Death in Hollywood: Leigh, Vivien (1913-1967)

Vivien Leigh’s last screen appearance in the 1965 drama, Ship of Fools was a triumph, but also indicated the sever signs of her illnesses.

Producer and director Stanley Kramer, who cast Leigh, was initially unaware of her fragile mental and physical state. Later recounting her work, Kramer remembered her courage in taking on the difficult role, “She was ill, and the courage to go ahead, the courage to make the film—was almost unbelievable.”

Leigh’s performance was tinged by paranoia and resulted in outbursts that marred her relationship with other actors, although both Simone Signoret and Lee Marvin were sympathetic and understanding.

In one unusual instance during the attempted rape scene, Leigh became distraught and hit Marvin so hard with a spiked shoe that it marked his face.

Leigh won the L’Étoile de Cristal for her performance in a leading role in Ship of Fools.

In May 1967, Leigh was rehearsing to appear with Michael Redgrave in Edward Albee’s A Delicate Balance when her tuberculosis resurfaced. However, following several weeks of rest, she seemed to recover.

On the night of 7 July 1967, Merivale left her as usual at their Eaton Square flat to perform in a play, and he returned home just before midnight to find her asleep. About 30 minutes later (by now 8 July), he entered the bedroom and discovered her body on the floor. She had been attempting to walk to the bathroom and, as her lungs filled with liquid, she collapsed and suffocated.

Merivale first contacted her family and later was able to reach Olivier, who was receiving treatment for prostate cancer in a nearby hospital.

In his autobiography, Olivier described his “grievous anguish” as he immediately travelled to Leigh’s residence, to find that Merivale had moved her body onto the bed. Olivier paid his respects, and “stood and prayed for forgiveness for all the evils that had sprung up between us,” before helping Merivale make funeral arrangements. Olivier stayed until her body was removed from the flat.

Her death was publicly announced on 8 July, and the lights of every theatre in London were extinguished for an hour.