Hollywood Hatred, The Deafening Silence of Joan Fontaine and Olivia De Havilland

Olivia
Olivia
Joan
Joan

Sibling Rivalry

For sisters to argue is commonplace, even not to speak for a while is normal, but to have a bitter feud for 90 years and not speak to each other for the last 35 years - that takes dedicated hatred.

When the sisters in question are both "grand dames" from the Golden Age of Hollywood, well that makes the conflict all the more amazing and, yes, interesting.

The sisters are, of course, Olivia de Havilland and Joan Fontaine, both Best Actress Oscar winners (Olivia twice). Both are in their 90's now and are amongst the dwindling band of legendary figures from the Golden Age of Hollywood.

The sisters first competed for the love of their mother, then they competed over clothes, then boys, then men, then film roles, then Oscars, and now their own reputations. It's a tragic tale of two talented and strong minded women who, it seems, will never reconcile.

!945, A rare closeness. Joan on the right.
!945, A rare closeness. Joan on the right.
1918, with their mother Lillian
1918, with their mother Lillian
Two Sweet Little Girls
Two Sweet Little Girls

Growing Up in Japan and America

Olivia de Havilland and her younger sister, Joan Fontaine, were born one year apart in Tokyo, where their father, a British patent lawyer was stationed, in 1916-17. The family moved to California when the girls were young.  Their parents soon divorced, and their father returned to Tokyo. Their mother, Lillian, a former actress re-married again to a store manager George Fontaine, who was disliked by both his new stepdaughters, as much as they disliked each other.

According to Joan Fontaine (she took her stepfather's name to differentiate herself from her sister) the feud started when the girls were still very young and Olivia, older by one year, found it difficult to come to terms with a rival for her mother's affections.  She  would, apparently, rip up her old clothes that Joan was supposed to wear as hand-me-downs, forcing her to stitch them back together. Joan writes of ""the hair-pulling, the savage wrestling matches" and how, in July 1933, when she was 15, ‘Olivia threw me down on the poolside flagstone border, jumped on top of me, and fractured my collarbone’. Joan felt that their mother favoured Olivia and this caused bitter resentment.

At Los Gatos High School in California Olivia seemed to set the pace as far as catty remarks go. She won a school magazine competition for the best Last Will and Testament with the words: ‘I bequeath to my sister the ability to win boys’ hearts, which she does not have at present’. Ouch!

Feuding Teenagers, Joan on the right
Feuding Teenagers, Joan on the right

Hollywood

Both girls became involved in the movie business around 1935, and it was in the cauldron of Hollywood that their mutual mistrust and loathing reached its zenith. Olivia joined Warner Brothers and Joan RKO, and, although for a while they roomed together, it did not take long for their differences to become public.

1939 Olivia in Gone With The Wind
1939 Olivia in Gone With The Wind

Olivia's career was the first to take off when in 1935 she co-starred with the rising young star, Errol Flynn in 'Captain Blood', the first of nine movies they would make together over the next 8 years.

In 1939 came Olivia's finest role and the one for which she is best remembered, that of Melanie Wilkes in 'Gone With The Wind'. She received her first Academy nomination, for Best Supporting Actress, but lost out to her co-star, Hattie McDaniel.

Losing out in the original strong casting competition for the role of Melanie was one young actress whom Olivia knew well - her sister, Joan Fontaine.

1940 Joan in Rebecca, with Judith Anderson
1940 Joan in Rebecca, with Judith Anderson

Joan's career had begun with less success. After appearing with Fred Astaire in his first RKO film without Ginger Rogers, 'A Damsel in Distress' in 1937, which flopped badly at the box-office, she had small parts in several films including 'The Women' in 1939, but she failed to register strongly with the public.

Her fortunes turned in 1940 when she won the plum role of the second Mrs de Winter in Alfred Hitchcock's Hollywood debut movie 'Rebecca'.

She gained the part after a 6 month series of screen tests and she won it against strong competition - her sister Olivia de Havilland.

Olivia de Havilland on Amazon

The sisters looking out of the window at home

Premium Print by Bob Landry
Premium Print by Bob Landry | Source

Oscar Success, Oscar Rudeness

Joan was nominated for a Best Actress Academy Award for 'Rebecca' and although she did not win the Oscar she did so the following year for her performance in another Hitchcock film 'Suspicion'. She did so against strong competition from other nominees - including Olivia de Havilland who had been nominated for her role in 'Hold Back The Dawn'. As Joan stepped forward to collect her award, she very obviously rejected Olivia's attempts to congratulate her. It was offensive and embarrassing behaviour and Olivia had to wait until 1946 to exact her revenge.

In 1946 Olivia again won the Best Actress Award, for 'To Each His Own' and the prize should have been presented by Joan Crawford. When Crawford had to pull out she was replaced by, of all people, Joan Fontaine.

Perhaps the Academy thought they could get the sisters to publicly reconcile. Well, if so, they thought wrong. When Olivia's name was called out by her sister she refused to shake Joan's hand, let alone hug or kiss her. She had her revenge.

Olivia's Oscar success continued when she again won the Best Actress Award in 1949 for her performance in 'The Heiress'.

1946 Olivia Gives Joan the Cold Shoulder
1946 Olivia Gives Joan the Cold Shoulder

Love and Romance

So by the mid 1940s both Joan and Olivia were major Hollywood stars with Oscar successes to their credit and already they careers had collided numerous times. But their personal lives and romances had also caused their mutual antipathy to increase.

Both sisters had grown into extremely beautiful young women and their fierce professional rivalry was intensified on the personal level as they competed for the rich and successful men whom they met in the movie business. Errol Flynn, was Olivia's constant co-star during the 1930s and he was sure she was infatuated with him - although she has always insisted that nothing happened between them. Nevertheless Olivia was left in no doubt about Joan's opinion of Flynn - it was low - she thought he was a worthless chancer.

One of Olivia's early boyfriends was the owner of RKO, billionaire Howard Hughes, who was well known as a notorious womaniser. In 1939, the night before Joan's first marriage, to British actor, Brian Aherne, Hughes propositioned Joan, trying to persuade her to marry him instead. In all he proposed to her three times. Joan wasted no time in informing Olivia of her boyfriend's duplicity and added fuel to an already raging fire.

1952, Joan with Debbie and Martitia
1952, Joan with Debbie and Martitia
1956, Olivia, Pierre and Gisle
1956, Olivia, Pierre and Gisle

Family Life

After 1950 both sisters' careers had peaked and both spent time raising their families.

Joan was married four times in all, each marriage ending in divorce. She has one daughter, Deborah Leslie Dozier (born in 1948), from whom she is estranged, and one adopted daughter, Martita who ran away from home when she was seventeen.Martita kept in contact with her sister Debbie, but never spoke to Joan again.

One suggested reason for the estrangement of both daughters is that they earned their mother's displeasure by keeping in touch with their aunt, Olivia.

Olivia was married to novelist Marcus Goodrich from 1946 to 1953. Their son, Benjamin was born in 1949 and died in 1991 from lymphatic cancer.

She was then married to French journalist and Paris Match editor Pierre Galante from 1955 until their divorce in 1979. They had one daughter, Gisèle, born in 1956 when de Havilland was 40.

Olivia and Galante remained on good terms after the divorce, and she nursed him through his final illness in Paris until his death in 1998.

The Deafening Silence

Both sisters continued to act in movies although with less success and they both increasingly worked in television, with Olivia winning a Golden Globe for her performance in the 1986 mini-series 'Anastasia: The Mystery of Anna'.

Their positions became more entrenched as they got older and the feud became even more acrimonious. In February, 1975 their mother died. Olivia’s daughter, Gisèle, and her son, Benjamin, were well provided for in Lilian’s will but nothing, ‘not even a trinket’ was left to Joan’s daughter, Debbie.

The account of what happened next varies according to which sister is telling the story. According to Joan, Olivia did not invite her to the memorial service and only after Joan had threatened to call the press and make the whole affair public did Olivia relent and postpone the service to allow Joan and her daughter Debbie to attend.

Olivia's version is that she did tell Joan, but that Joan had declined the invitation, claiming she was too busy.

At the memorial service, neither sister spoke to the other. Lillian's ashes were scattered by her daughters in complete silence. That was in 1975, and they have not spoken to each other since then.

Olivia
Olivia
Joan
Joan

Up to Date

Today, these Hollywood legends are in their 90's and still going strong.

Olivia has lived in Paris since the 1950s, and recently received the Légion d’honneur, France’s most prestigious accolade, from President Nicolas Sarkozy.

Joan lives in Carmel. She is in excellent health and spends her time tending her garden and walking her dogs. The sisters still do not speak to each other.

For two decades they were amongst the most famous actresses in the world. They were talented, brainy and beautiful. They were the first sisters to win Oscars, and the first to be nominated for best actress in the same year.

They're feisty and magnificent. They're still stars. I wish we had more like them.

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1 comment

Scotty 5 years ago

Joan did not present Olivia with her Oscar in 1946. Ray Milland had the honor. Joan was waiting backstage and the snub happened in the darkened wings of the theater where a photographer from "Photoplay" happened to be present just as Olivia turned away. Joan had not apologized for a remark she made to the press about Olivia's then husband Mark Goodrich. Please get your facts straight.

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