The Knight Was Made For Love
by John Blough
About the only thing missing in the recent divorce of Sir Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh to make it the most adroit comedy of manners in many years was a credit line for Noel Coward.
For here, observers are generally agreed, is a matrimonial mix-up that screams for the classic Coward coolness, where everybody was very nice, old chaps, even if there was a deuced lot of cheating going on. The kind of stuff, in short, that has made deah Nuhl’s plays tops in weird love situations.
Conditioned to seeing such things on the stage, the general public nevertheless sat bolt upright when the Olivier-Leigh design for living and loving was revealed recently.
Sir Larry, it seems, chaps, admitted adultery with a gal named Joan Plowright in a London hotel and Lady Olivier, so help us, said she had been a bit more than indiscreet. In fact a bit more than once; two times, to put it succinctly, once in Ceylon and again in London. Like a true blue British Lady, though, Vivien didn’t name the gentlemen involved in these far off Broadway personal productions of Twice Upon a Mattress.
Triangles, of course, are nothing new, offstage or on, and therefore you can’t be blamed for asking: “So what’s unusual about this situation? Here’s Larry, a handsome gent, going for another girl? Blimey, it’s done more times than you can shake a private eye at.”
And of course it’s done, chums! But what makes his case even curiouser is the fact that the lass Larry lolled about with happened to be married to a TV actor named Roger Gage. Yet Roger, to everyone’s surprise, admitted he had committed adultery, too. In, of all places, Helsinki, which seems like a long way to go for a roll in the hay.
There you have it, a four way adultery tablet, which the Court seemed to swallow as easily as a cold tablet with the same quadruple benefits. Only in this case it would have been cheaper for Sir Larry to stick with the bottle instead of the babe, because the Court assessed him the cost of both cases; to wit, Olivier vs. Olivier; and Gage vs. Gage.
|Joan Plowright, with her first husband, Roger Gage|
Thus, as Time might put it, after 20 years of marriage, no children, came divorce to Sir Larry and Lady Olivier.
But if Time put it that way, friends, they would have missed a pip of a story, because the saga of Sir Larry and his Lady is a lulu. In the first place, the recent divorce action brought Larry’s love life to full circle, a coincidence generally missed by the raised eyebrows set.
It started with a kiss and ended with a kiss. Only the women were different.
At the time he met Vivien, Larry, then without that impressive Sir subsequently appended to his name, was very much married to a good looking actress named Jill Esmond. They were rapidly gaining distinction as a husband and wife team; but at the time Vivien blew into Larry’s life he was playing solo at a London theatre, the star of Fire Over England.
Well, sir, faster than you could say Hamlet’s soliloquy, Larry was rhapsodizing over his new costar, who happened to be beautiful, charming and all those things a guy sees when he first gets that way over a dame. The girl, natch, was Vivien and the fact that, in addition to being desirable, she was also married seemed not to bother Larry. In no time at all, the Fire Over England being acted onstage, was a pitiful glow compared to the roaring blaze Larry and Vivien were generating backstage.
As the conflagration spread, fanned by the winds of gossip, Vivien’s husband, a London lawyer named Herbert Leigh Holman, got downwind of it and what he smelled seemed more like something out of Denmark than out of a Chanel bottle. Mrs. Olivier, the charming Jill, also sensed that more was in the wind than dramatics, but before any action was taken, Jill found herself jilted and Holman found himself minus a wife.
Because when Fire Over England folded, Larry and his new-found love loaded their make-up kits on a Cunarder, crossed the Big Pond, and set up housekeeping in Hollywood. Behind them they left Larry’s son, Tarquin, and Vivien’s daughter, Suzanne.
To romantic souls, only great devotion could have caused two such notable public figures to commit desertion. Certainly the love they bore for one another served to prove it. They were so enslaved by Eros that three years passed before either of them appeared to notice they hadn’t been married. In the meantime, Larry had introduced Vivien to David O. Selznick, who was then on a talent hunt for an actress to play Scarlett O’Hara in Gone With the Wind; she tested for the role and the rest is history. Both Vivien and Larry went onward and upward with the Arts, success dogging their every footstep.
To Hollywood they were a perfectly matched couple; they were both talented and easy to look at, even if they did seem, at the time, to have eyes only for each other.
I never saw a happier couple, Katharine Hepburn, echoing the sentiments of the Oliviers’ circle, remarked when the couple were finally married. The wedding, which caught most of Hollywood by surprise, took place at Ronald Colman’s ranch at Santa Barbara, long a favorite spot where the British elite wold meet to eat, munch crumpets and compare bankbooks.
The honeymoon was scarcely over when Vivien, a ball of fire on screen as well as off, was stricken with TB and sent to a sanitarium in Switzerland. During the years she remained there, Larry visited her regularly and, to all appearances, was a perfect model of an upright husband.
But he also had his career to consider. Triumph followed on triumph for him and, as always happens, beautiful women heaved themselves whole-heartedly at him. They got short shrift for all their short breaths. Larry seemed determined to surround himself with males for protection and for companionship. Thus, if Vivien did hear stories of the way sirens schemed to play offstage Juliet to her romantic Romeo, Larry’s friends could assure her it was just so much nonsense.
Naturally, Vivien had her fears for Larry, a friend of the couple recalls. What woman wouldn’t worry about another female taking her man away from her? But when she realized that Larry welcomed the company of men– when he didn’t have her around– she was persuaded their marriage was still valid.
Once she was released from the sanitarium, Vivien again fitted perfectly into the pre-togetherness picture the loving couple had conjured up for themselves. When WWII broke out, they worked tirelessly in the war effort, entertaining British troops anywhere they were sent. These laudable patriotic efforts, however, taxed Vivien’s strength and prevented her full recovery, something that was not immediately evident.
At cessation of hostilities, the Oliviers resumed their separate careers, Larry to make it big with his movie and stage version of Hamlet and Vivien to soar to triumph as a nymphomaniac in the film rendition of A Streetcar Named Desire.
Playing the role of a pathetic woman whose sexual desires eventually bring her to an insane asylum was no easy part for the actress. A thing like that called for consummate skill and Vivien, doubtless realizing this, threw herself feverishly into the role. The ways it absorbed her was the wonder of the Oliviers’ circle, many of whose members commented on how Vivien lived with it. She often startled friends with the gestures, voice and lines of Blanche, the lady who couldn’t leave sex alone, When the picture was released, Vivien was established as one of the finest actresses in Hollywood.
Instead of resting on her laurels, and unaware that she was not fully recovered from her TB bout, Vivien meekly consented to go on tour with Larry in two Caesar plays, Shaw’s Caesar and Cleopatra and Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra.
Vivien was always ready to do anything Larry wanted, a friend recalls. Although she knew she was an accomplished actress, she meekly accepted his direction. He picked her movie roles and in general told her what to do. Vivien always felt that the male partner should dominate.
Surprisingly, she did a complete about face. When the tour of the two Caesars ended, Paramount asked her to do a movie with Larry based on the book Elephant Walk, a story of a faded beauty who rules a Ceylon plantation.
Olivier turned thumbs down on the deal, and intimated that his refusal included Vivien also. For once, she defied him, but not completely. Although Olivier became reconciled to Vivien’s rebellion, he insisted that an old friend of the couple, a young actor named Peter Finch, go along to keep her company. Olivier’s attitude had one Hollywood wit wondering whether Larry thought that Dana Andrews, Vivien’s co-star, and a herd of elephants featured in the picture, weren’t enough to keep her from feeling lonesome. Less charitable people called it just plain jealousy on Olivier’s part.
Whatever the actor’s misgivings, trouble brewed, bubbled and boiled over.
Although Finch was on hand as family friend and protector in Ceylon, Vivien soon showed him he was only one of a number of handsome young men who could offer solace on their own. She began to be plagued with insomnia, and when her fears and tautness became evident to Andrews the star suggested that Vivien see a psychiatrist, I don’t believe in them, she said curtly.
It soon became evident that what she preferred was Yoga, and we don’t mean Berra.
It was Eastern philosophy. The guy who introduced it to her was an actor friend of Peter Finch named John Buckmaster.
Buckmaster taught Vivien the finer points of the Oriental cult and also spent many nights sitting outside her bedroom in a trance. Some unsung wit on location once had the presence of mind to snap a memorable picture of Vivien, legs crossed in traditional Yoga posture, with a snake curled around her shoulder.
Larry could have saved himself a lot of heartache if he’d seen this picture earlier, a press agent says, but he was sure that with Finch chaperoning her, Vivien was in good hands.
The only trouble was that Finch, Buckmaster and Vivien made it a very cozy threesome. And, meanwhile, Vivien’s ordinarily sunny disposition turned to arrant rudeness and temper tantrums.
She cried on the set. Twice she forgot her lines. On several occasions she locked herself in her dressing room and refused to come out. Behind the closed door, she listened impassively to the importunities of the company manager, while outside, his face a placid mask of contentment, Buckmaster sat cross legged, lost in Nirvana. But then the day arrived that Vivien began answering conversations in Elizabethan English, the company knew the end was near. Before long Vivien collapsed, sobbing and screaming.
When Olivier flew over to take her home, he found that Finch had long since left town after refusing to talk to his friends of the press, and that Buckmaster had suffered a breakdown the day after Vivien’s collapse.
Hollywood’s great, shrivelled, golden heart went all out to Larry and Vivien in this moment of dire distress and every studio wondered anxiously whether Vivien would work again. After all, she was box-office. Their fears were groundless. Six months later Vivien was her happy self again and had returned to the London stage where she played opposite her husband, now Sir Larry, in The Sleeping Prince.
Then an unfortunate recurrence of her old malady sent her back to the Swiss sanitarium. When The Sleeping Prince became a movie, retitled The Prince and the Showgirl, Marilyn Monroe played the role created by Vivien. It was one of Larry’s most disappointing productions and, definitely, the biggest turkey Monroe ever turned in in the name of Art. As if Larry didn’t have enough woe trying to forget his mishaps with MM, Vivien was released from the sanitarium, but, instead of rushing to her husband, she headed for America where she made a sensational announcement.
She was, she told the press, expecting a baby. Whether this news- which proved erroneous- had a jarring effect on Sir Larry, busy pitching cinematic woo with Monroe, has never been recorded. Later, after Vivien had discovered she wasn’t pregnant, another slight touch of unusual domesticity brought the wrath of the British press down on her head.
To everyone’s astonishment except Sir Larry’s (who later claimed he sanctioned the arrangement), Vivien got in touch with her ex-husband, Barrister Holman, and went vacationing in Italy with him and their daughter Suzanne, then 23.
Proper Britishers fumed at the scandalous holiday and a lady member of Parliament huffed that it was a terrible example for people in high places to set before our children.
If anyone expected Vivien’s informal vacation to break up the Oliviers, or introduce what the French call a ménage à trois to proper British households, they were disappointed. The Oliviers were in business as usual. This was obvious when Larry finished a walking tour of Scotland with his son and returned home.
He and Vivien embarked on a Shakespeare kick in the Bard’s birthplace. Togetherness seemed in order again, even when Vivien returned to the States to star in the Broadway production of Duel of Angels. Prior to departure, however, she incurred Olivier’s displeasure, and aroused the delight of the British press, when she slipped on a red satin bathing suit and black mesh stockings and made her TV debut as Sabina, the talkative, never-say-die seductress in Thornton Wilder’s The Skin of Our Teeth.
Chortled the London Daily Herald: Well, it if isn’t granny in tights.
More circumspectly, the London Daily Mail gasped: Legs!
Olivier just subsided into moody silence, an obvious picture of a man conditioned to problems. Besides, he had another problem, no one seemed to know about, Vivien in particular. Larry, it seems, was in love again.
The object of his affection was a shy English actress with dark, close cropped hair and round, rag doll eyes. Her name was Joan Plowright and she came to Sir Larry’s attention as the bright hope of the English Stage Company. He promptly signed her to play his daughter in The Entertainer. This was followed by a role opposite him in Rhinoceros. The daughter of a Lincolnshire newspaper editor, Joan broke into show business as an amateur, got into the Old Vic on a scholarship and then toured the countryi n repertory.
|Vivien Leigh and Jack Merivale|
Just as he had with Vivien, Sir Larry saw her on a stage and flipped. Vivien, meanwhile, appearing in New York, was keeping busy after hours with one of her co-players, a handsome young actor named John Merivale, son of the noted Gladys Cooper and the late Philip Merivale.
Then Vivien got the word that Sir Larry wanted to wed Joan Plowright. Keeping the traditional stiff upper lip, Vivien announced: Lady Olivier wished o say that Sir Laurence has asked for a divorce in order to marry Miss Joan Plowright. She will naturally do whatever he wished.
Said Sir Larry: It is too private an affair to discuss just now. I must think.
Still thinking, Olivier came to New York in Becket hard on the heels of his lady love who had arrived a week earlier to open in A Taste of Honey. Finally, what he had been thinking about came out in court: Vivien had cheated in Ceylon (with a person unnamed) and in London with another person also unnamed; Larry had cheated with Joan, who had cheated on her husband, who had cheated with another person, unnamed, in Helsinki.
Obviously, a four way confession of sin like this, if made earlier, would have prevented Olivier from obtaining a knighthood, whatever his merits as an actor. But since it happened after honors had been granted to him, there wasn’t much anyone could do about it.
The recent turn of events may have left Sir Larry in a daze, but there’ll always be the Knight.