Complicated

Errol & Olivia: Ego & Obsession in Golden Era Hollywood by Robert Matzen

My favorite image of Olivia de Havilland, taken in 1942. Though she be but little, she is fierce.

It’s pretty weird living in a world that doesn’t have Olivia de Havilland in it. Columnists and bloggers have been singing Olivia’s praises since her passing a week ago, justifiably so of course. She was the last major star of Hollywood’s Golden Era. In taking OdeH for granted as one does since she’s been around all our lives (unless you happen to be age 105 and up), I was awestruck last Sunday to scroll through Facebook and see tribute after tribute in an unbroken string that went on and on. Even the latest from the White House couldn’t crack the de Havilland hit parade.

That’s on the one hand. The day after her passing I was contacted by Barnett Parker from a FOX TV affiliate in California and put on alert to appear on-air via Zoom to speak about OdeH. Then an hour later the idea was nixed because the 40-year-old news editor had never heard of Olivia de Havilland, and so obviously her passing wasn’t newsworthy. That is the other hand; time has marched on.

I go back to 1986 with OdeH. Like every other growing boy who came into contact with the Errol Flynn picture The Adventures of Robin Hood, I fell in love with Olivia as Maid Marian. Heck, what was not to love? She received bins of mash notes from smitten men written in care of her easily accessed Paris address, and mine was just another. She responded politely and girlishly because she knew that’s what her legion of admirers needed her to do. There was also, even then, an author inside of me, and so I started asking her questions getting at the story behind the filmmaking she had experienced, and our occasional correspondence continued.

Errol & Olivia: Ego & Obsession in Golden Era Hollywood by Robert Matzen

To promote Captain Blood in 1935, Warner Bros. dressed its newest starlet in short-shorts and leather boots for a series of  publicity pinups. By the late 1930s Olivia chafed at such exploitation and refused to participate.

Flash forward to 2009 after Michael Mazzone and I had co-written the surprise hit Errol Flynn Slept HereErrol Flynn Slept Here—a forensic look at Flynn’s life through the mountaintop playpen he had built at the height of his fame. Research conducted then suggested his life with OdeH onscreen and off warranted a separate volume and that led to Errol & Olivia: Ego & Obsession in Golden Era Hollywood. During the writing of that one I got back in touch with my old pal Olivia who, it turned out, was a fan of Errol Flynn Slept Here. I told her about E&O and asked for an interview and a phone number—basically asked respectfully for what any author needs from a subject-matter expert.

(You can’t see it, but I’m sitting here looking out the window rubbing my whiskers trying to find words for the process of corresponding with OdeH.) The words I’m coming up with are “glacial.” “Tectonic.” Maybe if I had jumped in the DeLorean and gone back 10 years and written the letter in 1999, she’d have been ready to help me in 2009. But I knew she had an assistant and a particular way of handling the volume of mail she received. I also knew this is the gal who would invite people to Paris to meet with her, and tell them to give her a call at an appointed time after they’d arrived, and when they called she would say, oh, was that today? Well, let’s make it the same time next week. Which is perfectly within her rights as a legendary multiple Academy Award winner in her 90s. But over here in the real world, where there are author contracts and deadlines, her science of time didn’t really match mine. I tried violating protocol by calling and I left a couple of messages to no avail.

Errol & Olivia: Ego & Obsession in Golden Era Hollywood by Robert Matzen

In 1940, Olivia turned the tables and posed for this series of shots as if to say, You don’t own me, Jack Warner. I’m my own woman.

Also while writing E&O, I contacted Olivia’s sister Joan Fontaine (Olivia + Joan = the second or third most famous feud in Hollywood history) for an interview to talk about  her sister and Errol Flynn. Joan had jaunted into Hollywood in the later 1930s and won an Oscar under the nose of her hard-working sister, before her hard-working sister had won one, which only deepened a rivalry that went back to their childhood. The very idea of speaking about this subject for the record appalled Joan, who told me in that caramel voice of hers, “If I spoke to you about Olivia, it would be like an atomic bomb going off.” Maybe in 1969 that would have been true, or 1979, but this was 2009 when only we dedicated few movie lovers remembered the Joan Fontaine of Rebecca and Suspicion—and Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, for that matter. That’s OK, Joan, I was still able to cover your crazy relationship with Olivia in a no-holds-barred section entitled Twisted Sisters.

I guess what I’m trying to say is that Olivia de Havilland was a live-by-her-own-rules firebrand, the same woman who had beaten Jack Warner’s blacklist of 1941 through ’45 in court and earned the de Havilland Decision that really was an atomic bomb going off in the middle of Hollywood. This little woman of 5’4″ brought down the studio system stubbornly and single-handedly and then carried that victory into a string of three Academy Award nominations and two wins in four years. After she had proved everything there was to prove, she left Hollywood and settled in Paris, wrote a terrific book about it, and spent the remainder of her life sipping champagne and living life on her own terms. Not my terms, certainly. Her terms.

When Errol & Olivia was published, I sent her a copy just to say, look, a coffee table book about you and Errol. It’s a beautiful volume with a couple hundred photos; I bet many she’d never seen before and I bet they brought back memories. I did this with some trepidation because I wrote something in there based on all my research that I knew she wouldn’t like—that evidence suggested she and Errol had been more than friends around the time of Santa Fe Trail when they were a couple of lonely and restless souls. The narrative nailed her as exactly what she was: a loner, a workaholic, an accomplisher, depressive and isolated her whole life. The silence coming out of Rue Benouville was deafening. She sure wasn’t that silent a couple years ago when she went after the producers of Feud for the way Catherine Zeta-Jones had portrayed her, as a cold and gossipy bitch—which was not OdeH at all. OdeH was a charmer and the soul of discretion at all times, which is, I believe, why she couldn’t deliver the memoir she’d promised to her publisher, Dutton, at the end of 1980.

Oh, that’s another story. So when she continued to miss her deadlines, and after I’d had a couple of books published, I asked if maybe I could help her get over the hump and finish her memoir and get the manuscript safely off. Well! The nerve of this whippersnapper! She told me this was quite impossible because “Every word has to be my own.” I tried, friends, but as it stands, she took every word to her grave, which is the ultimate evidence that Feud got her all wrong.

This is my long-winded way of saying, I love you, Olivia. I admired the time you gave me, and every challenge and every complication that went with it. You lived life your way and enjoyed a champagne diet past age 104. I can only hope you and Errol have had a chance to catch up—there must have been plenty to say since you outlived him by, oh, a mere 61 years.

Errol & Olivia: Ego & Obsession in Golden Era Hollywood by Robert Matzen

 

7 comments

  1. Thanks, Robert, for sharing some of your complicated history with one of the icons of the Golden Age of Hollywood. She was talented, she was tough and she more than earned her place in film history. I hope that somewhere right now she and Errol are sharing a drink, a laugh and a million reminiscences.

  2. Livvie is an all time fav. We even named our daughter Olivia/Livvie. Until I read Mission, I never knew that Livvie and Jimmy were a thing. Seems right. They’re both at the top of my list!
    Nice article but the American dictator crack was annoying. I’d prefer you refrain from snide political asides.

  3. I felt a sense of dissonance mixed with sadness when I heard Olivia had died. It was strange because I’ve never lived in a world where Olivia didn’t exist, occasionally popping up in the news to speak about her role in “Gone With the Wind” or to say some words about the Hollywood of old; she was the last major living link to each. Rarely, but very rarely, she’d say something about how it was to work with Errol Flynn or date John Huston or Jimmy Stewart. She used to perplex me with her inconsistent, ambiguous, and sometimes contradictory stories of her relationship with Errol. Sometimes she’d say that nothing at all outside of a mutual attraction occurred. Other times she’d say that they’d fallen in love with each other and he’d proposed marriage, but she’d refused due to his married status, though he was long separated. Sometimes she’d admit regret for that decision and other times that it was for the best that she’d let him go. She wasn’t so secretive about her other relationships, which puzzled me. I thought perhaps she’d go into more details about Errol in her long-promised autobiography, which never seemed to materialize. As you say, she was most discreet and proper and somehow couldn’t bring herself to publicly spill the tea. Very classy lady. I understood that, but at the same time, every time a new publishing date was announced, I couldn’t help feeling like Charlie Brown going to kick the football that Lucy held for him. It got pulled away every time until the project vaporized. Finally it occurred to me that the book would never be published, if indeed it had ever been written. So it goes. I am content to know that she was certainly the most fascinating, strong, and accomplished woman Errol Flynn had ever met. In my opinion she was the most naturally beautiful woman he ever met, too. I liked that she didn’t seem to wear much make-up offscreen other than lipstick, because that’s my preference too. She was fierce before the word became trendy. In the end, I couldn’t figure her out. She seemed as difficult to pin down as a moonbeam.

    It’s nice to read the touching tributes to her greatness, even though there is far too much attention being paid to her role as Melanie Hamilton for my taste and not nearly enough to her other titanic achievements. I’m somewhat surprised that none of the major news networks bothered to mention her passing. It’s good to know that in reality she was a kind, compassionate woman and remained humorous and humble. She seemed to adore champagne and macarons. Maybe that and her eternal optimism were her secrets to longevity. She once said in a 1976 interview that she’d dreamed of Errol, and they were happy and talked about spending their lives together, but that she woke up before it was settled between them. I hope that wherever they are, they have eternity to talk about it…together.

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