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Jill Esmond

in Random Harvest (1942)
Born Jill Esmond Moore
26 January 1908(1908-01-26)
London, England, UK
Died 28 July 1990 (aged 82)
Wandsworth, London, England, UK
Years active 1930–1956
Spouse(s) (Laurence Olivier 25 July 1930–29 January 1940) (divorced) 1 child Tarquin Olivier

Jill Esmond (born Jill Esmond Moore) (26 January 1908 – 28 July 1990) was an English actress.

Esmond was born in London, the daughter of stage actors Henry V. Esmond and Eva Moore. While her parents toured with theatre companies, Esmond spent her childhood in boarding schools until she decided at the age of fourteen to become an actress. She made her stage debut playing Wendy to Gladys Cooper's Peter Pan but her success was short-lived. When her father died suddenly in 1922, Esmond returned to school and at the time considered abandoning her ambition to act.

After reassessing her future and coming to terms with her father's death she studied with the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London, and returned to the West End stage in 1924. In 1925, she starred with her mother in a play Mary, Mary Quite Contrary, and after a few more successful roles, won critical praise for her part as a young suicide in Outward Bound.

In 1928 she appeared in the production of Bird in the Hand where she met fellow cast member Laurence Olivier for the first time. In his autobiography Olivier later wrote that he was smitten with Esmond, and that her cool indifference to him did nothing but further his ardour. When Bird in the Hand was being staged on Broadway, Esmond was chosen to join the American production - but Olivier was not.

Determined to be near Esmond, he travelled to New York where he found work as an actor. Esmond won rave reviews for her performance. Olivier continued to follow Esmond, and after proposing to her several times, she agreed and the couple were married on July 25, 1930; they had one son, Tarquin Olivier (born 21 August 1936), who later became a film producer.

Returning to the United Kingdom she made her film debut with a starring role in an early Alfred Hitchcock film The Skin Game (1931), and over the next few years appeared in several British and (pre-Code) Hollywood films, including Thirteen Women (1932). She also appeared in two Broadway productions with Olivier, Private Lives in 1931 with Noel Coward and Gertrude Lawrence, and The Green Bay Tree in 1933.

Her career continued to ascend while Olivier's own career languished, but when his career began to show promise after a couple of years, she began to refuse roles. She had been promised a role by David O. Selznick in A Bill of Divorcement (1932) but at only half-salary. Meanwhile, Olivier discovered that Katharine Hepburn had been proposed a much greater salary. He convinced Esmond to turn down the role. However, A Bill of Divorcement was a smash hit, and the fame that became Hepburn's could have been Esmond's.

Esmond withstood the publicity of Olivier's affair with Vivien Leigh and did not seek a divorce. Pressed by Olivier, who was anxious to marry Leigh, she eventually agreed and they were divorced on 29 January 1940. Many biographies state that her decision was in part based on her discovering that she was a lesbian.[1][2] She returned briefly to acting and appeared in such popular films as Journey for Margaret, The Pied Piper and Random Harvest (all 1942) and The White Cliffs of Dover (1944).

She starred in the Broadway production of Emlyn Williams' play The Morning Star in 1942, a production noted for the acting debut of Gregory Peck. Her acting appearances grew more sporadic with the passage of time and she made her final film appearance in 1955 but did have a recurring role as Eleanor of Aquitaine in the late 50's TV series The Adventures of Robin Hood.

In her later years, Esmond discussed the bitterness she still felt towards Olivier and her feeling that she had sacrificed her career so that he could further his own, only to find herself cruelly discarded. However Esmond kept in touch with Olivier and in a letter to their son Tarquin said "It's funny after all that time how I can still love him so much", furthermore she came to his memorial service in October 1989 at Westminster Abbey, frail and in a wheelchair. (My Father Laurence Olivier by Tarquin Olivier, Headline Books, 1992)

She was 82 years old when she died on 28 July 1990 in Wandsworth,[3] London.

References

  1. ^ Beckett, Francis (2005), Olivier, Haus Publishing, p. 30, ISBN 1904950388  
  2. ^ Madsen, Axel (2002), The Sewing Circle: Sappho's Leading Ladies, Kensington Books, ISBN 075820101X  
  3. ^ Deaths England and Wales 1984-2006

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