By Rachel Syme
July 28, 2020
Imet Olivia de Havilland for the first and only time in Paris, in the summer of 2013, in the garden of her stately home at 3 Rue Bénouville, in the Sixteenth Arrondissement. I remember that it was unseasonably hot, even for June, because I was sweating through the pumpkin-colored silk blouse and leather pants I had bought on Rue Saint-Honoré to wear for the occasion. My high heels kept getting caught in the cobblestones as I walked to de Havilland’s residence from the Metro; by the time I arrived at the door of her town house, at dusk, I had blisters on both feet. De Havilland, by contrast, looked as fresh as a bouquet chilling in a florist’s refrigerator. She wore a lightweight pastel dress and a string of pearls, with her elegant puff of bone-white hair swept into a voluminous chignon. She smelled like strong perfume—perhaps a vintage Jean Patou or Robert Piguet fragrance. She had bright brown eyes and a peaches-and-cream complexion. She was ninety-six years old and still disarmingly beautiful. We sat in her garden, at a delicate white wrought-iron table next to an ivy trellis. De Havilland’s personal assistant, a young expat—the actress regularly hired young women who were new to Paris, who then passed the job along to other newcomers, in a kind of sororal daisy chain—brought us a small plate of tea sandwiches and a bottle of champagne on ice. Drinking champagne every day, de Havilland told me, was her secret to eternal youth.
We kicked the bottle, and I tottered out of her house, an hour and a half later, feeling floaty and flushed. The visit feels to me now like a rose-colored dream, especially as I have no recording of our conversation; this was at de Havilland’s specific request. Our rendezvous was purely a “getting to know you,” brokered by a mutual friend as a first gentle tiptoe toward a magazine story I had long hoped to write about de Havilland’s life and career. That story ended up fizzling, as some stories do—the magazine editor who was interested in it left the industry, and Mme. de Havilland, as she was known in France, did not want to speak to me on the phone in an official capacity. (“She hates ‘phoners,’ ” her lawyer, who handled her affairs, told me via e-mail.) It was probably for the best—Mme. was famously prickly when it came to guarding her image. A few years later, de Havilland sued the showrunner Ryan Murphy for what she considered to be a defamatory portrayal on the FX series “Feud,” in which Catherine Zeta-Jones played her as a vicious gossip; the case went all the way to the Supreme Court before the panel declined to hear it last year.
This was not de Havilland’s first legal battle but rather her final salvo in a lifetime of crusading for what she felt she deserved. The actress, who died on Sunday, at the age of a hundred and four, is the namesake of a landmark law passed, in 1944, as a result of her battle with Warner Bros. over her right to exit her contract. De Havilland, who was born in Tokyo to English parents (her mother was the stage actress Lilian Fontaine; her father, Walter de Havilland, was an English professor and patent lawyer), signed with Warner Bros. in 1936 and rose to stardom playing the blushing ingénue. She starred opposite Errol Flynn in films such as “The Charge of the Light Brigade” (1936) and “The Adventures of Robin Hood” (1938), and the pair became an onscreen duo of sorts, with de Havilland playing the dulcet damsel to Flynn’s swashbuckling rogue. De Havilland—who planned to be an English teacher before she was discovered as an actress—brought a sense of studiousness and poise to her dramatic roles; the tension in her performances came more from her tightly coiled control than from any sense of abandon. She carried herself stick-straight, like a governess or a débutante, which made it all the more thrilling to watch when the rakish Flynn swept her off her feet.
Still, de Havilland was unsatisfied with the studio’s tendency to shove her into romantic roles. In 1939, she achieved a small victory when she convinced Jack Warner (with the help of his wife, Ann, whom de Havilland befriended and beseeched) to loan her to M-G-M to play the brainy, selfless Melanie Hamilton Wilkes in “Gone with the Wind,” a role that she felt was finally equal to her acting chops. She earned an Academy Award nomination for the performance, in the Best Supporting Actress category. (Her co-star Hattie McDaniel won that year.) Still, when she returned to Warner Bros., executives continued to send her scripts that she felt underutilized her talent. She rejected them outright, leading the studio to issue her several punitive suspensions. When de Havilland’s contract expired after seven years, Warner told her that she was still the studio’s property, owing to the time she had lost while not working. De Havilland sued and took the case all the way to the California Supreme Court, which ultimately found in her favor, thereby setting a new rule in Hollywood that no studio could hold a performer beyond seven calendar years. As the Hollywood historian Karina Longworth explained in an episode of her podcast, “You Must Remember This,” about the case, “Warner Bros. now had no recourse. They and all of the studios who used suspensions to control their talent had lost. Olivia de Havilland was finally free.”
De Havilland was open about the fact that she craved heftier roles in large part because she desperately wanted to win an Oscar. In particular, she wanted to win an Oscar before her younger sister, Joan Fontaine, who signed a contract with R.K.O. Pictures the year before de Havilland signed with Warner Bros. (Fontaine ended up beating de Havilland to Best Actress in a Leading Role, but not by much; she won for her role in Hitchcock’s “Suspicion,” in 1942, and de Havilland won for playing a desperate mother in “To Each His Own,” five years later, and won again for playing a wealthy woman who is constantly manipulated by the men around her, in “The Heiress.”) The sisters had one of the longest-running and most well-documented family feuds in Hollywood history, even once going for years without speaking. This rivalry grew in the press into its own cottage industry, prompting constant tabloid covers and a host of dime-store biographies. The story was catnip to the public—famous sisters, battling it out for top billing—but, toward the end of her life, Fontaine insisted that it had all been overblown. “Two nice girls liking each other isn’t copy,” Fontaine told a reporter in 2013. “Let me just say, Olivia and I have never had a quarrel.”
I had hoped to discuss Fontaine with de Havilland during our visit, but she made it clear to me that the subject was off-limits. (At the time, Fontaine was still alive; she died six months later.) Instead, she peppered our conversation with memories of Clark Gable and Vivien Leigh, and waxed sentimental about Paris, where she had lived for more than fifty years. She was spending her days working on her memoir. The book, which never emerged during her lifetime, was to be her second. Her first, “Every Frenchman Has One,” came out in 1962, nearly a decade after de Havilland relocated to Paris, where she moved into the town house on Rue Bénouville with her second husband, a suave magazine editor named Pierre Galante. That book was a series of disconnected, fish-out-of-water essays about an American diva in Paris, in which she complained about her French maid, who never scrubbed the bathtub, and marvelled that a woman in France could be considered attractive without big breasts. (“I know just as well as you do that back home in the States if a girl’s got a delicate, elfin 32 she has no choice but to commit suicide,” she wrote. “At the Lido, if you’ve got a delicate, elfin 32, you’ve got a job.”)
De Havilland separated from Galante, in 1962 (they divorced years later), and never married again. She focussed, instead, on her two children—a son, Benjamin, who died in 1991, of Hodgkin’s lymphoma, and a daughter, Gisèle, who survives her. Though she continued acting through the nineteen-eighties, her career never hit the heights that it attained when she was living in Los Angeles. The elegance and slowness of Parisian life seemed to suit her; even from abroad, she could still serve as a kind of distant grande dame of the industry, the last living lioness of the studio system. “She was a big star, but stardom didn’t ruin her life,” Longworth told me on Monday. “Nobody really thinks of her career as ending in decline or tragedy. She had a happy ending, and, more than that, it was an ending of her own choice and making.” I hope, one day, to finally read the memoir that de Havilland was working on when I met her.
Rachel Syme is a staff writer at The New Yorker. She has covered fashion, style, and other cultural subjects since 2012.