A Glimpse into One of Laurence Olivier's Last Love Letters to Vivien Leigh

Individually, Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh were two of the greatest stage and screen actors of the 20th century. And together, they had one of the most torrid romances in the entertainment industry at the time.

The couple’s love story started as an affair, and their romance was filled with passion, betrayal, heartbreak, and lots of love letters, some of which were purchased from the Vivien Leigh estate during an auction by Sotheby's in 2017.

 Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh arrive in England to play their part in WW II in January 1941 | Photo: GettyImages

Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh arrive in England to play their part in WW II in January 1941 | Photo: GettyImages

Olivier and Leigh were the talk of the world for over 30 years, and while their love couldn’t overrule the boasts of her mental illness and his ambition for success, theirs is undoubtedly a love story for the books.

When Laurence met Vivien

After graduating from the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London, a young Vivien Leigh married her first husband, Leigh Holman, a barrister 13 years her senior, in 1931. They welcomed a daughter, Suzanne, two years later.

Although Holman didn’t support Leigh’s acting ambitions, she was encouraged by her friends to pursue her dreams and hired an acting agent, who then helped her get a role in the play “The Mask of Virtue,” directed by Sidney Carroll in 1935.

Vivien Leigh as Scarlet O'Hara on "Gone with the Wind," | Photo: Wikimedia Commons Images

Vivien Leigh as Scarlet O'Hara on "Gone with the Wind," | Photo: Wikimedia Commons Images

Vivien received excellent reviews from critics, and it was right after one of her performances that she met Laurence Olivier, who approached her to congratulate her.

At their return to England, the couple told their respective spouses about the affair, but Esmond and Holman refused to give them a divorce.

Olivier was already a renowned stage actor and director, and he was married to actress Jill Esmond, with whom he had a son.

Laurence Olivier in 1939 | Photo: Wikimedia Commons Images

Laurence Olivier in 1939 | Photo: Wikimedia Commons Images

Vivien and Laurence soon established a friendship that quickly evolved into a love affair with no regard for their respective spouses when they played on-screen lovers in “Fire Over England.”

"I couldn't help myself with Vivien. No man could," Olivier said of Leigh, according to “Lord Larry: A Personal Portrait of Laurence Olivier.”

And continued:

"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."

Olivier, with his first wife Jill Esmond at a Japanese restaurant in 1932 | Photo: Wikimedia Commons Images

Olivier, with his first wife Jill Esmond at a Japanese restaurant in 1932 | Photo: Wikimedia Commons Images

Olivier also admitted that he had married Jill in the first place because he always thought he couldn’t do better than her at his age and “with my undistinguished track-record.”

It has also been reported that Esmond was in love somewhere else, and she preferred women, something Olivier was aware of when they tied the knot.

Defying all odds

Olivier and Leigh maintained their secret love affair mostly with passionate love letters, in the beginning, some of which were 20 pages long, according to The Hollywood Reporter.

Vivien Leigh and Laurence Olivier in "That Hamilton Woman," 1941 | Photo: Wikimedia Commons Images

Vivien Leigh and Laurence Olivier in "That Hamilton Woman," 1941 | Photo: Wikimedia Commons Images

"O my darling little love, I do long for you so," Olivier wrote on one of their first letters. "Oh, my heart's blood it is unbearable without you."

Despite her little experience, Leigh was cast as the Ophelia to Olivier’s Hamlet in an Old Vic Theatre production staged in Denmark.

When their love affair was exposed, the pair tried to maintain a low profile until 1940 when, finally, they got their respective divorces and were able to tie the knot and stop hiding.

At their return to England, the couple told their respective spouses about the affair, but Esmond and Holman refused to give them a divorce.

 Vivien Leigh in 1937 | Photo: GettyImages

Vivien Leigh in 1937 | Photo: GettyImages

Still, defying society’s moral standards at the time, Olivier and Leigh started living together. However, their relationship was still a secret to the media and the general public, as they were afraid it would ruin their soaring careers.

In 1938, Olivier moved to Hollywood to film “Wuthering Heights,” leaving Leigh behind in London.

During that time, the pair kept exchanging steamy letters. One undated note from Olivier, believed to be from 1938 or 1939, reads:

“I woke up absolutely raging with desire for you, my love … Oh, dear God, how I did want you.”

Sir Laurence Olivier, with his second wife, English actress Vivien Leigh, October 08, 1956 | Photo: GettyImages

Sir Laurence Olivier, with his second wife, English actress Vivien Leigh, October 08, 1956 | Photo: GettyImages

And:

“If we loved each other only with our bodies, I suppose it would be alright. I love you with much more than that. I love you with, oh, everything somehow, with a special kind of soul.”

Taking the next step

Leigh didn’t take too long to join Olivier in the U.S, as she was determined on landing the role of Scarlett O'Hara in the film “Gone with the Wind.” And she did.

 Vivien Leigh as Scarlett O'hara from the trailer for the film "Gone with the Wind" | Photo: Wikimedia Commons Images

Vivien Leigh as Scarlett O'hara from the trailer for the film "Gone with the Wind" | Photo: Wikimedia Commons Images

The couple had to separate once again while Olivier filmed in New York and Leigh in Los Angeles, but they couldn’t get enough of each other and tried looking for ways to work together on the screen.

However, they were disappointed several times when directors didn’t meet their expectations and often cast only one of them in their movies.  

When their love affair was exposed, the pair tried to maintain a low profile until 1940 when, finally, they got their respective divorces and were able to tie the knot and stop hiding.

Laurence Olivier, with Merle Oberon in the 1939 film "Wuthering Heights" | Photo: Wikimedia Commons Images

Laurence Olivier, with Merle Oberon in the 1939 film "Wuthering Heights" | Photo: Wikimedia Commons Images

The couple wed on August 31, 1940, in Santa Barbara, California.

Soon after, they went on to star together on the films “21 Days Together” and “That Hamilton Woman, as well as a Broadway production of “Romeo & Juliet” that was self-financed and a major flop for the couple.

Troubles in paradise

They moved back to England in 1943 to help with the war effort. And soon after, trouble started to arise.

Laurence Olivier with Vivien Leigh in Australia, 1948 | Photo: Wikimedia Commons Images

Laurence Olivier with Vivien Leigh in Australia, 1948 | Photo: Wikimedia Commons Images

While Olivier was traveling around Europe, Leigh was diagnosed with tuberculosis in her left lung. She recovered but was advised to pause her acting career, although she didn’t listen.

In 1945, Leigh found out she was pregnant while filming “Caesar and Cleopatra” but suffered a miscarriage.

Soon after, Leigh developed a drinking problem and often had outbursts and mood changes, which would later be explained with a bipolar disorder and manic depression diagnose.

Vivien Leigh as she appeared in the play 'Serena Blandish' at the Gate Theatre in London, 1938 | Photo: GettyImages

Vivien Leigh as she appeared in the play 'Serena Blandish' at the Gate Theatre in London, 1938 | Photo: GettyImages

"I pray constantly that I may take off from you some of your unhappiness onto myself, and I must say it seems to work from this end as your unhappiness is a torment to me..." 

At some point, the couple met Australian actor Peter Finch, with whom Vivien started a love affair.

In 1953, Leigh had one of her worst public breakdowns while filming “Elephant Walk,” in Sri Lanka. She became so erratic that she had to be sent back home where, in the middle of another breakdown, confessed to Olivier the affair with Finch.

ivien Leigh and Laurence Olivier on a train in Maribor, 1957 | Photo: Wikimedia Commons Images

ivien Leigh and Laurence Olivier on a train in Maribor, 1957 | Photo: Wikimedia Commons Images

Still, the couple remained together for more years, and in 1956, Vivien got pregnant and, once again, lost the baby. That sent her into another bust of depression.

Soon after, Olivier began an affair with actress Joan Plowright, who was 22 years his junior while Leigh started seeing actor Jack Merivale.

Olivier eventually asked for a divorce in 1960. Leigh was devastated.

Laurence Olivier and Joan Plowright performing in The Entertainer on Broadway in 1958 | Photo: Wikimedia Commons Images

Laurence Olivier and Joan Plowright performing in The Entertainer on Broadway in 1958 | Photo: Wikimedia Commons Images

One of the last letters

In the years that followed their split, Laurence and Vivien kept in touch and, in one of the last messages he sent her, Olivier prayed for her to find happiness, and continued:

“I pray constantly that I may take off from you some of your unhappiness onto myself, and I must say it seems to work from this end as your unhappiness is a torment to me, and the thought of it a constant nightmare. Perhaps now it may be allowed to gently lift off and blow softly away."

Leigh wouldn’t live much longer after her tuberculosis recurred. She passed away at her home on July 8, 1967.

Vivien Leigh and Laurence Olivier at Holy Trinity Church in London for the wedding of Miss Leigh's daughter,  December 1957 | Photo: GettyImages

Vivien Leigh and Laurence Olivier at Holy Trinity Church in London for the wedding of Miss Leigh's daughter, December 1957 | Photo: GettyImages

Merivale found her lying on the floor and called Olivier, who rushed to the home to pay his respects before helping Merivale make funeral arrangements.

Just five weeks before Vivien’s death, Olivier had sent her the last letter that he signed: “Sincerest love darling, your Larry.”

Laurence Olivier passed away on July 11, 1989, aged 82.

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