More than Marian

In the category of, “You never know,” Olivia de Havilland turns 99 today. Happy Birthday, Livvie! I say you never know because the woman spent her first 40 years sickly. There’s no other way to put it. She was a delicate flower, driven to bed many times by various maladies and at least once by a nervous breakdown. She was also a smoker at various points, and we know what that does for a person’s longevity (right Errol? Clark? Joan? Bogie? Coop?).

Errol & Olivia by Robert Matzen

Olivia de Havilland’s first book, published in 1962. Her second has been eagerly awaited for going on 40 years.

Livvie has resided since the 1950s in Paris after marrying a Frenchman and for a long time commuted to Hollywood occasionally to work in pictures and television. She wrote a terrific book about life in Paris called Every Frenchman Has One, published in 1962. She charmed the pants off me with that book, making me wish she had written a lot more besides, like the memoir she promised her publisher in 1979. I clipped an article out of the paper back then (I could only use safety scissors because I was in my playpen); in this page-6-or-whatever story, OdeH regretted that there would be a delay in completing her manuscript beyond the first of the year. As in, beyond the beginning of 1980.

As the crow flies, it’s now 35.5 years later and the publisher continues to wait. The woman has lived a fascinating life from her birth in the Far East as a member of the British Empire to her eventual migration to Hollywood in 1934. As noted in Errol & Olivia, OdeH had a toxic relationship with her stepfather that included sexual abuse. She was driven from her home in Saratoga, California, upon graduation from high school and joined the theater, ending up in Max Reinhardt’s production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. There, Warner Bros. spotted her and the rest is, well, you know. Legal victories (this little bulldog of five-three went toe-to-toe with the Hollywood moguls and beat them); Academy Award nominations and statuettes; national honors from the presidents of the United States and France.

Errol & Olivia by Robert Matzen

Olivia de Havilland, just turned 18, sits on a prop cart at Warner Bros. with Errol Flynn in the summer of 1935.

You’d never know it to look at her because today she is a Grand Dame who has carefully crafted an image of Grand Dameitude, but Livvie in youth was a handful. She took a lot of anger with her from that tudor-inspired frame house at the end of that quiet dead-end street in Saratoga. Toxic relationships will do that to you. She grew up a loner with loads of self-discipline and has stayed that way all her life. When she moved to Hollywood after signing her Warner Bros. contract in 1934, her mother went with her and kept a watchful eye on young Livvie until 1938 when Mom moved back north and daughter, now age 21, stayed behind to sow some wild oats. That’s when things began to get interesting with Flynn, and with Jimmy Stewart, and with John Huston. There was nothing Grand Dameish about that last one when the movie star and the brash young writer-director embarked on a wild sexual adventure. All that self-discipline went flying out the window when she fell as hard for Huston as a girl could fall. Then he dumped her, and she carried a torch that I am sure still burns on Rue Benouville today.

OdeH could have written several books in the last 35 years. One about her day job, another about Huston, a third about Flynn, and, of course, a whole Harvard Five-Foot Bookshelf about her own sister, Joan Fontaine, the little girl born less than 18 months after Olivia. It’s no fluke that I chose the title Twisted Sisters for my section about the battling de Havillands in Errol & Olivia. These two went at it with only short respites for 96 years, until Joanie gave in and left us in 2013. Today, Olivia lives a life of quiet seclusion in her Paris townhouse. Last I heard she had hired someone to help her finish that memoir so long in the making, and on occasion she receives visitors, like Errol Flynn’s daughter Rory.

Errol & Olivia by Robert Matzen

Livvie in recent times.

Let’s take a moment and raise our glasses to this great award-winning star of Hollywood’s Golden Era. Way back when she toiled in make-believe Sherwood Forest in northern California portraying Maid Marian, Olivia strived to be much more than Errol Flynn’s girl and she got her wish through hard work, attention to her craft, and when necessary, legal action. In her 40s she embraced exercise and healthy eating and brother has it paid off. Maybe we should convince her to take five from the memoir and write Olivia de Havilland’s Secrets to a Long, Successful Life.

Errol & Olivia by Robert Matzen

The OdeH abode in the embassy section of Paris.

9 comments

  1. I would guess OdeH and Maureen O’Hara are the very last two of the greats from that golden era of Hollywood. Can you think of any others? Qualifier: either nominated for an Oscar or recipient. Can’t think of any.

    1. It makes me sad. They’re almost all gone now. One of my favorites, Luise Rainer, died last December at 104. The only two women I can think of who were Oscar nominees or winners and are still with us are Doris Day, age 93, (nominated for Pillow Talk) and Eva Marie Saint, age 91 on July 4th, (winner for On The Waterfront). Both of their careers really gained momentum in the 1950s so not sure if that qualifies as golden era. The only man still alive is Kirk Douglas.

      1. Yes, it’s very sad. I always take comfort in the fact that we are able to go on celebrating Livvie’s birthdays when there are so many deathdays to write about. Mary is convinced that OdeH is going to outlive us all.

    2. Joan Leslie is another one so easily overlooked, but she was in the thick of classic Hollywood, in High Sierra , Yankee Doodle Dandy, and so many others. What a fantastic little woman; I wish I could have spent more time with her and I can only hope we’ll meet again.

      1. Yes, there are a few of the grand ladies still with us who were contemporaries of some of the greats, but whose own careers, for whatever reasons, never quite took off. Joan Leslie, Marsha Hunt, Anne Jeffreys and Rhonda Fleming, all are in their 90s now.

  2. So glad to read your post on one of my favorite subjects! Well, the great lady is 99, and shares a great deal with my grandmother (another little brown-eyed powerhouse), who was also labeled as “sickly” and somehow managed to make it to 102 with all her “marbles.” OdeH has been one of my idols from way back — a woman who could be both feminist and feminine at the same time.

    1. Supposedly they called her “IronPants” at the studio, which is pretty funny. I’ve even seen a reference or two where Flynn called her that, but I just don’t get the feeling he ever did, or ever felt that way about her. In rare instances he could muster a surprising amount of respect for individual women, and she was one of those. That speaks volumes about Livvie as a human being.

  3. We really are down, sadly, to that final handful of great stars left from the Hollywood Golden Era now.

    At age 99, Olivia de Havilland remains a model of graciousness and physical elegance. She has aged in a manner of which most of us can only dream we could emulate. But to also be a person almost at the one century mark who can look back upon such a storied life and film career distinguishes her as a truly remarkable being.

    Like so many others who admire Olivia and would love to read any additional tales and reminiscences the lady might care to impart, I hope that her long overdo memoir will soon be completed and come to light. The enchanting image of a beautiful Maid Marian riding on horseback through Sherwood Forest is an indelible part of Olivia’s legacy. However, as you pointed out in your title of this week’s column, Robert, that is but a very small part of the reality of this complex tough minded survivor whose elegant appearance camouflages her fighter’s heart.

    1. You are so right about that fighter’s heart, Tom. There’s no way to look past that battle of wills she undertook with her stepfather, George Fontaine. It toughened her up for anything and everything she would face in Hollywood.

      And it’s good to hear from you, BTW.

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