I do love a feud, and one that lasted 96 years is, well, fabulous ...
So, we know that Olivia de Havilland died last week, shortly after her 104th birthday. Other things we know about OdH is that she didn’t suffer fools at all; she was well known for feuds … one, a lifelong feud with her sister, fellow actress Joan Fontaine, and one feud with Feud creator, Ryan Murphy, over his Feud: Bette and Joan TV show. OdH didn’t like the way she was portrayed in that production, though, for me, it had less to do with Murphy and more to do with the fact that aging cardboard “actress.” Catherine Zeta Jones portrayed de Havilland. But, we’re here to talk sisters, Olivia v Joan … Fontaine.
De Havilland didn’t just hold a grudge against Fontaine because the latter won an Oscar for Best Actress in 1942—in a category for which they were both nominated. Their sibling rivalry began many years earlier and was OdH’s greatest battle.
It all stemmed from their mother’s marriage to one George Fontaine, after their father left the family for his mistress. Olivia didn’t like stepdaddy, but Joan did. In her 1978 autobiography No Bed of Roses—which Olivia dubbed No Shred of Truth—Joan says Olivia didn’t like sharing anything, even a stepfather she didn’t like, with Joan, who felt Olivia was favored by their mother.
And so, the feud … rumor has it that, at age nine, Joan decided she would kill Olivia. She thought it all out carefully: she would let Olivia hit her once, and then again, in silence. But after the third blow, she would hit Olivia right between the eyes, and then plead self-defense. Perhaps it has something to do with a school project Olivia was given a year earlier, when she was nine, and was asked to write out a will and what she might leave to whom; Olivia wrote:
“I bequeath all my beauty to my younger sister, Joan, since she has none.”
Joan loved to slap Olivia, who in turn loved hair pulling. Joan also says that older sister Olivia would tear up her outgrown clothes so Joan wouldn’t get the hand-me-downs. The hatred even manifested itself physically in 1933, when a 17-year-old Olivia broke Joan’s collarbone by pushing her into a swimming pool and then jumping on her.
A few years later, when Joan returned home from spending a couple of years with their ex-pat father in Japan, she found Olivia on the verge of a Hollywood career and decided she wanted the same thing; Olivia tried to convince their mother, and Joan, that the younger sister should be sent to boarding school instead!
But Joan won that battle and was soon living in Hollywood with Mama and Olivia, who was, by then, under contract with Warner Brothers. Olivia kept Joan from getting a deal with Warner’s and even suggested that Joan change her name because there was room for only one de Havilland in Hollywood. She encouraged Joan to take their stepfather’s last name—an idea Joan hated until a fortune teller told her that she needed a stage name ending in "e" to achieve success—and that’s how Joan de Havilland became Joan Fontaine.
And after the name change Olivia de Havilland would say:
"Joan Fontaine. I don't know who she is."
And the sisters' rivalry played out in full view of the world at the 1942 Academy Awards ceremony where both Olivia and Joan were nominated for Best Actress; Olivia for Hold Back the Dawn and Joan for Suspicion. Olivia was expected to win, but Joan got the Oscar instead and ignored her sister’s congratulations when she went to collect her statuette. Joan would later claim she was terrified of that win:
“I felt Olivia would spring across the table and grab me by the hair.”
And then she added:
"You can divorce your sister as well as your husbands. I don’t see her at all, and I don’t intend to. 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!"
Olivia had a different take:
“On my part, it was always loving, but sometimes estranged and, in the later years, severed. Dragon Lady, as I eventually decided to call her, was a brilliant, multi-talented person, but with an astigmatism in her perception of people and events which often caused her to react in an unfair and even injurious way.”
And so, naturally, in 1947, when Olivia won her Oscar for To Each His Own, she snubbed Joan, although it wasn’t for Joan’s Oscar snub, it was for what Joan said publicly about Olivia’s new husband, novelist Marcus Goodrich:
"All I know about him is that he’s had four wives and written one book. Too bad it’s not the other way around."
Gosh, I love a good catty bitch. And yet I don’t know which one I’d want to sit next to more …
In 1939, producer David O. Selznick wanted to cast Olivia in Alfred Hitchcock's Rebecca but she was still under contract at Warner Bros. Selznick reportedly asked Olivia:
"Would you mind if I take your sister?"
Ouch. But then turnabout … and what seemed, on paper, as can act of kindness. Joan was offered the role of Melanie in Gone with the Wind, but turned it down and suggested Olivia get the part instead, although in a rather backhanded way; Joan said:
“George Cukor [who initially directed the film, said] I wore some rather chic clothes. He said, ‘Oh you’re much too stylish for the role that I want you to do.’ And I said, ‘Well, what about my sister?’ And he said, ‘Who’s your sister?’ I explained. And he said, ‘Thank you.’ And that’s how Olivia got that role.”
Yes, she got her sister the part by suggesting Olivia was not as chic or beautiful. But then Olivia got the last laugh that time because when she was nominated for an Oscar for the role of Melanie, she never acknowledged Joan’s assistance.
In the 1950s, de Havilland left Hollywood for France where she spent the rest of her life; but even in retirement, the sisters did not get along. When their mother passed in 1975, Olivia tried blocking Joan from attending the memorial service, until Joan threatened to take the story to the press. Suddenly she was on the guest list, though the sisters avoided each at the memorial. The only contact they had that day was when Olivia passed their mother’s urn to Joan so she could scatter a handful of her ashes.
In 1979, Joan and Olivia both attended the Oscars, though they sat at opposite ends of the stage. In 1989, they were both staying at the Beverly Hills Hotel at the same time, in adjacent rooms, and when Fontaine learned of this, she checked out immediately.
Joan Fontaine said of Olivia:
“I remember not one act of kindness from Olivia all through my childhood. She so hated the idea of having a sibling she wouldn’t go near my crib.”
And Olivia said of Joan:
“On my part, it was always loving, but sometimes estranged and, in the later years, severed,” de Havilland once said of their relationship. “Dragon Lady, as I eventually decided to call her, was a brilliant, multi-talented person, but with an astigmatism in her perception of people and events which often caused her to react in an unfair and even injurious way.”
And now, in 2020, Olivia has left us, and perhaps the feud is over, and they are sharing a laugh over a flute of champagne … at opposite ends of Heaven ...or wherever they are.