An interview with Kendra Bean author of Vivien Leigh: An Intimate Portrait

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Vivien Leigh and Nancy Mitford had many friends in common; Lady Diana Cooper, Noel Coward and even Winston Churchill, though as we Mitty fans know, ‘Cousin’ Winston was more than a friend to the family. I am certain Nancy and Vivien must have met one another along the way, though I have found no evidence of this. However, in her letters, Nancy writes of a film adaptation of the Love in a Cold Climate and how Vivien Leigh was a contender to play Linda. Sadly the film fell through.

I’ve been anticipating my interview with Kendra Bean, author of Vivien Leigh: An Intimate Portrait, because some familiar factors are at play here: Kendra and I have known one another – in the online sense – for years, probably a decade but who is counting! We secured book deals within a day of one another and on a more significant note, today is the centenary of Vivien’s birth.

Kendra runs www.vivandlarry.com – an online treasure trove of information on Vivien Leigh and Laurence Olivier. Her gorgeous coffee table book, Vivien Leigh: An Intimate Portrait was published by Running Press and is gaining much attention in the media and by fans alike. I caught up with Kendra to quiz her about her book, the interview follows below.

Click here to purchase Vivien Leigh: An Intimate Portrait.

When did you become a fan of Vivien Leigh, can you tell us about the defining moment?

There wasn’t really a defining moment. My interest in Vivien began when I first saw Gone With the Wind and deepened over time as I read and learned more about her.

Did you ever imagine it would lead to a website, an international following and a publishing deal?

When I first became interested in her story? No, not really. There were quite a few Vivien websites online at that time. I’d been a fan for a while when I decided to start vivandlarry.com, which I did because as I began doing my own collecting and research about Vivien, there were a lot of things I wasn’t finding on those other websites and wanted to share them with other people. Over the years it’s grown exponentially, which was surprising as I never knew there were so many other fans out there. As you know, the book deal was a long time coming, even after I’d decided I wanted to do it. It took a lot of persistence to convince publishers that Vivien is still relevant today.

What inspired you to write a coffee table book rather than a conventional biography of Vivien?

My interest in Vivien led to a further appreciation for vintage fashion and Hollywood studio photography. In some ways I almost enjoy coffee table books about Old Hollywood more than straight biographies because those actors, those stars, lent themselves so well to the visual medium. Also, in maintaining vivandlarry.com there were so many photographs of Vivien that turned up, which I hadn’t seen before.

My original vision for An Intimate Portrait was to have all new and super rare photos, and there were a lot that I found which aren’t included in the book for various reasons ranging from copyright issues to things being too expensive for my budget. But during the publication process, I learned that there has to be a sense of familiarity for readers, as well as new material, and a mix of colour and black and while photos.

Can you describe the process which you undertook in gathering information and how you go about transcribing it?

This book was five years from idea stage to finished product, and in that time I obviously had other things going on in my life – working full time, graduate school, moving half way around the world, working again. But the research process consisted of gathering as many materials as possible to form a timeline. This included sourcing articles, transcribing letters and documents in archives, listening to audio, watching Vivien’s films again, going through the previous biographies, etc.

Then I had to sort the pile of information in front of me and start to construct a narrative. As this isn’t a full biography, I really had to editorialise and think about what worked here and what didn’t, what was really important and what wasn’t in reconstructing Vivien’s story. There were areas I wanted to highlight and felt I could bring something new to, whether it was new documentary information or new analysis based on my own knowledge of film history.

What was your publishing journey like, can you tell us about any unexpected twists or turns?

It was a long road. When I first started out on this journey I knew next to nothing about how to take my idea and turn it into an actual book. How does one go about getting published? I asked a lot of questions and, thankfully, people were encouraging and willing to offer advice. Things got serious when I packed up and moved to London in 2010. I got an agent pretty much right away, which was really exciting and a step in the right direction, but then it took two years to actually get a publisher. In that time, the focus of my book changed (for the better, I think), so I had to re-write my proposal.

I was a bit disappointed that a lot of publishers didn’t think Vivien was that relevant anymore, and therefore didn’t think she would sell. From running my website and Facebook page, I knew there was an audience for a book like this, but I had to prove it. I have enough awareness of marketing to know that big anniversaries are a good selling point, and because there hadn’t been a good biography about Vivien since Hugo Vickers’ in the late 1980s, I knew that if I didn’t get it published for this 100th anniversary on 5 November, the ship would pass and there wouldn’t be another good opportunity for years, by which time people really might not care anymore. So, time was of the essence, and I needed a publisher that had the resources to publish this specific type of book. Running Press asked me to pitch the book via a conference call with the senior editor and publisher, and luckily I was able to convince them that this was a worthy project.

An Intimate Portrait was a late acquisition for Running Press’ fall 2013 list, so the turnaround time between getting my contract and handing in the manuscript was really fast. There was a lot of stress involved because not only did I have to finish the manuscript, I had to finish sourcing, purchasing, and clearing copyright for photos, which was a time consuming task in itself.

Is this the start of a writing career? What would you like to do next?

I hope so. I have a few different ideas kicking around. I’d like to try my hand at a full biography and also branch out into other areas of film history. I’m currently working in the photographs department at the National Portrait Gallery, which I love, so maybe there’s some more archival or curatorial work in my future. We’ll see what happens!

Aside from Vivien Leigh and the world of acting, who are you literary heroes?

I don’t have heroes, per-se, just favourite books. I read a lot of books about film history, but when it comes to literature, I’m a big fan of historical fiction. Some of my all-time favorite books include Gone With the Wind (an obvious one), The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas, Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry, The Mists of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley. I love the Song of Ice and Fire series by George R.R. Martin, A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole, and The Moviegoer by Walker Percy. I’ll read basically anything by Cormac McCarthy.

And last but not least, who is your favourite Mitford girl?

I don’t have one as yet, but I have The Mitford Girls’ Guide to Life in front of me and am looking forward to learning more about all of them.

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