Extensive Vivien Leigh Archive Acquired by V&A

Vivien Leigh with Laurence Olivier, date unknown
(Victoria and Albert Museum, London)

The Victoria & Albert Museum in London have acquired the archive of British acting legend Vivien Leigh. The vast collection, which was obtained from her grandchildren, includes personal letters between the Oscar-winning actress and her husband Laurence Olivier, as well as photos, annotated scripts, awards, press clippings, and diaries that date back to 1929, when she was 16 years old. The museum will showcase a changing selection of material from the archive starting this autumn in the Theatre and Performance Galleries.

“We are thrilled to acquire her archive intact in this centenary year of her birth and to be able to make it available to the public for the first time,” said Martin Ross, director of the V&A. “It not only represents Vivien Leigh’s life and career, but is also a fascinating insight into the theatrical and social world that surrounded her.”

Leigh kept over 7,500 letters from friends written to her and Olivier. The archive uncovers never-seen-before correspondence with T.S. Elliot, Arthur Miller, Marilyn Monroe, Winston Churchill, and the Queen Mother. There is also a letter from playwright Tennessee Williams, who commended Leigh on her performance in “A Streetcar Named Desire,” which she won an Oscar for.

“It is needless to repeat here my truly huge happiness over the picture and particularly your part in it,” wrote Williams. “It is the Blanche (DuBois) I had always dreamed of and I am grateful to you for bringing it so beautifully to life on the screen.”

The archive also explores the great love affair between her and Oliver, which started in 1937, when they were both married to other people. Over 200 letters, telegraphs, photos, postcards, and newspaper clippings of the couple were saved between 1938 and 1967. The couple wrote 4o letters to each other during an intense three-month period in 1939 when she was in Los Angeles shooting “Gone With the Wind,” while he was on Broadway starring in “No Time for Comedy.” The letters reveal many theatrical observations and their joint concern with the foundation of the National Theatre. The couple wed in 1940 in California, attended by Katherine Hepburn and Garson Kanin, who acted as their witnesses.

Also on display will be a guest book the couple kept, recording those who they entertained at Notley Abbey, their Buckinghamshire home. Signatures include top stars from Hollywood and the British stage such as Humphrey Bogart and his wife Lauren Bacall, Alec Guinness, Bette Davis, and Orson Wells.

“Vivien Leigh is undoubtedly one of the UK’s greatest luminaries of stage and screen and along with Laurence Olivier, remains a true star of her time,” said Roth.

To see highlights from the collection, click on the slideshow.