Earlier this year I conducted an interview with the author of one of the best, if not the best, Vivien Leigh biographies available to fan– Mr. Hugo Vickers! Life got busy and I never published it! But here it is in all its glory. Mr. Vickers revised Vivien Leigh: A Biography last year and Indigo Publishing was in charge of publishing it. I haven’t received my copies yet so proceed with caution if you order one! Regardless, you can buy a used copy of the previous version in the Vivien-Leigh.com E-store. If you’re interested in learning more about Mr Vickers, be sure to check out his website. A brief description of his Vivien Leigh biography can be found on his website:
There have been many biographies of Vivien Leigh, invariably Hollywood filmographies, most of which have been inaccurate and incomplete. Hugo Vickers approached his subject as a human being, according her the same detailed research that the readers of his Cecil Beaton and Gladys, Duchess of Marlborough have come to expect of him. He examined the previously uncharted story of Vivien Leigh’s antecedents, making surprising new discoveries. He was able to bring Vivien’s parents to life as real people with the help of a great number of family documents, letters and diaries, made available by Vivien’s daughter for the first time. These give the first clear account of the atmosphere in which Vivien was raised.
He traced the progress of her relationship with Leigh Holman, from their first meeting through the period of their engagement, marriage and divorce, and showed how they formed an important, lasting friendship, helped by the complete set of letters Vivien wrote to him between 1932 and 1967. He made extensive use of the Oswald Frewen diaries, an essential source not only on that marriage but on Vivien’s elopement with Laurence Olivier and their subsequent adventures.
Hugo Vickers also examined Vivien’s film and stage career, writing of her as a person and not as the ‘property’ of a film company or a name on a contract. He examined her films and drawing on a great number of interviews with famous figures of the stage, he recreated her part in the life of English theatre in the 1940s and 1950s. An important feature of the book is, of course, her love for Laurence Olivier and their twenty year marriage, so much of it made difficult by recurring bouts of tuberculosis and manic depression. Hugo Vickers, drawing on many hours of conversation with her devoted friend, the actor John Merivale, explained how Vivien re-established her life after the divorce.
Vivien Leigh emerges as a more real and more intelligent person than in previous accounts, a spirited and courageous actress brought down by ill-health.
V-L.COM: Why did you decide to write about Vivien Leigh? Were you a fan before the book project?
Hugo Vickers: I had written a book about Cecil Beaton, which contained some interesting material on Vivien. I was looking for another subject and felt she deserved better than what – as an Englishman – I called a “Hollywood” style biography. In other words I wanted to write about the whole person, not just film contracts, studio rows etc. When the book came out, reviewers such as Sheridan Morley accused me of writing a “social” biography of her -he wanted me off his pitch! But it was social inasmuch as it told what happened in her everyday life as well as her working life. I sought out letters she wrote to Bernard Berenson etc.
V-L.COM: What’s your favorite Vivien Leigh film and why?
Hugo Vickers: I very much like “The Roman Spring of Mrs Stone” as it is such a good story. Of course “Gone with the Wind” is marvellous, and she sustains it all the way through. “Streetcar” is very powerful.
V-L.COM: From beginning to end, how long did the research and writing process take? Do you have an funny or amusing anecdotes to share?
Hugo Vickers: I conceived the idea at the end of 1985 and the book came out in the autumn (fall) of 1988, so not so long. It has to take a certain amount of time.
I went to see Athene Seyler, then in her late 90s. As she was very old and lived in a boathouse, she said she would drop the keys out of the window for me. Unfortunately they fell into a tree, so I had to scramble onto a dustbin and luckily retrieved them before letting myself in and going upstairs.
V-L.COM: Why did you not meet Laurence Olivier when gathering information for the biography?
Hugo Vickers: Joan Plowright.
V-L.COM: In the introduction to the biography, you reveal that between November 1986 and May 1987 you met almost weekly with John ‘Jack’ Merivale. Many in the Vivien Leigh fan-world highly respected him for ‘sticking it out’ with Vivien Leigh– for being her ‘rock’ amidst her difficult divorce to Laurence Olivier and during her illnesses (tuberculosis and bi polar disorder). What was your impression of Mr. Merivale and his memories of Vivien Leigh?
Hugo Vickers: I spent a lot of time with Jack and became a close friend, even sitting with him two Sunday afternoons when he was in hospital before he died. He was very kind and gentle, and went through the whole of those years over many hours. He was honest, and forthcoming. By then he had found a more lasting happiness with his wife, Dinah Sheridan.
V-L.COM: Did you ever meet Vivien Leigh or see her perform on the stage?
Hugo Vickers: No – I was too young. I remember reading that she had died in the paper (1967). So only films and interviews.
V-L.COM: Suzanne Farrington allowed you access to the family documents. ‘The Suzanne Farrington Papers’ contains letters Vivien wrote to Leigh Holman (her first husband) and her mother Gertrude Hartley and daughter, newspaper clippings, theater programs, and sympathy letters following Vivien Leigh’s death. How are the documents kept and do you believe the Papers will remain in the family?
Hugo Vickers: That was a great treasure trove. Suzanne always knew she would have to help one biographer one day, and luckily it was me. I don’t know the eventual fate of the papers.
V-L.COM: Many, many people and Vivien Leigh fans are deeply curious about Vivien Leigh’s only child- Suzanne Holman Farrington. Ms. Farrington has maintained a very private life following her mother’s death and has never participated in an on-camera interview (unlike Laurence Olivier’s son, Tarquin). What can you tell us about Ms. Farrington and her decision to remove herself from the public-eye?
Hugo Vickers: I think she preferred to remain out of the limelight. And I respect her for that. I can’t really say more – except that she liked my book and we are still in touch, which is nice and not always the case after biographies are published.
V-L.COM: Indigo Publishing has teamed up with you to re-publish your Vivien Leigh biography. What changes did you make in this updated version?
Hugo Vickers: I shortened the book, sharpened it in places, and added a few stories, but it is not a new book as such. In fact I found, on re-reading it, that it held up well – that such new information that had come out did not add materially to what I had written.
V-L.COM: And finally (I ask everyone this question): Do you think Scarlett O’Hara got Rhett Butler back in the end?
Hugo Vickers: Not for long, I suspect. I nearly answered: Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn!