New Details About the Joan Fontaine-Olivia de Havilland Feud Revealed
As both sisters established themselves firmly atop Hollywood's A-list, their relationship was further tested by quarrels over men. Joan had gotten married in 1939, for the first of four times, before her older sister, which, in those days, was considered something of a slight -- and to the actor Brian Aherne, whom Olivia had once dated. On the night before Joan's wedding, Olivia's then-boyfriend Howard Hughes, while having a celebratory dance with Joan, apparently tried to convince Joan not to marry Aherne because, he said, he wanted to marry her himself. When Joan, appalled, shared this with Olivia, it seems that Olivia either didn't believe her or didn't want to believe her; regardless, it only further complicated their relationship.
Then, in 1946, not long after Olivia wed the author Marcus Goodrich, the first of her two husbands, who had previously been married four times, Joan apparently cracked, "It's too bad that Olivia's husband has had so many wives and only one book." This unnecessarily mean remark, at the outset of Olivia's marriage, got back to Olivia and elevated an already fractious relationship to an out-and-out cold war. Olivia had no interest in speaking with Joan until Joan apologized, and Joan, for whatever reason, was in no rush to do so. Years later, in 1957, in the only interview in which she ever commented on her relationship with her sister, Olivia told the Associated Press, "Joan is very bright and sharp and has a wit that can be cutting. She said some things about Marcus that hurt me deeply." Consequently, Olivia continued, "She was aware there was an estrangement between us."
In 1947, 14 months after her wedding, Olivia finally won a best actress Oscar of her own, for To Each His Own (1946) -- the first of two, in fact, that she would within a span of just four years, with the second coming for The Heiress (1949). After Olivia completed her acceptance speech for the former, she was approached backstage by Joan, who, having just presented the best actor prize, stuck around to congratulate her sister. But, as was famously immortalized in a photo snapped by Hymie Fink of Photoplay, Olivia turned away from Joan, snubbing her advance. Daily Variety reported at the time that Olivia then muttered to her press agent, Henry Rogers, "I don't know why she does that when she knows how I feel." Joan, for her part, reportedly "stood there looking after her with a bewildered expression and then shrugged her shoulders and walked off." (Joan would later write, "I went over to congratulate her as I would have done to any winner. She took one look at me, ignored my hand, clutched her Oscar and wheeled away.") Rogers subsequently told the press, "The girls haven't spoken to each other for four months. Miss de Havilland had no wish to have her picture taken with her sister. This goes back for years and years, ever since they were kids -- a case of two sisters who don't have a great deal in common."
Back in May, when I arrived at Olivia's stately townhouse near the center of Paris, on the same block as the home of a former French president, an assistant led me inside. I instantly saw Olivia peering around a corner, walked over to say hello and was greeted very warmly. She then had her assistant pour us champagne and bring out a tray of finger sandwiches, and, knowing that I had just come from the Cannes Film Festival, regaled me with the story of how her own trip to Cannes 60 years earlier had led to her relocation to Paris.
In 1952, de Havilland divorced Goodrich and, shortly thereafter accepted an invitation to attend the 1953 festival at Cannes along with her young son. From the moment they arrived, she said, she was shadowed by a Frenchman who did not speak to her but wouldn't let her out of his sight. Days later, when they finally exchanged words, he turned out to be Pierre Galante, the editor of the French magazine Paris Match, and he continued to pursue her, more openly, until she agreed to marry him. Sensing that, with the arrival of television, Hollywood's Golden Age was ending and that roles worthy of her talents would become fewer and further between, Olivia decided to leave America, move to Paris and tie the knot with Galante in 1955. (They divorced in 1979.)
Over the years between the 1947 Oscar snub and the 1978 publication of Joan's autobiography, it appears that the sisters had a hot-and-cold relationship. "I swore that I would never reconcile with Joan until she apologized," Olivia said in her 1957 interview with the AP. "But when I returned to Hollywood after my separation from Marcus [in 1952], it seemed silly to demand an apology again." Joan told me of Olivia, "She came to my apartment in New York often." (The two apparently spent Christmas together there in 1961.) They were photographed laughing together at an event in 1967. And, Joan claimed in her autobiography, she went to see Olivia in Paris in 1969, at Olivia's request, and helped her through financial and marital troubles. ("She signed with my lecture bureau and eventually had so many bookings that I had to find a new bureau to handle mine," Joan wrote.)
All sources seem to agree that things took a turn for the worse after the death of their beloved mother in 1975. In No Bed of Roses, Joan wrote that she was out of the country at the time of their mother's death and only learned about the memorial service by happenstance. "I was not invited," Joan alleged, and it was "only after burning the telephone wires from coast to coast" and threatening to "call the press and give them the whole story" that the service was postponed long enough to allow Joan to be in attendance. Moreover, she told People, "Olivia and the executor of the estate took full charge, disposing of Mother's effects as well as her body -- she was cremated -- without bothering to consult me." At the service, the sisters did not speak and, as Joan described it, "Olivia scattered a handful of ashes, then silently passed the container to me. Thus I said goodbye to my mother. As for Olivia, I had no words at all."
In 1979, the year after Joan's autobiography was published, the sisters both attended the Academy's 50th anniversary celebration of the Oscars and Oscar winners, but were seated on opposite ends of the stage for the "class photo," apparently at their request, and did not speak with each other at any time. Ten years later, when they were again brought together for an Oscars anniversary celebration, they were still -- or again -- not on speaking terms; upon discovering that they were staying in adjacent hotel rooms, Joan apparently had her room changed and said she would never return to the Oscars. She never did.
Olivia, on the other hand, did -- she swept onto the stage to introduce the class photo at the 75th Academy Awards in 2003, one of the most memorable segments in the history of the Oscars telecast. I told her how special I thought it was, how bummed I was when it wasn't replicated earlier in 2013 at the 85th Oscars and how much I hoped she might return again to Hollywood for a future Oscars ceremony. She said she would like to, but doubted it would happen, since she had experienced months of sleeping difficulties after returning from her most recent visit to America and did not want to put herself through another similar ordeal. I somewhat fishingly asked if she still had many friends or family in California, and she said that she really did not, apart from "my sibling," since her life had been in Paris for 60 years -- although, she said, she was very close with her niece, Deborah, Joan's daughter (with whom Joan had at one time become estranged, allegedly out of anger that she was maintaining communication with her aunt).
Sitting just a few feet away from Olivia, who was so gracious to me, and knowing how other nosy interviewers had been received, I could not muster the courage to ask her more about her relationship with Joan. But, at the end of my earlier phone conversation with Joan, who had already made several references to Olivia over the course of a perfectly coherent and interesting conversation, I felt that I had to at least try -- and I was shocked by what I was told: "This 'Olivia feud' has always irritated me because it has no basis. To this day it has no basis!"
So, I asked Joan, are the two of you friends? "Of course!" Wow -- well, I'm glad to know that, I responded. I guess some people like to sensationalize things. "Oh, right -- they have to. Two nice girls liking each other isn't copy." So today you and Olivia are in communication? You talk to each other? "Absolutely." Wow. Well, that's amazing. I'm so happy to hear that. "Oh, sure." Later in the conversation, I felt that I had to clarify what I had heard earlier. Was there ever a time when you two did not get along to the point where you wouldn't speak with one another? "Never. Never. There is not a word of truth about that." Why do you think people believe that? "Oh, I have no idea. It's just something to say." Well, that's not fair to you. "Oh, it's terrible." And have you seen Olivia over the years? "I've seen her in Paris. And she came to my apartment in New York often." I have to say that this is such a nice thing to hear because I was sad to think that you two were on poor terms. "Let me just say, Olivia and I have never had a quarrel. We have never had any dissatisfaction. We have never had hard words. And all this is press."
I would like to believe that Joan's account, rather than the decades of media reports to the contrary, represented the truth about the nature of the sisters' relationship. But unless Olivia, Deborah or Joan's assistant during her later years, Susan Pfeiffer, wish to share their own perspectives, I suppose we'll never know for sure.
What is known is this: Joan, while promoting her autobiography in 1978, told People, "Olivia has always said I was first at everything -- I got married first, got an Academy Award first, had a child first. If I die, she'll be furious, because again I'll have got there first!" But that was not, in fact, the case. Joan died on Dec. 15 -- news of which I broke at THR -- and on Dec. 16, Olivia issued a rare public statement: "I was shocked and saddened to learn of the passing of my sister, Joan Fontaine, and my niece, Deborah, and I appreciate the many kind expressions of sympathy that we have received."
Earlier this month, after I finished sharing the aforementioned story with Laura Dern and Meg Ryan, Dern was asked to say a few words about her father, Bruce Dern, who was being honored at the luncheon. She paid a very moving tribute to him in front of a roomful of Academy members, after which she received a voluminous round of applause -- and then cracked, to lots of laughter, "Although I did just tell Scott, 'It's a lie. We're actually like Olivia de Havilland and Joan Fontaine -- we don't speak.' "