Funerals of the Famous: Vivien Leigh

By: Alexandra K. Mosca

Text from the “Funerals of the Famous” Profile Published in American Funeral Director Magazine (June 2006) and American Cemetery Magazine (October 2006) Kates-Boylston Publications. Thank you, Alexandra, for sharing your article with!

That Vivien Leigh was destined for great things was apparent from her exotic beginnings. Born Vivian Mary Hartley on Nov. 5, 1913 in Darjeeling, India, when the country was still a British colony, Leigh was educated in a series of fine convent and boarding schools. She studied religion, music, language and, of course, drama. At the age of six she precociously announced to classmate and future movie star Maureen O’ Sullivan, “I want to be a great actress.” A favorite among the other young women, she was. as one classmate described her, “the girl we all wanted to be.”

Leigh became an entertainment icon through her unforgettable film appearances as Scarlett in the classic “Gone With The Wind” and Blanche DuBois in “A Streetcar Named Desire,” winning an Academy Award for each performance. She also had key stage roles on Broadway and the London stage. Leigh lived up to the great expectations her privileged background promised her.

In 1931, her formal education at an end, an 18 year old Vivien returned to live in England and study at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts. Within a year she met and married Leigh Holman, whose first name she would later assume as her stage name. The next year, her only child, Suzanne, was born. Holman, a 32-year-old lawyer, took immediately to the quiet rhythm of married life and fatherhood. The same was not true for Leigh. High spirited, with a circle of eclectic friends in the arts, she was restless. She soon found an outlet in the theatre, through which she met Laurence Olivier, considered by many to be the greatest stage actor of all time.

Much like Scarlett O’Hara, the character she would someday bring to life, who believed that there had never been a man she couldn’t get, one she set her mind upon him, Leigh set her sights on Laurence Olivier. That he was married was but a minor complication. This engaging and complex woman, thought to be one of the world’s great beauties, was said to have charmed all those who met her. While Leigh embarked on a love affair with Olivier, she also pursued stage roles. Little did she know that a world away in Atlanta, Georgia, a book was being published that would one day make her famous and immortal beyond her wildest dreams.

The way in which Leigh first came to the attention of “Gone With The Wind’s producer, David O. Selznick -through his brother, during the initial filming of the scenes of a burning Atlanta on a Hollywood back lot – is now Hollywood legend.

“We’ve found our Scarlett O’Hara,” declared Myron Selznick, to his brother David, who agreed once he took a look at Leigh. After an exhausting search in which seemingly all of Hollywood’s leading ladies of the time begged to be tested, the search was over.

The physical embodiment of Scarlett, Leigh possessed the same luminous and delicate beauty, piercing green eyes, flirtatious manner and steely core that characterized Mitchell’s anti-heroine. What’s more, like the fictional Scarlett, Leigh was said to have been of French and Irish heritage and at odds with her Roman Catholic faith. As far as the public was concerned, Vivien Leigh was Scarlett O’ Hara.

The New York Times’ review of the film on Dec.28, 1939, summed up the wonderful fit by stating, “Miss Leigh’s Scarlett has vindicated the absurd talent quest that indirectly turned her up. She is so perfectly designed for the part by art and nature that any other actress in the role would be inconceivable.”

Filming for “Gone With The Wind” began in January 1939 and wrapped in June of that year, much to Leigh’s relief. She was eager to return to her lover, Olivier, and to test for Daphne DuMaurier’s “Rebecca.” In spite of not being cast opposite Olivier in “Rebecca,” 1940 proved to be a banner year for Leigh. Not only did she win the best actress Oscar for her role as Scarlett O’Hara but at the end of August, Leigh and Olivier were married in California. The newlyweds became the toast of London’s theatre set, acting together in such Shakespearean fare as “Hamlet” and “Antony & Cleopatra.”

What the public didn’t know about this actress who appeared to be blessed by the gods was that along with her success, a debilitating illness was developing which would ultimately lead to her psychological undoing. Leigh had been diagnosed with a manic-depressive condition known today as bipolar disorder. It was unclear when the illness began, although it has been well documented that Leigh suffered a severe depression in 1944 following a grueling experience on a movie set and a second miscarriage in the space of two years. Her first hospitalization, however, would not come for another nine years, following a total mental breakdown on the set of “Elephant Walk.”

Confined for observation in England’s Netherne Hospital, in Surrey, a center for treating psychiatric disorders, Leigh was later transferred to University College Hospital where she underwent electro-convulsive therapy. After her lengthy hospitalizations, Leigh resolved never to go into a hospital again. She suffered in private and over time the condition impacted her relationship with her husband to such a degree that in 1960, she and Olivier divorced.

The years that followed her split with Olivier, were not happy ones according to biographer Hugo Vickers “Vivien was already the victim of her illness. She was not at a good age or in a good condition for life to hold much hope of further happiness. Comfort, companionship and interest she would find, but nothing could replace Olivier”.

Although she did find companionship with actor John Merivale and continued to perform, the last phase of Leigh’s life seemed to be enveloped by the specter of death, either because of the loss of some close friends or the passing of famous people she had known. One of those close friends was Kay Kendall, wife of Rex Harrison, who died in1959, at age 33. Asked to speak at her funeral, Leigh read these words, written for her by playwright Terence Rattigan. “It was as if she had a premonition that the gift of life which she relished so greatly would not be hers for very long -with such intensity and gaiety and fervor did she pack every minute of her stay on earth. Rest and Peace were two things that in life Kay hardly knew. They would have seemed a waste of time”. Words equally true for Leigh.

Leigh certainly didn’t rest. For the next seven years, she was involved in a number of plays and movies. Ivanov, the Chekov play in which she acted with her dear friend Sir John Gielgud, opened in May of 1966. It was to be her last performance.

A year later, Leigh became seriously ill with a recurrence of the tuberculosis, first diagnosed in 1945. Leigh, a heavy smoker throughout her life, refused to be hospitalized, fearful she would not come out. Instead, she remained confined to her bed, penning letters to friends and greeting visitors. Noel Coward described his last visit with Leigh on June 27th, as looking “‘pale but lovely, and smoking, which she shouldn’t have been doing”.

The life of this great beauty came to an end shortly before midnight on Friday, July 7, 1967. Although in life Leigh had matched the indomitable will of Scarlett O’Hara, what she did not have in common with her, was the immortality of a literary legend.

Jack Merivale found her lying on the floor of her bedroom. After failed attempts to resuscitate her, he phoned the doctor. Merivale also phoned several close friends, who rushed over to be by his side. Soon after, the doctor arrived to pronounce Leigh dead. Early the next morning, before Leigh’s body had been removed to the mortuary, Merivale got in touch with Olivier, who, hospitalized at the time, checked himself out immediately to come to the apartment where he spent private time with her body. Leigh’s mother, Gertrude Hartley, returned immediately from a holiday in Scotland, and along with her granddaughter Suzanne, went to the morgue to identify her daughter’s body. A post-mortem examination confirmed the diagnosis of ‘chronic pulmonary tuberculosis’, although friends believed that she had died from a broken heart, having never accepted that her life with Olivier was over. In fact, Leigh had once remarked to a friend, “I would rather have lived a short life with Larry than face a long one without him”.

Almost immediately, the tributes began to pour in from acting royalty. Her death was front page news; newspapers around the world described Leigh as”the eternal Scarlett O’Hara”. Headlines proclaimed “Scarlett O’Hara is dead!”

Although GWTW was the vehicle which made Leigh a household word in America, she was considered first and foremost a theatre actress in her native England. Accordingly, that Saturday at 10:00 PM London’s theatres honored Leigh by turning off their marquee lights for an hour.

By Hollywood standards, Leigh’s funeral rites were simple. A private funeral Mass at St. Mary’s Roman Catholic Church, was held on July 12th at 10:00 AM. Attended by a dozen family members and close friends, the religious service was followed by cremation at Golders Green Crematorium, where Leigh’s father had been cremated eight years before. London’s first crematory, Golders vast columbarium contains the cremains of Sigmund Freud, Peter Sellers and Anna Pavlova, to name but a few. Leigh, who loved flowers, reposed in the crematory’s chapel surrounded by masses of floral displays. Her casket was adorned by white roses, her favorite flower, picked from her garden.

In a tragic irony, Vivien’s agent and friend, Cecil Tennant, died in a car accident, while returning from her funeral. Leigh once said “I will take you with me when I go,” Eerie words, for sure.

The many tributes that followed were as faceted as the woman. Requiem Masses were arranged by friends in parts of New York and London.

On a rainy August 15th, a memorial service was held in London’s St. Martin-in the-Fields Church in London’s Trafalgar Square. It seemed that all of England’s theatrical luminaries were in attendance. Rev. Klwusten Williams, St. Martin’s Vicar, led a prayer service and spoke briefly about Leigh and the “passion she brought to her acting”. Actor Emlyn Williams read from English poet John Donne’s Of the Progresse of the Soule”, which fittingly begins with the line “I sing the progresse of the deathless soule, whom fate, which God made, but doth not control…” Additional readings were from the Book of Revelation and the Prayer of St. Francis. After which, Sir John Gielgud addressed the more than 1,000 mourners—Leigh Holman and Laurence Olivier among them—hailing Leigh as a “consummate screen actress and a versatile and powerful personality in the theatre” and telling them that “her magic quality was unique”.

Three months after her death, on Sunday Oct.8, 1967, Jack Merivale, along with Leigh’s mother, daughter and first husband, scattered Leigh’s ashes on the pond at Tickerage Mill, her estate. Some time later, her mother donated a Memorial Bench for the gardens at Eaton Square, across from where Leigh had once lived.

In a lengthy and detailed Last Will & Testament, in which Leigh had stipulated cremation, she left a long list of bequests to family, friends and servants. The bulk of her estate was left to her daughter. She further requested that her corneas be donated; a request that had been denied because of her TB.

Hollywood gave what was perhaps the grandest celebration of her life on March 17th, 1968, at the University of Southern California. Entitled ‘An Appreciation of Vivien Leigh’, the highlight of the evening was a showing of the original screen tests Leigh made in 1938 for GWTW. As the audience watched her youthful and vivacious beauty fill the screen, they were reminded of the stunning screen presence she had been and of her zest for living.

In letters to Merivale and Hartley, friends extolled Leigh’s passion and commitment to doing all she could do, despite her short life.

“She was so alive. The most alive person,” recalled a young actor who had been part of an acting troupe headed by Leigh. Childhood friend, Mills Martin, may have said it best: “Her life was extraordinarily rich and varied. She lived in her fifty years what other people might in ten lives”. On November 5, 1969, which would have been Leigh’s 56th birthday, a plaque in her honor joined those of such acting royalty as Charlie Chaplin, Noel Coward and Boris Karloff, on the wood paneled walls of St. Paul’s, Convent Garden, the actor’s church, which has stood from 1633 and has had a lengthy association with the theatre. Beneath Leigh’s name and year of death, this quote from Antony & Cleopatra is inscribed, “Now boast thee, death, in thy possession lies a lass unparallel’d”.

Leigh’s life continued to be honored well after her death. In 1985, Leigh’s image was among five of Britain’s most renowned actors commemorated on a postage stamp, marking British Film Year. Some saw continuing value in Leigh’s life long after the accolades ended. In 1993, an anonymous bidder at a Sotheby’s auction paid $510,000 for Leigh’s 1939 GWTW Oscar Statuette. Then, in 1999, another anonymous Sotheby’s bidder paid $90,500 for one of the dresses Leigh wore in GWTW.

Today, Gone With The Wind continues to have a strong hold on the American public. To the legions of the films’ fans the around the world, Leigh will forever remain “Miss Scarlett.”