I recall many years ago filming a documentary about Vivien Leigh for Channel 4 in which I commented that her life and her art on screen were in total harmony: from the skittish, delicious, courageous minx Scarlett O’Hara in Gone With the Wind (1939) to what screenwriter Gavin Lambert described as the ‘deceitful frayed elegance’ of Blanche Dubois in A Streetcar Named Desire (1951).
Vivien only made nine movies after Gone With the Wind not least because she became the first lady of the stage often co-starring with husband Laurence Olivier. The films she did make are courageous considering the lady’s well-documented and hugely destructive manic depression. Vivien was one of the 20th century’s greatest beauties but accepted roles in later life that underlined the inevitability of ageing.
To me Streetcar is painful to watch as is Vivien’s other Tennessee Williams eponymous fading lady in The Roman Spring of Mrs Stone (1961). The latter film in which Mrs Stone becomes embroiled with a Contessa who provides young Italian gigolos for willing older ladies is merciless and Vivien breaks your heart in it. How must it have felt to watch Marilyn Monroe walk off with the role of Elsie Marina in the 1957 film version of The Sleeping Prince: a role Vivien created on stage opposite Olivier?
Needless to say back in the days of manic depression rather than the more cuddly ‘bi-polar’, sufferers of the condition were misunderstood. People saw a voracious, Martini-happy dame living on the edge of her nerves when really this was a symptom not a cause of Vivien Leigh’s troubles. And yet in public Vivien maintained her dignity and consistently produced superb work on stage and screen that must often have forced her to confront some less than glamorous realities.
Vivien Leigh was blessed with beauty, intellect, visceral talent and by all accounts a brittle sense of humour that allowed her to finesse the curse of manic depression. For all who share the condition, Vivien Leigh is something of an inspiration and for that the applause continues long after her death in 1967. For all the gossip mongers who rake over Vivien’s misfortunes I have this to say. Had she only made Gone With the Wind and never worked again, Vivien Leigh achieved immortality and so much more than the allegedly ‘sane’ people who bore us all by leading long, uneventful lives.
It was with no little fascination that I chanced upon a small exhibition of Vivien Leigh’s estate to be sold by Sotheby’s London on the 26th of September with a larger preview on the 22nd. Treasures on sale include Vivien’s copy of Gone With the Wind signed by Margaret Mitchell and her annoted script. There are personal and professional photographs, a painting given by Sir Winston Churchill, furniture and gowns. But it was the contents of Vivien’s jewellery box that caught my eye.
Unlike the Duchess of Windsor and Elizabeth Taylor whose legendary collections of jewels have broken auction records, Vivien’s pieces are not led by masterpieces by the historic Parisian jewel houses. Like the lady herself, they are much more understated, sophisticated and personal pieces of jewellery that reflect a woman of great taste. In addition to Renaissance revival pieces there’s a darling diamond Art Deco Longines dress watch, several graphic mid-century show-stoppers and sentimental jewels such as charm bracelets and inscribed rings.
The star piece is a garland style tasselled diamond bow brooch with an estimate of £25,000-£35,000 in a style worn by the Empress Eugenie of the French. Vivien would wear it against black gowns giving the piece the attention that it deserved. But apart from the bow brooch, the estimates are incredibly low. How did the experts arrive at a low estimate of £800 for a natural pearl and diamond necklace … and that’s before you add the Vivien Leigh magic?
I have my eye on two brooches – a polo mallet and a riding crop – that could be marvellous additions to the inventory of Jewellery for Gentlemen - but fear the £150-£200 estimates will be left far behind on the day. Still, I will register and hopefully attend the sale. I also have to have the catalogue. Sotheby’s are absolutely terrific at researching both facts and pictures to support the pieces in an estate sale of this stature. One of my favourite books bar none are the boxed set of S0theby’s catalogues of the 1987 Duke and Duchess of Windsor sale.
I do hope the Vivien Leigh sale at Sotheby’s inspires the programmers at the BFI to plan a season of Vivien’s films to introduce her to a new generation of fans. Now that mental health is such a hot topic amongst Millennials I would have thought Vivien’s life reflected through her film work would be as relevant today as it was in the 20th century.
Speaking of Millennials, can we have a mini-rant about vocabulary? When did the habit of finishing every sentence with a dopey smile and ‘if that makes sense’ begin? I feel like saying ‘of course it bleedin makes sense. You’re not speaking Swahili and I’m not a fecking idiot’. Another pet peeve is somebody qualifying a fact in their lives that’s a complete mystery to you with ‘obviously’ as in ‘obviously we’re serving prawn fancies at Shona’s wedding’. Obvious to you and the caterer perhaps but news to me…