By Eve Berliner
Like a moth to flame, the exquisite pained beauty of Vivien Leigh passed before us and burnt up in a fiery denouement.
Doomed and delicate, haunted and frail, she lived her magnificent life in a veiled sadness, her sublime beauty - the rose petal lips, the cat green eyes, the incredible, exquisite face, its own perfection.
She had an air of fineness to her -- like a porcelain doll.
* * *
And so it was that on March 20, 1952, Viven Leigh was awarded the Academy Award for Best Actress for her gripping portrayal of Blanche DuBois in Tennessee Williams A Streetcar Named Desire, a performance which tore at the heart.
She was not present at the RKO Pantages Theatre in Hollywood, California to accept the coveted Oscar in person. Greer Garson did the honors for her. She was instead at the Oliviers' stately ancestral home in Notley, England, drinking heavily and nastily, suffering spells of inconsolable weeping and wringing of hands, taking refuge in the arms of her mother with delusions of strangers trying to seduce her and other temptations. Spells of melancholia during which she would stare at her husband icily and silently and, on diverse occasions, depart the house and not return for the night.
When her spirits rose, she threw parties and entertained lavishly, manically, in a foreboding atmosphere of gaiety.
Her husband, the greatest living actor of his generation, Sir Laurence Olivier, was beside himself with terror.
The Royalty of the English theatre, the Lord and Lady of the London stage, the the divine couple, Scarlett and Heathcliff -- oh, the unparalleled beauty of them, Olivier with his brooding and darkly handsome looks, overpowering; Vivien with her wild dainty beauty.
It had come to this.
* * *
He had just presented his protege, Peter Finch in The Happy Time at the legendary St. James Theater, and was immersed in the filming and editing of The Beggar's Opera, which he produced and starred in, when the call came from Irving Asher, long-time friend and producer, with an offer of a film starring Olivier and Leigh as the male and female leads. It was entitled Elephant Walk, a project that would entail a month of difficult location work in hot subtropical Ceylon.
The script was taxing. In her precarious state, Vivien would be called upon to escape a herd of stampeding elephants, ride horseback and perform a terrifying scene with a snake coiled around her neck.
Olivier bowed out immediately. He had his work to do.
But perhaps, he told himself, it would be beneficial for Vivien to return work, to a place so reminiscent of her childhood in Asia. Perhaps it would restore her to her mind. He consulted with her doctors and her psychiatrists and made his decision: The answer was yes.
Vivien was overjoyed.
But one dilemma remained; who could replace Olivier as the male lead, who could have the charisma, the power?
Coyly, casually, Vivien dropped the name, "Peter Finch."
* * *
The Oliviers had first come upon him in 1948 when they were on tour in Australia and caught Finch in a startling lunchtime performance of the classics in a Sydney factory with a small troupe. They urged him to relocate to England where his talent could be brought to fruition -- and to contact them.
In essence, he was a young Olivier.
Olivier - moved by him - took him under his wing when he arrived in London two months later, his young heir to the throne, and arranged for his own agent, Cecil Tennent, to represent him. He put him under personal contract to Laurence Olivier Productions, opened doors for him, offered him leading roles at the Old Vic and the St. James Theatre, which was now under his management.
Finch joined their social circle. He spent many weekends at their home in Notley and became Vivien's preferred dinner partner, Peter a bit uneasy in the role, Olivier his dearest friend, his mentor and, unspoken, his father figure.
Finch was a sensual, deeply magnetic and powerful presence in the Olivier's lives. The undercurrents with Finch were palpable. Vivien, of course, was deeply drawn to him. He made her blood run. But it was Olivier who struggled with a strong erotic fascination for Finch that would not diminish with time.
And Vivien was aware. There were jibes and jabs and suspicions and jealousies and a subconscious competition for Finch's desires.
When Ceylon came along, Vivien knew she'd won the game.
* * *
Born into an upper class family in England, Finch had been abandoned in his childhood by his parents and brought up in in a succession of households, moving from England to France to India, travelling with his grandmother in Ceylon, and arriving at age 9, a virtual orphan, in Australia. He was raised in a harsh and puritanical atmosphere by distant relatives.
In his late teens, he ran away to Sydney and developed into a wild, bohemian, adventurous, amorous, hell-raising, hard-drinking passionate lover of women -- and discovered that he had great gift as an actor.
* * *
Ceylon, an exotic, mountainous region southeast of India, with scorching unrelenting heat, monsoons, lagoons, azure seas, a torrid island of paradise. It would take Vivien back to her childhood in Darjeeling, India where she was born in 1913 under the snowcapped peaks of Everest and Kanchenjonga, her father a British cavalry officer, her early years filled with tastes and sensations and colors and teeming beauty.
At age 7, Vivien was summarily uprooted by her mother and deposited at the Convent of the Sacred Heart in Roehampton, England, to embark upon a strict, rigid new life in which she saw her parents infrequently.
For Vivien it was its own abandonment.
It was a bond she shared with Peter.
* * *
Finch would be making the journey to Ceylon with Vivien. His beautiful ballerina wife Tamara would be joining them later.
February 1953, Olivier seeing them off at London's Heathrow airport, strangely aloof, with a gnawing sense of guilt, trepidation, and relief.
"Take care of her," he uttered weakly to Finch, and as the plane began its slow ascent, "They both looked back at me through the window," Olivier would later recount, "Peter making a gallant effort to look the assuringly protective friend, and she, with a little smile of infinite sweetness, blowing me a sad little kiss."
Ceylon overtook their senses.
The love affair began.
There was an intoxication, an elation in her, freedom from bondage.
Finch was drinking heavity, as was she.
They would stay up all night, at Vivien's insistence, lying out on the hillside under the stars and then staggering to work the next morning. She could not remember her lines. She was looking haggard.
A dark paranoia began to form, a growing fear of the native's black penetrating eyes, the night fires, the seeping heat, the jungle. She could not sleep. She walked the beaches, the coves through the sultry hot nights and, finally, she began to hallucinate, trailing, childlike, after Finch and calling him "Larry, Larry."
Director William Dieterle was at his wit's end.
He ordered Vivien to rest.
She grew instantly suspicious and defiant.
And after an all day session filming her terrifying sequence with a giant anaconda undulating around her neck, she could be heard sobbing wrenchingly, uncontrollably through the night.
* * *
During the two week's of Vivien's absence, Olivier had taken refuge at his beloved estate, Notley, and as he would recall in his autobiography, Confessons of an Actor, "It seemed hardly two minutes before my peace was shattered."
Elephant Walk producer, Irving Asher, had phoned Cecil Tennant, Larry's agent, in sheer panic. Vivien was out of control! Work on the film could not go on! Olivier had to come at once!
"I was anxious to see the state of the union for myself," he noted with wry reference to Peter and Vivien.
Vivien met him alone at the airport in Ceylon, and implored him to stop off with her at "a rest house" for "a little drink and a relax." Olivier was incensed. He ordered her to get back to work immediately.
"This was met by a blaze of rage that surprised even me;" he wrote. "In the unhappy colloquy that followed, I thought ruefully of the wretched waste of time, effort and money that I had been a party to."
Arriving at the hotel in Kandy, he found Finch in apparent control.
He abdicated gladly.
As for Vivien and Peter's love affair, "Sweet little Ethel, Vivien's maid, told me that so far they had not been to bed but had lain together all night in the open on the hillsides."
Olivier felt no bitterness, no anger, no sense of betrayal. He felt nothing.
"I'd arrived on Tuesday, the 17th and having expressed my regrets to Asher and wished him all the luck that he needed - which was a superabundance of it - I got myself onto a plane on the Friday morning and was in Paris on the Saturday afternoon. I went straight home the next day as I had music sessions for The Beggar's Opera starting on Monday...My situation did not really bear any more thinking about, and I managed to insulate my feelings in a soft coat of numbness."
As soon as work was completed: "I suddenly had to get away, right away, even from England." He arrived at the castle of composer William Walton and his wife Susanna at their Casa Cirillo on the Via Cesotta, on the island of Ischia in the Mediterranean for an extended vacation from Vivien.
* * *
Filming in Ceylon ended abruptly. The remainder of the movie would be shot on a Hollywood lot.
The harrowing flight from Ceylon took 72 hours, Finch by her side, calming her sedating her, comforting her. During the gruellling frightening plane flight she tried to tear off her clothes and jump out of the plane.
They landed at Burbank Airport and Finch took her to the house he and his wife Tamara had rented for their stay in Los Angeles.
Rumors of Vivien's condition were swirling around Hollywood.
On Monday, Vivien appeared on the set. and managed to feign her way through an interview with the powerful gossip columnist Luella Parsons, walking demurely with her through Paramount Gardens, apparently quite sane.
But her mind was plagued by demons. She began to throw fierce and obscene tantrums on the set, with covert requests for stunned friends to procure male strangers for her.
Filming was halted again. The decision was made. She would be replaced by the 21 year old beauty, Elizabeth Taylor.
The unpleasant duty was to be handled by Peter Finch who would break the news to Vivien as gently as he could:
She was out of the film. The affair was over.
She lunged at him.
"Get out of here before I start screaming fire! Get out of here before I start screaming fire!" she cried out in Blanche's wrenching dialogue from Streetcar.
Running to the dressing room door she bolted it shut. "Fire! Fire! Fire!" she screamed as she collapsed on the floor.
* * *
In her desperation, Vivien took refuge in the arms of a madman compatriot, her buccaneering and handsome old lover, John Buckmaster, who appeared on the scene out of nowhere, having just been released from one of his many confinements in a mental institution. He suddenly took up residence in Vivien's rented cottage, presiding over delusional Roman bath parties while the two of them ran around drunk and naked in Turkish towels, formulating plans to organize a sexual orgy.
The frantic call to screen actor and family friend, David Niven came at 6 o'clock in the morning from Vivien's distraught long-time personal assistant, Sonny Lash.
Niven arrived in the darkness. Suddenly the lights of the house were thrown on and there appeared the bizarre sight of Vivien standing nude at the top of the staircase! "Her hair was hanging down in straggly clumps; the mascara and make-up made a ghastly streaked mask down to her chin; one false eyelash was missing; her eyes were staring and wild. She was naked and looked quite, quite mad," Niven recounted in his personal memoir Bring on the Empty Horses.
He warily began the move up the stairs to Vivien.
"Go away! Go alway! I hate you. Don't touch me!" she screamed.
"When I tried to reason with her, she sat on the landing, alternately sobbing like a child and snarling at me through the bannisters like a caged animal."
There was urgent need for a doctor "but the very mention of the word brought on a terrifying reaction."
He telephoned for a doctor on the pretext that it was for his cough.
To calm matters, Niven turned on the television set. Slowly Vivien descended the stairs and joined him on the couch, ice cold and stark naked. He threw an overcoat over her.
The doorbell rang. It was producer Larry Asher.
"Don't let him in!" Vivien pleaded. "They'll take me away!"
"Be a good little girl and go up to your room and shut the door," Niven instructed Vivien gently.
Vivien was compliant when the doctor came, permitting the physical examination. Suddenly, she turned on him, shoving him violently out the door, screaming viciously, abusively.
The terrified Asher put in an immediate call to Cecil Tennant, Olivier's agent, who dispatched an urgent telegram to Olivier in his Ischia hideaway: "Prepare to return to the U.S. immediately."
Vivien clearly required psychiatric hospitalization. Only Olivier would have the authority to sign her in for treatment.
The crisis was severe. There would be a three day wait for Olivier's arrival; three days of hell.
Niven in desperation telephoned their old friend, the actor Stewart Granger who rushed to the scene and immediately negotiated the removal of the mad Buckmaster from the premises. He then telephoned the doctor who phoned in a prescription for four heavy-duty sedatives at Schwab's all night drugstore.
Next came the ferocious struggle with the pills. Dressed in a towel, hypnotized by the TV, Vivien's suspicions were immediately aroused when she saw the food coming at her. Slyly, she fought off the first capsule that had been slipped into her scrambled eggs, the second capsule which had been evaporated in her coffee, and with brute strength, forced David Niven to consume the hot drink and swallow half the eggs!
Niven was soon out cold leaving Granger alone with "the frightening Miss Leigh." The white-faced, wild-eyed 40-year-old madwoman who now dropped her towel to the ground, stepped out of it daintily, and walked into the garden.
Granger followed with a glass of water. "Now Viv, cut out the crap. I'm tired and if you don't behave, I'm going to shove this bloody pill down your throat. Now open your mouth!" Granger recounted in his autobiography, "Sparks Fly Upward."
As Granger started to push the pill in, Vivien grabbed it from his hand and threw it into the swimming pool!
Granger phoned Dr. Martin Grotjahn. The wait was interminable.
Vivien grew alarmed. "You won't let them take me away will you?" she cried out. "Oh, they will be coming for me one day. They want to take me away but you won't let them, will you?" she implored Niven.
Finally, there was a ring at the door. Vivien took off up the stairs and stood at the top glaring.
The doctor entered followed by two enormous nurses, who told Granger "to leave it to them as they were used to this kind of situation. I noticed one of them was concealing a hypodermic syringe, as they advanced to the foot of the stairs."
"How dare you burst into my house! Get out! Get out!" cried Vivien.
"I know who you are," said one of the nurses flatly.
"You're Scarlett O'Hara, aren't you?"
Vivien turned to her with a vengeance.
Niven saw his chance. He grabbed her naked body, hooked his leg behind her knee, and threw her to the ground!
"After a first startled gasp she fought with incredible ferocity and strength. She didn't scream; she was spitting like a panther, biting, clawing and kicking. I finally managed to spread-eagle her on the floor and to pinion her arms by kneeling on the elbow joints. I yelled for the doctor."
Two hulking shadow figures approached her, one dressed in crisp white uniform, the other bearing the feared hypodermic syringe. She screamed a long blood-curdling cry.
"They've come. They've come!" she cried out.
The nurses held her kicking feet while Niven and Granger controlled her convulsive struggles and Dr. Grotjahn plunged in the spear.
"I'm not Scarlett O'Hara, I'm Blanche DuBois!" she uttered softly as she slipped into drugged oblivion.