”Who was he?” The truth about the handsome man who captured Vivien Leigh’s heart

After appearing as lovers in the 1937 film Fire Over England, Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh took their steamy relationship off screen and became one of Hollywood’s most glamorous couples.

And despite being ripped apart by infidelities and Leigh’s mental illness, Olivier’s love for the red-headed actor never died.

Decades after her death, and shortly before his own, Olivier sat in his home, eyes filled with tears as his former wife’s image was projected on his TV.

“This, this was love,” he said. “This was the real thing.”

Keep reading to learn more about the starlet who stole the heart of one of the hottest actors of that time!

Born in 1913 in British India, Vivien Leigh had her big break in the 1935 play, Mask of Virtue which received excellent reviews.

Four years before, Leigh met and married Leigh Holman, 13 years her senior, who didn’t share her appreciation for theatre. Despite his disapproval of her as an actor, Leigh – who mothered one child with Holman – continued to immerse herself in the industry.

In 1936, Leigh saw Romeo and Juliet with Laurence Olivier playing the hopeless romantic, Romeo.

According to reports, she whispered to her friend, “that’s the man I’m going to marry.”

Her friend reminded her the Wuthering Heights actor was married, and that she too had a spouse.

That didn’t stop her.

After the curtains closed on the play, Leigh went backstage to congratulate Olivier and before leaving his room, she kissed him gently on the back of his neck.

The next year, the two were cast as lovers in Fire Over England and carried their hot relationship into the real world.

Sir Laurence Olivier

Born in 1907 in Surrey, England, Laurence Olivier was a highly celebrated stage and screen actor, who was knighted in 1947 and commemorated with the Laurence Olivier Awards for London Theatre.

Just as his career was taking off, the Hamlet star married actor Jill Esmond in 1939, a union that in his book, “Confessions of an Actor,” he writes was “a pretty crass mistake.”

“I insisted on getting married from a pathetic mixture of religious and animal promptings…She had admitted to me that she was in love elsewhere and could never love me as completely as I would wish,” he penned.

‘This was love’

About 200 love letters, shared between Olivier and Leigh, are archived at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.

In one of the undated letters, Olivier writes to Leigh, “I hated myself for cheating on Jill but then I had cheated before. But this was something different. This wasn’t just out of lust, this was love that I really didn’t ask for but was drawn into.”

In 1940, the two stars finally came clean, and after divorcing their respective spouses, they married in August of the same year.

After two miscarriages, Leigh became manic – common symptoms of what’s known today as bipolar – and with no understanding of mental illness at the time, she was left untreated.

In 1944, after a brief absence, the starlet appeared in Cleopatra.

Her doting husband was wrong in believing the star, who won an Oscar for her performance as Scarlett O’Hara in 1939s epic love story, Gone With the Wind, was better.

Leigh’s Goddaughter, Juliet Mills, said of her extreme highs and lows, “I remember they had some terrible row that I was hearing through the walls, and [Laurence] slammed out of the room, and about half an hour later there was smoke and Vivien had set the bed on fire.”

As her condition worsened, the Anna Karenina star pulled away from her loving husband.

‘Condemned to death’

Olivier, the star of Spartacus, said Leigh’s distance made him feel like he was “condemned to death.” He wrote, “The central force of my life, my heart in fact, as if by the world’s most skilful surgeon, had been removed.”

Through the 1950’s, Leigh continued to slip into a dark space where she could not be rescued.

“She slept with almost everybody and was beginning to dissolve mentally and to fray at the ends physically,” said Marlon Brando, her co-star from 1950’s A Streetcar Named Desire.

According to reports, both Leigh and Olivier were engaged in extramarital affairs.

While filming Elephant Walk in Sri Lanka in 1953, Leigh’s mental state dissolved and showing signs of psychosis and hallucinating, she was removed from the set and replaced with Elizabeth Taylor.

At the time, the Los Angeles Times (through The Mirror) reported, “Actress Vivien Leigh, weeping hysterically, was dragged from an automobile to a transatlantic plane today by her husband, Sir Laurence Olivier, after she delayed the flight for 20 minutes.”

Meanwhile Olivier had not understood the unforgiving effects of mental illness. “She was not, now that she had been given the treatment, the same girl that I had fallen in love with,” writes the star of The Prince and the Showgirl, a film he starred with Marilyn Monroe. “She was now more of a stranger to me than I could ever have imagined possible.”

In 1957, the Golden Globe and Oscar-winning actor confessed to Leigh about his love affair with Joan Plowright – his co-star from the play The Entertainer – and the love story shared between Leigh and Olivier came to a crushing end.

The End

After her 1960 divorce to Olivier, who then married Plowright in 1960, Leigh was coupled with Canadian-British stage actor, John Merivale.

Four years after winning a Tony for her performance in the 1963 musical Tovarich, Leigh, who was set to appear in the play A Delicate Balance, died of tuberculosis at 53.

The Los Angeles Times reports that Olivier “went to Miss Leigh’s apartment when he learned of her death. He left 30 minutes later without comment.”

In 1989, shortly before Olivier died, a friend visited in his home, where due to a strained marriage, he lived separately from Plowright, whom he married in 1961.

The unnamed friend claims the ailing star was watching one of Leigh’s films, his eyes filled with tears.

“This, this was love,” he said. “This was the real thing.”

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