When Vivien Leigh and Laurence Olivier first met, they were both married to other people: Vivien had married Leigh Holman, a barrister, in 1932 and Olivier had married Jill Esmond, an actress, in 1930. After carrying on an affair for some time, Vivien and Larry finally decided to leave their respective spouses and move in together, in 1937. However, they weren’t able to obtain divorces from Leigh Holman and Jill Esmond for another three years.
Marriage rumours started following the couple around as early as September, 1939. Photoplay jumped on the wedding train, too, with this imaginative drawing of what Vivien Leigh should wear for the ceremony. They called it a navy blue with pink accents, dinner costume of faille taffeta that will be a stunning addition to any trousseau after the ceremony.
“I feel that when a man loves a woman and vice-versa, there isn’t much sense in keeping it quiet,” Vivien Leigh said in a newspaper interview. In January, while Vivien was vacationing at Lake Arrowhead, the divorce proceedings finally began.
Vivien’s mother, Gertrude Hartley, weighed in on the future Oliviers, “After the divorces, they will be happy as larks. They adore each other. After all, that’s all that anyone can demand from life.” Olivier and Leigh’s respective divorces became absolute later that year in August. “To us it is apparent that we are planning to marry fairly soon,” said Olivier.
Now that they were officially divorced, they could, at last, become Mr. and Mrs. Olivier. Vivien and Larry decided to keep their upcoming marriage, and all of its details, a secret. The only people who knew in advance were Ronald Colman and his wife, Benita Hume. Benita even went to her jeweller and purchased Vivien’s wedding ring, as a ring for herself, so as to not arouse suspicion for the happy couple. Garson Kanin was then drafted as best man and Katharine Hepburn as maid of honor.
On Thursday night, August 29, Vivien, Larry, Garson Kanin and Katharine Hepburn drove to Santa Barbara. The ceremony was held at the San Ysidro resort ranch belonging to Ronald Colman and/or Mr. and Mrs. Al Weingand (I’ve never looked into the ownership of the ranch, so depending on which newspaper article or biography you read, the owner somewhat varies).
As soon as Thursday became Friday, at 12:01 am on August 30, 1940, the couple were married by Judge Fred Harsh. They exchanged wedding vows outside, in the garden, facing east toward England. “Larry and I sat talking about whether or not we really should get married and then we arrived and stood outside in the open air facing England and it was one minute past midnight and we were married. The service was cut so short by the judge that all we did was to say the ‘I do’s,’ I wanted to say ‘I love, honour and obey’ and I kept complaining that the judge was cutting my best lines but all he said was ‘I now pronounce you man and wife. Bingo!’” -Vivien Leigh
Apparently, Olivier had told Judge Harsh that they wanted a very short ceremony. “Okay. I’ll give you the shortest ceremony you ever saw,” the Judge reportedly replied.
According to Katharine Hepburn’s biographer, Christopher Andersen (An Affair to Remember), the ceremony itself lasted for only three minutes. “The justice of the peace, by now thoroughly sloshed, kept calling Vivien ‘Lay’ and the groom ‘Oliver.'”
Strangely enough, though they’d been part of the wedding planning, the Colmans didn’t attend the nuptials. Instead, they went out on their yacht and waited for the newly married Oliviers to join them. The happy couple didn’t arrive until after 3:00 am and then celebrated with a small white cake and champagne. Vivien and Larry spent their honeymoon on the Colmans’ yacht before returning to Hollywood.
One reason, that Vivien and Larry snuck away from Hollywood for their wedding, was to avoid the hoopla they thought the press would bring to the ceremony. However, they did such a great job of hiding their elopement, they began to fear that no one would discover their secret.
In 1960, Ronald Colman recalled the events of that weekend. He reported that the newlyweds were slightly anxious that their nuptials had yet to be reported on the radio.
“By 9 o’clock (in the evening on August 31st) we might have been described as definitely fidgety. After all, there’s not much point in having a secret the other fellow doesn’t want to know.
‘We certainly pulled it off, didn’t we?’ I said.
‘We certainly did,’ said Larry gloomily, downing some apple pie.
“At 10 o’clock, thank goodness, the story broke and thinly disguised relief was plain on every face.
‘Too bad,’ said Larry heartily.
‘Too good to last,’ sighed Vivien, with an incandescent smile.
‘Well, that’s the way it goes,’ remarked Benita wittily. After that, we had a very happy ending.”
The Oliviers had nothing to worry about as word of their nuptials had been reported earlier in the day in the newspapers. By the time the couple returned to Hollywood, they had made headlines around the world and were greeted with a press conference, from which these pictures originate. The caption on the above picture reads: Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh having won freedom from former mates say it with smiles as Mr. and Mrs. O. Honeymoon is now over.
Read about Vivien’s wedding to Leigh Holman here. Read about Olivier’s wedding to Jill Esmond here.