Vivien Leigh: An Intimate Portrait author Kendra Bean was so kind to take the time to answer some of my questions on the process of creating her book, as well as delving deeper into the complex lives of Vivien and Laurence Olivier. I’m loving her insightful and considerate responses to what makes Vivien’s story such an important one for our time and what it’s like to construct such a detailed illustrated biography in the age of technology. Enjoy!
You spent many, many years researching Vivien not only for this book, but also for your personal academic work. What was it about Vivien and her career that drew you to write about her in such detail?
Vivien has been my favorite actress for years. Having been a cinema lover from a very young age, her films are certainly a huge part of her appeal for me. On screen, she was magnetic, beautiful, intriguing, ethereal, often tragic. These qualities were also part of who she was as a person. She was very complex and managed to juggle a public persona that was sometimes much different from what she was experiencing in private. There has been much written about Vivien over the years, but the more I read, the more I wanted to know!
In addition to having written extensively about Vivien, you’ve spent years as the founder and sole maintainer of the VivAndLarry website and the Vivien Leigh and Laurence Olivier Facebook page. How much did those two outlets impact your work on An Intimate Portrait?
For one, the social media aspect has definitely helped keep my interest in Vivien alive. Editing a website or blog about a single, niche subject, one runs the risk of running out of things to say. By being able to “meet” and interact with other people around the world who share the same passion, I’ve not only had the opportunity to keep discussing Vivien (and Laurence Olivier), but I’m always learning new things and considering certain aspects of her life and career from different perspectives. Over the years, I’ve been lucky to meet some of these brilliant, kind people in real life and formed lasting friendships. When doing research, I couldn’t be everywhere at once, and so I really appreciated those who offered to go to their local or university libraries to help me gather information, and to send in photos from their own collections. It’s been a team effort.
When it came to publishing An Intimate Portrait, social media was and still is hugely advantageous. It has been extremely helpful in regards to marketing both the book and myself as an author. It has also allowed me to drum up interest and show publishers actual statistics to prove that there is still an audience for books about Vivien. I’ve been pretty transparent on the website and Facebook about who I am, the work I was doing, and what my goals were for this book. From the feedback I’ve received, a lot of people seem to appreciate that.
Through VivAndLarry and social media you’ve documented a lot of the interesting places you visited and people you consulted while writing the book. What were some of the most exciting aspects you encountered when it came to researching Vivien’s life and legacy?
A great question! My favorite part was the research process. I love geeking out while spending time in library archives, digging through old materials, and trying to piece together a puzzle/narrative. I used to do it for fun before someone decided to pay me, so it’s an experience I really enjoy.
I loved reading the personal letters Vivien sent to other people, particularly those she wrote to Olivier. It’s one thing to read or hear third party opinions about their relationship, but their candid personal correspondence reveals what they were really thinking and how they really felt about each other and their work.
Another thing I immensely enjoyed was finding beautiful photos that had never been published within these archives. Unfortunately, copyright restrictions prevented me from using everything I wanted to use, but just knowing these gems are out there, and what they meant to the person who kept them, is exciting in itself.
In capturing the relationship between Vivien and Laurence Olivier you undoubtedly faced a lot of the controversy and widely-varying opinions that have since been saddled onto their love affair and marriage. In general, what do you hope readers will take away from their relationship as presented in An Intimate Portrait?
Another really interesting question. I wrote about their relationship with objectivity in mind, and I hope that comes across in the book. So much has been written about these two as a couple, with varying opinions, and degrees of accuracy and sensationalism. They led a very private life during their marriage and didn’t open up about their personal relationship to the press until much later. It was passionate in the beginning, and extremely difficult toward the end. She was quite obsessed with him for the rest of her life and it was obvious to me going through Olivier’s papers that he cared very deeply for her, as well. Today, it seems kind of fashionable to point out both Vivien’s and Olivier’s flaws as people and as actors. No doubt they both had their fair share of imperfections – they were human, after all, and I imagine they were both difficult to live with. But what I hope people take away from this book is an understanding that their relationship was very complex, involved, and anything but black and white.
Although she might not be as extensively iconic as the more Hollywood-centric celebrities of her era, your book effectively illustrates Vivien’s impact on the world as one of history’s great beauties and greatest actresses. What do you think it is about her personal character that continues to resonate with generations of women?
I think Vivien brought a lot of herself to her film roles, so when we watch her on screen (especially in hindsight, knowing her personal story), we get glimpses of Vivien Leigh the person. She played a lot of regal women whose cool, outward steeliness was belied by a touching sense of dignified vulnerability. I think she was like that in real life, too. The fact that she struggled with personal demons but still managed to accomplish so many impressive feats as an actor is something I think many fans admire today. I’ve gotten emails from people through my website who talked about how reading about Vivien’s struggles with bipolar disorder helped them come to terms with their own struggle. I mean, if that’s not admirable, I’m not sure what is. In the introduction to my book, I highlight a quote in which Vivien said, “I hope my life will prove a useful and good one, to many people.” The fact that we’re still talking about her today and that her films are still loved by so many is proof that she succeeded.
Last but not least, with such a beautiful achievement now complete, can we expect to see more biographical writing from you in the future?
I hope so. This was such a learning experience for me, and despite it being very stressful at times, I really enjoyed it on the whole. I’ve definitely got ideas and have discussed them with my agent and an editor at a major publishing house here in London, so we’ll see what happens. Watch this space!
About Kendra Bean
Kendra Bean has an MA in Film Studies from King’s College London. Her writing on Vivien Leigh and cinema has been published in numerous film publications and she has participated in the production of numerous festivals, exhibits, and documentaries relating to classic film. She is the designer and editor of vivandlarry, an online historical archive and blog dedicated to Vivien Leigh, Laurence Olivier, classic Hollywood, and world cinema. Kendra resides in London, England.