‘Theatre folk are too self-centred and spoilt’
In diaries and photographs, Cecil Beaton recorded his friendship with Vivien Leigh, from breathless beginnings to bitter end. By Lucy Davies
Vivien Leigh liked to make herself at home in her dressing room. The comforts the British actress considered vital ranged from an electric heater and a tin kettle she cherished particularly, to one of her Degas or Renoir paintings.
One can imagine how the perennially stage-struck Cecil Beaton reacted when he encountered her in just such a setting in November 1941. The society photographer, then 37, was in Edinburgh for Vogue, and took the opportunity to visit the theatre, where the 28-year-old Leigh was starring in a revival of Shaw’s The Doctor’s Dilemma.
“She is a remarkable little person,” he scribbled excitedly in his diary, returning four days later to take a backstage portrait, for which Leigh sat at her mirror and in costume. Afterwards, he took her for supper, where “she dealt firmly but nicely with the irritating requests for autographs”. According to Beaton, they stayed up talking until past 3am, “while the night porter hoovered the carpets and dusted the armchairs”.
He would photograph Leigh repeatedly over the next decade. Unlike with the many brattish society girls whose portraits were