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.

By 1940, Leigh and Olivier were both divorced from their respective spouses and able to marry, which they did in August that year. Leigh’s career was still in the ascendancy after the success of Gone With the Wind, and several notable films followed, including Waterloo Bridge (1940). Olivier was knighted in 1947 and in 1951, Leigh won the Best Actress Oscar a second time for her performance as Blanche Du Bois in A Streetcar Named Desire. Tragically, Leigh suffered a miscarriage in 1956, whilst Olivier was working with Marilyn Monroe on The Prince and the Showgirl (1957). The loss of a much-wanted child sent Leigh on a downward spiral and the violent mood swings and erratic behaviour to which she had always been prone intensified. In 1960, Leigh and Olivier divorced after he left her for another actress, Joan Plowright.

Despite her difficult personal life, Leigh’s attachment to her cats never wavered. After her marriage to Olivier, she had adopted a black and white cat named Tissy, she then acquired others including a white cat, Tiddly-iddly-iddly and Christmas, a ginger tom. In 1946 as a gift, Olivier gave her a Siamese cat, whom she called New Boy after London’s New Theatre (renamed the Noël Coward Theatre in 2006). Leigh adored her cats and according to her daughter Suzanne had up to sixteen at one time, but she loved Siamese ‘most of all.’ Indeed, Leigh herself claimed that, ‘once you have kept a Siamese cat you would never have any other kind. They make wonderful pets and are so intelligent they follow you around like little dogs.’ 

New Boy was sadly run over by a car whilst Leigh was in Australia in 1948, leaving her grief-stricken. Soon after, Olivier gave her Armando, a Siamese kitten, but her most long-standing feline companion, was Poo Jones. Leigh adopted Poo Jones, another Siamese, after her divorce from Olivier and was devoted him. Poo Jones accompanied her whenever he could and often used to sleep in Leigh’s dressing room while she was working.

On 7th July 1967, Leigh finally succumbed to tuberculosis, which had affected her health for nearly twenty years and had not been helped by the fact she was a heavy smoker. That evening, Leigh went to bed with Poo Jones sleeping next to her, but awoke to get a glass of water to alleviate the discomfort caused by her illness. As she left her room, her lungs filled with fluid, causing her to choke. At around 11:30 p.m, Leigh was found lying dead on the floor by her lover Jack Merivale, her beloved Poo Jones miaowing by her side as if he were trying to wake her.

Though Olivier is cited as her great love, Leigh’s most enduring passion was reserved for her cherished cats. After leaving India for England at the age of five, Leigh recalled how she ‘went straight to convent school- I was the youngest child there, and so I imagine I was rather spoiled. I remember I was allowed to take cats to bed with me. I’ve always been mad about cats.’

Selected Sources:

The Little Siamese Cat Book – Elizabeth Martyn and David Taylor (1992)

Vivien Leigh: A Biography – Michelangelo Capua (2003)