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Vivien Leigh's Birthday Centenary

In celebration of the 100 year anniversary of acclaimed actress Vivien Leigh's birth, we're taking a dive into the vast array of Vivien Leigh collections that we have here at the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust.

Madeleine Cox

This week saw the centenary of Vivien Leigh's birth and we were looking at some of the stunning Angus McBean photos we have in our collections of the Vivien and her husband, Laurence Olivier, just recently in order to create a display to accompany Shakespeare Aloud's production of Macbeth.

Vivien Leigh
Vivien Leigh stamp from the 1980s, created from an Angus McBean photo taken in 1938

A "Gone with the Wind" and Vivien Leigh fan long before I came to work at the Birthplace Trust, these have always been amongst my favourite items in the collections.

We have some stunning photos of her as Lady Macbeth, Viola, Lavinia in the 1955 Shakespeare Memorial Theatre productions of Macbeth, Twelfth Night, and Titus Andronicus (the last being a production that also went on tour in Europe in 1957) as well as programmes, prompt books, costume designs, and reviews of these productions. These will soon be enhanced by the work of the Shakespeare by Design project, which will link up the 'paper' archives with the original costumes cared for by the RSC. Here is a sneak preview of one of the fantastic costume photos created by this project - one of Vivien's costumes as Lady Macbeth:

Vivien Leigh Lady Macbeth costume
Lady Macbeth, 1955 (production directed by Glen Byam Shaw and designed by John Furse)

Whilst many people are aware of the performance archives we hold, they may not be aware that we also have other, personal correspondence and photos relating to Vivien Leigh in the Alan Dent Collection, which has only come out of embargo in the last five years.

Alan Dent was a drama critic and author who knew Leigh and Olivier personally. On his death in 1978, his collection of correspondence, literary papers, books, programmes, and news cuttings was presented to the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust.

A quick search through some of these boxes turned up some quirky and cheering letters Vivien wrote to Alan while he was recuperating in a military hospital in 1944. She signs the letter "Your dented friends"!

She takes great pleasure in berating him for not writing and tries to lift his spirits and make him smile. One letter on her headed notepaper simply says "Where art thou Alan?" Other treasures include a telegram from Larry (Laurence Olivier), signed photos, and a very poignant message written after Vivien's death showing Alan's affection and high regard for her.

Vivien Leigh Alan Dent
Letter from Vivien Leigh to Alan Dent telling him about an article she saw about a “Mr Lillicrap”!

Personal correspondence from Leigh is a hot topic at the moment as the V&A are lucky enough to have acquired an amazing archive collection, including Vivien’s diaries, kept throughout her life, and letters revealing her defining love affair and marriage to Laurence Olivier, which are all on exhibition at the moment.

If you’re in Stratford and would like to explore these or other items from our collections, please let us know. You might also like to visit the tree dedicated to Vivien Leigh in the garden by the Swan Theatre.

Vivien Leigh Laurence Olivier
A signed photo of Vivien Leigh and Laurence Olivier dedicated to Alan Dent

Despite her mental health issues and recurrent bouts of tuberculosis, which finally caused her death at the early age of 53, she continued to act. It's hard to imagine how she took on such emotionally gruelling roles as that of Lavinia, given the problems she was facing. As well as playing major Shakespearian roles, she had won two Academy Awards and a Tony, and starred on Broadway and in the West End. Her life and career seem marked by tremendous determination in overcoming great odds to achieve her goals - being cast in leading roles such as Titania and Ophelia at the Old Vic in the 1930s, in spite of her relative inexperience; marriage to the man she loved; and getting the role of Scarlett O'Hara once she'd set her heart on it, despite being dismissed as "too British". A truly inspiring and fascinating woman!

Vivien Leigh photo signed to Alan Dent
Signed photo dedicated to Alan Dent