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Reviewed by Harriet

‘Vivien Leigh, Laurence Olivier and the Romance of the Century’ is the subtitle of this joint biography by Stephen Galloway. The author, previously executive editor of the Hollywood Reporter, has a penchant for purple prose (“Hands, lips, limbs reached for each other with an urgency neither could control”) and some curiously abstruse vocabulary – ‘fungible’, which I had to look up, appears more than once. I almost let all this put me off, but I’m glad it didn’t, as underneath the sometimes excessive language is a story of real tragedy. This celebrated couple have been the subjects of numerous individual and joint biographies, around thirty by the last count, but none has delved as deeply as Galloway into the mental illness that destroyed their marriage and blighted their lives.

Vivien Leigh was an astonishingly beautiful young woman of 21 when the 28 year old Olivier first saw her in a play called The Mask of Virtue and was instantly made ‘drunk with desire’. Looking back many years later, he would write that her attraction ‘of the most perturbing nature I have ever encountered’ was so overpowering that it ‘sometimes felt like an illness’, something that took hold and could not be shaken off. Of course at the time they were both married: Leigh to barrister Leigh Holman, whose name she took as her stage name, and Olivier to actress Jill Esmond, Neither that, or the fact that they both had small children, could keep them apart, but given the climate of the 1930s, especially in Hollywood where both of them would attain global stardom – Olivier in Wuthering Heights and Leigh in Gone with the Wind (both 1939) – they felt initially impelled to keep their affair secret. By 1940, their spouses agreed to divorce, and they became the Oliviers, a famous, and famously beautiful, couple. 

But under the glamorous exterior, the cracks soon began to appear.  Leigh was subject to dramatic changes of mood and sudden, frightening rages, which increased in intensity over the years. Manic depression was the term for her condition in those days; today she would have been diagnosed as bipolar and treated with medication that would have controlled her illness, but no such thing existed at the time. In consequence, she was frequently dismissed as difficult and badly behaved. This had a destructive effect on the marriage: as Noel Coward wrote, 

Their life together is really hideous and here they are trapped by public acclaim . . . . They are eminent, successful, envied, and adored, and most wretchedly unhappy. 

Her illness also affected her career: though sometimes dismissed as an inferior actress, it’s clear that she had a great talent, which was rewarded by two Academy Awards, for Gone With the Wind  and A Streetcar Named Desire. She was also extremely dedicated, and, as Galloway suggests, primarily a stage actress: at the start of WW2 she took on a role that would entail a gruelling six-month tour of the provinces and a further six months in the West End. It exhausted her, but she was determined to continue. Later in the war she toured North Africa, entertaining the troops and visiting sick and wounded soldiers in hospital. But as her mental state deteriorated, not helped by the tuberculosis she developed, she was increasingly unable to fulfil her acting obligations. Both Oliviers frequently engaged in extramarital affairs, hers notably with the Australian actor Peter Finch, his with the actress Dorothy Tutin. The marriage staggered on, but finally, after Olivier had fallen in love with Joan Plowright, the couple finally divorced. Leigh’s last years were made bearable by the devotion of the actor Jack Merivale, and Olivier married Plowright, to whom he was almost instantly unfaithful, embarking on a long lasting affair with Sarah Miles.

So yes, underneath the flowery language and the celebrity gossip, this is a sad book. Olivier does not emerge particularly well: despite his many brilliant performances, he comes across as a man without a very interesting inner life. Indeed he told his son Tarquin that he felt he knew the two hundred or so characters he’d played better than he knew himself.. Director Peter Brook described him as ‘a strangely hidden man’:

Onstage and on screen he could give an impression of openness, brilliance, lightness, and speed. In fact he was the opposite. His great strength was that of an ox. He always reminded me of a countryman, a shrewd, suspicious peasant taking his time. When he tried to catch up with a new idea, his forehead seemed to shine, as though from determination not to be outwitted. The dazzling virtuosity of his acting  came from a painstakingly composed mosaic of tiny details, which when finally assembled could flash by in sequence with glittering speed, giving the illusion of glittering thought.

He seems to have had no great interest in books or culture, having, according the director Pater Hall, ‘a deep suspicion of intellectuals’. This was in sharp contract with Leigh who was highly intelligent, an avid reader and collector of art: a director who worked with her spoke of her ‘tremendous erudition, her wide reading’, which included Dickens, Confucius and Montaigne. 

Galloway believes that both the Oliviers had been damaged by their childhoods: Olivier was raised by an unsympathetic father after his mother died when he was twelve, and Leigh had been uprooted from India, where she spent her first six years, and sent to a London convent school. Undoubtedly these will have been difficult and lonely childhoods, but – even leaving aside Leigh’s untreated and misunderstood mental illness – the pressure of fame and life in the public eye was clearly a contributing factor to the deterioration of this supposedly golden marriage. After Leigh’s death from tuberculosis at the age of fifty-two, Olivier lived on for another twenty-two years, struggling increasingly with serious health problems but managing nonetheless to become founding director of the National Theatre and continuing to act until illness made this impossible. Truly Madly ends with an account from a friend who visited him at home soon before he died and found him watching one of Leigh’s films with tears in his eyes: ‘“This, this was love”, he said. “This was the real thing”.

Despite its occasional verbal excesses, this is a well-researched book with useful footnotes and index, and plenty of photos to enjoy. As someone who knew quite a lot about the Oliviers, I still learned a good deal and found this a surprisingly moving story.

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Harriet is co-founder and one of the editors of Shiny New Books.

Stephen Galloway, Truly Madly: Vivien Leigh, Laurence Olivier and the Romance of the Century (Sphere, 2022). 978-0751575491, 416pp., hardback.

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  1. It’s a tragic story, isn’t it, and it does sound like he tells it well, albeit with a lot of purple prose! Interesting about Olivier’s character – maybe being such a blank canvas was what made him such a good actor!

  2. This came up in my library feed, and you have interested me further … but what a tragic story, I am not sure I can handle it at the moment. It’s especially sad that such an intelligent, gifted woman should become labelled as “difficult” when she was suffering from mental illness. At least in retrospect we can try to do her more justice, but it’s cold comfort.

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