An Afternoon with Olivia de Haviland by Pat Silver-Lasky
There are constant references in America and particularly in today’s film colony, to Hollywood’s Golden Age. My late father-in-law Jesse L. Lasky and my writing partner/husband, Jesse L. Lasky Jr., were both part of that glittering era and were the subject of my recent book: Hollywood Royalty: A Family In Films.
Now in 2020, another of the actors of that spectacular era has died just a short while after spellbinder Kirk Douglas, who made it to the age of 103 in 2020. Olivia de Haviland managed to outlive him this year, reaching 104. She passed her final years, quietly in Paris.
de Haviland had been honored with Oscars for To Each His Own in 1946 and The Heiress in 1949. She was also nominated for Snake Pit in 1948. Her final appearance was in the1988 television film The Woman He Loved. But perhaps her most memorable role for many people was in Gone With The Wind, which was the reason I personally came to know Olivia de Haviland. My experience with the star, though brief, was unforgettable. However, I cannot remember it without remembering another experience with her sister.
New Year’s Day 1978 found me with Jesse Jr. in New York. Joan Fontaine and Jesse were each completing their respective autobiographical book tours and TV appearances; Jesse with What Ever Happened to Hollywood? and Joan with No Bed of Roses and they were often scheduled on the same programs. Old acquaintances from Hollywood days, they happily exchanged books and memories. Joan autographed her memoir, No Bed of Roses, to us: “To Pat and Jesse -- Without Jesse Lasky Sr., this book would have been about how to make curtains and mow the lawn. - Joan.”
Jesse L. Lasky Sr. was a founding father of Hollywood, having produced the first feature-length film The Squaw Man in Hollywood in1913, and was vice president in charge of production at Paramount for sixteen years. After losing his position in a corporate coup, he moved, first to the Fox Film Corporation, where he made the fabulous Zoo in Budapest, and then to RKO Radio Pictures.
While at RKO in 1935, Jesse Sr. 'discovered' Joan Fontaine, who had already been playing in bit-parts at M-G-M. He saw to it that she got better roles and her breakout part in The Women. A heady but short romance between them was kept out of the press, and away from his wife Bess. Jesse Sr. didn’t mention her in his own autobiography I Blow My Own Horn, but she mentioned him in hers––and the reference was none too flattering. Possibly hoping to even old scores, most of Joan’s book was devoted to unkind anecdotes about her friends––like William Dozier and Brian Aherne. It unfortunately reflected more poorly on her than on her targets.
Born Joan de Beauvoir de Havilland in Tokyo, she and older sister, Olivia’s British father was Walter de Havilland. The acting bug had emanated from their actress mother, Lilian Augusta Ruse. Lilian had given up a nebulous stage career to move with her husband to Tokyo; but they were soon divorced. After her daughters began their careers, Lilian went back on the stage herself, under the name of her second husband, Fontaine.
Since Joan’s elder sister was first to launch a Hollywood career, Olivia kept her original last name. When little sister Joan began her career, Olivia announced firmly: "There can be only one de Havilland in the movies!" Searching for a stage name, Joan listened to a fortune teller who suggested choosing one ending with an 'e'. Joan settled on her stepfather's surname, and however she came by it, Fontaine certainly was lucky.
Joan Fontaine was nominated for Rebecca in the 1940 Academy Awards and collected the Oscar in 1941 for Suspicion, which made her the youngest leading lady to win an Academy Award. Nominated again for The Constant Nymph in 1943, she also filmed Jane Eyre the same year and Frenchman’s Creek in 1944, two of her many hits. She once commented on the constant rivalry between the sisters, saying, ’I married first, won the Oscar before Olivia did and if I die first, she’ll undoubtedly be livid because I beat her to it.’ And she did. Joan died in 1946 at the age of 96.
In 1978 when Jesse and I returned to London, we were writing our book, Love Scene (a biography of Vivien Leigh and Laurence Olivier), for which we interviewed over forty of the couple’s associates and friends. When we heard that Olivia de Havilland was staying at the Dorchester Hotel in London, we were eager to interview her about Gone With the Wind. Jesse was a long-time friend of hers and Olivia was delighted to grant an interview. But her only free time in London was the following afternoon, when Jesse had already booked an interview with Sir Michael Balcon, the founding father of Ealing Studios. So Jesse took that meeting with Sir Michael, and I went to meet Olivia in her suite at the Dorchester Hotel for “tea and “a little chat.”
Olivia was overwhelmingly charming and greeted me as an old friend, although we’d never met. She was wearing a stunning ‘outfit’ in beige suede from head to ankle, and my first impression was of a human being completely in control of herself, calm and at ease anytime, anywhere.
Playing the honeyed Melanie in Gone With the Wind won Olivia her first Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress in 1939. That same year, Olivia was also nominated for her role in Hold Back the Dawn. Sisterly rivalry ever present, Joan Fontaine received the little gold man for her role in Suspicion in 1941. Olivia was to win two Oscars, five nominations and fourteen other awards. The Heiress, and The Snake Pit in 1948 were memorable roles. The rivalry, the great roles, and the awards continued.
Olivia told me that she’d felt sorry for Vivien Leigh because she was working so hard for Selznick in Gone With The Wind. She said Vivien hated her famous leading man, Clark Gable for making Selznick change directors. Vivien had loved working with George Cukor who was known as a woman’s director, but the rewrites didn't stop. Almost every day they each had to learn a new script. And Vivien was under certain other extremely hush-hush pressures in those more circumspect times. Olivia knew that Vivien was sharing a secret Hollywood apartment with Laurence Olivier, while each was already married and each had a child! In 1939, this was a scandal that the studio couldn’t allow. They hastily arranged a stage play for Larry in New York; a role that he could not turn down.
Vivien told Olivia about a game she'd invented that she called it 'Ways To Kill Babies'. Vivien had pantomimed driving a car and chatting with a child passenger. Then she rolled down the window and tossed the child out. Selznick heard of it and thought she was losing her mind, and Olivia had wondered if she really was, brought on by her sudden separation from Larry.
Telling me this bizarre tale brought to Olivia's mind the actress’s own lost love, and instead of the aforementioned tea, she ordered smoked salmon, caviar sandwiches, and a bottle of champagne and she spent the rest of the afternoon reliving her still vivid memories of Errol Flynn. Olivia had first worked with the disturbingly handsome Irishman, on Michael Curtiz’ Captain Blood in 1935, and then on The Charge of the Light Brigade, the following year. The Adventures of Robin Hood was filmed in 1938. Flynn was married to the French actress Lili Damita. Although their romance was still vivid in Olivia’s memory, for decades she had denied to the press having ever been intimate with Flynn and never publicly deviated from that stance. But that day, over salmon, caviar, and champagne, she told me that she’d gone up into the hills above the Warner Brothers lot on many an afternoon with Errol Flynn. The romance was not to last but Olivia’s memories did and recalled an exceptional lover. Perhaps she would not have shared this memory, if Jesse had been present.
We spent a memorable, precious afternoon. Graciousness is a quality not seen enough in today’s world and Olivia de Haviland had that quality in abundance.