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Vivien Leigh and Manic Depression

Actress was personally and professionally affected by bipolar disorder


Updated May 19, 2014

Vivien Leigh

Vivien Leigh in 1953

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Actress Vivien Leigh was born Vivian Mary Hartley in Darjeeling, India. From the ages of six to 15 she was educated in English convent schools, where she showed aptitude for the performing arts; then her education was polished off in European finishing schools. (According to Mia Farrow, 7-year-old Vivian told Farrow's mother Maureen O'Sullivan, who was a schoolmate, that she "was going to be famous.") At 18 she enrolled in the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London, and at 19 she married barrister Leigh Holman, whose name she used to create her stage name, Vivien Leigh. A year later, still studying acting, she had a daughter, Suzanne.

In the mid-1930s Vivien met and began a passionate pursuit of Laurence Olivier, who was then married to Jill Esmond. Leigh and Olivier soon began a very public affair, and after appearing together on both stage and screen, including Fire Over England, they each left their spouses. When Olivier signed to play Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights, which was being filmed in Hollywood, Vivien asked to be cast as Heathcliff's Cathy, but was turned down because she was an unknown in America at the time. It was then the ultimate irony that she won the role of Scarlett O'Hara in Gone With the Wind, which came out in the same year as Wuthering Heights and completely eclipsed the latter film at the Academy Awards for 1939. Vivien Leigh, the unknown, won Best Actress.

Leigh and Olivier were married at last in 1940. During the war years, Vivien worked mostly on stage in and around London. Speaking of this period, stepson Tarquin Olivier, said, "She was an insomniac always, and he had to sit up with her, and he was not an insomniac. She only needed about three or four hours a night. It was very hard." In 1944, while filming Caesar and Cleopatra, Leigh discovered she was pregnant, but a fall on the set caused her to miscarry. It was Tarquin's opinion that losing this baby "caused her manic depression to come forward" (Biography, 2000). Additionally, in 1945 she was diagnosed with tuberculosis.

Bipolar disorder was little understood at that time. Lithium was not yet in use, and the only treatment she received was shock therapy, which was not then administered with the same level of care as today. Tarquin Olivier saw burns on his stepmother's temples at times from her shock treatments. Her ill health, physical and mental, began to strain the Leigh-Olivier marriage. Leigh was drinking heavily at times, culminating in a breakdown during the filming of Elephant Walk (she was replaced by Elizabeth Taylor).

In spite of her illnesses, she continued to work in a handful of films and on stage, winning a second Oscar for her performance in A Streetcar Named Desire. Olivier finally divorced her in 1960 to marry actress Joan Plowright. Though Leigh lived for the rest of her life with a younger actor by the name of Jack Merivale, friends agree that Olivier was her great love. She died of tuberculosis in 1967.

Work Cited

Biography on Arts and Entertainment Network (A&E): Vivien Leigh, telecast 10-21-00.

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