Papers of David Lean

Scope and Content

The collection consists of tapes, notes and correspondence relating to the production of the film Dr Zhivago; correspondence including 49 letters from Robert Bolt, 3 letters from Alec Guiness and 3 letters from Katherine Hepburn; personal correspondence between David Lean (48 letters and 30 telegrams) and Barbara Cole-Beale.

Administrative / Biographical History

David Lean was born in Croydon in 1908 into a Quaker family. His father, an accountant, came from a long line of distinguished Quaker schoolmasters, and was disappointed when his elder son showed a marked lack of academic ability, finding it difficult to learn to read and write. In 1922 David failed his Common Entrance examination but family connections gained him a place at Leighton Park, a Quaker school in Reading, where his interests in nature and photography were encouraged. The school also allowed David to visit the cinema, which had been forbidden at home.

In 1923 David Lean's parents separated and when he left school in 1926 he tried to study accountancy to please his mother. However an aunt pointed out that he had no aptitude for that work and an evident passion for cinema and suggested that he should be allowed to see whether he could make a living in film production. He started working at Gaumont in 1927, first as a tea boy and later as a clapperboy and messenger, before becoming an editor of newsreel footage in 1930 and of feature films in 1934.

David Lean began his career as a director in 1942 with In Which We Serve, which he co-directed with Noel Coward. His next three films were adaptations of Coward pieces, including Brief Encounter. After considerable success with intimate small scale dramas and two adaptations of Dickens novels, Lean turned to the epic with The Bridge on the River Kwai in 1957, and Lawrence of Arabia in 1962 , winning Oscars for both films. Lawrence of Arabia also marked the beginning of Lean's long association with the playwright Robert Bolt who also wrote the screenplays for Dr Zhivago (1965) and Ryan's Daughter (1970).

Making films was the most important thing in David Lean's life. He was married six times and also conducted a series of affairs, often with women he was working with. Each relationship began intensely, but when Lean ceased to be interested and found a new object for his passion, he cut people out of his life as though they no longer existed. He met Barbara Cole-Beale in 1961 when she was working as a continuity girl on Lawrence of Arabia and he was married to his fourth wife Leila Matkar. Their affair continued until 1966 when Lean, still married to Leila, left Barbara for Sandra Hotz who would eventually, in 1981, become his fifth wife.

David Lean's career took a down turn with the failure of Ryan's Daughter and it was not until 1984 that he directed another feature film A passage to India. At the time of his death from cancer in 1991 he was working on a film of Joseph Conrad's Nostromo.

Access Information

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Acquisition Information

Gift of Barbara Beale, 1986


This description was compiled by Gil Skidmore with reference to Kevin Brownlow's 1996 biography of David Lean.

Other Finding Aids

A list of the material is available