'Olivier and Leigh held a small evening party, with only the Colmans knowing the real reason behind it.'
From "Olivier," by Anthony Holden , to be published in October by Atheneum. Actors Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh wed in Southern California in 1940 .
AT LAST THEY were free to marry. Vivien had been informed of the decree absolute on 9 August. Three weeks later, on 28 August, Olivier's divorce became final. His plans were already laid, with the help of actor Ronald Colman and his wife, Benita Hume (who, gratifying Olivier's wish for elaborate security, had herself already purchased a wedding ring). That morning the couple drove the 100 miles to Santa Barbara, whose county clerk, Colman had told them, was extremely discreet. Having registered with him, they would return after the three days required for the license to become legally valid, to be married by a judge.
Obsessed with a melodramatic craving for secrecy, they held a small, early evening party on 30 August, with only the Colmans knowing the real reason behind it. Then, at mid-evening, they put through a call to Olivier's friend Garson Kanin, who happened to be in the midst of a story conference with Katharine Hepburn. By Kanin's account, this was his big chance to work with his favorite screen star, and he was not pleased to be told by Olivier that he must come over at once, for reasons he could not reveal. Knowing he was being woefully unprofessional, Kanin excused himself to a mystified Hepburn on the grounds that it must be some sort of emergency.
Kanin, at the time, was sharing a house with Olivier and Vivien ("It was too expensive for us as individuals, but we reasoned that if we pooled our resources, we could handle it"). Not until he arrived there, spoiling for a row if they did not have something important to tell him, was Kanin informed that they were to be married that night and that he had been chosen as best man. "Rather a good part, eh?" purred Olivier, convinced that nothing could be more important.
"Great. Thank you very much," said Kanin, still brooding about Hepburn.
Kanin then decided to co-opt Katharine Hepburn as maid of honor, a notion which so delighted them all that they drove straight round to Hepburn's house, where she received them in her pyjamas. Though she had already been asleep, Hepburn entered into the spirit of things by tagging along with apparent delight. She would just need a shower first. "Didn't you have one before you went to bed?" asked Olivier, already worried about the time.
There followed a chapter of accidents which Kanin described as "a forerunner of the Theater of the Absurd." After taking a wrong turning and losing their way, the bridal party finally arrived at the Colman residence (in Santa Barbara) an hour and a half late. "The most romantic and beautiful couple in the world, minutes from marriage," reports Kanin, "began to bicker." The judge, who had not been told the identity of the bride and groom, had been ready to leave after quarter of an hour, but had been persuaded to wait indefinitely by Colman's offer of a drink every 10 minutes. By the first moment at which the ceremony could legally be performed, one minute past midnight, he was somewhat the worse for wear.
Vivien insisted on an alfresco ceremony, on a rose-covered terrace, which brought on Kanin's hay fever. Amid his uncontrollable sneezes, and the drunken judge's failure to take Vivien's vows or ask for the ring, Mr. "Oliver" and Miss "Lay" were finally declared man and wife with only Kanin and Hepburn as witnesses. The Colmans had already gone on ahead to prepare the honeymoon yacht. The judge cried "Bingo!" and the deed was done. Vivien gave her new husband a topaz ring, inscribed " La fidelite ma guide ," while the gold band Olivier slipped on her finger carried the rather more prosaic warning: "The last one you'll get, I hope."
Kanin and Hepburn drove the happy couple to a remote crossroads, where a car waited to take them to San Pedro Harbor and Dragoon, the yacht which the Colmans had offered to lend them for a brief honeymoon cruise to Catalina. And so, after champagne and cake for four, away sailed the now institutionalized lovers toward their long-awaited vita nuova .
"Why, do you suppose, all the secrecy?" Kanin asked Hepburn as he drove her back home.
"Because it's fun," she replied. "Howard Hughes and I used to do it all the time. It's enjoyable, getting everyone into a tizzy with all that hush-hush. They're probably listening to the radio news right now, furious that no one has found out."
She was absolutely right. All through the next day, Olivier later told Kanin, he and Vivien remained glued to the radio, waiting with mounting disappointment for the breathless announcement that never came. It was as well that they could not flash forward three decades, by which time Olivier would bear feelings about this marriage so complex and ambivalent that he would get its date wrong in his memoirs.
Copyright 1988 by Anthony Holden Limited.