Interview and review: “Vivien Leigh: An Intimate Portrait”

vivien leigh book coverAfter 75 years, her fresh portrayal as Scarlett O’Hara is one of the most memorable screen performances of all time.

Last November, the “Gone with the Wind” actress celebrated her 100th birthday. And to help celebrate, film historian Kendra Bean published a biography on Vivien Leigh, “Vivien Leigh: An Intimate Portrait.” Bean’s book is also the first book written about Leigh in 25 years.

Leigh won two Academy Awards for Best Actress during her short, 18 film career for playing two iconic Southern belles: O’Hara in “Gone with the Wind” (1939) and Blanche DuBois in “A Streetcar Named Desire” (1951)

“An Intimate Portrait” tenderly chronicles Leigh’s life, from her childhood in India through her marriage and divorce to Laurence Olivier to Leigh’s early death at age 51. The book is well-researched, unbiased, beautiful and heartbreaking.

Through her writing, Bean shows her passion for the subject and allows the reader to connect with the English actress. Leigh feels relatable and human compared to the unreachable and ethereal portrait that usually seems to be painted of the mysterious beauty.

A publicity photo of Clark Gable and Vivien Leigh for "Gone with the Wind" (1939). This photo also appears in Bean's book.

A publicity photo of Clark Gable and Vivien Leigh for “Gone with the Wind” (1939). This photo also appears in Bean’s book.

Reading the page-turning biography is almost like reading “Romeo and Juliet.” Similar to the Shakespeare story that ends in tragedy, you are aware of the impending heartbreak in Leigh’s life. While reading about her successful career and marriage to Laurence Olivier, most readers know the whole time of her heartbreaking divorce, bouts with depression, tuberculosis and Leigh’s early death.

Bean chronicles these events sensitively and through extensive research, quoting interviews throughout the book. She is also the first author to delve into Laurence Olivier’s files. The 272 page book is also filled with gorgeous and rare photos of Leigh.

Bean started her Leigh and Olivier research on her website, VivandLarry.com, before moving from California to England to do more in-depth studying of Leigh’s life and romance with Olivier.

In December, she was kind enough to answer several interview questions for Comet Over Hollywood: 

Comet Over Hollywood: When did your love for Vivien Leigh begin? What started it?
Kendra Bean: I saw Gone With the Wind as a teenager and began reading everything I could get my hands on that would tell me more about the film, including biographies of the stars. The more I read about Vivien, the more interesting she became in my eyes. That’s really what started it. Having a website and online community centered on her and Laurence Olivier has definitely helped keep my interest alive over the years.

Vivien Leigh proudly holds her Best Actress Oscar on March 2. 1940. She was recognized for her portrayal of Scarlett O'Hara in Gone With the Wind.

Vivien Leigh proudly holds her Best Actress Oscar on March 2. 1940. She was recognized for her portrayal of Scarlett O’Hara in Gone With the Wind.

COH: I have always understood that you moved to England to better study Olivier and Leigh. Is that correct? How difficult of a decision was that? What was that transition like to study something you love?
KB: That was only part of the reason. I actually moved to London for graduate school. I did my BA in Film and Media Studies back in California and then spent the next four years working. But I knew I wanted to be a film historian and to do that, I felt I needed to get a further degree. I wasn’t really satisfied with what I was doing back home, and just felt like I needed a change if I was ever going to actually pursue these interests. I always wanted to live in London for at least a year, so I applied to the Film Studies graduate program at King’s College London. Luckily, they accepted me and offered a couple of scholarships, so off I went!
It was a big change, but I knew some people here already and knew my way around the city. I also made some great friends through the program who I still keep in touch with today. I think the most difficult period was the transition from graduation to whatever was going to happen next. I was determined to make this book project work, but the process of actually getting a publisher was a long one. It was a very stressful period because being on a visa kind of limits things. There were several times when I thought I might well have to move back to the US and that the book would never happen.

COH: You have been working on the book for five years. What all goes into the research that you had to do?
KB: There were two parts to my research: constructing the book and getting it published. Because it’s a coffee table book, a good deal of the process involved locating, sourcing, and licensing photographs (I don’t think a lot of people realize what a lengthy and involved process that is). I also spent a good deal of time in various archives in the UK and in Los Angeles looking for interesting information (fellow fans/research assistants sent me information from New York and Australia, as well), reading through various biographies, tracking down and interviewing people who knew and worked with Vivien, and seeking permission from various estates to quote from letters.
When I first started this project, I had no idea how to get a book published. So, I also had to do a fair bit of research into the actual publication process: how to get an agent, possible marketing angles, crafting a proposal, etc. It was a lot of work, but very much worth it in the end!

COH: What was a misconception you had that came to light during your research?
KB: I think there have been a lot of misconceptions about Vivien’s battle with manic depression (bipolar disorder) and her relationship with Laurence Olivier, in general. One major grey area has always been the infamous 1953 incident, when Vivien had nervous breakdown whilst filming Elephant Walk in 1953. She was flown back to England, legally sectioned, and committed to a mental asylum. The picture I had in my mind from reading previous Leigh biographies was something akin to Frances Farmer getting hauled off to the state institution.
There were also a lot of rumors surrounding this event, including the suggestion that Olivier was having a long affair with actor Danny Kaye and that this set Vivien off. I found no evidence to support any of that. Rather, there was plenty to support the fact that Vivien had been headed toward a mental health crisis for a long time and previous attempts at intervention in 1951/52 were refused by her. Although this was not surprising given the stigma surrounding mental illness in the 1950s, it was still sad to learn that there’s a chance that this particular incident might have been avoided. I was given access to some files pertaining to this incident that hadn’t been by previous biographers (of Leigh or Olivier). What emerged was a clearer picture not only of the harrowing experience that Vivien went through, but also how that experience affected those closest to her – particularly Olivier. It was a very stressful and frightening time for all involved.
Today it seems fashionable to focus on their interpersonal problems; specifically how horrible Olivier was to Vivien. Through moderating vivandlarry.com and the accompanying Facebook page over the years, it seems to me that there’s a tendency to view their relationship in black and white terms. In fact, it was very complicated. How could it not be? They were together for nearly 25 years and she remained obsessed with him for the rest of her life. Their marriage did turn very sour in the 1950s but before that, and I think sometimes during that period, there was actually a lot of love, respect, and camaraderie between them. That notion was reinforced when going through Olivier’s papers, and those of other people who knew them.

Arriving in New York by boat in 1951.

Arriving in New York by boat in 1951.

COH: Why is it important to study actors like Leigh and Olivier and their relationship?
KB: Because they both made significant contributions to 20th century popular culture. They considered themselves artists and their work deserves to be remembered and reappraised. Unfortunately, their stage work was very ephemeral but luckily their films still remain to be enjoyed and discussed by fans and casual viewers alike. On top of that, they lead interesting lives.

COH: Was there anything you learned that didn’t make it into the book and why?
KB: One of the main tasks of an author is to decide what is important and what isn’t for the story he or she wants to tell. Coffee table books require even more editorializing than standard biographies because they rely just as much – sometimes even more – on visuals as they do text. A couple of examples of things that were left out of Vivien Leigh: An Intimate Portrait: I was told some stories during interviews that I felt were interesting but they ended up being more about the interviewee than Vivien, or I didn’t feel they added anything thematically that hadn’t been said already, so they were left out. I also didn’t spend much time talking about the films she made for Alexander Korda in the 1930s, instead opting to cut to the meat of her fame, which really took off with Gone With the Wind. I did write an essay about these films for the Vivien Leigh Anniversary Collection released in November by Cohen Films though, and that’s something I would definitely expand upon in a full biography.
leighOne of the challenges in writing a biography of a famous figure is that many materials are still in copyright and permission is required to publish them if they fall outside of fair use. This meant that, unfortunately, there were some letters and photos that I very much wanted to use, but couldn’t.

COH: Recently you have given several speeches and interviews. What has been your proudest moment since the book has been published?
KB: I think my proudest moment was actually getting the book published. It was such a long and often emotional journey and there were several instances where I worried it wouldn’t come to fruition.
I’m grateful for the opportunities that have arisen from being published. It’s been such a wonderful learning experience and I’ve met some very passionate and intelligent people because of it. I never thought I’d get to curate an exhibit at a major museum, for example, but Terence Pepper (who edited some of my favorite photo retrospectives) asked me to help curate the “Starring Vivien Leigh: A Centenary Celebration” exhibit that’s currently on at the National Portrait Gallery. I also gave my first-ever big lecture to a sold out audience at the NPG. Public speaking has always been one of my worst fears, but this went really well and has given me confidence for the lecture I’m giving at the V&A in February.

COH: Do you see another book in your future?
KB: Yes! Watch this space!

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From Hollywood to Raleigh: the biggest collection of Gone with the Wind memorabilia

gone with the wind

It started when James Tumblin, saw a dress from “Gone with the Wind” lying on the floor at Universal Studios in 1962.

It was the dress Scarlett O’Hara wore while riding through the shanty town in the 1939 film.

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Found on the floor about to be thrown away, this was the first item in Tumblin’s Gone with the Wind collection-Scarlett’s dress she wore in the shanty town scene

“My mother always taught me to be respectful of belongings. Even if I’m walking through K-Mart I pick up clothing that’s on the floor,” said the former Universal Studios hair and make-up department head. “I picked up the dress and realized it was a dress from ‘Gone with the Wind.’”

Tumblin asked why the dress was on the floor and was told the dress was going to be thrown away.

“I asked if I could buy it and was told $20 for the dress and a whole other rack of clothes,” he said. “I casually accepted. I knew if I was too excited they would go up on the price. The rack of clothes didn’t include other Gone with the Wind costumes but had costumes that Judy Garland wore in ‘Easter Parade.’”

After that, Tumblin began getting phone calls from people who had items from “Gone with the Wind.”

Now, Tumblin owns the largest “Gone with the Wind” collection in the world. He owns at least 300,000 pieces of film memorabilia. Part of his collection has been displayed in the North Carolina Museum of History in Raleigh in the Real to Reel: The Making of Gone with the Wind exhibit. The exhibit started in Aug. 2012 and was originally supposed to end in January. It has been so successful, it was extended until April 14.

The hast worn by Vivien Leigh in the barbecue scene in Gone with the Wind

The hat worn by Vivien Leigh in the barbecue scene in Gone with the Wind

Tumblin’s collection is stored at his home in Oregon. The latest item he bought was a coat worn by a Munchkin in “The Wizard of Oz” (1939).

I traveled from Shelby, N.C. with my parents to see the exhibit on Saturday, April 6.

Vivien Leigh's Academy Award for Best Actress for Gone with the Wind

Vivien Leigh’s Academy Award for Best Actress for Gone with the Wind

The exhibit included costumes worn by Viven Leigh as Scarlett O’Hara, Clark Gable as Rhett Butler, Olivia de Havilland as Melanie Wilkes, Leslie Howard as Ashley Wilkes, Ona Munson as Belle Watling and Cammie King as Bonnie Blue Butler.

It also had the script used by Hattie McDaniel who played Mammy, furniture used in the film and Vivien Leigh’s Academy Award for Best Actress as Scarlett O’Hara.

While walking in, one of the museum workers told us Tumblin, the owner of the exhibit, was inside.

I kicked myself for not bringing along a reporter’s notebook and scrambled to find paper in the museum so I could interview Tumblin. I settled for the back of several museum volunteer fliers.

Tumblin was sitting on a bench with his 27-year-old son Josh when I introduced myself as a reporter for the Shelby Star. The two scooted down and let me sit with them for about a 45 minute interview.

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Owner of the collection, James Tumblin greeting visitors and answering questions at the North Carolina Museum of History in Raleigh

“Are you going to click your heels three times and go back to Kansas?” he joked, glancing down at my bright orange flats.

Born in Denver, Colorado, Tumblin began working at Universal Studios in the late-1950s and retired in 1982.

“I wanted to make a lot of money and buy my mother a house,” he said. “I guess I was too naïve to realize rejection. But I kept going back and wore them down, and they finally gave me a job sweeping hair in the costume department.”

A muff and coat worn by Ona Munson as Belle Watling. This was costume designer Walter Plunket's favorite muff and coat. It took three years to restore it when it was found.

A muff and coat worn by Ona Munson as Belle Watling. This was costume designer Walter Plunket’s favorite muff and coat. It took three years to restore it when it was found.

Every night, he would stay and comb the wigs. One day his boss, Larry Germain, asked him if he had been combing the wigs.

“He told me that Debbie Reynolds liked the way I had combed her wig and said she wanted me to come out to her house and comb her wigs,” Tumblin said. “She paid me $200 to do it. It was the first time I rode in a limousine. They realized I had talent and that’s how it all started.”

He got along with many of the stars and it was a happy time. The only downside was when he found a favorite actor to be unpleasant.

Claudette Colbert, Bette Davis, Marilyn Monroe, Greta Garbo and Mae West are just a few people he worked with.

“Marilyn Monroe was lovely and child-like. Cary Grant was a lovely man. Garbo had already retired, but she would have me up to her apartment in New York to cut her hair,” Tumblin said. “Mae West was a hoot. She would have me up to her beach house and I did 30 wigs for her.”

Katharine Hepburn was another close friend who Tumblin frequently had as a house guest after he retired.

“She loved to drive my truck and always lectured me about my posture,” he said.

William Cameron Menzies's production painting for the burning of Atlanta scene

William Cameron Menzies’s production painting for the burning of Atlanta scene

Another friend was Doris Day. He had an ongoing joke with Day where he threw her into a swimming pool.

Movies he worked on include “Lawrence of Arabia” (1962), “Psycho” (1960), “The Birds” (1963), “The Sound of Music” (1964), “Thoroughly Modern Millie” (1967), “Star Wars” and “The Terminator.”

“I worked for a year and a half on Lawrence of Arabia. I hadn’t seen it for 40 years when I saw it again at a film festival,” he said. “I started crying and my son asked me what was wrong. I worked on this film for a year and a half of my life and so many of these people are gone now.”

The dissolve of the studio system didn’t affect the costume department, but Tumblin didn’t like the situation.

The original score by Max Steiner for Gone with the Wind

The original score by Max Steiner for Gone with the Wind

“It was sad to see all of these people go. I used to see Fred Astaire coming in his convertible. Doris Day and Rock Hudson had dressing rooms next to each other,” he said. “Universal was the first studio to lease out a sound studio to television with shows like ‘Leave It To Beaver.’ Universal survived while other studios died when they turned their noses up to television.”

I even found that Tumblin and I share the same favorite classic film: “Since You Went Away” (1944).

“It was a job,” he said. “What’s nice to know is that I did it well enough that people still want to see my work in films.”

Room of costumes from Gone with the Wind at the NC Museum of History

Room of costumes from Gone with the Wind at the NC Museum of History

Costume designs for Gone with the Wind by Walter Plunkett

Costume designs for Gone with the Wind by Walter Plunkett

A suit worn by Clark Gable as Rhett Butler. It was later worn by John Wayne, who at one point was the same size as Gable.

A suit worn by Clark Gable as Rhett Butler. It was later worn by John Wayne, who at one point was the same size as Gable.

Tattered Civil War uniform worn by Leslie Howard as Ashley Wilkes

Tattered Civil War uniform worn by Leslie Howard as Ashley Wilkes

Worn by Vivien Leigh in the hospital scene in Gone with the Wind

Worn by Vivien Leigh in the hospital scene in Gone with the Wind

Worn by Cammie King as Bonnie Blue Butler during the horse riding incident

Worn by Cammie King as Bonnie Blue Butler during the horse riding incident

Worn by Olivia Deviland as Melanie Wilkes during the train station scene

Worn by Olivia Deviland as Melanie Wilkes during the train station scene

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Hollywood’s King and Queen: The Oliviers

Through the years, several acting couples have been dubbed “Hollywood Royalty”: Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt, Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, Natalie Wood and Robert Wagner.

But none of these couples come close to the class and sophistication of Vivien Leigh and Laurence Olivier. The Olivier’s really were truly the acting world’s (stage and screen) king and queen.

Always gracious, refined and most of all beautiful.  The Olivier’s were always stylish and pulled off the part of royalty very well.

Here are a few photos that illustrate their impeccable taste through the years.

The photo that usually comes to mind when we discuss the Olivier's and their style.

At a tennis match with Claire Trevor in the late 1930s/early 1940s. Larry looks very debonair and Vivien looks fabulously glamorous.

At the 1940 Oscars when Vivien won best actress for "Gone With the Wind"

At home in 1941 illustrating the 'at home' look. I wonder if they ever did their own gardening?

Vivien wearing a wonderful hat on a flight in 1946.

Still stylish yet casual as they relax at home in 1946.

Vivien looks really lovely and Larry looks wonderful in a tux in 1948 in London.

Waving like royalty after a 1949 performance of "School for Scandal."

1951 in "Anthony and Cleopatra": One of the stage's most famous couples.

Arriving in New York by boat in 1951.

Beautiful couple on the dance floor.

Presenting her husband with an award at the Venice Film Show in 1952.

A hilarious photo from 1953 as they get off the plane in Venice.

An interesting fact: I actually was going to do a post about Vivien Leigh being the godmother to actress Juliet Mills, daughter of the Olivier’s friend John Mills and sister of actress Hayley Mills.  In an interview once, Juliet said she remembered being allowed to play in Vivien’s jewelry box.  Sadly, I couldn’t find enough information to a good post out of it, but I thought I could still share the information.

This post has been for the Vivien Leigh and Laurence Olivier Appreciation blogathon hosted by Kendra at vivandlarry.com.

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