Book Review: Vivien

Vivien The Life of Vivien Leigh by Alexander Walker


I picked up a copy of this biography of Vivien Leigh years ago when I was going through a biography kick. Gone With the Wind is one of my favorite movies, and I always wondered why she didn’t appear in many films after that. I knew she suffered from bipolar disorder and passed away at a young age due to tuberculosis, but that was as far as my knowledge of Ms. Leigh went.

After finishing this book, I know that Ms. Leigh didn’t make many movies because she preferred performing in the theatre. The book also told me about her two marriages and her daughter, along with a chronological listing of the main events of her life.

But, I didn’t learn anything I couldn’t have easily discovered on her IMDb page or her wikipedia page.

The book is divided into three sections: Leigh (her first husband), Larry (her second husband), and Jack (her male companion at the end of her life). Frustratingly, the book reads more like an ode to these men rather than a biography of Ms. Leigh. In fact, I suspect the author really wanted to write a biography of Sir Laurence Olivier (aka Larry) but couldn’t get a publisher to pay him for that due to the many already available Olivier biographies, not to mention Sir Laurence’s autobiography.

And so this book feels like a lengthy anecdote regarding Olivier’s second wife and how she affected his life. Here and there you catch a glimpse of what Ms. Leigh might have been like herself, but these moments always came across as detached and offhand. She had a great many friends and admirers, and was not without her eccentricities, but all of this was told through the eyes of men agonized by being in love with a woman with bipolar disorder. And, the author seems to presume that anyone reading this book is already well aware of Ms. Leigh’s diagnosis and personality. It’s the rare biography that was written for her friends and family instead of her fans.

I’ve read many biographies, but this is the first one that felt voyeuristic to me. Despite the book’s missing personal details, I felt as though I was invading Ms. Leigh’s privacy. If this book taught me anything it was that she was acutely aware of her fans and her public persona, and that maintaining her proper, graceful image was terribly important to her. So really, why should any respectful biography of Vivien Leigh contain any personal details?

And why should I read biographies, anyway? Just because someone is famous does not mean their privacy is forfeit or that I have any right to know their life story. I stopped buying magazines years ago because I got so tired of my dollar funding paparazzi photos. And now I can’t help but think that biographies are just another part of that intrusive industry.

I pulled the rest of the unread contemporary biographies from my shelves. They’ll go to Good Will with this one.