While researching one of my books at the Academy Library in Beverly Hills, I came across a juicy letter, and I can’t even remember whose papers I was looking at. Logically speaking, it was a John Huston file because the letter was written from Olivia de Havilland to John Huston in January 1967. She opened by saying that she took her kids to the theater to kill time and the picture they walked into was The Bible, and she claims to have been shocked when she heard his voice narrating, and the voice took her back to another time and place, and she went on to describe intimate details about places they spent time together in 1942. I’ll quote the letter a little later, but first, some backstory.
It was the wildest time in the life of a talented, no-nonsense survivor, the time she threw caution away and drove with the top down and no scarf. She was 25 and in a dark place, broken up not long from former boyfriend Jimmy Stewart (see Mission, coming soon), battling Jack Warner over her Warner Bros. contract and on again, off again romantically with long-time costar Errol Flynn. In January 1942 Errol and Olivia were off again because she had gotten too close to him around the time they completed They Died With Their Boots On and finally realized what a troubled soul he possessed. So that January she was a free agent and began production on a drama called In This Our Life with Bette Davis. The first day of work, kaboom, she fell under the spell of the picture’s director, who happened to be the hottest commodity in Hollywood at the time, 35-year-old writer-director (and notorious ladies’ man) John Huston. What Huston didn’t have in the classic looks department he more than made up for in charm, brains, and killer wit. Livvie, known as “Old Iron Pants” around the soundstages at Warners, found herself struck by the big thunderbolt like nothing ever before, not even with Flynn. Livvie was not only in love, she was in total, all-consuming lust, despite the fact that Huston was married at the time. High-profile Huston was involved in making a documentary on the war, Report from the Aleutians, and for a time they carried on from afar, but carry on they did through that year in what became filler for news columns, and a full-fledged scandal among gossip-mongers at Warner Bros.
There was no way it would end well, and of course it didn’t. Serial-monogamist Huston grew bored pretty fast and moved on to Livvie’s Gone With the Wind co-star, Evelyn Keyes, while Livvie’s dark time went on. She would battle Warner Bros. for two more years, endure blackballing by all the studios, remain estranged from Flynn, battle her sister Joan Fontaine endlessly, and nearly die of illness contracted when she went off to entertain the troops in World War II. The clouds finally broke over Livvie’s head in 1946, and boy-howdy, what a dawn she witnessed. She won an Oscar for her 1946 picture To Each His Own, then topped that performance playing mentally disturbed Virginia in The Snake Pit in 1948, then won another Oscar in 1949 for The Heiress.
The thing to remember about Livvie is she has always been a loner. She has now spent a century as an island, a closed book, a tough cookie. To me, after having corresponded with this woman since 1978 and studying her life for my book, Errol & Olivia, this was the most revealing document I’d ever encountered. It read in part, “…I heard your voice. It was an extraordinary experience, for no one had told me that you had done the soundtrack, and, of course, with the first word I knew it was you speaking. It brought back, with a rush, the year of 1942 and the Aleutians, and the film you made there, that beautiful film, and ‘I’ve Got Sixpence,’ and your voice on the soundtrack for that picture, and, well, many things. I hope all goes well with you—I always have. I always will.”
Livvie is a beautiful writer, and here in a rare instance she bares her soul and engages in some flirting with a one-time lover who had meant the world to her, who had hurt her so deeply, and this was to say it’s all right. I forgive you and remember the good times. Classy move. Classy woman.
Happy 100th Birthday, Miss de Havilland. Speaking of your talent as a writer, I hope everyone goes right out and buys your terrific 1962 book, Every Frenchman Has One, which has just been re-released.
Next time we’ll look at one of the most incredible moments in Hollywood history, the time the aforementioned men in Livvie’s life fought over her, almost to the death.