Late Hollywood star Vivien Leigh left behind more than her incandescent work on film. The Gone With the Wind actress’ legacy also endures in private letters that detail her all-consuming love for her second husband, Sir Laurence Olivier. “Those letters are fascinating,” Alan Strachan, who studied her correspondence for Dark Star: A Biography of Vivien Leigh, has said. “They make it abundantly clear that they could hardly keep their hands off each other. It was very, very torrid.”
The couple met in the London theater in 1936 and, although married to others, began a steamy affair on the set of Fire Over England. “Laurence tried several times to break with Vivien — but he said it was like a disease,” Strachan said. “He couldn’t give her up.”
Their romance didn’t escape the notice of Laurence’s wife, actress Jill Esmond — especially after Vivien “coincidentally” showed up in Capri, Italy, during their family vacation. “To her amazement, Jill found herself almost helping Vivien take her husband,” Strachan said. “She told Vivien what Laurence liked to read and eat, what clothes he liked. She just couldn’t fight it.”
Vivien and Laurence married in 1940, but his outsized ego and her bouts of depression — which grew worse after a miscarriage — came between them. “She had bipolar disorder, which caused a terrible strain on their marriage,” Strachan once recalled. “He loved Vivien, but he loved acting more.”
After their split in 1961, Vivien found a partner more willing to put her first in Jack Merivale, but he couldn’t equal Laurence in her heart. “Vivien never fell out of love with Laurence,” Strachan noted. As she said in one of her final letters to the legend, “I shall love you with all my life and with a tenderness and respect that is all-embracing.”
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