Suzanne Talks About Her Famous Mother

This article appeared in several 1956 editions of Husmodern magazine.

PART ONE: May I present Sue Holman, she is the daughter of Vivien Leigh.

How many times have I not heard these words and how many times have I not seen the surprise on people’s face. Mother and I do not look alike at all, or at least you have to look very carefully in order to discover any similar features.

I don’t remember much from my earliest childhood but I always had the feeling that there was something special about my mother. And I also remember an occasion when I sat on her lap and delightedly waved to a lot of journalist who had gathered in our living room in order to interview mother after a theatre premiere. I was wearing an enormously large, frilly hat and a wide organdie frock.

I could not have been more than five when I started to realise what it meant being an actress. One evening I got to wear my best dress and grandmother came to collect me.

- Where are we going, Grandma? I asked while we drove through the foggy streets of London.

- You will soon find out, dear, said Grandma.

And so we arrived at the Old Vic Theatre on Waterloo Road. We passed through some long corridors where the floor was covered by red carpets and finally reached the auditorium – I remember how impressed I was, everything being so big and strange and there were so many people.

I was given a cushion for my seat next to grandma and then the curtain came up for A Midsummer Night’s Dream – the first Shakespeare performance to be attended by the present Queen of England and her sister Margaret. And when the queen of elves, Titania, came on stage, I flew up and shouted proudly: – Look, that’s my mummy!

It was a wonderful experience and I decided there and then to become an actress myself.

Once I had left school and the pension in Switzerland I knew exactly what to do. I applied for the Old Vic theatre school and was promised an audition.

By this time, my mother had been married for many years to Larry – my stepfather, Sir Laurence Olivier. He is the most wonderful stepfather you can wish for, so wise, so kind and understanding.

To be perfectly honest I did not take my work at the theatre school all that seriously and I was probably quite lazy. The night before my audition mother asked which play I was going to perform.

- Shakespeare, I said evasively. Romeo and Juliet…

- Let’s hear! mother said to my horror.

And so I started:

- “Stretch out, stretch out, with sparks flying around the hooves….” I fell silent, embarrassed because I couldn’t recall the rest.

- “The span of the sun…” mother prompted sternly.

- “….and fly to the dwellings of Febi…” I mumbled.

- “Such a coachman as Faeton…” mother continued.

I struggled through a few more lines but could see that mother was losing patience. Anybody could hear I was not sufficiently prepared.

I knew mother would be cross and rightly so – she has never tolerated negligence and indifference. Everything she sets out to do she does with perfection, I have heard her practice the same line for hours at end in order to get it perfect.

I cried but mother did not give in, she wouldn’t let me audition the next day.

- You know very well, Sue, she said, that becoming a good actress means hard and persistent work. You can’t treat it like a game or you will get nowhere.

Mother knew I did not posses her enormous energy and pleasure in hard work – which is what it takes to become a good actress.

Despite this father and mother decided that I could continue my theatre studies and so I applied for the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art and was subsequently accepted.

Mother was constantly acting in new parts, e.g. Shaw’s Caesar and Cleopatra, and Shakespeare’s Anthony and Cleopatra. She studied carefully and read every book ever written about Cleopatra. She took singing lessons in order to lower the register of her voice and she put her whole soul in the creation of the part.

Mother’s Cleopatra got rave reviews and she herself had only one small objection – she was apprehensive about the revolving stage!

- I am so terribly nervous around electronic devises, she said. As soon as I get close to them everything goes wrong!

Once when she was appearing on radio she warned the producer: – It’s up to you if you want to risk it, I am convinced something will happen.

- I’ll risk it, he said cheerfully, but when mother arrived at the studio she was met by a strong smell of burning. Smoke petered out from the control boot where there had been a short circuit. The programme had to be taped. Later on in the evening we were going to listen to it at home but then of course the radio stopped working!

Mother has said that she is always nervous before a premier. Not only before the premier, come to think of it, but that is the price you pay if you want to stay at the top and give every performance your absolute best.

Later, when I myself was appearing on television it was not the equipment that was the trouble, it was me – I simply got stage fright.

I had studied the part properly but the day before the performance I was stiff with fear. I tried to calm down by thinking things would improve the next day and if I failed I could always immigrate to Australia and look after sheep!

- Watch your nerves, Larry, my stepfather, cautioned me.

- I am not the slightest bit nervous, I assured him.

- That’s what I thought when I was young too, he replied. I was once in a play and on stage there was a small step behind the door leading to the stage. Everybody told me to mind the step and finally I was sick to death hearing about it.

Then came the moment where I was going to make my entrance on the stage. I flung the door wide open – and stumbled on the step and fell headlong on the stage!

After the television appearance I strongly considered Australia and the sheep but instead went to work for my grandmother at her beauty parlour in Knightsbridge.

My grandmother is a delightful human being, happy and with a great sense of humour as well as a great representative for her profession. When my mother comes to get beauty treatment it is always my grandmother who will do it. Grandmother knows how important peace and relaxation is to a busy and celebrated actress.

Long before I started working at the beauty parlour mother tried to help me with my make-up. Once, after I had left school, I came to collect mother after a performance. She was sitting at her desk in her dressing room and when she noticed me she cried out in alarm. I had painted my lips with the darkest red you can imagine!

I did not repeat that particular mistake but it was some time before I bothered to take the other advice she gave me: – Never use too much powder or lipstick, darling, she said. It will make you look older!

Mother herself is always very lightly made up. She hardly uses any rouge and eye shadow is for evenings only. She also wears very light coloured lipsticks.

She goes to the hairdresser once a week but not at all for the same reason as most women do. She doesn’t go there to get her hair curly but to make her already curly hair straight! She’s got the same problem when going to the beach – if her unruly hair gets wet it is almost impossible to straighten out.

When mother is travelling she avoids whenever possible to stay in hotels. If she is to stay a few days in a certain place she’d rather rent a small flat and then bring a few of her favourite things with her, a couple of paintings, some ornaments, a beautiful table cloth. Only then will mother feel at home. She has, by the way, the most wonderful collection of paintings and a few of her favourites are the French impressionists Degas, Monet, Renoir.

My father’s and mother’s country place is called Notley Abbey and is a beautiful house next to an old monastery.

The house itself is not that big, there is a library, a living room and a dining room and a few small bedrooms. Outside there is a lovely garden which mother and Larry designed and where they often spend Sunday afternoon. They cultivate tomatoes, melons but most of all various kinds of flowers.

A couple of years ago mother and father started a brand new enterprise: pig breeding. And their pigs are living in the most modern and luxurious environment I’ve ever seen.

At Notley there are also a few Jersey cows and every cow has been named after mother’s main parts. Cries of “Cordelia”, “Perpetua”, “Blanche” will echo across the fields when the cows are being brought back for evening milking.

Mother is very fond of cooking and enjoys collecting recipes from the countries she has visited. A couple of months ago she brought back with her from Italy a wonderful recipe for pasta – a thick cheese spread which is put in the fridge until stiffened. You then fry it with eggs and bread crumbles until it turns golden.

I have spent numerous weekends at Notley but I will never forget the time when Danny Kaye, Orson Welles, Bette Davies and a few others were visiting.

So how did these celebrities spend their weekend? Well, they slept almost all the time. It does not sound terribly romantic but that’s what they did. Neither of them was up for breakfast and lunch was not had until 4 o’clock. But they did play a game of croquet in the garden after the meal and those who were more energetic played some tennis. And mother, who is very fond of gardening, managed once to persuade Marlene Dietrich to weed.

Perhaps I have sometimes been envious of mother and father for leading such an interesting life, filled with events from morning to night. But I have also seen the enormous amount of work behind every part, every performance and how the fear of failure is constantly looming. And I know how often mother wishes she could spend some time alone, to get some peace and quiet.

Maybe I realised this when I got the opportunity to fly to Hollywood to stay with mother while she was filming. I had just turned 16 and everything was so exciting. Mother had already gone ahead and I was to go later together with Larry.

It was my first flight and I was both apprehensive and excited.

Larry noticed my nervous state and whispered: – Don’t worry, I’ll hold your hand!

We were assigned to our seats and had to wait a bit longer before finally taking off. I look out of the window and saw how we slowly left the ground. I then turned to Larry but my stepfather was fast asleep.

PART TWO: How my mother became Scarlett O’Hara

When flying across the Atlantic with Larry, my stepfather Sir Laurence Olivier, I was all too excited to sleep. But Larry slept soundly almost throughout the entire flight.

We were to stop over in New York for a few days before continuing on to Hollywood to join mother. In my handbag I had a letter from her saying: “…and maybe you will get the chance to be in a few of the scenes I am presently filming..”.

Our two days in New York were like a hectic dream. We managed to see several plays and movies, I went up the Empire State Building, I had my first hotdog and we strolled together in Central Park.

And then finally we continued by air to Hollywood and this time it was not only Larry who slept well – I was exhausted after our experiences in New York.

Mother met us at the airport and she was amazingly beautiful as always.

It was lovely seeing mother again and while driving through Los Angeles we talked about everything that had happened since we last had seen each other. Mother was staying on the outskirts of the city in a bungalow which was very long and low with a flat roof. In the garden there were tall eucalyptus trees and below us was Los Angeles in all its glory.

But we did not stay there for long. Something was missing and that something was very important in the warm Los Angeles climate: a pool. So we moved to another house in Beverly Hills, a beautiful Spanish style villa, like so many other around the Los Angeles area.

Mother was busy filming and got up at six every morning, sometimes earlier. No wonder then that we had to be in bed by nine every evening.

In the afternoons I would visit mother in the studio and gradually got used to the whole process of filming which initially had intrigued me so. The studio was enormous, a whole city with high skyscrapers and small bungalows. The bungalows were used as dressing rooms for the movie stars, where they put the make-up on and changed their costumes.

Unlike most other movie stars mother and Larry do their own make-up and I used to stand next to mother, completely fascinated while she was making her face up. Always perfectly applied, always perfectly adjusted to the strong, hot camera light.

One morning I sat around waiting for the exciting filming to start. The scene was taking place in a street, a car was about to start, a few nuns with a group of children passed by and a group of African-Americans were talking and joking outside a corner café. And there in the middle of the street came mother as Blanche du Bois, a little foreign to her new surroundings. They reshot the scene at least 15 times.

I was offered to participate in one of the mass scenes but unfortunately I had to leave Hollywood before they shot it and maybe that was for the best.

Sundays at least we could spend together, mother, Larry and I. We usually had a late breakfast, followed by a dip in the pool or we would go and visit some of mother’s many friends. Sometimes we had guests.

I especially remember the actor Marlon Brando. He seemed so young and shy and he rarely spoke with the adults. However, he was very fond of children.

But the lovely time spent in Hollywood ended all too soon. I have rarely hated to leave a place so much but I had to return to London to start my term at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art.

And when mother and Larry returned a few weeks later they brought with them the Oscar mother won for her performance in Gone with the Wind. She had left it in Hollywood during the war since it was too heavy and expensive to ship back.

Mother’s part as Scarlett O’Hara in Gone with the Wind is probably her best – at least she feels so herself. From the very moment she first read the book she longed to play Scarlett – and she got her wish granted.

Larry has told me all about it:

- I had gone to the States to do a movie, it was at the end of 1938, he said. I hated being there and felt so lonely without Vivien. Of course she wrote me, of course she called, oh, she spent a fortune on phone calls and telegrams to me. I knew she could not come over since she only had 5 days off between the movie she was making and the play she was going to appear in. And then suddenly I received a telegram from her: she was on her way, she would arrive in a few minutes! She had flown all the way just to see me for a few short days. Suddenly my life had meaning again. I became peaceful and happy as long as she was near. And then I had an idea. I knew that there was as intense search for a girl to play Scarlett O’Hara in Gone with the Wind. More than 4000 had auditioned. I knew David Selznick, the director, and I knew that he was desperate because he still hadn’t found the girl he was looking for. They had even started to film some of the scenes in which Scarlett was not appearing. Your mother had no more than a few days in Hollywood and those days we wanted to spend alone. But the thought of the main part being uncast would not leave me and so I introduced Vivien to David Selznick’s brother and he acted with the speed of lightning. We had barely shook hands before he drove us to the studio where they were busy filming Gone with the Wind – still with no Scarlett O’Hara. Standing on a small hill we saw a city being torn apart by the war between the South and the North. It was a harrowing scene – the town was burning, the inhabitants fleeing. Smoke and flames swept by us. Vivien stood absolute still but her face was alive and her dark, rich hair was blowing in the wind. She was fabulously beautiful. At that moment fate decided she would be Scarlett O’Hara. For those who saw her there was no doubt. It was Vivien and nobody else who should play the main part. Naturally she had to audition but that only proved that the first impression had been right. Among those thousands who coveted the part there was only one obvious choice and she had come on the scene as a spectator! Luckily Vivien could change her plans and stay in America for the filming. The first thing she had to do was to change her accent and she promised David Selznick that she would get the Southern drawl in 14 days and of course she did. She has a natural talent for getting accents just right – I remember the time she had to speak like a real Cockney which she did so well that they had to ask her to moderate it so the rest of England would understand!

When Margaret Mitchell, the author of Gone with the Wind, met your mother she was delighted that it was Vivien who got the part of Scarlett: She has the right gleam in her eye, she has the fire and spirit that the role demand!

When mother was filming Gone with the Wind she worked 15 hours a day and during five and a half months she only had 5 days off. Sometimes mother had to redo her make-up several times a day. They put on red-brown powder and painted her hands so that they would look red and rough, just like Scarlett’s.

At the end of June 1939 the movie was ready and mother and Larry returned to England for a holiday. But the contract stipulated that they hade to be back in America within a few months and they returned before war broke out.

In 1940 mother and Larry had their biggest flop. They had staged Romeo and Juliet on Broadway but the ticket sales were poor and the reviews negative. I wish I had had the opportunity to see that play because a lot of my friends have assured me that it should have been a success. But that was not the case and mother and father lost all their money.

War was raging in Europe and mother and Larry wanted me to come to America but they did not have enough money to allow me to travel. Then unexpectedly they got offered a solution – Alexander Korda suggested they work together in “Lady Hamilton” and that movie became their happiest onscreen collaboration. Also, that movie gave them the opportunity to let me come over to America again. But at the same time mother and father went back to England where Larry reported to the Navy for active service.

Grandmother and I now stayed in Canada with relatives. I was about 6,5 years and when we had been in Vancouver for 5 months, mother came to say good-bye – she was about to return to England.

When I said good-bye to mother that time little did I know that it would be a very long time before we would meet again. And a few things happened that might have caused us never to meet again! The airplane carrying mother and Larry caught fire and had to return to America. This has happened twice to mother. The second time the plane also caught fire, the engine broke down and there was an emergency landing. No wonder my mother doesn’t like to fly!

During the war mother worked very hard. She had been offered a movie with Gary Cooper but had turned it down. She considered it her duty to go back to England.

So she was sent off to South Africa to entertain the troops and meanwhile our London house was bombed.

During this time I was in Canada with my grandmother.

Finally – after an eternity – I was allowed to go back to England. It was in December 1944 and I was almost 10. I was a bit apprehensive before meeting mother and father – what would they think about my American clothes, my American pronunciation and everything new I had learnt? But when we got closer to England I once again became calm – it was after all my own mother I was going to see after such a long time and she would surely understand me!