When she was 15, Elvira Clara Bonet went to the movies in Barcelona to see Gone with the Wind, the 1939 box office hit starring Clark Gable and Vivien Leigh, which was not released in Spain until 1950. After watching the movie, Bonet became enthralled by the actress who played the vain, capricious and determined southern belle, Scarlett O’Hara. She began to buy the magazines in which Leigh appeared with her second husband, actor Laurence Olivier. After reading in a 1957 issue of Sábado Gráfico magazine that the A-list couple were spending a few days in Torremolinos in Málaga, Bonet decided to write Leigh a postcard telling her of her admiration.
It was the first of more than 40 letters exchanged between the actress and Bonet – now 80 – over the course of a decade until Vivien Leigh’s death in 1967. But the relationship was not confined to written correspondence. Bonet was received on two occasions in Leigh’s London home: the first with a friend who spoke better English than she did; the second, in November 1965, shortly after Bonet sent Leigh a medallion with the initials GWTW (Gone with the Wind) – a movie which won the actress the first of her two Oscars – on the 25th anniversary of its premiere. Leigh had long called Bonet “my Spanish friend,” and the bond resulted in Bonet’s collection of personal possessions, 50 of which will go under the hammer, along with the letters, at an online auction by the Setdart auction house on May 26.
When the actress died from tuberculosis at the age of 53, Bonet was invited to her funeral, where she rubbed shoulders with actors such as Alec Guinness, Michael Redgrave and John Gielgud. Despite Leigh’s death, Bonet maintained a relationship with the actress’s daughter Suzanne, with her mother Gertrude, with her last partner, John Merivale, and even with her Spanish maid, Domitila Martínez.
It was after the funeral that the family began to send Bonet personal items that had belonged to Leigh, who also played the unforgettable Blanche Dubois in A Streetcar Named Desire, a role that earned her a second Academy Award in 1951. Among the items was a silver and gold cigarette case with Leigh’s initials VL containing some of her last cigarettes, two pairs of size 37 shoes, a handbag, a cup from which she drank tea, one of her nightgowns, her nail polish, one of her hats, the diary she used the year of her death with entries such as “mom’s birthday” or “dinner with Bill,” the gloves she used in The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone (1961), the monocle she wore in her last film, Ship of Fools (1965), and a parasol she used in Gone with the Wind. In total, Bonet amassed around 70 of the actress’s personal possessions, including 45 letters, all in English, that Leigh wrote to her from different parts of the world – the last of which she received the day before her death. Now, almost everything is for sale.
For years Bonet had a small private museum showcasing these objects, as well as photos, in one of the rooms of her home in the Barcelona neighborhood of Horta. Anyone who asked was invited in for a viewing. But now the museum’s doors are closed. “I am selling because of my age and because of financial issues, though it pains me dreadfully,” she says. “I hope that whoever buys them will pamper them as I have done all these years.”
“I never asked Vivien for anything,” says Bonet. “I am not a collector; the objects I have collected are gifts given to me by her family. I have known five generations of Leighs.”
Bonet recalls how she felt almost disappointed the first time she met the actress. “She was not the actress of 1939,” she says. “By then she was already 51; her voice was hoarse from smoking and she looked older because she was affected by her illness. But she was still a very elegant woman and had beautiful green eyes. She was a unique actress, there has been no one like her,” adds Bonet, who says she has seen her 19 films thousands of times, and Gone with the Wind more than 2,000, “but not in a row!”
Many of the lots have a starting price of between €2,500 and €3,000, such as the cigarette case, the glasses and the parasol, but there are also cheaper lots, such as the shoes, whose starting price is between €600 and €700. There are also 23 unpublished photographs from Leigh’s personal album, including five photographs of herself and Olivier on their honeymoon in 1940 in which the couple appears naked before bathing in a river. “I hope they don’t get a lot of attention and I’m sorry they’re coming to light,” says Bonet. “I never exhibited them.”
But it is precisely these photos that have the highest price tag – between €7,200 and €7,500 – and promise to be one of the highlights of the auction. Meanwhile, Bonet says that she is keeping back a handful of items, such as a cushion Leigh rested her feet on and some of the actress’s ashes. “They were given to me by her mother,” says Bonet. “After throwing the ashes into a lake, these remained on top of some leaves that she picked up and kept.”
Any items linked to Vivien Leigh are typically a big deal for auction houses. In 2017, Sotheby’s of London raised €2.5 million from the sale of items belonging to the actress. “All lots are usually sold, 100% – something that does not happen with other auctions,” explains a spokesperson from Setdart.
English version by Heather Galloway.