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The Words Vivien Leigh Left Behind


This is WEEKEND EDITION, from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.



SIMON: Vivien Leigh was one of the great stars of all time. The British actress won Oscars for portraying two definitive Southern belles: Scarlett O'Hara, in "Gone With The Wind"; and Blanche DuBois, in "Streetcar Named Desire."


SIMON: She also had a long-term artistic and personal partnership with her husband, Laurence Olivier, but they were more successful onstage than off. This November marks 100 years since her birth and to observe the occasion, the Victoria and the Albert Museum in London is exhibiting some of Vivien Leigh's personal belongings: diary entries, film scripts; letters from Winston Churchill, the Queen Mother, Marilyn Monroe, to name just a few of the minor names.

Keith Lodwick is curator of the upcoming Vivien Leigh exhibit. He joins us from the United Kingdom. Thanks so much for being with us, Mr. Lodwick.

KEITH LODWICK: Well, thank you for inviting me on. I'm delighted to speak to you.

SIMON: So more than 7,000 letters - at least, that's what you have your hands on. It seems as if she kept every letter she ever received.

LODWICK: That's right. They're all quite extraordinary. There's a number of letters from Churchill, Winston Churchill. I have a facsimile in front of me, which I can read, if that's OK.

SIMON: Please, yes.

LODWICK: It says, (Reading) Dear Lady Olivier, how very kind of you to have given me the glass goblet which accompanied the lovely flowers you recently sent me. Thank you for the charming thought. I so much enjoyed seeing you and your husband the other night. We had the most agreeable evening.

So obviously, they'd had some social event together. And we do know that the film she made in 1941 with Olivier, called "That Hamilton Woman" - where she played Emma Hamilton to Olivier's Lord Nelson - was Churchill's favorite film.


SIMON: What do you think continues to fascinate so many people about Vivien Leigh?

LODWICK: As you said in your introduction, she did play two definitive Southern belles, Scarlett O'Hara and Blanche DuBois. I guess also extraordinary that really, a classic English rose would play these two very famous roles in American literature. And I think both her accents are very convincing in both those films. But a number of her performances do continue into the modern age.

I think her life was relatively short. She died really at 53. But she certainly packed quite a lot in. I mean, she never stopped working, even after bouts of illness. She always was able to come back to work on stage and screen. And I think she really liked to play a variety of roles, and wanted to stretch herself as an actress.

SIMON: Is there an item in the exhibit you would especially like to draw our attention to?

LODWICK: Well, what's been interesting for me is reading her correspondence with the film director Elia Kazan, who directed the film version of "Streetcar." And she'd written a very, very long letter to him, really analyzing each scene and putting her thoughts down on paper. It begins with, "I am 5-foot-3 and a half tall in my bare feet, without shoes on" - which is rather sweet.

And there's something that struck me later on, where they've obviously had a telephone conversation; and she says in the letter: "You do know that when I said over the phone I'm worried about the way I'll look, I didn't mean good. I meant right" - really meaning that she was very keen to deglamorize herself, if the part called for it.

And she'd played Blanche in London in 1949. Now, remember that "Gone With The Wind" had been showing throughout the war in London - was very, very successful - and so audiences were thinking they were going to see the stunning Scarlett O'Hara. And of course, they were seeing a rather faded Southern belle in Blanche. But she really was prepared to look exactly as the character was written. And that was a very brave thing to do because, of course, she was one of the most beautiful women of the mid-20th century.But she will go to great lengths to make herself look like the role. And I think that's very, very brave.

SIMON: Keith Lodwick - he's the curator of the upcoming Vivien Leigh exhibit in London. Thanks very much for being with us.

LODWICK: Thank you very much for asking me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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