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Vivien Leigh Exeter

Most people know Vivien Leigh as the beautiful and feisty southern belle Scarlett O’Hara in the film Gone with the Wind. She was born Vivian Mary Hartley on 5 November 1913 and spent her early years in India.

Ms Leigh gave her first dramatic performance, age 3, reciting ‘Little Bo Peep’ for her mother’s theatre group. She was an only child and when she was six and an half she was sent off to boarding school in England. Her closest friend at the Roehampton Convent of the Sacred Heart was the actress Maureen O’Sullivan to whom she expressed her desire to become “a great actress”.
In 1931 her parents helped her realise this ambition by enrolling her in the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (RADA) in London.
Now fate took a hand. While on a visit to Dartmoor in Devon, Vivien met a Topsham solicitor and barrister, Herbert Leigh Holman at the Two Bridges Inn. Although he was thirteen years her senior they fell in love. Vivien terminated her studies at RADA and married in 1932. They had a daughter, Suzanna together, but Vivien felt stifled by small town domestic life and returned to her acting career, obtaining a small part in a film.
Scarlett O'Hara
Her agent did not think Vivien Holman was a sufficiently ‘snappy’ stage name so she took her husband’s middle name and became ‘Vivien Leigh’.
Her tremendous acting talent and great beauty brought her a successful stage career in London but she did not become known worldwide until she appeared as Scarlett O’Hara.
Despite an incredibly successful and brilliant career, Vivien was not at all well. As an adult she suffered from bipolar manic depression and tuberculosis. Her illnesses were kept quiet but she got a reputation for being ‘difficult’ and ‘demanding’.
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Laurence Olivier
In 1935 the brilliant actor Laurence Olivier saw Vivien in a play and a friendship developed after he congratulated her on her performance. They started performing together and an affair developed in 1937. Leigh Holman resisted divorce until 1940 but he always remained a devoted friend to them both.
As soon as Olivier and Leigh divorced from their respective spouses, they married. For twenty years they toured the world performing together, making films (not always playing opposite each other) and were regarded as the most brilliant and luminous theatrical couple. During this period Vivien won another Academy Award for her performance in A Street Car Named Desire with Marlon Brando.
For the last seven years of her life she battled a recurrence of tuberculosis and depression and died at home on 7 July 1967.
Vivien Leigh’s connection with the south-west English county of Devon is celebrated in several museums. The most personal collection is to be found in the museum established by her sister-in-law Dorothy Holman at Topsham. Here can be seen photographs of her engagement and wedding to Leigh Holman, letters to Dorothy, muffs, hats and other personal items as well as Scarlett’s silk nightdress from the film, and a beautiful evening dress worn to the premier of Lord Olivier’s Richard III.
Other memorabilia can be seen in the Exeter City Museum. In 1969 a plaque to Vivien Leigh was placed in the actors' church, St Paul's Church, Covent Garden, London.  


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