Behind Those Luminous Eyes: Vivien Leigh And Cats

Vivien Leigh loved cats all her life and was rarely without one by her side. Leigh’s own delicate features and bright blue-green eyes lent her a feline quality that was often remarked upon by others. Olivia de Havilland, her co-star in Gone With the Wind, spoke of how, when meeting Leigh for the first time, she had been struck by her ‘elegance and compose’ and likened her to ‘a small Siamese cat, and the tinkling charm of a Chinese wind lantern.’ Rex Harrison who had starred with Leigh in the 1937 film Storm in a Teacup, also remembered her as ‘very like a cat. She would purr and scratch. And she looked divinely pretty doing either.’

Born in Darjeeling, India on 5th November 1913, Vivian Mary Hartley was the daughter of an English officer in the Indian Cavalry. The Hartleys moved to England in 1919, leaving several years later to travel around Europe before returning in 1931. Soon after, Vivian met Leigh Holman who was thirteen years older than her and a accomplished barrister. They married the following year and in 1933, Vivian gave birth to their daughter, Suzanne.

However, as she told her friend Maureen O’Sullivan (who would go on to have a successful film career herself), Vivian had not abandoned her dreams of becoming ‘a great actress.’ Changing her name to ‘Vivien Leigh’ one she felt more suited to her chosen profession, and finding herself an agent, in 1935 she was cast as the lead role in The Mask of Virtue, winning rave reviews for her performance after the play opened in London. More importantly however, she had come to the attention of the acclaimed actor, Laurence Olivier; the two starred together in the 1937 film Fire Over England, and although both were married, they embarked upon a passionate affair.

A year later, Leigh decided that she was destined to play Scarlett O’Hara in David O. Selznick’s film adaptation of Margaret Mitchell’s novel, Gone With the Wind. The casting of Scarlett was one of the most widely talked about events in American cinematic history and Selznick felt that Leigh was not right for the part. She nevertheless managed to convince him otherwise and her performance in the film not only won her an Oscar for Best Actress, but catapulted her into international stardom. Continue reading

A Romantic Imagination: Joseph Merrick at Bedstead Square

‘There is now in a little attic room off one of our attic wards a man named Joseph Merrick, aged about 27, a native of Leicester, so dreadful a sight that he is unable even to come out by daylight to the garden,’ the Chairman of the London Hospital in Whitechapel, Francis Carr Gomm wrote in a letter to The Times published on 30th November 1886. Carr Gomm appealed to those who were touched by Merrick’s circumstances, and inquired not only as to whether a more suitable home could be found for him, but if anyone might be able to offer him financial assistance.

Within days so many generous donations had poured in that Merrick would be provided for, for the remainder of his life. In December 1886, he was moved to his own private rooms in the grounds of the hospital; Merrick’s time there was to give him the security he had never known and contrasting his previous life with his one at Bedstead Square, he revealed in his own short autobiography, that it was a place where he was ‘as comfortable now’ as he was ‘uncomfortable before.’

Joseph Merrick was born in Leicester on 5th August 1860. In accordance with Victorian superstitions he believed that the deformity that blighted his life was a result of his mother having been frightened by a procession of circus elephants whilst pregnant. In 1909, it was suggested by the dermatologist Frederick Parker Weber, that Merrick had Neurofibromatosis Type I, however, current medical opinion is that Merrick in fact suffered from Proteus Syndrome; yet the exact nature of what caused his condition remains a mystery. What is known is that his deformities only began to present themselves at around the age of 5. The death of his mother when he was 11, and his cruel treatment at the hands of his stepmother, caused Merrick to leave home and he worked as a hawker on the streets of Leicester until he was no longer physically able to. He subsequently spent three years at a Leicester infirmary where he underwent an operation to remove some of the excess flesh that covered his face. Continue reading