- - Wednesday, January 15, 2014

By Kendra Bean
Running Press, $30, 271 pages, illustrated

This past November marked the centenary of the woman born Vivian Hartley in Darjeeling, India, who the world knew as that transcendently beautiful star of stage and screen Vivien Leigh. Her celluloid record ensures her legacy for posterity, and I would guess that there are few who saw her in the 1939 movie “Gone With the Wind” who will ever forget the impression she made. However, as film historian Kendra Bean demonstrates in her lavishly illustrated — but also probing and insightful, yet tactful and un-sensationalistic — biography, there was much more to Leigh than Scarlett O’Hara.

It’s ironic that the first words Margaret Mitchell wrote about her heroine in her novel were “Scarlett O’Hara was not beautiful,” for Leigh was nothing if not stunningly beautiful. As the illustrations here show, she managed to preserve that beauty despite the travails and disappointments that clouded her life, to say nothing of the illnesses — mental (bipolar disorder) and physical (the tuberculosis that killed her at 53). When fellow actress Isabel Jeans saw Leigh, still in her early 20s, performing in a London theater, “she was the loveliest thing I had ever seen on the stage.”

As Ms. Bean makes quite clear, there was much more to Leigh than a pretty face and a lovely figure — or, I would add, a beautifully modulated speaking voice and superb diction. She possessed, to an uncommon degree even among stars, a steely determination to succeed and a measure of ruthlessness in shedding whatever she had to along the way. This included her first husband, Leigh Holman, whose first name she took as her surname, and their daughter, her only child. (Her marriage to Laurence Olivier produced only miscarriages, much to their regret.) It is a measure of her character that she managed to retain the affection of those close to her whom she had sacrificed.

Leigh possessed depths of emotion and empathy that were key to what she could communicate to audiences. The texture and profundity of her interpretations sprang from the very core of her being. Even her violent mood swings, so destructive to her marriage to Olivier and at times to her professional conduct, fed her talent. As Ms. Bean writes in her introduction to “Vivien Leigh: An Intimate Portrait”: “She had an aura, a magnetism that drew people in and left them spellbound.”

As one who had seen most of her movies by the time I was in high school, I was thrilled to finally see her up close in what turned out to be her last stage appearance in Anton Chekhov’s “Ivanov.” The performance as a woman dying of tuberculosis I witnessed at Washington’s National Theater took my breath away — her beauty and grace were beyond description, eclipsing even her co-star and lifelong friend John Gielgud. When I learned the next year of her death, the shocking revelation of its cause added poignancy to the still vivid afterglow memory of her on the National Theater’s stage.

Finding myself in London on the day her memorial service was being held at St. Martin-in-the Fields, I uncharacteristically decided to gate-crash it. I told my companion to wear her smartest outfit — and most stylish hat — and with, all the bravado of an 18-year-old, insouciantly marched us through the throng outside the church. “Friend or family?” inquired the red-robed usher. I picked friend as the more credible option, and we were promptly whisked to wonderful seats in the gallery, where we had a terrific view of what seemed like London’s entire theatrical world.

I looked down on her ex-husband, Olivier, who I learned from this book had come around to spend time with her body after her sudden death. That day he looked as pained and uncomfortable as I have ever seen a human being look, and reading the story of their tumultuous decades together here, I understand even more why. I saw Gielgud shed floods of tears and drop his papers from the lectern where he was paying tribute to Leigh. The emotion that was palpable throughout that church left me in no doubt of Leigh’s standing in her profession. Reading Kendra Bean’s portrait will aid in understanding the woman as well as the actress and will enhance appreciation of those enduring films.

Martin Rubin is a writer and critic in Pasadena, Calif.

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