Joan Fontaine, No Bed of Roses: An Autobiography
“One Christmas, David O. Selznick’s present to me was a set of imported Lowestoft, a two-hundred-fifty-piece set from Carole Stupell in New York. In disfavor the next year, I received a five-dollar geranium plant. The price tag still on it.”
Joan Fontaine, No Bed of Roses: An Autobiography
The conflict between Olivia de Havilland and her sister Joan Fontaine has been covered in this blog several times. See: "A Tale of Two Sisters," "A Bed of Roses (One Day Only)," and "A Tale of Two Sisters, A Vanity Fair Update." Their long feud ended in 2013 when Joan Fontaine died. Last year, however, the centenarian actress/grande dame embarked on a new feud, this one against the producers of the hit television program, Feud: Bette and Joan.
De Havilland sued based upon her objection to a fictionalized version of herself in the series, as portrayed by the marvelous Catherine Zeta-Jones. She was mostly used as a point-of-view character, delivering commentary to help viewers understand the difficulties Bette Davis and Joan Crawford faced as aging actresses in a town controlled by powerful old men who favored youth and beauty over talent. The show is sympathetic to Davis and Crawford and the challenges they faced. The majority of viewers likely had a more favorable impression of the two actresses at the end of the series then they did at the beginning.
The feud between Davis and Crawford will live eternally in Hollywood legend. But, the contretemps between Olivia de Havilland and the producers of Feud might be at end. The California Supreme Court just rejected de Havilland's petition to reverse a lower court's dismissal of her lawsuit. Her only recourse now would be to appeal to the United States Supreme Court, where she would also likely lose. There is a tax that comes with being famous. One relinquishes a certain amount of privacy, as long-acknowledged by the United States Supreme Court. De Havilland herself seemed to have no trouble with that in 1982 when she portrayed Elizabeth, the Queen Mother, in the television movie, The Royal Romance of Charles and Diana.
It was a curious lawsuit for de Havilland to have brought. Perhaps she thought that if she went on the offensive, she might head off a Feud season based upon her own turbulent relationship with her sister Joan Fontaine. It is difficult to imagine that she truly objected to Catherine Zeta-Jones's interpretation of her. Zeta-Jones portrays de Havilland with elegance, poise, and understanding. She comes across as a whole person: a sophisticated, but not unkind, grande dame. Thus, maybe de Havilland is not so much disturbed by her portrayal in Feud: Bette and Joan as she is haunted by the prospect of Feud: Olivia de Havilland and Joan Fontaine.
No one relishes having one's difficult family relations made public. Yet, the upside is that a season of Feud with Olivia de Havilland as a central character would introduce a new generation to a one of Hollywood's great success stories—much like the first season did for Bette Davis and Joan Crawford. Yes, most know that Olivia de Havilland appeared in Gone with the Wind, but there is so much more to her story than that.
For starters, Olivia de Havilland should hold the title for the most spectacular discovery story, and, at present, it is virtually unknown. Forget the alleged discovery of Lana Turner at Schwab's Drugstore. It does not hold a candle to de Havilland's. Young Olivia was plucked from a high school play and into a spectacular Max Reinhardt production of A Midsummer Night's Dream, fantastically staged at the Hollywood Bowl attended by seemingly every major player in Hollywood. She was only supposed to be the understudy for Gloria Stuart, but then Gloria had to cancel (delaying her fifteen minutes of fame by six decades until the release of the 1997 blockbuster Titanic). The Feud art directors spared no expense in Feud: Bette and Joan to depict the glories of old Hollywood. How amazing would it be if they recreated Olivia's discovery at the Hollywood Bowl, a concert venue that is as legendary as Olivia herself.
Yet, that is not all. Olivia and Joan Fontaine are the only two sisters to have won Best Actress Academy Awards (de Havilland, twice). There is also her casting in Gone with the Wind, an epic story in itself. Lastly, there is Olivia's remarkable reinvention of herself as Paris society woman. See: Every Frenchman Has One.
Like that of her peers Davis and Crawford, de Havilland's story and films deserve to be discovered by a new generation of fans. Yes, there will be unflattering bits. See: Joan Fontaine's memoir, No Bed of Roses. Yet, of the two sisters, Olivia will emerge as the more sympathetic. After all, Joan Fontaine allegedly tried to have her own adopted daughter deported back to back to Peru. We eagerly await a season of Feud featuring the feuding sisters de Havilland/Fontaine, as should any fan of Olivia de Havilland.
Image Credit: No Bed of Roses
“Time is the only critic.”
James M. Cain, Mildred Pierece
Guess who has checked into the Sunset Tower Hotel in West Hollywood? None other than Bette Davis and Joan Crawford. For our kiosk there, Nick Harvill Libraries curated a selection of books about the two Hollywood grandes dames. They are displayed in the vestibule window to the left as one enters the hotel. The display coincided with the well-received and much talked about FX television series Feud: Bette and Joan. Unlike the series, however, the display is still going, and the books replenished as they sell.
Books by or about these two fascinating women have long been on the shelves at NHL, but the research for this display took us to an entirely new level. We loved the series and feel it did much to enhance the image of Bette Davis and even more importantly, to repair that of Joan Crawford. At long last, Crawford's wire hangers have returned to the closet where they belong. And, Christina's infamous axe (to grind?) has returned to the gardening shed.
In researching these two women, NHL made some discoveries for which there simply was not room in the television series. Both led full and fascinating lives, connecting to a variety of other 20th Century notables, and they left a voluminous written and digital record.
rock, paper, scissors
"Shhh, baby. Close your eyes and pretend I’m Clark Gable."
Feud: Bette and Joan did not play up the camp element, which was a wise and refreshing choice. Had they opted to do so, however, one hilarious scene might have sprung from Joan Crawford's cougar phase. In the fifties, Crawford seduced—as if they were fish in a barrel—the young men signed to contract by Universal Studios. She had been forewarned that strapping Rock Hudson's romantic interests went another direction, but Crawford invited him over for a swim anyway. Afterwards, when Rock was showering in her pool house, the lights suddenly went out and he felt a naked Joan Crawford pressed against him. "Shhh, baby. Close your eyes and pretend I’m Clark Gable,” Joan allegedly purred. [via Bette & Joan: The Divine Feud.]
Feud: Bette Davis Versus Baby Jane Fonda
“Every time I see her face, I think of the hell she put me through on Jezebel."
It turns out that Joan Crawford was not the only Hollywood star with whom Bette Davis feuded. In fact, there is a two-time Oscar winner still living that was also the subject of Bette's ire. No, the answer is not Olivia de Havilland. She was too terrified of Davis to quarrel with her, and besides, she had a feud with her sister Joan Fontaine already going. Jane Fonda, though an infant, inspired Davis's wrath. Her father Henry Fonda was co-starring with Davis the year Jane was born, and Fonda halted production so that he could travel to New York to attend Jane's birth. “Every time I see her face, I think of the hell she put me through on Jezebel,” hissed Bette.
Conversations with Joan Crawford
“Sometimes, I’m sorry to say, we even believed our own publicity. Nobody has ever walked with shoes on my white rugs ever since the publicity department told the press that I didn’t allow people to wear shoes on my white rugs.”
One of the major injustices of Joan Crawford's Mommie Dearest image is that it transformed a complicated woman into a cartoon parody, entirely lacking in self-awareness. The opposite was true. However, one would be forgiven for not recognizing that from either of Crawford's two autobiographical books. They are by the movie-star Joan. Conversations with Joan Crawford, however, featured professional Joan. The book transcribes a series of interviews conducted over a two-decade period in which Crawford candidly and intelligently summed up Hollywood, her role in it, and the cost to her personal life. She comes across as witty, introspective, and literate.
When the book's interviewer asked about her rumored drinking problem, Joan was forthright and willing to return the volley. “Yes, I have a drinking problem. You know I have a drinking problem, and maybe you have, too—you’ve matched me drink for drink for years,” she cleverly replied. When asked what she would do different in life if given the chance to do it over again, she retorted, “My God, what an awful question. At the moment I don’t think I’d have given you all these damned interviews.”
Conversations with Joan Crawford is filled with such gems. It makes one believe that Joan might have been equally successful had she been a studio mogul. She certainly had the drive and also the knowledge of the business. The conundrum is that this book has been around nearly as long as daughter Christina's Mommie Dearest. Alas, actual truth and the public perception thereof are two different beasts. It took the well-regarded Feud: Bette and Joan to counter the sensationalism of Mommie Dearest and move the needle of public perception.
Vincent Sherman: Director, Husband, Lover
"As a human being, Joan Crawford is a great actress."
Everyone expects Hollywood stars to misbehave. As such, perhaps the most astonishing revelation in director Vincent Sherman's Studio Affairs, My Life as a Film Director is the saintliness of his longtime wife. She placidly remained on the sidelines as her husband carried on torrid affairs with his leading ladies, including, first Bette Davis, and then Joan Crawford. With Crawford, they were on and off for years. He even engaged in a tryst with her in her hospital room at Cedars Sinai when she was faking illness in order to avoid filming Hush, Hush Sweet Charlotte.
Sherman sums up the differences between his two paramours as well and as succinctly as anyone ever has:
In life and onscreen, Bette was simple, forthright, honest, and unaffected. The moment she began playing a role, she became actorish and theatrical. Joan, on the other hand, was simple, forthright, honest and unaffected when playing a role, but in life she was exactly the opposite: actorish, theatrical, and affected.
“The sum total of your having written this book is a glaring lack of loyalty and thanks for the very privileged life I feel you have been given.”
Bette Davis, in a Open Letter to Her Daughter B.D. Hyman
Feud: Bette and Joan steered clear of Christina Crawford's tell-all Mommie Dearest. However, in a strange way, that book became yet another link between Joan Crawford and Bette Davis. It was a best-selling juggernaut, whetting the publishing world's appetite for more "bad parent" Hollywood memoirs. Without doubt, Bette Davis was not the perfect mother, but the gravitational pull of Christina Crawford's book guaranteed that Bette was portrayed as such in her daughter B.D. Hyman's My Mother's Keeper. Crawford had advance word about Christina's tell-all but died prior to its publication. Davis was alive but in ill-health when My Mother's Keeper was released. She never spoke to her daughter again and published a book of her own refuting the charges.
Feud: Olivia and Joan
“My sister has decided to become an actress too. It has ruined the close-knittedness of our family life.”
Olivia de Havilland
The casting of Catherine Zeta-Jones as Bette Davis's friend Olivia de Havilland leaves one wondering whether Zeta-Jones might return in a future Feud season, dramatizing de Havilland's lifelong feud with her sister Joan Fontaine. The material is certainly there. Check out the NHL post, A Tale of Two Sisters: Olivia de Havilland & Joan Fontaine. One snag might be Zeta-Jones's age. The halcyon years in the de Havilland/Fontaine contretemps occurred when the sisters were in early adulthood. Should the part be recast? Are there any actresses in the younger age category with the ability to portray someone of de Havilland's sophistication?
The current "Sisters" issue of Vanity Fair revisits the feud of Oscar-winning siblings Olivia de Havilland and Joan Fontaine. Nick Harvill Libraries covered the feuding sisters in two blog posts: "A Tale of Two Sisters: Olivia de Havilland and Joan Fontaine" and "A Bed of Roses (One Day Only)." It is a topic that Olivia, age ninety-nine, has avoided for decades. As such, what (if any) relationship the sisters maintained in their geriatric years has remained a private matter. All that was really known was that on the rare occasions when the sisters might meet, such as the Academy Awards, they went out of their way to avoid each other.
It turns out that in private, they kept in touch. De Havilland went on record with William Stadiem for VF's "Sisters" issue. He writes that Olivia told him the sisters at last reunited "with help from time's winged chariot and their shared religious roots." Specifically, Olivia encouraged Joan to return to the Episcopal faith with which they were raised. Olivia reports that Joan took her up on it, joining Saint Thomas Church in New York.
Image Credit: No Bed of Roses
“My theory is that all good lawyers, clergymen, and politicians must be good actors to start with.”
Joan Fontaine, No Bed of Roses
This photograph from Joan Fontaine's memoir No Bed of Roses is extraordinary ... and heartbreaking. It captures the normally feuding sisters Joan Fontaine and Olivia de Havilland relaxed and happy in each other's company, as if they could have been intimate friends as easily as estranged sisters. [NHL covered this topic in more detail in the post A Tale of Two Sisters: Olivia de Havilland & Joan Fontaine.]
No Bed of Roses is available via the Nick Harvill Libraries kiosk at the Sunset Tower Hotel in West Hollywood.
Sisters, The Story of Olivia de Havilland & Joan Fontaine by Charles Higham. NY: Coward-McCann. 1984. Available for purchase at Nick Harvill Libraries, here.
REVIEW OF THE BOOK
“My sister has decided to become an actress too. It has ruined the close-knittedness of our family life.”
Olivia de Havilland
“What a pity [Olivia’s new husband] has had four wives and written only one book.”
“It is unlikely that Joan and Olivia will ever talk to each other again; when both turned up at the fiftieth anniversary of the Academy Awards in 1979, they had to be placed at opposite ends of the stage; and when they ran into each other in the corridor of the Beverly Hills Hotel, they marched past each other without a word.”
Charles Higham, once the Hollywood correspondent for the New York Times, was a prolific biographer of film stars from Hollywood’s Golden Age. Unfortunately for his subjects but fortunately for the rest of us, the word “hagiography” was not in his vocabulary. He dove into controversy headfirst. Moreover, he was intrigued by psychological disturbances, tackling personalities that might have benefited from Freud’s couch. He wrote about the Nazi sympathies of Errol Flynn, the bisexuality of Cary Grant, and the peculiarity of Howard Hughes (the 2004 Hughes biopic The Aviator was based upon one of his books). Here, he takes on the unprecedented ninety-year feud between Oscar-winning sisters Olivia de Havilland and Joan Fontaine, whose rivalry began when both were toddlers and continued until 2013, when Joan died at the age of ninety-six.
Like any decent Freudian, Higham mines the childhood of the sisters, which was as gothic as anything Joan Fontaine’s erstwhile director Alfred Hitchcock might have devised. Of noble British origins, the girls’ father Walter was living in Japan when they were born, but their sharp-tongued mother Lillian fled with them to California, landing in a San Jose, California boarding house. Lillian almost always sided with angelic Olivia, leaving acerbic Joan to lobby for attention through tantrums and imagined illnesses. Fed up, a teenage Joan fled to live with her father in Japan but returned in horror when he made sexual advances towards her. That ignoble scene would come back to haunt both sisters when they were famous, and Walter had the audacity to blackmail their studios with an autobiographical screenplay he wrote suggesting incest.
One of the great stories Higham covers is Olivia de Havilland’s thrilling Hollywood debut in 1934. It is an extraordinary tale—far more dramatic than Lana Turner’s alleged discovery at Schwab's Drugstore. How curious that it has not found its way into the upper echelon of Hollywood lore. It began with Olivia’s participation in high school production based upon Max Reinhardt’s interpretation of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Improbably, Reinhardt was in Berkeley, California at the time, and his key people made the trek to San Jose to see the show. They were impressed by Olivia’s performance, so much so that she was invited to observe the lavish Reinhardt production of it that was to be staged at the Hollywood Bowl.
Upon arriving in Hollywood, seventeen-year-old Olivia managed to finagle her way into becoming the understudy to the understudy for the part of Hermia, the part to be played by Gloria Stuart. However, both Stuart and her understudy were called up by their film studios just days before the opening, leaving Reinhardt no choice but to substitute Olivia. It was the most extravagant production ever mounted in Los Angeles, and the Hollywood Bowl was renovated to resemble an enchanted forest, complete with live oak, elm, and aspen trees. Joan Crawford, Gary Cooper, Clark Gable, Norma Shearer, and Louis B. Mayer were among the 20,000 attendees captivated by Olivia’s performance. De Havilland became a star and was signed by Warner Brothers. Gloria Stuart, for whom Olivia subbed) would have to wait another sixty years for her ship (James Cameron’s Titanic) to come in.
About this time, Joan returned from her disastrous attempt to live in Japan with her father. She moved to Hollywood, announcing her intention to also become an actress. Neither Lillian nor Olivia supported her in this, and she was permitted to do so only by changing her last name to Fontaine, the surname of her stepfather. The director George Cukor was one of her early supporters, and he gave Joan her big break by casting her in The Women.
There are long periods in the sister’s lives when they were not speaking, but even so, their lives ran oddly parallel, which Higham deftly portrays. One such occasion was when George Cukor invited Joan to audition for Gone with the Wind. Fontaine, like every other actress in Hollywood, wanted to portray Scarlett O’Hara. With her willful personality, it might have proved a good fit, but Cukor would not hear of it, thinking of her instead for the role of the kindly Melanie Hamilton. Turning down the part, Joan suggested, “Melanie! If it is Melanie you want, call Olivia!” Which, Cukor did. Olivia became a lifelong friend with her GWTW co-star Ann Rutherford, who played one of Scarlett’s sisters. Years later, in one of those odd examples in which Olivia and Joan’s lives tended to intertwine, Rutherford would marry Joan’s ex-husband William Dozier, becoming the stepmother of Joan’s daughter Deborah.
As Higham writes, there was much kindling for the sister’s feud, and their mother Lillian usually made things worse. After Olivia turned down her paramour Howard Hughes’s ridiculous proposal that they marry but only after a multi-decade engagement, Joan responded to Hughes’s advances, and he made the same proposal to her.
It appeared that Joan might overtake Olivia entirely. She was the first to wed, win an Oscar (in a year in which Olivia was also nominated), and have a child. In regard to Joan's pregnancy announcement, their mother Lillian did nothing to lessen the tensions. She caustically replied, “Now you can put the child on the mantelshelf along with your Oscar!” Lillian had an equally acerbic answer to gossip columnist Louella Parsons's suggestion that Lillian must be proud to have two such talented daughters, quipping “Joan may be a phony in life, but she’s almost believable on the screen."
Higham covers their six marriages (four for Joan, two for Olivia), de Havilland's landmark case against Warner Brother’s that mortally wounded the studio system, the famous 1961 Bel Air fire that destroyed Joan’s home, and a rogues' gallery of scandalous love affairs (Olivia with Errol Flynn and John Huston, and Joan with Prince Aly Khan, Slim Aarons, and numerous others). There were, however, occasional détentes between the sisters. At the twilight of their careers, long after Olivia had moved to Paris, financially shrewd Joan even came to cash-strapped Olivia’s rescue by writing her a large check.
Though Olivia does not exactly come off as Melanie Wilkes to her sister's Scarlett O'Hara, of the two sisters, she was the better mother. In fact, Fontaine's parenting technique causes one to wonder whether the wrong Joan was declared "Mommie Dearest." Fontaine cut off all contact with her daughter Debra, not even bothering to respond to an invitation to Deborah’s wedding. That, however, is nothing compared to her treatment of Martita, the waif she adopted from Peru as a toddler and then abandoned. Things went smoothly for a while, but when a teenage Martita irked Joan, she attempted to have the frightened girl deported back to Peru. Even Joan Crawford would not have dared.
This story stops in 1984 when the book was published. One presumes it will not be the last word on one of Hollywood’s great feuds. The available evidence indicates the sisters did not speak after their mother's funeral in 1974, but with Joan dead and Olivia nearing one hundred, additional sources might be willing to go on the record. Even if another book eventually emerges, this volume has much to offer. It is an excellent psychological assessment of the sisters and the peculiar family from which they emerged.
EXCERPTS FROM THE BOOK
ON THE SISTERS AS YOUNG GIRLS. The opinion of Hazel Bargas who owned the boarding house where the sisters were raised: “It was Olivia who was so sweet, so kind . . . full of life and laughter. . . But Joan! We all hated her. She would always be sick on purpose and she would lie in bed all day and she wasn’t really sick at all, she was just hungry for attention.”
AUTHOR’S INTERACTION WITH THE SISTERS. “Meeting the de Havilland sisters—Olivia in 1965, Joan in 1977—was very instructive. Olivia, dignified, matronly, proper, correct, yet sentimental and romantic underneath, was the opposite of Joan, who was relaxed, supersophisticated, brittle, unromantic, and pagan.”
OLIVIA WAS NO MELANIE WILKES. “Olivia flatly refused to learn to sew; every time [her stepfather] or [mother] forced [her to], she would instantly prick her finger with the needle and scream very loudly at the sight of blood. When asked to wash the dishes, she would quietly let one slip through her fingers with the words ‘It has a will of its own.’ When Olivia passed her hand-me-downs on to Joan, Olivia always made deliberate tears in them so that Joan would have to sew them.”
OLIVIA’S LANDMARK LAWSUIT AGAINST WARNER BROTHERS. “There is no question that the great power today of the stars and their agent and the collapse of the old studio system is in part due to her action.”
A STREETCAR NAMED DE HAVILLAND. “Olivia was offered the part of Blanche opposite Marlon Brando in A Streetcar Named Desire, and Joan was offered the part of the ‘other sister’—a fantastic concept of Charles Feldman, the famous agent turned producer of the film. Both stars were actually seriously considering the possibility, but fortunately this horrible idea fell through and Vivien Leigh and Kim Hunter were chosen instead.”
MARRIAGE. “Certainly, it’s easy to see that Joan was totally incapable of the shifts of ground, the self-sacrifices, adjustments, and considerations necessary in any marriage. Like Olivia, she was far too strong to be married; her will completely quashed all in her path and eliminated any chance she might have had at personal happiness.”
PSYCHOLOGICAL REASON FOR THE FEUD. “Above all, the sisters disliked each other not so much because of their differences as because of their similarities. Few actresses admire themselves; they become actresses to conceal their true identities and overcome their insecurities. That is why they need constant flattery and reassurance. The de Havilland girls, however, could not escape themselves, because each could see herself in the mirror of the other.”
HAPPY, AT LAST. “Olivia has always wanted to be surrounded by love and attention; to command; to be the focus. Joan has always wanted to be totally free. So the sisters have achieved, each in her way, a purpose in their extraordinary lives—at last.”
OLIVIA DE HAVILLAND MEMOIRS. As Higham noted in his book, Olivia signed a deal to write her memoirs in the 1970s, but she abandoned them. In recent years, she reconsidered. However, the journalist Eve Gordon reports that de Havilland gave up, because “her eyes cannot stand computer-screen glare anymore.” In that same story, Olivia offers her own judgment on this book (it is not favorable). Gordon warned de Havilland that if she doesn’t write her own memoir, “others will write horrible lies about her.” Olivia replied, “They already have—have you read that dreadful Charles Higham?” For a full account of Eve Gordon’s May 2012 visit with de Havilland at her Paris home, go here.
ALFRED HITCHCOCK. Joan Fontaine won an Academy Award for her role in Suspicion. She was the only actor ever to win an Oscar for a performance in an Alfred Hitchcock production. Though Higham does not mention it, Fontaine’s acting in her first Hitchcock film, Rebecca, was considered weak and required significant doctoring during post-production. See Spellbound by Beauty, Alfred Hitchcock and His Leading Ladies by Donald Spoto, which is available in a set of books about Alfred Hitchcock, here.
DEATH OF JOAN FONTAINE. Fontaine died on December 15, 2013 at her home in Carmel. Her sister Olivia issued this 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." For Fontaine’s New York Times obituary, go here.
CHARLES HIGHAM. Charles Higham continued to write Hollywood biographies upon completion of this book in 1984. He died in 2012. His obituary in the Los Angeles Times is available here.
Since this post was published in 2014, Vanity Fair profiled the feuding sisters, with some tantalizing clues about what happened between them in the years after 1984, the year Charles Higham's book was published. For NHL's summary, go here.