The Private Life of Vivien Leigh Goes Public With Sotheby’s Sale

Items for sale reveal a different side to the Hollywood icon

Cecil Beaton, Vivien Leigh as Cleopatra, 1944.
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A gold ring given to Hollywood Icon and Gone With The Wind Star Vivien Leigh by her husband Laurence Olivier.
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Vivien Leigh and Laurence Olivier.
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Vivien Leigh's personal copy of Gone with the Wind.
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Margaret Mitchell, Gone with the Wind, poem inscription to Vivien Leigh.
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Augustus John, Portrait Head of Vivien Leigh, 1942.
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Cecil Beaton, Vivien Leigh, 1941.
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Vivien Leigh painting at an easel in the garden.
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Vivien's Leigh's 'Italian Landscape' with her artist's palette, paints and paintbrushes.
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Vivien Leigh's pink full length evening dress by designer Victor Stiebel.
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A large mid 19th-century diamond bow brooch.
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Vivien Leigh at the British Embassy, Paris, 1947.
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Sir Winston Churchill, Roses in a Glass Vase, Estimate £70,000-100,000.
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Sir Winston Churchill, Typed letter signed, to Vivien Leigh, 28, Hyde Park Gate, London, 18 July 1957, Estimate £2,000-3,000.
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Actress Vivien Leigh is perhaps best known for her iconic role as Scarlett O’Hara in the epic 1939 classic film Gone With the Wind, as well as for playing Blanche Dubois opposite Marlon Brando in 1951’s A Streetcar Named Desire. And offscreen, her nearly 20-year relationship with actor Laurence Olivier captivated the public’s imagination. But just like celebrities today, the details of Leigh’s private life, from her time in London to her home on the English countryside, are known only to those who were closest to her.

Now, this fall, Sotheby’s is planning a major sale of Leigh’s private collection featuring over 250 lots of jewelry, paintings, books, memorabilia and furniture, and its contents promise to reveal some of the lesser known stories about the Hollywood legend to the public. Many of the items for sale, including Leigh’s personal copy of Gone With the Wind (which was inscribed to her by author Margaret Mitchell) and a painting by Sir Winston Churchill, are imbued with the traces of Leigh’s closest relationships, and shed light on the actresses’ refined tastes and lifelong passions.

“We’re all guilty of confusing our favourite [sic] actresses with the heroines they portray, of blurring Vivien’s identity with that of Scarlett O’Hara or Blanche DuBois,” says Sotheby’s U.K. chairman Harry Dalmeny in a statement about the sale. “But, behind the guise of the most glamorous and talked-about woman of her age we find a fine art collector, patron, even a book worm, who was the intellectual equal of the literati, artists and aesthetes she counted among her coterie.”

Included among the sale’s trove of memorabilia is Leigh’s blonde wig from A Streetcar Named Desire, which could fetch between £400 and £600, according to Sotheby’s. While the inner pages of Leigh’s copy of Gone With the Wind (est. £5,000–7,000) contains a personal and poetic message written by Mitchell to the actress: “Life’s pattern pricked with a scarlet thread / where once we were with a gray / To remind us all how we played our parts / In the shock of an epic day.”

And a while a gold ring (est. £400–600) engraved for Leigh by Olivier with the message “Laurence Olivier Vivien Eternally” isn’t technically a relic from her time on the film, the high-profile pair did star opposite each other both on stage and screen.

Perhaps the most enlightening objects in the sale are 45 artworks both collected and commissioned by the actress and her husband, including a portrait of the actress drawn in red chalk by artist Augustus John (est. £5,000–7,000) and Olivier’s commissioned painting of the couple’s Notley Abbey home by John Piper (est. £8,000–12,000). Items from the home, including Leigh’s 19th-century dressing table and books from the family library, are also for sale.

“Vivien approached the decoration of her homes as if she were designing a set, incorporating influences and inspiration from a life spent on screen and on stage,” says Dalmeny in the sale’s release. “These houses were an extension of the theatrical space, with medieval Notley Abbey looking positively Shakespearean.”

Until now, Leigh’s collection has remained in the possession of her family. But come September 26, pieces once owned and cherished by the actress could find their way into your home. On the historic occasion, Dalmeny says: “Fifty years on from her death, this sale opens the door into Vivien’s private world, allowing us a privileged and fascinating glimpse into a world that otherwise only her closest friends could ever have known.”

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