In Which Laurence Olivier Leaves His Wife For Vivien Leigh

Misunderstandings

by ALEX CARNEVALE

1937. Laurence Olivier was very displeased with his marriage, so he began to look elsewhere. He registered in hotels with Vivien Leigh as Mr. and Mrs. Andrew Kerr. (Leigh was herself in an unhappy, sexless marriage with an older man she had met at 18.) When Vivien got out of the bathtub the first time Laurence ever saw her nude, she said simply, “Now I’ll show you how I do it.”

While he performed in Henry V, the two couples stayed in the same hotel so his fucks were more accessible. He planned a home in Chelsea where he and Leigh could live together. The two exchanged affection onstage as Hamlet and Ophelia, in full view of their spouses. “This welding closeness tripped the obvious decision, and two marriages were severed,” Olivier later wrote. Vivien would not be able to divorce her husband Herbert Holman until years afterwards.

wedding photo from Olivier’s unhappy first marriage

As soon as they were openly together, Olivier changed his will, giving Vivien the lion’s share of his estate. To his ex-wife Jill Esmond and Leigh he wrote, “It is my most earnest wish that my wife and Vivien shall live in friendliness and harmony of spirit both forgiving and forgetting any possible bitterness that may perhaps be between them.”

Olivier hated vacations, but that first year with Vivien he took two; one in Italy and one in France. While they were on the Riviera, Laurence was offered Wuthering Heights. They quarreled over the role that Vivien would get; she wanted the larger part of Cathy but William Wyler insisted Merle Oberon would play that part.

They shot Wuthering Heights in Los Angeles, and Wyler and Olivier just could not get along. The main conflict was over the amount of overacting Olivier was intent on doing as Heathcliff. (Wyler just wanted Olivier to be himself, and was undoubtedly correct in his appraisal.) “We argued and argued and I must say he didn’t argue very brilliantly,” Olivier wrote Leigh. “I suspect he must have good instinct with no brains.”

Things went no better between Laurence and his leading lady Merle Oberon, who accused him of spitting on her in close-ups.

Laurence Olivier missed Vivien terribly, especially sailing from England to New York.

Olivier refused to take cabin 69, thinking she might disapprove, and spent most of the trip drunk. “I love thinking of you when water is rushing past my face,” he wrote her. “I always used to find a cold sponge very soothing at Capri – do you remember? Great comfort in thoughts of you while in water. I must have a pre-natal wish, somewhere, to be your child.” Ew.

Los Angeles wasn’t much better for Olivier’s loneliness. “My dearest little darling passionate supreme love – I am with you, and round you, and in you all the time, my treasure.” Eventually, Vivien made her way to him. “HOW GLORIOUS. WILL MAKE ARRANGEMENT FOR EIGHT HEAVENLY DAYS,” he telegraphed. “I AM SO HAPPY. SHOULD DIE WITHOUT YOU ANY LONGER. DELICIOUS LOVE.” He later added “I DIE TILL YOU COME.”

Olivier in drag for “The Taming of the Shrew”

Vivien’s reasons for the trip were far more logical. When Hamish Hamilton asked why she was going, she explained, “Partly because Larry’s there, and partly because I intend to get the part of Scarlett O’Hara.”

For the Oscar-winning role Vivien received only $25,000, and was under David O. Selznick’s thumb for the next seven years. This incensed Olivier, who hated the slimy producer long before this. When Olivier brought his doubts to Selznick, the bastard told him, “Larry, don’t be a shit twice.”

with Marilyn Monroe, who he loathed

Leigh and Olivier were far from happy to be in America. “In fact,” she told her soon to be ex-husband, “I do not think there is anything nice about America except the football, and the politeness of men in garages.” But when Wuthering Heights came out, Olivier was an instant star in the country. Olivier appealed to both men and women in a deeply sexual way.

He quickly learned that this approval could vanish in an instant after he tried to star in his own Romeo and Juliet with Leigh in New York. The audience could barely hear Vivien, and Laurence as a brooding Romeo was a bit old for the part. The reviews were savage.

note to Vivien about doing his hair

Olivier lost $96,000 on Romeo and Juliet, and could not wait to get home to England. Unfortunately, he picked an awkward time to flop: France was fading, and English children were making the trip West to America for safety. When Olivier and Leigh landed in Bristol, they were in the middle of an air raid and the plane nearly went down.

Wanting to aid the war effort, Olivier enlisted in the Royal Air Force. Instead of bunking with the cadets, he and Leigh lived in a bungalow near the base, which she furnished with paintings and a few Indian rugs from their place in London. “I’ve always thought that my performance as a naval officer was the best bit of character work I’ve ever done,” Olivier lied.

Alex Carnevale is the editor of This Recording.

“Moon Never Rises” – Calexico (mp3)

“Woodshed Waltz” – Calexico (mp3)

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