien had ‘tried to vamp him’.

Soon she was making moves on another married actor, Dana Andrews, by knocking on his door while stark naked.

Days later, as she swung from being over-bright to tears and depression, the producer cabled Olivier and begged him to fly out. He came at once — only for Vivien to tell him that she was having an affair with Finch.

According to a friend, the novelist Elaine Dundy who later published a biography of Finch, Olivier was seething and ‘understandably exhibited a certain chill towards [Finch]. 

Not so understandably, he held him responsible for Vivien’s breakdown’. But there was nothing Olivier could do, and after a few days he flew home.

Vivien continued to deteriorate, showing signs for the first time of psychosis — a complete break with reality.

On set, she would run after Finch, calling out ‘Larry’ — Olivier’s name — in the coy tones of a newly-wed. 

‘It was apparent to everyone in the company that she was hallucinating,’ said Dundy. 

Packed off on a plane to Los Angeles, where shooting would resume on a soundstage, Vivien began screaming that the wing was on fire.

‘She became hysterical,’ according to Dundy. 

‘She flew at her window like a trapped bird, beating it with her fists, fighting to get out. 

‘Then she tore at the neckline of her dress, ripping it down the middle. 

‘She scratched and clawed at everyone trying to restrain her. Finally they managed to sedate her.’

Finch was shattered: his fleeting romance had turned into a nightmare, one that had cost him not only his friendship with Olivier but possibly his marriage.

His wife was in London when Finch’s agent urged her to hurry to LA. 

On arrival, Tamara was shocked to discover that her husband was sharing a mansion with Vivien, each theoretically living in a separate wing.

Hours later, Vivien arrived back from Paramount Studios with Finch, embraced Tamara warmly and told her to get ready because she’d arranged a welcome party — with 70 famous guests, including David Niven and Stewart Granger.

When the partygoers arrived, however, Vivien was nowhere to be found. Hours later, conversation ground to a halt as the mansion resounded with loud sobs and shouts.

Finch raced up the stairs, calling to Niven and Granger for help. 

Minutes later, Tamara recalled, ‘Vivien began to rush down the stairs screaming, crying and fighting, restrained by Niven and Granger, then forcibly taken upstairs again, shouting “Larry, Larry. I want Larry!”’

Finally, Vivien calmed down, and Tamara collapsed into bed with Finch — only for their bedroom door to fly open.

‘A demented-looking Vivien, with her light robe open and disclosing her naked body, rushed to our bed and, with tremendous energy and screaming obscenities, tore off the bedclothes,’ she said. 

‘On discovering us naked, she threw herself on Peter in great passionate embraces.

‘He pushed her away and she collapsed at the foot of the bed sobbing, shouting: “You haven’t told her, you haven’t told her! How could you be sleeping with her, you monster? You’re my lover!”’

For Tamara, the news was a ‘thunderbolt’. Finch, meanwhile, was shaking with rage.

He tried to pull Vivien to her feet, but she clung to his legs and tried to kiss him. 

Finally, he managed to pin her against the wall, shouting: ‘We’d agreed to keep Larry and Tamara out of this!’ 

But Vivien had lost any semblance of rationality. Clawing at him, she called him every dirty word she could think of until he dragged her back to her room.

The following day, Finch and Vivien calmly drove off to Paramount together to resume filming. The uneasy truce didn’t last.

At dawn one day, Vivien crept into the Finches’ bed, tears rolling down her cheeks. Tamara managed to get her back to her room, where Vivien begged her forgiveness and asked for a cuddle.

A few days later, an actor called John Buckmaster turned up at the house, presumably invited by Vivien. He’d only just been let out of a New York asylum after groping a stranger and pulling a knife on the police. 

Moving in, he began an affair with Vivien, to which he brought a mystical twist, with dark lighting, overpowering incense, chants and strange rituals.

Niven later described getting a call from Vivien’s maid. ‘Mista David,’ she screamed, ‘she’s possessed — that’s what! You git over here real quick now!’

He found Vivien at the top of the stairs. ‘She was naked and looked quite, quite mad,’ he recalled. 

‘I had never seen real hysteria before and didn’t know how to cope with it. 

‘I tried walking up the stairs towards her, but she backed away, screaming, “Go away! Go away! I hate you!”’ 

When Niven tried to reason with her, she sat on the landing, ‘alternately sobbing like a child and snarling down through the bannisters like a caged animal’.

Then she tried to seduce him. ‘Come and get it,’ she whispered — before throwing glasses and bottles at him. 

She could plainly no longer continue filming. Paramount issued a statement saying she’d suffered ‘an acute nervous breakdown’, then replaced her with Elizabeth Taylor.

English actor and director Laurence Olivier (left) would reflect tearfully on his turbulent marriage to second wife Vivien Leigh in the final part of his life, saying it had been ‘the real thing’ – true love

As for Vivien, she was bundled on to a plane back to London. Taken to a mental hospital in Surrey, she received electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) for the first time and was kept in a coma for a fortnight.

For years, Olivier blamed himself for not being there when his distraught wife regained consciousness, for ‘not being more alive to my duties, no matter how painful or how mortally sick of them I was’.

Six weeks after her release from hospital, the Oliviers made their first high-profile appearance, joining 8,000 guests in Westminster Abbey for the Queen’s coronation.

Above all, they wanted to signal to the world that their relationship was intact.

It wasn’t. Feeling that Vivien was now all but a stranger, Olivier indulged in a fleeting secret affair with his latest co-star, the 23-year-old actress Claire Bloom.

For Vivien, there was now another problem: though still stunning, she’d become hyper-conscious of her ageing looks. 

Muffling herself in furs, she covered her face and avoided the light.

The show, of course, had to go on, and the Oliviers moved to Stratford to star in three Shakespeare plays. 

Maxine Audley, who played Olivia in Twelfth Night, recalled that Vivien ‘behaved violently to everyone’.

The saddest thing, she added, ‘is that we didn’t realise that she had an illness. We all thought she was just behaving badly’.

In the grip of mania again, Vivien turned on her husband. Standing beside him on stage in Titus Andronicus, while he spoke Shakespeare’s words of love to her, she’d curse him with extreme obscenities which all the other actors — though thankfully not the audience — could hear.

Noel Coward, visiting the Oliviers in Stratford, was shocked by what he saw. 

‘Their life together is really hideous and here they are trapped by public acclaim, scrabbling about in the cold ashes of a physical passion that burnt itself out years ago,’ he wrote.

‘They are eminent, successful, envied and adored, and most wretchedly unhappy.’

After the Stratford run, Vivien once again sought solace with Finch, often inviting him to Notley. Even his wife Tamara accepted this state of affairs, reasoning they could hardly be carrying on while Olivier was also in residence.

But they were, and in December 1955, they ran off together to France. Olivier eventually caught up with them and brought Vivien home — at which point he arranged the confrontation with Finch in his library.

That should have marked the end of the affair, but Vivien — now age 42 — continued to pursue her lover relentlessly. 

In July 1956, she discovered she was expecting a baby, but couldn’t be sure whose it was. Ironically, news that Vivien was pregnant caused a media frenzy. 

To the public, the Oliviers remained towering icons of romance — so there was much sympathy when she miscarried a few weeks later.

Occasionally, the old Vivien would shine through and she’d slip free of her mental fog. 

But one particular violent incident made Olivier realise they were doomed. He’d been dozing in a chair when Vivien suddenly started slapping his face with a wet cloth. 

He fled into an empty room, locking the door behind him, but she started hammering on it.

‘Something snapped in my brain,’ Olivier wrote later. 

He grabbed Vivien, hurling her towards a bed, but she struck her head on a marble table. 

As blood oozed from a cut on her forehead, Olivier ‘realised with horror that each of us was quite capable of murdering the other’. 

Appalled, he fled to a friend’s cottage.

He was alone and at his most vulnerable, when a new woman entered his life — 27-year-old Joan Plowright, then appearing with him in The Entertainer. 

An exceptional actress, she was also Vivien’s opposite: earthy, stolid and sober, all qualities that were very appealing at this point in Olivier’s life.

‘I’m going to marry Joan,’ he told John Gielgud. ‘Vivien’s given me some of the happiest times in my life, but it has absolutely worn me out knowing that these moods and attacks are coming on and I can do nothing to stop them.’

His decision left Vivien in agony. She wrote constantly to Olivier, desperate to get him back. ‘I shall never ever love anyone as I love him,’ she told Coward.

By 1960, Vivien’s longing for Olivier had become a full-blown obsession. 

‘It was a very difficult time for her, because she was absolutely heartbroken,’ says the actress Juliet Mills. 

‘She never thought that Larry would leave her.’ When the public finally learned that the Oliviers’ marriage had floundered, 

Joan began to receive death threats. But life moved on: Vivien had more ECT treatments, the divorce went through and Olivier remarried.

Vivien had started seeing a gentle 42-year-old actor called Jack Merivale. 

Friends say she adored him, and that he looked after her tenderly — but he was not Olivier, whose photo still had pride of place on her bedside table.

She continued working until 1967, when she was struck down by tuberculosis. One night, after coming home from the play he was appearing in, Merivale found her lying dead on the floor. She was just 53.

The following morning, he called her ex-husband, who was in hospital having treatment for prostate cancer. Olivier immediately discharged himself.

Alone with Vivien again in her bedroom, he reflected that their life together had ‘resembled nothing so much as an express lift skying me upwards and throwing me downwards in insanely non-stop fashion . . . I stood and prayed for forgiveness, for all the evils that had sprung up between us’.

Much later, in his final years, he’d often think of her. A friend, visiting him at home shortly before he died, found him alone, watching one of her movies. His eyes were full of tears.

‘This, this was love,’ he said. ‘This was the real thing.’ 

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