I just received in the mail today an early Christmas gift (to myself) –and it’s simply adorable. It’s a miniature book titled Two Letters, by Vivien Leigh. Apparently it was privately published in 1985 and only 300 copies were printed. The book contains the content of two letters written by Vivien Leigh- one to George Cukor and one to Clark Gable’s wife– followed by an Appreciation by Charles H. Williamson. I’d love to know the story behind this little book… it seems rather peculiar. If you’d like to snag this collector’s piece, check out Abebooks.com. They have 3 available for purchase. I’d like to share with you this latest addition to my collection.
The first letter, to George Cukor, reads:
Dear Mr. Cukor,
I, in fact all of us, found your wonderful direction such a great help in our work; & we have found ourselves unable to give our full attention, as it was in your case, to any director since.
The second letter is written to Kay Williams, Gable’s 5th wife.
The Appreciation by Charles H. Williamson reads:
Vivien Leigh was born Vivian Mary Hartley in Darjeeling, India on November 5, 1913, the daughter of Gertrude and Earnest Hartley. Shortly before her seventh birthday she was taken to England and enrolled in Roehampton’s Convent of the Sacred Heart. Later, she entered the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts, but her marriage at the age of eighteen to Leigh Holman, a lawyer, and the birth of their daughter, Suzanne, in 1935, caused her to drop out of that famed school.
In 1934, however, she began to act professionally and within a year had delighted London with a display of her beauty and talent in Ashley Duke’s costume drama, “The Mask of Virtue.” Signed to a five year contract by Alexander Korda, she made several films in England–among them, “Fire Over England”, in which she played opposite Laurence Olivier, who was also married. They fell in love, and in 1938 she visited him in Hollywood where he was making “Wuthering Heights.” At that time the much publicized search for an actress to play Scarlett O’Hara in Margaret Mitchell’s best selling novel, “Gone with the Wind”, had been going on for over a year. The film’s producer, David O. Selznick, has yielded to the public demand that Clark Gable play Rhett Butler. To obtain Gable, Selznick was forced to give Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, which had him under contract, exclusive distribution rights and half-share of the film’s profits.
In December, with Scarlett still uncast, production commenced on the film under George Cukor’s direction. It was on the night that the burning of Atlanta was being shot that Myron Selznick, Olivier’s agent and David’s brother, brought his client and the visiting Vivien to the Selznick studios in Culver City to witness the spectacular event. During a break Selznick and Cukor came over to the three visitors and Myron Selznick said, half-jokingly, “David, I’d like you to meet Scarlett O’Hara.” Selznick, taken by the young girl’s beauty, suggested that Cukor test her. The race had narrowed down to three actresses–Jean Arthur, Paulette Goddard, and Joan Bennett, but once Selznick and Cukor saw Leigh in two test scenes, there was no doubt in their minds that she was their Scarlett.
There was an immediate rapport between Leigh and Cukor, a mutual admiration and affection that deepened and lasted until the actress’ death on July 7, 1967. When the director was removed from the film and replaced by one of Gable’s favorites, Victor Fleming, Leigh was bereft. She pleaded with Selznick to keep Cukor but he refused. She always maintained that the inital confidence Cukor gave her helped her throughout the shooting of the entire picture. Also, unknown to Selznick and Fleming, she visited Cukor’s home every Sunday during shooting and he coached her for the forthcoming week’s work.
“Gone with the Wind” was the only film Vivien Leigh made with Clark Gable. Although they had a satisfactory working relationship, she never became a close friend, preferring instead, along with Olivier, the company of George Cukor and the distinguished group with which he always surrounded himself.
When “Gone with the Wind” opened in Atlanta on December 15, 1939, and soon thereafter in New York, the relatively unknown English girl united the North and the South in approval of her performance. For her portrayal of Scarlett, Hollywood awarded her the first Academy Award of her career, while Gable, although nominated for best actor, lost to Englishman Robert Donat for his performance in “Goodbye, Mr. Chips.”
Although Leigh never met Kay Gable, it is interesting to note that it was her old friend and mentor, George Cukor, who gave the future Mrs. Gable, then known as Kay Williams, her first important film role- Hazel Dawn in the screen adaptation of Ruth Gordon’s play, “Years Ago”, released by Metro in 1953 as “The Actress.” Although in a small part, the beautiful young woman made a striking impression.