Vivien Leigh and ECT

Vivien_Leigh_as_Scarlett_OHara_in_Gone_With_the_Wind_trailerAs the Indian Government prepares to pass a new mental health bill banning the use of electric shock treatment without anaesthetic, we turn to Vivien Leigh. Bear with me.

Vivien Leigh was born Vivian Hartley in Darjeeling, India, in 1913, and lived in Calcutta until she was sent to an English boarding school aged six. She went to RADA, married, had a daughter and was enjoying life as the new star of British theatre when, in 1935, she met the also-married Laurence Olivier. The two embarked on a passionate affair and finally married in 1940.

Leigh as Blanche Dubois

Leigh as Blanche Dubois

In summer 1944 Leigh had a miscarriage. The general consensus is that this miscarriage was the trigger for the lengthy bipolar episode that followed, though it seems she was displaying signs of mental illness in the late 1930s – in 1937 Olivier mentioned to a friend that she had verbally abused him without provocation, and in 1939 she took an overdose of sleeping pills (which she took because of lifelong insomnia, itself considered another symptom of mental illness). She was also diagnosed with tuberculosis in 1945, and was forced to spend an extended recovery period at home. Her illness did her mental health no good at all – neither did playing the mentally fragile and tragic Blanche DuBois in the 1950 film of ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’. She later said the role “tipped [her] over into madness.”

She suffered a major breakdown in 1953, while filming in Ceylon (Sri Lanka), and was rushed back to England. In an interview given shortly after their panicked flight home, Olivier seemed to imply that a fear of flying was partially to blame for her illness, though he did acknowledge that she was receiving treatment, at a Surrey hospital called Netherne.

ECT machine, c. 1960

ECT machine, c. 1960

The only treatment available for bipolar disorder at the time was ECT; during the three months Leigh was at Netherne she had several sessions of it. Olivier was apparently devastated by the changes in Leigh’s personality following her treatment:

“I can only describe them by saying that she was not, now that she had been given the treatment, the same girl that I had fallen in love with. … She was now more of a stranger to me than I could ever have imagined possible. Something had happened to her, very hard to describe, but unquestionably evident.”

Leigh and Olivier, 1940s

Leigh and Olivier, 1940s

He would later write that she had the ability to hide her bipolar from almost everyone except him.

Leigh and Olivier struggled along with their marriage until 1960, when he requested a divorce in order to marry another actress, Joan Plowright. Leigh started a relationship with actor Jack Merivale but, sadly, never seemed to get over Olivier. She continued to have ECT sporadically until she died of tuberculosis in 1967.

If you’re interested, there’s a balanced discussion of ECT, its merits and flaws and its history here.


3 thoughts on “Vivien Leigh and ECT

  1. Thanks for the comments Carole Heath regarding Vivien Leigh i read in a book sometime ago that her parents sometime would not admit she had Bi-polar or called manic depression
    as it was called in those days. Olivier asked them did anyone else in the family suffer from this illness and Vivien Leigh’s mother said of course not and Olivier said well they do now. In his book confessions of an actor he said he had become very annoyed with Vivien Leigh’s parents as they could not see that sometimes the physical and psychological aspects of her illness could go hand in hand.

  2. It is a very sad story about Viv and Larry. Her illness really stayed with her all her adult life unfortunately and the treatment at the time was mostly ECT as this article says. I also think their relationship to a degree was full of guilt regarding their leaving their previous partners and children. The Netherne hospital in Surrey where Vivien Leigh was treated isn’t far from where I live. I think most of the site has now been pulled down to make way for a housing estate but some of the hospital buildings still remain I think. Yes Larry and Viv did go on to meet other people but I think they still had feelings for each other long after they split up. Laurence Olivier found it difficult to talk about Vivien Leigh in interviews he always looked very sad and his voice quivered. As a final comment I recently found out after reading a book about Olivier his sister Sybille was also a patient in the same hospital a few times and treated by the same doctor who was an expert in mental illness. So not only did Laurence Olivier has a wife with this problem his sister was also inflicted with it as well very sad.

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