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Feuding Sisters: Olivia de Havilland & Joan Fontaine

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!
(Joan Fontaine, People magazine, 1978)

A graduate of Reading Musical College, Lilian Augusta Ruse was offered a position in Tokyo, Japan as a teacher of choral singing in the summer of 1907. While attending a tea party at the British ambassy, she met Walter Augustus de Havilland, a "suave Englishman" who ran a successful firm of patent attorney in Tokyo. Following a whirlwind courtship, Walter proposed to Lilian, but she was not interested in marriage. Instead, she decided to return to England in December 1911 to study acting at at Sir Beerbohm Tree's Academy, now known as the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts. When World War I broke out in 1914, Walter went back to England to enlist with the British Army. Despite being an accomplished marksman, he was rejected for military service due to his advanced age (he was 42 at the time). At the same time, he looked up Lilian and renewed his marriage proposal. She tossed a crown to help her make her decision and they married within weeks.

Olivia and Joan dressed for a costume
party in Saratoga in 1934
Walter and Lilian's first child, a daughter named Olivia Mary de Havilland, was born on July 1, 1916 in Tokyo, Japan. After the couple welcomed their second daughter, Joan de Beauvoir de Havilland, on October 22, 1917, their marriage became increasingly strained due to Walter's infidelities. In early 1919, Lilian managed to persuade her husband to take the family back to England to a climate better suited to her ailing daughters. They sailed abroad the SS Siberian Maru to San Francisco, where a doctor insisted that Olivia's tonsils be removed at once. When Joan developed pneumonia, Lilian decided to remain with the girls in California, while Walter returned to Japan. On the doctor's recommendation, she moved her daughters to the village of Saratoga, 50 miles (80 kilometers) south of San Francisco, where the warmer climate of the Santa Cruz mountains would do Joan "a world of good." It was during this period that Lilian met successful businessman George Milan Fontaine, whom she would eventually marry after her divorce from Walter became final in early 1925.

By the time the family settled in Saratoga, Joan had become anemic following a combined attack of the measles and a streptococcal infection. She was forced to spent a great deal of time in bed and, not surprisingly, became resentful that Olivia had more fun than she did. In an interview for People magazine in 1978, Joan described to reporter Christopher P. Anderson her early relationship with her older sister: "I regret that I remember not one act of kindness from Olivia all through my childhood. One of my earliest memories is when she was 6 and I was 5. She had learned to read and, one night when we were alone, she read aloud the Crucifixion from the Bible with mounting gusto until finally I screamed. Olivia loved it. One July day in 1933 when I was 16, Olivia threw me down in a rage, jumped on top of me and fractured my collarbone. [...] Olivia so hated the idea of having a sibling that she wouldn't go near my crib. She was always a stout believer in primogeniture." As editor of their high school newspaper, Olivia reportedly published a fake will with the following message: "I bequeath to my sister the ability to win boys' heart, which she does not have at present."

Olivia and Joan at a restaurant in 1940
The well-versed Lilian taught her daughters diction and voice control at an early age, in addition to exposing them to great works of literature. As such, both of the de Havilland girls developed an interest in the arts and began working towards a career in acting while still attending high school. In 1933, Olivia was chosen to play the title role in a local theatre production of Lewis Carroll's fantasy novel Alice in Wonderland, a part Joan had envisioned for herself. This incident may have  precipitated Joan's decision to move back to Japan in the mid-1930s to live with her father and his new wife for a short period of time and likely served as a catalyst for the sisters' reputed lifelong "feud."

Olivia was the first to enter the Hollywood motion picture industry. After appearing as Hermia in Max Reinhardt's Hollywood Bowl production of William Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream, Olivia was asked to reprise her role in the 1935 all-star screen adaptation of the play. To be able to do so, she was required to sign a seven-year contract with Warner Bros., where she soon became a "marquee attraction" by co-starring opposite Errol Flynn in a series of eight films, most notably The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938). Meanwhile, Joan began serving as her older sister's chauffeur, as Olivia did not possess a driver's license at the time. One night, while waiting for Olivia at the Warners lot, Joan was approached by a studio employee, who offered her a contract. When she mentioned this to Lilian who allegedly favored her first-born daughter Joan was told that she could not seek work at Warner Bros., as that was "Olivia's studio," and that she could not use the name "de Havilland." Taking her stepfather's surname instead, Joan found an agent and soon signed with RKO, appearing in such films as Damsel in Distress (1937) and Gunga Din (1939). Although she was billed as "the new RKO screen personality," she failed to make a strong impression among audiences and her contract was not renewed when it expired in 1939.

Joan and Olivia in 1942
By the later 1930s, Hollywood was caught up in the hype surrounding the making of Gone with the Wind (1939), a Civil War epic based on Margaret Mitchell's best-selling novel of the same name. Independent producer David O. Selznick purchased the prized screen rights to the book and began a highly publicized nationwide campaign to find an actress to play Scarlett O'Hara, the strong-willed heroine of the story. Olivia had no interest in playing Scarlett, but Joan was one of the hundreds of young actresses who tested for the coveted role.

 Ironically, it was Joan's audition for Gone with the Wind that opened the way for Olivia to play Melanie Hamilton, Scarlett's kind-hearted cousin. When George Cukor — who had been hired to direct the film before Selznick replaced him with Victor Fleming — asked Joan to read for Melanie instead, she declined and said, "If it is a Melanie you are looking for, why don't you try my sister." Cukor took Joan's advice and contacted Olivia, who was hired immediately after she read for the part. Gone with the Wind was an overwhelming critical and commercial successful and earned Olivia her first Academy Award nomination.

Two years later, Olivia and Joan became the first pair of siblings to compete against one another in the same category at the Academy Awards. They were both nominated for Best Actress Olivia for Mitchell Leisen's Hold Back the Dawn (1941) and Joan for Alfred Hitchcock's Suspicion (1941), which opened in Hollywood on the final day of eligibility for that year's Oscars. Initially, Joan was not planning to attend the ceremony, concluding that if she had not won the previous year for playing the second Mrs. de Winter in Hitchcock's Rebecca (1940), which she considered a superior film and performance, she was not likely to win for Suspicion. It was apparently Olivia who convinced her sister to attend the event by appearing on the set of the picture Joan was working on at the time The Constant Nymph (1943) with a dress in hand.

Joan and Olivia at the 14th Academy Awards
At the 14th Academy Awards held at the Biltmore Bowl in Los Angeles on February 26, 1942, Ginger Rogers announced Joan Fontaine as the Best Actress winner for that year. Upon hearing her name being called, Joan completely froze: "I sat across the table, where Olivia was sitting directly opposite me. 'Get up there, get up there,' Olivia whispered commandingly. Now what had I done? All the animus we'd felt towards each other as children, the hair-pullings, the savage wrestling watches, the time Olivia fractured my collarbone, all came rushing back in kaleidoscopic image. My paralysis was total." When Joan returned to her table after accepting the award, Olivia seized her hand and exclaimed, "We've got it!" Later in the evening, a reporter from LIFE magazine reportedly overheard Olivia say, "If Suspicion had been delayed just a little, it wouldn't have gotten in under the wire for this year's awards and I might have won. I think that voters are inclined to remember with the highest favor the pictures they have seen most recently. By the time they saw Suspicion, they had almost forgotten Hold Back the Dawn.

As both sisters established themselves as Hollywood top leading ladies, their relationship was further tested by disagreements over men. Joan had married in August 1939 (for the first of four times) before her older sister, which was considered somewhat of an affront in those days, and to actor Brian Aherne, whom Olivia had briefly dated after appearing with him in The Great Garrick (1937). On the eve of Joan's wedding, Olivia's then-boyfriend Howard Hughes, while having a celebratory dance with the bride-to-be, apparently tried to convince her not to marry Aherne because he wanted to marry her himself. "I was furious," Joan recalled. "No one two-timed my sister, no matter what our quarrel might be. But when I tried to warn Olivia, sparks flew. I showed her his telephone number in his own handwriting that he had given me, but she was furious at me."

Olivia shies away from Joan at the 1946 Oscars
In August 1946, Olivia wedded author Marcus Goodrich, the first of her two husbands and the father of her son Benjamin. The day after the wedding, which took place in Connecticut, Olivia's agent telephoned Joan to ask her if she knew anything about her new brother-in-law. She quipped, "All I know about him is that he has had four wives and written one book. Too bad it's not the other way around." Her comment was printed in several publications the following day and Olivia was understandably offended. In 1957, she 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. [...] She was aware there was an estrangement between us."

Seven months after her wedding, Olivia received another Academy Award nominated for Best Actress, this time for her performance in To Each His Own (1946). Two weeks before the ceremony, Joan's press agent Henry Rogers contacted Olivia and asked her if she would have photos taken with her sister if she won the Oscar. She agreed, but only if Joan apologized for her earlier remark about Goodrich. Olivia also warned Rogers that if her condition was not met, she would turn away from Joan upon accepting the award. On the night of March 13, 1947 at the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles, Olivia won her first of two Oscars for Best Actress the second coming three years later with William Wyler's The Heiress (1949). After accepting the statuette, Olivia headed towards the press room, where she saw Joan surrounded by a dozen photographers. She recalled, "I could not comprehend this insensitivity and I did indeed turn away, saying, 'I do not understand how she can do this when she knows how I feel.' I then walked round the stage curtain and down the steps, into the theatre to take my seat again." Joan would later write, "I went over to congratulate as I would have done with any winner. She took one look at me, ignored my hand, cluchted her Oscar and wheeled away." The incident, which was famously immortalized in a photo taken by Hymie Fink of Photoplay, further strained the sisters' already troubled relationship.

Joan and Olivia at Marlene Dietrich's party in 1967
In her 1957 interview with the Associated Press, Olivia said, "I swore that I would never reconcile with Joan until she apologized. But when I returned to Hollywood after my separation from Marcus [in 1952], it seemed silly to demand an apology again." According to Joan, Olivia often visited her in her apartment in New York and the two apparently spent Christmas together there in 1961. Six years later, on September 9, 1967, they both attended Marlene Dietrich's opening party at the Rainbow Room in New York City and were photographed laughing together. In her autobiography, Joan also claimed that, at her sister's request, she went to visit her in Paris where Olivia had moved after marrying French journalist Pierre Galante in 1955 and helped her through financial and marital problems.

In 1975, Olivia and Joan were stuck by tragedy when their mother died from cancer at the age of 88. Joan recalled the occasion to People magazine: "I had kept in touch with Olivia for my mother's sake, but when she was dying of cancer in California and I was touring in Cactus Flower, nobody called to say she was asking for me. Then 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. I wasn't even invited to the memorial service. Of course, I went anyway. At the end of it, the minister handed Olivia a box containing my mother's ashes. She scattered a handful of ashes over the grave site and then silently passed the container to me. Not one word was exchanged. I think it is so ironic that the death of this marvelous woman was reponsible for our final schism."

Joan and Olivia with their mother in the mid-1970s
In 1979, a year after Joan's autobiography No Bed of Roses was published, the sisters both attended the 50th anniversary celebration of the Oscars and Oscar winners. Apparently at their request, they were seated on opposite ends of the stage for the "class photo" and did not speak to each other at any time during the event. Ten years later, when they were again brought together for another Academy Awards anniversary celebration, they were still not on speaking terms. Upon discovering that they had been assigned to adjacent hotel rooms, Joan supposedly demanded that her room be changed and swore that she would never return to the Oscars. She never did.

The feud between the de Havilland sisters seemed to have finally ended on December 15, 2013, when Joan passed away in her sleep of natural causes at the age of 96. Her longtime friend Noel Beutel said, "She had been fading in recent days and died peacefully." The following day, Olivia issued a rare public statement: "I was shocked and saddened of the passing of my sister, Joan Fontaine, and my niece, Deborah [Joan's daughter with her second husband, William Dozier], and I appreciate the many kind expressions of sympathy that we have received."

In March 2013, Scott Feinberg, a journalist for The Hollywood Reporter, interviewed Joan over the phone for a book he was writing about "old movies for young people" and was "shocked" when she told him, "This 'Olivia feud' had always irritated me because it has no basis. To this day it has no basis!" She told Feinberg that she and Olivia were still friends and actually talked to each other quite often over the years. Joan ended the conversation by saying, "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." Whether the de Havilland-Fontaine feud was press or not, I guess we will never know.

The Women of Warner Brothers: The Lives and Careers of 15 Leading Ladies by Daniel Bubbeo (2002) | "Joan Fontaine-Olivia de Havilland Feud: New Details Revealed" by Scott Feinberg (2013) | "In No Bed of Roses, Joan Fontaine Talks About the Thorns in Her Life" by Christopher P. Anderson (1978)


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