Vivien Leigh and Laurence Olivier 'the romance of the century'? It feels more like a tragedy to me

'That’s the man I’m going to marry': Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh as Sir Peter and Lady Teazle in a 1949 production of School for Scandal - Popperfoto
'That’s the man I’m going to marry': Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh as Sir Peter and Lady Teazle in a 1949 production of School for Scandal - Popperfoto

There have been plenty of individual biographies of Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh, but Stephen Galloway’s new book, Truly Madly, concentrates on the 20 years they were together. Olivier was 28, Leigh 21 when they met, and both were married to other people – she to a lawyer called Leigh Holman and he to the actress Jill Esmond.

Olivier was still a virgin when he married, believing, as a vicar’s son, that sex outside marriage was a mortal sin. He then made up for lost time, having affairs with several famous actresses before he met Leigh, six years later. She, on the other hand, was a “libertine” from her teens – as soon as she escaped her convent at 14, she was kissing boys, and married the much older Holman when she was only 18. They had a daughter, Suzanne, but when she saw Olivier on stage for the first time, she told a friend, “That’s the man I’m going to marry.”

Their affair began when they co-starred in the Korda film Fire Over England, and could not keep their hands off each other. For two years, they tried to keep it secret, but Olivier hated that “furtive life, lying” and insisted they should run off, which they did in June l937, she abandoning her three-year-old daughter and he his newborn son, Tarquin.

Even before they eloped, when they were rehearsing Hamlet in Denmark, there had been an ­incident that should have warned Olivier what he was taking on. Olivier said “something about Viv having gone bonkers, having attacked him, having had a fit of some kind”. He was so shaken that he subsequently asked her father, Ernest, if they had any ­family history of mental illness. He responded: “Good god, NO!” In fact, it was Olivier’s sister, Sybille, who would spend time in a psychiatric hospital.

The Hamlet incident seemed to be a one-off, but then, while Vivien was shooting her first Hollywood feature, A Yank at Oxford, her agent John Gliddon witnessed a similar attack – first a tirade of rage and abuse, but then something even more frightening – “Her voice turned suddenly hard... rasping... contemptuous. But the worst thing was her eyes... They were the eyes of a stranger.”

Sir Laurence Olivier and his wife Vivien Leigh arriving at Rome airport, February 1953 - Hulton Archive
Sir Laurence Olivier and his wife Vivien Leigh arriving at Rome airport, February 1953 - Hulton Archive

There were more tantrums while she was filming Gone with the Wind and her secretary warned Olivier that she seemed unwell. “Several times I thought she really was going mad.” He was working in England but he wrote to Leigh every day and asked her to send him her underwear: “I am sitting naked with just my parts wrapped in your panties.” She managed to complete the film and won an Oscar for it. Olivier admitted, “It was all I could do to restrain myself from hitting her with it. I was insane with jealousy.” He had to wait till 1948 for his first Oscar.

In 1940, they made That Hamilton Woman together (it was Churchill’s favourite film and he gave Leigh one of his paintings), before returning to England to join the war effort. Olivier enlisted in the Fleet Air Arm, and he and Vivien moved into a cottage near his base at Lee- on-Solent, where she suffered the first of several miscarriages. David Selznick had her under contract and wanted her back in Hollywood, but she went to entertain the troops in Africa instead. Meanwhile, Olivier, having proved to be a pilot “of notorious incompetence”, was granted leave to make his film of Henry V.

They were apart for long periods and Vivien’s terrifying rages grew more frequent. Noël Coward believed they were brought on by booze, and she certainly drank a lot, but when she was eventually taken to a shrink in New York, he diagnosed manic depression (now called bipolar disorder), but that didn’t help because, before lithium, there was no effective treatment. She swung between depressed periods when she would cry for days, then she would grow restless and move into the manic phase that Olivier learnt to dread. It would often start with a brittle laugh that became hysterical, and a super­human energy that made her un­able to sleep. She would roam the streets all night, and make sexual advances to unlikely people – a garage mechanic on one occasion, an elderly camera assistant another.

Matters came to a head when she went to Sri Lanka to film Elephant Walk with Peter Finch. Olivier guessed she would have an affair with Finch who “simmered with a sexuality that Olivier only seemed to muster onstage”, and of course she did, but she also appeared naked at the hotel door of another actor, Dana Andrews, and was upset when he turned her away. She started turning up at the film set at odd times, her eyes wild, and running after Finch, calling him Larry. Elaine Dundy reported that “it was apparent to everyone in the company that she was hallucinating”, and it was decided to get her off the island and on a plane to Los Angeles.

But on the plane she suddenly unfastened her seat belt and began screaming that the plane was on fire, and trying to get out the window. Eventually the crew managed to sedate her, but Finch was left shattered. His agent urged his wife, Tamara, to join him in Los Angeles. Leigh announced that she had invited 70 guests for a welcome party but they were surprised that Leigh herself did not appear. Instead they heard shouts and loud sobs from upstairs and Finch shouting to David Niven and Stewart Granger to come up and help. Then Leigh flew downstairs screaming “Larry! Larry!” while the waiters cleared the plates. Later, when Finch and Tamara went to bed, Leigh appeared in their bedroom, semi-naked, screaming “How could you be sleeping with her, you monster! You’re my lover!” Tamara was stunned – she had no idea.

Olivier and Leigh as Emma Hamilton and Lord Nelson in That Hamilton Woman, directed by Alexander Korda in 1941 - John Kobal Foundation
Olivier and Leigh as Emma Hamilton and Lord Nelson in That Hamilton Woman, directed by Alexander Korda in 1941 - John Kobal Foundation

The next day, they drove to the studio, but Leigh was far too deranged to work – “Eyes overbright, she chattered ceaselessly.” One night, her maid rang Niven and begged him to come because her mistress was “possessed”. He found Leigh standing at the top of the stairs, naked. “Her hair was hanging down in straggly clumps; the mascara and make-up made a ghastly streaked mask down to her chin; one false eyelash was missing; her eyes were staring and wild.” He tried to put his arm round her, but she fought back. “She was spitting like a panther, biting, clawing and kicking,” Niven wrote in his memoirs. Eventually, he managed to pinion her arms and call for a doctor, who came with two assistants and a large syringe. “I found I had come to hate her,” wrote Niven.

Olivier had not quite come to hate her, but by now he was exhausted. ECT treatment calmed her down, but, “She was no longer the person I had loved,” and he felt like a hollow man. He conveyed that hollowness most brilliantly in The Entertainer at the Royal Court, where he fell deeply in love with Joan Plowright, and asked Leigh for a divorce. She begged him to stay, but he wouldn’t: he had had enough.

As a former executive editor of The Hollywood Reporter, Galloway is inclined to hyperbole, but he ­certainly knows his way around the film industry, and he has ­conducted valuable interviews with people who knew the Oliviers, such as Hayley Mills, and the actress Sarah Miles, who had an affair with Olivier in 1962 when she was only 21, and then saw him again towards the end of his life, when he was suffering a terrible skin disease that meant that, although they lay in bed together, he could not touch her.

By 1958, Leigh had taken up with a kind and handsome actor called Jack Merivale, but she always kept talking about Larry. In May 1967, she started coughing. She had been diagnosed with tuberculosis years earlier, and now it returned. She refused to go to hospital. On July 8, Merivale found her lying on her bedroom floor, dead. She was only 53.

Merivale broke the news to Olivier, who came round at once. “I stood and prayed for forgiveness, for all the evils that had sprung up between us.”

Galloway calls this “the Romance of the Century”, but it sounds more like a tragedy to me.

Truly Madly by Stephen Galloway is published by Sphere at £25. To order your copy for £19.99, call 0844 871 1514 or visit Telegraph Books