Thanks to Kathleen for making me away of this little article. I find it a fascinating read… oh, to be a gardener for Larry & Vivien! Enjoy
Written by : Faith Eckershall for the DorsetEcho
IT’S more than 60 years ago but Mike Pope can still remember the first time he clapped eyes on Vivien Leigh.
“It was at a fete in a village near where I lived in Buckinghamshire and she looked fantastic,” he says.
What she was wearing he can’t recall, just the face and the eyes of the woman who had become an international celebrity playing the part of Scarlett O’Hara in the world’s greatest movie, Gone With The Wind.
At the time he first saw her, Mike, who lives with his wife, Anne, in Colehill, didn’t know he would become one of Leigh’s gardeners, taken on by her estate manager at her home in Notley Abbey, a 12th century estate which was run by her brother-in-law, Dickie Olivier.
“After my dad died I’d had a brush with the law and I think it was decided that it might be a good idea if I had a little job,” says Mike.
“I arrived at the Abbey and Dickie Olivier asked if I could clean out his potting shed. I did, very quickly, and he offered me a Saturday job there and then.”
At the time Mike was 11 and the rules of working for Britain’s most prominent actor and his wife – think Posh and Becks with knobs on – were clearly spelled out.
“We weren’t supposed to gape at them or stare if we saw them in the garden,” he says.
But one day, working by a Tudor wall in the rose garden, he looked up to see “the lady” herself.
“We weren’t supposed to stare but you couldn’t help it,” he says.
“She was standing really close, holding one of those wooden trugs, secateurs in her hand and cutting roses. She looked at me and gave me this beautiful, radiant smile, almost as if all around her face was an aura or glow.”
Vivien didn’t speak so, overcome, Mike “just kept smiling at her”.
“What I do remember was her looking immaculate in this dress, as if she’d spent an hour putting it all on,” he says.
Her screen image was as a spoilt Southern Belle, or an imperious queen but in real life, says Mike, Leigh was a dab hand with her roses, she designed her walled rose garden – “The head gardener said she never put a cut wrong” – and she liked to arrange all her blooms herself. White roses were her favourites.
The Oliviers were not hunting or fishing types (“they had stables but no horses which was quite unusual”) but were devoted to their property and no expense was spared in running their country home.
“They had a piggery and six Guernsey cows. The whole gardens existed to support the house and they took produce back to their London home; milk, cream, strawberries, raspberries, soft fruits and flowers.”
They were especially keen on their lawn which was, says Mike, “immaculate”.
“I wasn’t even allowed to walk on it but there was one guy who mowed it in stripes for them.”
Sir Laurence was so keen he bought one of the brand-new Massey Ferguson mini-tractors and assembled all his land staff, and his wife, to watch the company’s demonstration of the vehicle.
“He was about to buy every single fitment that went with it when his accountant stepped in and seemed to restrict him to one or two pieces,” chuckles Mike. Leigh, he reports, “looked a bit bored”.
As a young boy, Mike was oblivious to much of the gossip and difficulty that was already swirling around his employers’ outwardly happy marriage. In later years he was to hear the rumours of Sir Laurence’s alleged homosexuality as well as distressing reports about Leigh’s mental health – it is now understood she suffered from bipolar disorder – and her drinking.
Rumours of Leigh’s gargantuan sexual appetite did not reach the ears of teenage boys during the 1950s.
But there were happier times, too.
“I was allowed to fish in the river there,” says Mike and, if he was lucky, he got the chance to spot some of the stellar celebrities who came visiting.
“John Gielgud, John Mills and his wife and of course, Noel Coward,” he says. The Master, as Coward was known, liked to play tennis on the Oliviers’ hard court.
“He used to play in cream slacks, a dark shirt, a brown cravat with white polka dots and deck shoes; the finest.”
Coward was a frequent visitor and although Mike was not around to hear it, he later heard the infamous rumour that Leigh had once barked at her husband: “Are you coming to be with me, or him?” pointing at Coward.
He was around for what he hoped would be the most amazing visitor of all – Marilyn Monroe, who was coming to discuss her role with Olivier in The Prince and the Showgirl.
“We’d been brushing our hair for weeks in anticipation,” he smiles. But then landed a major blow.
“We were told by the head gardener that no one was to come up to the house while Marilyn and her husband, Arthur Miller, were staying.
“We asked who was going to milk the cattle and remove the cowpats – the Oliviers liked it all tidied up – but they were adamant. In the end the security guards had to milk the cows by hand for two days!”
Other visitors included the dancer Robert Helpmann and Peter Finch, with whom Leigh later had an affair. She eventually split from Olivier, who left the Abbey and married actress Joan Plowright, and Mike’s final memories of his former employer are poignant.
He refuses to be drawn on the issue of Leigh’s reported drink problem but remembers her sitting on her hammock swing at the end of her beautiful lawn.
“She wrote letters when she was supposed to be reading her lines and in the afternoon you’d see her servant come and take her arm to bring her in,” he says.
“She was still beautiful but so sad.”
Leigh’s life was overshadowed by her mental difficulties, which were much less understood 60 years ago, and by her chronic tuberculosis, which she fought to prevent from damaging her career.
She eventually left the Abbey, which has since been bought and redecorated as an upmarket wedding venue, and Mike left too, joining the Royal Navy.
He looks back on his time there and on Vivien Leigh with great fondness.
“She’s had such a bad press and it’s really like kicking someone when they are down,” he says.
“To me she was a beautiful lady and I was very happy working there.”