Vivien Leigh: un­der the ham­mer

Where could you buy a paint­ing by Churchill, a blonde Blanche Dubois wig and Lau­rence Olivier’s wed­ding ring? They’re all lots in an auc­tion of the sil­ver-screen star’s most per­sonal be­long­ings. By El­iz­a­beth Day

The Daily Telegraph - Telegraph Magazine - - CONTENTS - Vivien: The Vivien Leigh Col­lec­tion auc­tion will take place on 26 Septem­ber; sothe­

As the great ac­tress and leg­endary beauty’s per­sonal ef­fects go on sale at Sotheby’s, El­iz­a­beth Day looks at her life and style

‘A glam­orous Hol­ly­wood star, Leigh had quintessen­tially English taste’

Most peo­ple have an im­age of Viv ien Leigh in t heir mind’s eye. They will think of her, per­haps, in one of her most fa­mous film roles: as Scar­lett O’hara in Gone

With the Wind, hav­ing her corset laced up by her slave, Mammy, cling­ing tightly to a bed­post with each tug on the whale­bone, ut­ter­ing ‘fid­dle-dee-dee’ in a fault­less South­ern ac­cent.

Or they will re­mem­ber her as Blanche Dubois, the vul­ner­a­ble hero­ine of A Street­car Named De­sire, a woman un­done by both her beauty and her self-delu­sion, in­sist­ing in a flut­ing voice that she has al­ways de­pended on ‘the kind­ness of strangers’, as she is carted off to the men­tal hospi­tal.

Or they will think of Vivien Leigh as cap­tured in one of the many black-and-white public­ity pho­tog raphs she posed for dur­ing her life­time: a daz­zling, wide-eyed brunette with fine fea­tures, tightly waved hair, cu­pid’s-bow lips and a fe­line gaze that al­ways seemed to turn in­wards, even when the lens was on her. They will know her as the Holly wood su­per­star, the great stage ac­tress, a woman who won two Os­car sand was mar­ried for 20 years to Lau­rence Olivier, be­fore dy­ing, at the age of 53, of tu­ber­cu­lo­sis.

They might know her as the star who suf­fered two mis­car­riages and whose af­fairs punc­tu­ated her stormy mar­riage. She also strug­gled with bipo­lar dis­or­der through­out her life. Those clos­est to her would wit­ness bouts of rest­less­ness, fol­lowed by out­bursts of anger and vit­riol dur­ing each manic phase, fol­lowed by a deep de­pres­sion dur­ing which Leigh would not re­mem­ber her ac­tions.

On film sets, her be­hav­iour made her a li­a­bil­ity. Dur­ing a flight to LA in 1953, she be­gan to hal­lu­ci­nate and tried to jump out of the plane. Leigh was flown back to Eng­land and placed in a psy­chi­atric hospi­tal, where she en­dured elec­tro con­vul­sive ther­apy. It wasn’t long be­fore she be­gan drink­ing heav­ily to cope. Olivier once re­ferred to her dis­ease as ‘that un­can­nily evil mon­ster’. The cou­ple di­vorced in 1960 and she died seven years later.

But there was an­other, more pri­vate side to Leigh, which is only just be­ing re­vealed, thanks to a forth­com­ing sale at Sotheby’s. The auc­tion, which will be held in Lon­don in Septem­ber, con­tains a num­ber of Leigh’s per­sonal ef­fects, as well as a se­lec­tion of her paint­ings, which throw new light on the ac­tress as a woman of in­tel­li­gence and taste, who read widely and fur­nished her homes with great care and at­ten­tion.

She had a good eye, and the sale in­cludes works by ma­jor post-war artists such as John Piper, Wil­liam Ni­chol­son and Au­gus­tus John. She also en­joyed paint­ing for plea­sure, as ev­i­denced by her ini­tialled can­vas paint­ing bag con­tain­ing half-squeezed tubes of oil and a bot­tle of tur­pen­tine.

Leigh clearly cher­ished a do­mes­tic life, far away from the lime­light. There are sev­eral well-worn items of im­pec­ca­bly cho­sen fur­ni­ture as well as pho­to­graphs of her and Olivier, hap­pily mug­ging for the cam­era (one im­age cap­tures both of them try­ing to get into one shirt at the same time; the next shows that they even­tu­ally man­aged it), in ad­di­tion to snap­shots of reg­u­lar guests to the cou­ple’s coun­try home, Not­ley Abbey in Buck­ing­hamshire. One such pho­to­graph shows David Niven jump­ing into the swim­ming pool while bran­dish­ing a bow and ar­row. Niven is caught mid-air wear­ing a deer­stalker and a non­cha­lant grin. Also up for sale is the blonde wig Leigh wore in Street­car and her wed­ding ring from her mar­riage to Olivier, en­graved with their names and the sin­gle word ‘Eter­nally’.

‘This sale shows a re­ally dif­fer­ent side to her,’ says Frances Christie, the Head of Mod­ern& Post-war Bri­tish Art at Sotheby’s. ‘She is the most glam­orous Hol­ly­wood star pos­si­ble, but I think when you see some oft heart and fur­ni­ture, you

re­alise she had quintessen­tially English taste. Her houses were wall­pa­pered in Cole­fax & Fowler, there were chintzes and flo­rals and del­i­cate glass and porce­lain. She al­ways had cut flow­ers and it [her house] was pep­pered with an­tiques and amaz­ing art.’

It is a side of Leigh that she showed only her clos­est friends and fam­ily. Her 58-year-old grand­son, Neville Far­ring ton, re­calls vis­it­ing his grand­mother as a child and raid­ing her drawer of stage make-up to dress up as a pi­rate. He also dis­tinctly re­mem­bers the ef­fort she would go to in or­der to make things beau­ti­ful.

‘We once had lunch in the gar­den by the lake and there was a bread bas­ket made to look like a swan,’ he says, speak­ing to me over the phone from his home in West Sus­sex. His grand­mother, who died when Neville was eight, was of ten sur­rounded by pets in­clud­ing ‘a won­der­ful Golden Dutch Labrador called Ja­son, a poo­dle called Se­bas­tian and a cat called Poo Jones’. The first word that comes to mind when I ask him to de­scribe Leigh is ‘funny’. She was also, ac­cord­ing to his late mother, Suzanne (Leigh’s only child, from her first mar­riage to the bar­ris­ter Leigh Hol­man), ‘feisty, per­fec­tion­ist, some­times tor­tured, out­spo­ken, fiercely in­tel­li­gent and well-read’.

Pre­par­ing the sale has been mov­ing for both Far­ring­ton and his two younger broth­ers. ‘A lot of it has been emo­tional, yes. I don’t know how we’ll feel un­til we get to the auc­tion in Septem­ber but at the mo­ment it feels quite cathar­tic to move on.

‘Both my mother and Vivien were only chil­dren, so ev­ery­thing they col­lected landed up in this home, Manor Farm House, in Wilt­shire, where I grew up. They were hoard­ers and it al­most be­came like a mu­seum.

‘You’d open draw­ers and dis­cover things you never knew ex­isted. We found a trunk in the hall stuffed full of pho­to­graphs of her old home and you could see that she lived her life as a work of art. You can see this in the way she dec­o­rated her houses, the amaz­ing clothes and jew­ellery she wore, the gar­den. The whole thing is a liv­ing work of art.’

Home was of great im­por­tance to Vivien Leigh, af­ter a peri­patetic child­hood. She was born in In­dia, the daugh­ter of a bro­ker, and was sent to board­ing school in Eng­land at the age of six. The fam­ily re­turned to Bri­tain in 1931 and Leigh at­tended Rada, later gain­ing mi­nor parts in West End plays. In 1932, Leigh mar­ried Hol­man, who was 13 years her se­nior, and gave birth to Suzanne the fol­low­ing year. But she met Olivier while ap­pear­ing in a the­atri­cal pro­duc­tion of The Mask of Virtue in 1935; they fell in love and mar­ried in 1940, hav­ing di­vorced their re­spec­tive part­ners.

Af­ter Leigh had filmed Gone With the Wind, the cou­ple re­turned to Lon­don to find that her house, Durham Cot­tage in Chelsea, had been badly dam­aged by bomb­ing. The Oliviers looked around for a suit­able al­ter­na­tive, and bought Not­ley in 1944. It was a large stone abbey and was in a state of dis­re­pair. Leigh rapidly set about mak­ing it hab­it­able.she came to see Not­ley as a calm­ing re­treat from the pres­sures of fame and her con­tin­u­ing bat­tle with bipo­lar dis­or­der, which was be­gin­ning to af­fect her ca­reer. A par­tic­u­larly se­vere episode oc­curred when Leigh was in Cey­lon film­ing Ele­phant Walk with Peter Finch in 1953; she had to be se­dated and flown home and was re­placed in the movie by El­iz­a­beth Tay­lor.

Her ill­ness also took its toll on her mar­riage. Her doc­tor, Arthur Conachy, wit­nessed her ‘vi­o­lently ver­bally and phys­i­cally at­tack­ing’ Olivier, and noted that, dur­ing manic phases, ‘she de­vel­ops a marked in­crease in li­bido and in­dis­crim­i­nate sex­ual ac­tiv­ity’. Leigh had a fling with Finch, and was ru­moured to have con­ducted a f fa irs wit h co-st a rs in­clud­ing Mar­lon Brando and Rex Har­ri­son, as well as var­i­ous trades­men.

At Not­ley, the cou­ple could keep the world at bay. The sur­round­ing countr yside was an im­por­tant fac­tor. The au­thor

It was hard to see where Vivien Leigh ended and Blanche Dubois or Scar­lett O’hara be­gan

and jour­nal­ist Gwen Robyns, a reg­u­lar guest, wrote, ‘For their own bed­room, Vivien chose an L-shaped room where she could lie in bed and look across the mead­ows to the river Th a me… When the spring weather came she got up for a few hours each day and lay on the ter­race bask­ing in the sun and plan­ning her fu­ture gar­den. Roses were to be the main theme. In the walled gar­den at the side of the house, with its view of the an­cient dove­cote that had once housed 1,200 doves, she planned her rose gar­den.’

Leigh’ sloveo fros es is ref­er­enced in one of the most in­trigu­ing items in the Sotheby’s sale. It is a strik­ing 1930 soil paint­ing of a small vase of pink, white and red roses set against a green, light-dap­pled back­ground and the sig­na­ture on the corner is Win­ston Churchill’s. It is one of the high­lights of the auc­tion and is ex­pected to fetch £70,000 to £100,000.

‘Ap­par­ently, she met Churchill in 1936,’ says Christie, ‘and they had a friend­ship for over 20 years. The Oliviers went to stay at Chartwell [Churchill’s fam­ily home]. He didn’t give his paint­ings out willy-nilly. He gave them as state gifts, for in­stance to Eisen­hower or Tru­man, and then the more in­ti­mate pic­tures, he gave to friends and fam­ily. Flower pic­tures for him were very per­sonal and re­served for the peo­ple who were par­tic­u­larly close to him, such as his beloved youngest daugh­ter, Mary, so this sug­gests they were very close.’

The place­ment of the paint­ing in Leigh’s home would also bear this out: she hung it in her bed­room so that it was the first thing she saw when she woke up. There is no sug­ges­tion that there was ever any ro­mance be­tween the two, although Churchill, like many men, was a fer vent ad­mirer of her beauty and is once said to have re­marked of Leigh, ‘By jove, she’s a clinker.’

Also among the items for sale is a signed copy of Churchill’ s pub­lished es­say Paint­ing as a Pas­time, in which he ex­plored the way paint­ing qui­etened the mind and saved him from ex­haus­tion. Both Leigh and Olivier were said to be in­flu­enced by the es­say and she took up paint­ing in earnest, of ten set­ting up an easel in the gar­den at Not­ley. A naive Ital­ian land­scape painted by her is also up for sale.

‘I think there was this mu­tual re­spect be­tween them,’ says Far­ring ton. ‘I won­der if there was also an un­der­stand­ing of how to cope with deeper tur­bu­lence [Churchill re­ferred to his re­peated bouts of de­pres­sion as his ‘black dog’] and the need for men­tal re­silience.’

One of Leigh’s other male ad­mir­ers was Ken­neth Clark, the broad­caster and art his­to­rian whose pi­o­neer­ing 1969 tele­vi­sion se­ries, Civil­i­sa­tion, made him a house­hold name. The two be­came friendly in 1942 when Leigh was ap­pear­ing at the Theatre Royal, Hay­mar­ket, in a re­vival of Ge­orge Bernard Shaw’s The Doc­tor’ s Dilemma. Clark, who was then di­rec­tor of the Na­tional Gallery, used to walk around the corner to have tea with Leigh in her dress­ing room. ‘At first I went be­cause I en­joyed look­ing at her,’ Clark later said. ‘But very soon I went be­cause I en­joyed her com­pany and was fas­ci­nated by her char­ac­ter. She was not only in­tel­li­gent, she had style.’

When ex­perts from Sotheby’s were go­ing through Leigh’s pos­ses­sions, they stum­bled across a leaflet ad­ver­tis­ing one of Clark’ s Civil­i­sa­tion lec­tures‘ and he’d signed it for her ,’ says Christie. ‘And that’s when we thought, “Right, there is a con­nec­tion.” One of the most in­ter­est­ing things for me is that they clearly talked about great art and artists and that’s not what ev­ery Hol­ly­wood per­son nec­es­sar­ily wants to do.’

Christie sees Clark’s in­flu­ence ever y where: in the fluid, cap­ti­vat­ing pen­cil draw­ing Au­gus­tus John did of Leigh and in a pair of stork paint­ings by Wil­liam Ni­chol­son. Both were artists cham­pi­oned by Clark.

It is t he fate of many beaut if ul women not to be taken se­ri­ously. Leigh was no ex­cep­tion: she spent much of her ca­reer chaf­ing against the as­sump­tion that Olivier, be­cause he was a man, was in­du­bitably ‘a great ac­tor’, while she was al­ways rel­e­gated to be­ing ‘a great beauty’, de­spite hav­ing won two Best Ac­tress Academy Awards (for Gone With the Wind and A Street car Named De­sire) and reg­u­larly turn­ing down lu­cra­tive film deals in or­der to ap­pear on stage.

As a re­sult, Leigh was con­stantly cu­ri­ous about the world and keen to ed­u­cate her­self. She de­voured Dick­ens on train jour­neys and car­ried a torch so that she could read in the back of the car in the dark.

In­deed, one of the things that most struck Far­ring­ton when he was sort­ing through Leigh’ spos ses­sions washer love of books. She had an ex­ten­sive li­brary ,‘ and when we looked through it there was an in­cred­i­ble range of books. Books about what­ever film or stage part she was tak­ing on at the time; books about fur­ni­ture, art, sil­ver­ware; quite a few in French; and many of them had mes­sages and sig­na­tures from peo­ple like Ge­orge Bernard Shaw or Arthur Rack­ham or Max Beer­bohm or DH Lawrence.’

All of this points to the rich in­ner life of a highly cul­tured woman. And per­haps this is partly what gave her per­for­mances such depth. In many re­spects, Leigh was mod­ern be­fore her time. She wanted to in habit her roles and to re­search them fully, so that by the fi­nal frame, it was hard to see where Vivien Leigh ended and Blanche Dubois or Scar­lett O’hara be­gan. She once said that, ‘Act­ing is life, to me, and should be.’

But she had an­other life, too: one that con­sisted of beau­ti­ful rooms and books and art and a home where she felt able to be her­self, away from the un­for­giv­ing lime­light. As her grand­son says, p er hap­sVivi en Leigh’ s great­est worko far tin thee nd was the way she lived her own life.

Pho­tographed by Ce­cil Beaton, 1941

Above Leigh, with hus­band Lau­rence Olivier, 1947. Right

John Piper Not­ley Abbey Pen, black ink and wa­ter­colour on paper. Es­ti­mated to sell at: £8,000 to £12,000

Sir Win­ston Churchill Roses in a Glass Vase Oil on can­vas board. Es­ti­mate: £70,000 to £100,000

Film script Pre­sented to Leigh by the cast. Es­ti­mate: £2,500 to £3,500

Au­gus­tus John Por­trait head of Vivien Leigh Red chalk on paper. Es­ti­mate: £5,000 to £7,0000

Wil­liam Ni­chol­son A Pair of Birds Verre eglomisé. Es­ti­mate: £10,000 to £15,000

Gold wed­ding ring In­scribed ‘Lau­rence Olivier Vivien Eter­nally’. Es­ti­mate: £400 to £600

Gone With the WindFor her per­for­mance as Scar­lett O’hara, Leigh won the Best Ac­tress Os­car in 1940A Street­car Named De­sirePlay­ing Blanche Dubois won Leigh her sec­ond Best Ac­tress Os­car in 1952

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