Olivia DeHavilland died July 25 in Paris. She was 104.
Last July 1 marked her last birthday. It’s fair to speculate that she passed that benchmark with her usual Parisian gusto.
Described as the last surviving female superstar of Hollywood’s Golden Age, DeHavilland decamped to the French capitol in 1955, married and then divorced her second and final husband (the late editor of superglossy Paris Match magazine), cared for her two children, basked in her French Legion d’Honneur awarded six years ago by French president Nicolas Sarkozy — and vowed to live at least another decade.
Over her some 60 years of blissful, self-willed exile far from Hollywood, DeHavilland has enjoyed a network of personal friendships. A regular reader Jeff Woodman emailed us a last fall: Friends of mine who visit Paris regularly attend services at the same church as Ms. de Havilland, and report that she gets up and reads scripture there regularly, and as recently as 6 months ago! She is truly amazing.
DeHavilland’s scripture readings on Christmas and Easter at the American Episcopal Cathedral on Avenue George V have become real events. She was also the recipient of an honorary degree in humane letters from the American University in Paris.
The French have great memories for the accomplishments of Hollywood’s classic stars, and de Havilland was feted not only for her chosen place of residency but for her popular identification as ‘Melanie Hamilton Wilkes’ in Gone With The Wind.
And, for her two best-actress Oscar roles, respectively, as an unwed mother forced to give up her son in 1946’s To Each His Own and as the homely heroine pursued by a dazzling but devious Montgomery Clift in 1949’s The Heiress.
Hollywood, on the other hand, will always be indebted to her for being one half of the town’s most infamous sibling rivalry. The other half belonged, of course, to de Havilland’s younger sister (by 15 months), Joan Fontaine.
The de Havilland-Fontaine contretemps are STILL talked and written about. Witness the most interesting article on the two sisters in the May issue of Vanity Fair. It’s well worth a read.
The daughters of a British patent attorney, Olivia retained the family surname while Joan, who died in December of 2013 at age 96, was compelled to change hers, and borrowed her stern stepfather’s monicker.
Despite the publication of Fontaine’s acerbic 1978 memoir (No Bed Of Roses, which we have often cited), DeHavilland refuses to discuss her baby sister although she has referred to her memoir as No Shred of Truth.
Most telling is DeHavilland’s recollection of an encounter with Errol Flynn during a Hollywood revisit in 1957. This, of course, was nearly two decades after the two sparkled in The Adventures of Robin Hood.
As the share-the-wealth bandit of Sherwood forest and his lady, ‘Maid Marian,’ both were in their Twenties when they appeared in the movie, at their physical peaks. She recalled later in her career that Flynn sometimes got erections during their love scenes. Talk about chemistry onscreen! (No wonder that Flynn and DeHavilland were paired in eight movies.)
As recounted in the Vanity Fair article, DeHavilland found that Flynn by 1957 had diminished physically. He was gaunt. His clothes didn’t fit. She remembers that she had trouble recognizing him.
Those eyes. They used to be so glinting, so full of life. And now they were dead.
Flynn expired two years later at age 50. Olivia gamboled past the century mark with verve and great style.
Now she is gone. Adieu, Olivia. R.I.P.