From the archive: looking back at the fiery life of Vivien Leigh


The Observer Magazine’s cover story of 31 July 1977 on Vivien Leigh (‘The double life of Miss Leigh’) mostly aligned itself with the view of Kenneth Tynan, one of her fiercest critics, who once wrote of her Lady Macbeth: ‘She picks at the part with the daintiness of a debutante called upon to dismember a stag.’

Though it referred to Leigh’s ‘glittering heyday’ and her and Laurence Olivier as ‘the golden couple of the theatre’, it very much wanted to focus on ‘quite another Vivien Leigh’ – ‘a wild, screaming vixen who suddenly lashed out at people with obscenities, kicks and punches: even at Larry, the man she loved most in the world… the ultra-fastidious convent-trained paragon of deportment… hungry for one-night stands with working-class pick-ups’.

All this was taken from Anne Edwards’s biography, 10 years after Leigh’s death. ‘To write this workmanlike, sympathetic, but superficial biography she has listened to many people very close to Vivien Leigh,’ wrote Toby David. ‘Ms Edwards did not get to see Sir Laurence; and she never met Vivien. It shows. Still, her book is indispensable to a better understanding of the Olivier myth.’

David relays how Leigh got the part of Scarlett O’Hara in Gone With the Wind through her connection to the man making the film, David Selznick (Olivier’s agent was Selznick’s brother). ‘Vivien Leigh was, perhaps, the perfect Scarlett – but the part would never have been hers (as Olivier might never have been hers) if she hadn’t pushed quite so hard and persistently.’

Leigh was a ‘supernova charmer, a cool, aristocratic dazzler’, wrote David, emphasising her looks and her background. ‘Most reviewers were kind to Miss Leigh in the golden days. Some even honoured her with the accolade of “great”. But others were more accurate.’ Ouch. You wouldn’t think from the article that Leigh had, in fact, won an Oscar for Gone With the Wind and another as Blanche DuBois in A Streetcar Named Desire.