Madness & Desire: Inside the troubled marriage of Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh

Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh seemed the perfect match - he was the acting icon, she the stunning English rose. Nobody guessed that her mental illness would make her a thorn in his side. But he didn't stop loving her, even when she found another man. Georgina Howell finds the truth among Oliver's recently released private letters.

Vivien Leigh, the wife-to-be of Laurence Olivier, was the subject of a letter to him dated May 19 1939, and chilling in its patronising malevolence. "Larry dear: Your little girl is much better today. So sorry I had to alarm you the other night, but I was so alarmed myself I had to tell someone. Believe me, she didn't realise what she was doing. She had no idea those pills were such strong sedatives or she'd never have taken so many. They are all gone now though and I am not going to get her any more..

"Now for the funny side of it - you'd have died could you have seen her staggering around the room yesterday after your phone call- stark naked, except for a sanitary belt - a soiled Kotex in one hand and drying her tears with the other. The poor furniture just wouldn't get out of her way so she tripped over everything, finally making it to the shower, out in an instant, fell into my arms and back to bed. Later in the day, she said: 'What happened this morning?' I felt sorry for her, but still it was so funny. I wish you could have been there for the laughs. Can't you imagine what a drunk looking actress she would have been on the set... Do be good children, both of you, and try to keep happily in love. I get so upset when things aren't right. Vivien is impossible - or need I tell you?"

The sender was the "secretary" Olivier had hired to live in Hollywood with Vivien. What possessed him to employ the sycophantic, over-familiar Sunny Lash as a companion for his 25-year old lover, alone on the troubled set of the movie that would make her world famous, Gone with the Wind?

The letter was among the Olivier papers that have been bought by the British Library. This impressive collection of documents deepened our understanding of one of the greats of 20th-century drama.

Again, on June 9, 1939, the aptly named Lash was writing to "Larry dear" to report on Vivien's anxiety to get back to Olivier: "I shall have to hold her in this phase - she'll probably wet her pants long before she ever gets there. She is so sweet and adorable, but the poor little baby is awfully tired, only she doesn't realise it 'cause she's so excited at the thought that she'll soon be with you again."

When Vivien described Mrs Lash as "an angel of kindness and goodness", did she have any idea she was being reported in this fashion? Significantly, the word "phase", with its medical connotations suggest that Lash was more than a chaperone-companion. Was she not also a kind of amateur nurse? If so, it seems that Olivier recognised Vivien's instability before they married.

The first sign of her manic depression manifested itself to him in the early days of their affair, two years before his divorce from his first wife, Jill Esmond. His 1937 Hamlet, staged in Elsinore, Denmark, with Vivien as the demented Ophelia, was endangered by her backstage behaviour. The young star yelled four-letter words at him and physically attacked him. Yet, 24 hours later , she was her charming self again and seemed unaware of what she had done. To Olivier, at that stage, the scene might have been merely a tantrum, or too close identification with her role. He was to tell the son of his first marriage, Tarquin, that her "rhythm of disorders" dated from her miscarriage in 1944. It wasn't until 1953 that Olivier asked her parents: "Is there madness in the family?"

But whether he refused to admit the signs in their early years together, he had no intention of interrupting his career to help hers. While she was reaching melting point in Hollywood, Oliver was working on a play in New York, No Time for Comedy. In his autobiography, Confessions of an Actor, he wrote of "worrisome news...from Hollywood: exhaustion coupled with hysteria due to our testing separation was producing dangerous symptoms".

Their separation was evidently less harsh for him. He could have flown to her side after completing Wuthering Heights, but he preferred to give her a substitute in the form of Sunny Lash. "It was better not to smudge the career image by hanging around; the best thing career-wise would be to get myself a good appearance in the New York theatre." Somewhat grudgingly, he responded to a call from Gone with the Wind producer David O. Selznick, who stressed Vivien's need of him, by catching a plane to LA and spending one day "to soothe as much as I possibly could". And when she was allowed a few weeks respite, and flew to him, he noted "She was a bit too quick off the mark for me, as I had not finished my engagement."

Dedicated as Olivier was to his career, he relegated all his relationships to second place. Along with driving ambition went deep professional jealousy. He ensured that Jill Esmond's film career was stillborn when he persuaded her to return home to England with him in 1932 rather than take the part in A Bill of Divorcement that made Katharine Hepburn a huge star. His lifelong rivalry with John Gielgud had been well chronicled, and when actor Ralph Richardson was knighted before him, Olivier's fury was plain to see.

With Vivien's success in Gone with the Wind, she became the most famous actress of the day. It was the last straw when she won the Oscar for Scarlett O'Hara, at the same time as he lost it for his role as Heathcliff. On Oscar night, she knew she had to be very careful. Posing for the press with Selznick, she held her Oscar to her chest, but posing with Olivier, she dumped it out of the frame. Even so, in the car on the way home he tore the award out of her hand. At home, she used it as a doorstop.

From the start, Olivier and Vivien were frequently parted by their careers. Her love letters, bursting with affection, fill boxes in the British Library. Olivier must have been touched by the notes she left around the house for him. "My loving thoughts are all around you my dearest heart -your Vivling." Her writing, never easy to read, became larger and wilder in moments of fear or excitement, and some pages consist only of endearments. Scrawled almost illegibly in pencil is a four-page letter she wrote to Olivier after playing Blanche DuBois in the stage production of A Streetcar Named Desire in 1949. Given the toll playing the faded southern belled took on her state of mind, she was certainly ill and possibly drunk when she wrote it. It begins, "Oh sweet, sweet Baba [a nickname for him] ... I do love, adore and worship you, so I kiss you and kiss you and love you so deeply and eternally -my love- my life- my friend..."

The glue joining the four flimsy pages is still intact. It looks as though Olivier, busy in London, didn't even bother to read it. Her overwhelming affection had always tired him, and their nine years of marriage had taken a terrible toll on his energy.

Olivier evidently left much to be desired as a lover. Even before their marriage, he shocked a fellow actor, who remarked on his apparent tiredness and pit it down to his physical stunts, by complaining: It's not the stunts. It's Vivien. It's everyday, two, three times. She's bloody wearing me out." He wrote in his Confessions: "It was... hard to make her understand, when she was sadly disappointed in any passionate endeavours, that all that had gone into my acting, and you can't be more than one kind of athlete at a time."

During his career, Olivier would abandon wife, child and lover on his journey to greatness. "Selfishness is almost like a gift with me," he admitted, and referred to Bernard Shaw's comment that "artists must be selfish, it is in fact their duty".

As self-absorbed was he, Vivien was not to argue the point with him. She had given birth to her daughter Suzanne in 1933, found her a nanny and abandoned her, just as she abandoned her first husband, the long-suffering barrister Leigh Holman.

"I was not cast in the mould of serenity," she wrote. "Although you may succeed in being kind at 20, you cannot be calm, with your life before you and your ambitions unfulfilled." Whatever Olivier's reaction to this, he kept a letter from a friend: "Vivien spent her weekend with us and brought Suzanne. She doesn't care a bugger about that child, only corrects its manners and shows it no affection. She spent the whole time torn with anxiety of ...whether you were f---ing someone else or not!"

Olivier's passion for Vivien brought a messy end to his marriage to Jill Esmond, part of a well-known theatrical family. In Confessions, he admits: "My immediate action upon meeting her [Jill] was a decision that, with those antecedents, though not dazzlingly attractive, she would do excellent well for a wife. I wasn't going to wait for anyone better to come along. I was desperate to get married." Jill and her mother, Eva Moore, groomed the gauche young Olivier for success, fixing his teeth and opening up his face by shaving the Neanderthal hairline to expose his brow.

Jill had made no secret of her lesbian tendencies. It was her bad luck that she fell in love with Olivier - and became pregnant with his child - at the moment he began his affair with Vivien. Jill made one desperate appeal to Vivien, but failed to move her. From then on, Jill behaved with great dignity, even when Vivien gatecrashed a family holiday and blew in to Tarquin's christening in 1936.

Just as marriage had appealed to him, the idea of having children and being the patriarch was also very attractive. "I know nothing more beautiful than to set off from home... and to see you young held to a window and being made to wave to you," he enthused to critic Harold Hobson during his third marriage, to Joan Plowright. It was a sentimental notion from the man capable of telling Tarquin not to visit him and Joan, and not to bring his grandchildren "because I wouldn't be able to give any proper time to you."

If the roles of husband and father escaped Olivier, he proved adept in the character of country squire. At the end of the war, he and Vivien flirted with the idea of buying Notley Abbey, in its 22 hectares in Buckinghamshire, after a disastrous couple of years, Vivien's miscarriage in 1944, after she had fallen on the set of Caesar and Cleopatra, brought on the worst bout of her illness yet.

Trying herself as a comedienne in the play The Skin of Our Teeth in 1945, Vivien became as thin as a rake. Before the doctors diagnosed tuberculosis. Olivier convinced her of the advantages of a country life, and Notley became a reality. He described the 12th century abbey overlooking the Thames in dearer terms than he ever wrote a bout a woman or a child. He loved Notley 'to excess", he had "an obsessive, possessive love for it", and when he flew to LA to bring his wife back to a mental hospital, he noted with ironic regret that he was to have been at Notley, moving the cattle off the upper pasture and treating the orchard with lime.

By this time, the Oliviers were theatre royalty. Social life became a drug to which Vivien was addicted, inviting a houseful of guests every weekend. At Notley, you might find Marlene Dietrich or Katharine Hepburn in the vegetable garden, Vivien in Pucci slacks and a matching cashmere cardigan chatting with Rex Harrison in the library, and Olivier in a tweed jacket and cravat showing Orson Welles around.

A hyperactive child, Vivien had never found it easy to sleep more than an hour or two, and now her mission in life seemed to be to keep everyone out of bed as long as humanly possible. An exhausted Olivier often disappeared to bed before his guests.

Olivier stated that he had never had a homosexual affair, but on one occasion he was sorely tempted, and speculation has dwelt on three names: Coward, Danny Kaye, and astonishingly, Richard Burton. A letter that has now come to light throws up another previously unsuspected name. In Confessions, he wrote of a time when "I had got over 'like a spendthrift sigh' my nearly passionate involvement with the one male with whom some sexual dalliance had not been loathsome for me to contemplate. I had felt it necessary to warn him that, dustily old-fashioned as it must seem, I had ideals which must not be trodden underfoot and destroyed..."

In a series of highly camp letters, one with a set of pornographic drawings, from his old, married friend Douglas Fairbanks Jnr, their is this, written without a date and evidently in response to a tardy note from Olivier: 'Spurned?' No, dear! Only anxious not to suspect recollections of your visit had placed me in that awkward 'Oh Christ! What'll I do? What'll I say?' category. I gather now that was not the case. Dugliss Fairhaven." (Fairbanks would often sign off with one of the misspellings with which his fans addressed his letters.) It's simple guesswork to supply the missing previous letter from Olivier to Fairbanks, an apology for a gap in correspondence, and an anxiety that Fairbanks should not consider himself "spurned".

Olivier was in many ways a better friend than a lover. He adored working with other actors, and missed those happy days when he became the first director of the National Theatre. "I've been taken away by day-to-day business. I haven't had the contact with actors I dreamt I would have - haven't left my mark, good or bad."

He had his own love affairs- Vivien made short work of Sarah Miles - but in tribute to his exasperated love for his wife, he stuck with her for 20 years. Her cycles of elation increased her already high libido, and she would cruise London streets in search of "rough trade", bringing home to Notley groups of flattered young people, whom Olivier would courteously entertain before packing them off to the train.

Just how much Vivien suffered is seen in a letter from her great friend Rachel Kempson, Lady Redgrave, to Olivier on March 30, 1960, pleading with him not to abandon Vivien for Joan Plowright: "Darling Larry, I have wanted so much to see you- I was a good deal with Vivien in the last year and ... she has behaved marvellously under acute suffering...

"She had told me that you have found someone else and who it is. I know how you have suffered from Viv. She knows it now and has learnt her lesson - pray God not too late - you have the ball in your hands now. Viv will accept any terms at all I believe - I also believe that if you finally abandon her you will always feel defeated ... the last year's agony has made Viv into a new and far better person..."

Tarquin, who adored both of them both in spite of everything, said that his father was the love of Vivien's life. Despite everything, she would have "accepted any terms" to have him back. In a good phase, Vivien was still enchanting, full of affection and humour. Then would come the depression, and as it lifted, the terrifying elation. And beyond manic depression, the doctors warned Olivier, lay schizophrenia.

The events of 1953 would push her so far over the edge that she never filly made it back to sanity. The strain of making the film Elephant Walk, the story of a torrid affair between a tea planter's wife and his plantation manager in Ceylon, and of falling in love with her married co-star Peter Finch, brought on a period of ecstatic mania that would be the ruin of all three lives.

Elephant Walk had been intended as a dual vehicle for the Oliviers. In accepting it for herself, Vivien was well aware of the commitments that would cause her husband to turn down the movie. When she told him that his replacement was to be Finch, Olivier wrote that "the penny dropped, with the knell of a chapel bell".

He had liked Finch enough, when they met on an Australian tour, to offer him a job in England. Finch was a famed lover with huge reserves of energy for sex and staying up all night drinking - both of which made him a perfect match for Vivien. Perhaps Olivier was thankful to Finch for taking her off his hands for a while. He certainly did nothing to stop it.

The tragedy unfolds in the dusty boxes of the archive, not so much in the series of telegrams with which Vivien sought to reassure him, but in his imagined replies. At first she wrote in a cheerful vein. But in early February, the producer Irving Asher called Olivier in Paris, and told him that Vivien was uncooperative and erratic. With a fortune tied up in her performance, he told Olivier that he had to come and help. Vivien's telegram to Olivier of February 10 betrays a wish to keep him away. "My darling, so sad. Think your visit here impossible. Finish shooting 21st Strong possibility fly back to California."

Nevertheless, Olivier arrived in Kandy, Ceylon on February 17. One look told him she was in a manic phase and having an affair with Finch. Olivier stayed only three days, returning to Paris full of foreboding. But what could he have done? Vivien's condition worsened daily. She began to recite Blanche DuBois's dialogue from Streetcar, call Finch "Larry" and break down in violent fits of sobbing. The crew departed for Hollywood, and on a stop in New York on February 24, to pre-empt reports of her condition, Vivien sent a telegram to Olivier: "All's well darling."

But it wasn't. She had created a violent scene on the plane. flailing at the window, trying to tear off her clothes and screaming that she would throw herself out. On arrival in Hollywood, she announced that she would not be staying at the hotel with the crew but moving into an empty house of Spencer Tracy. The key was obtained, and Vivien demanded that Finch move in with his wife, Tamara, and daughter Anita. What could Finch have been thinking? A more explosive situation could not be imagined.

Between appalling scenes, Vivien locked herself into her room. She could be heard, night and day, reciting the lines of Blanche DuBois. Her friends David Niven and Stewart Granger called and found her naked and distraught, sharing the home with an acquaintance with his own history of mental illness.

Meanwhile, the studio was in talks with Elizabeth Taylor to replace Vivien. On March 6, Olivier sent his wife a telegram: "Darling, it seems asking for the moon is a simple request compared to talking to you by telephone." He sent Vivien another cable, saying he was leaving for a holiday in Italy. But no sooner had he arrived than he was summoned to Hollywood. With no time even to unpack, he flew out and was met by Niven and Granger, who drove him to "the encounter with Vivien, more dreaded than any other in my life". She was heavily drugged, and told him in a zombie-like voice that she was in love with Finch. But Finch had vanished.

Olivier was consumed with anger, not for Finch becoming his wife's lover - he recognised Finch's behaviour had been no worse than his own when he took Vivien from Holman - but for abandoning her.

The charming but weak Finch, broken by his brush with Vivien, was even to threaten suicide. After 1953, his drinking became worse and he entered a downward spiral from which he never fully recovered.

Olivier was out of his depth, but tried to help Vivien. She complained that the nurses would wake her in the night, strap her up and wrap her in sheets soaked in cold water. He disbelieved her, but found, to his horror, that it was true- standard 1950's treatment for violent mental cases.

Despite sedations, she had to be dragged, kicking and screaming, onto the plane home. On arrival at Heathrow, she was taken by ambulance to Netherne Hospital in Coulsdon. She was put to sleep for weeks and then subjected to shock treatment, with Olivier helplessly noticing the effects: "Slight but noticeable personality changes...she was not, now that she had been given the treatment, the same girl that I had fallen in love with."

Callous as he may have been in his youth, he had now been shocked into kindness. Although he had always put his work first, he had often found roles for her in his own projects and now he reluctantly allowed her to play opposite him in Terence Rattigan's The Sleeping Prince, lowering his own performance so hers would look better.

The marriage staggered on through another miscarriage and cycles of illness, until the inevitable divorce in 1960. During that period, Olivier wrote that he would sometimes "put a last desperate arrow into my bow and try 'f---ing' our love back into existence'. finch came briefly to live at Notley in a demeaning menage a trois.

"Her dreaded illness always seemed to add mercilessly to my troubles just when my work was most exhausting," he wrote when he was learning the massive new part of Titus Andronicus in 1955. When Vivien attacked him one night in his sleep, lashing him in the face with a wet towel, he lost his temper and threw her across the room.

Vivien lived only another seven years after the divorce, dying of tuberculosis in 1967. Her despair when Olivier married Joan is shown in her only recorded remark on her rival: "Joan Plowright wouldn't be too bad - if only she didn't smell so".

The tragedy is played out in his archive. There are the divorce papers, but the saddest is a letter from Dr Whitteridge. "Dear Sir Laurence, Thank you for your letter about Vivien Leigh, and I can quite understand your anxiety to have advice about the very difficult problem of her wish to see you, your wife and your children... "As a result of Vivien's recurrent illness...her behaviour and attitudes [can] become rather demanding and outrageous, and incidentally embarrassing. For this reason I am solidly of the opinion that you should not institute visits between the families...You would be doing the kindest thing for Vivien if you side-stepped any contact."

Many factors had held them together for 23 years. There was the perfect casting as the theatre's royalty; his focus on his work; his reluctance for another divorce; the way he avoided personal emotion; his kindness to her and pity for her condition. There was her beauty; her admiration and love for him; her desire to match him as an actor. In 1989, three years before his death from cancer and kidney disease at the age of 82, a visitor found Olivier weeping over a Vivien Leigh movie on TV and saying: "This was love. This was the real thing." It had taken him 50 years to realise it.