At almost 101, Olivia de Havilland has had many milestones — a 60-plus-year career, roles in 49 films, and two best actress Oscars —and now, another: de Havilland recently became the , the feminine form of knighthood bestowed by the British Monarch, for her services to drama. Though the Gone With the Wind actress's achievements are many, she's equally well known for all the drama in her personal life, specifically her nearly lifelong feud with Joan Fontaine, her younger sister by 15 months.
Like millions of sisters before and after them, Olivia and Joan's fighting began with the childhood bedroom they shared. Olivia told it was their "biggest problem." When they were alone, 6-year-old Olivia would scare Joan with dramatic readings of the Bible's crucifixion scene, Joan told People in 1978. Later, Joan learned to get under Olivia's skin by mimicking every word she said, even repeating Olivia's admonishment that she was a "copycat."
Their family environment didn't help. As toddlers, the girls, who were born to British parents in Tokyo, moved to California with their mother following their father's affair with the maid. Mrs. de Havilland remarried retail manager George Fontaine, a disciplinarian who enforced a "military childhood" complete with khaki-colored beds, Joan would later say. When they misbehaved, the Iron Duke, as Olivia nicknamed him, would offer a choice: swallow cod-liver oil, which would induce vomiting, or take a beating on the shins with a wooden hanger. After Olivia went to school with her legs covered in bruises, administrators warned Fontaine to stop, but nothing changed.
Their mother was a perfectionist who harped on her daughters' annunciation of words, hell bent on them having "perfect upper-class English accents"—a characteristic that would later pit them against each other as highly sought-after entities in the entertainment business. Once an actress herself, Mrs. de Havilland hid her professional past from her children. "When I was five I discovered a secret box that contained Mummy's stage makeup. It was like finding buried treasure. I tried the rouge, the eye shadow, the lipstick. But I couldn't get the rouge off," Olivia told Vanity Fair. "Mummy spanked me terribly. 'Never do this again!' she yelled at me, and ordered me never to tell my sibling." ("Sibling" is how Olivia refers to her sister these days, if she refers to her at all, writes VF's William Stadiem.)
Even after their careers took off, Mrs. de Havilland never watched the films her daughters starred in. Her only remark of Joan's work was that she had been "defeated by her beauty" in Jane Eyre. "Mother never could express pride in either of her daughters," Joan told .
The sisters' dysfunction escalated after a roughhousing incident in the pool. Joan was in the water and tried to pull Olivia in by the ankle, but the older, stronger sister put up a fight that resulted in Joan fracturing her collarbone on the pool ledge. She ended up in a cast and Olivia lost her pool privileges. By Olivia's account the girls were five and six at the time, but Joan's 1978 autobiography claimed the jostle happened a decade later, when they were 15 and 16. Joan left to live with their father shortly after, attending an English high school in Tokyo for a year. When she returned, 18-year-old Olivia was on the brink of stardom, having just wrapped the Warner Bros. screen adaptation of Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream.
"Joan came with Mummy to opening night of Dream at the San Francisco Opera House," Olivia recalled. "I didn't even recognize her. She had bleached hair. She was smoking. She was no longer my younger sister."
Olivia wanted Hollywood as her domain, but Joan chafed at her sister's advice to finish her education and find her place among high society. Instead, she insisted: "I want to do what you are doing." The elder sibling eventually gave in, on the condition that Joan change her last name, professionally anyway. Joan pushed back, of course, until a psychic convinced her otherwise. The young actresses were at a party hosted by British actor Brian Aherne, whom Olivia had dated, when a fortune teller told Joan she needed a stage name to achieve true success. The psychic responded favorably to their stepfather's surname, saying, "Take that. Joan Fontaine is a success name." The psychic also foretold Joan's marriage to Aherne—and it wouldn't be the last time the sisters were linked romantically to the same man.
Warner Bros. had signed Olivia as a contract actor with a seven-year term after Dream, but her increasingly evident talent brought other studios calling. MGM approached her about playing Melanie in Gone with the Wind after her 1938 performance as Maid Marian opposite Errol Flynn in The Adventures of Robin Hood. Securing the part meant much finagling on behalf of Olivia and the film's producer, David O. Selznick. It took several attempts, and it wasn't until Olivia appealed to Jack Warner's wife that the studio exec finally acquiesced.
But when Selznick decided to press his luck, this time asking to get Olivia on loan for Alfred Hitchcock's Rebecca, Warner wasn't so agreeable. Deciding it wasn't worth the trouble, Selznick asked Olivia, "Would you mind if I take your sister?"
"I was losing a brilliant part, but okay," Olivia told Vanity Fair of her resignation.
The role resulted in Joan's first Oscar nomination for best actress. She starred in another Hitchcock film, Suspicion, the next year and received a nomination for that too. Joan was also nominated in the best actress category, for Hold Back the Dawn, that year and the sisters shared a table on Oscars night. When Joan won, she would later write in No Bed of Roses, "All the animus we'd felt toward each other as children, the hair-pullings, the savage wrestling matches, the time Olivia fractured my collarbone, all came rushing back in kaleidoscopic imagery. My paralysis was total."
The next year, 1941, she got another one, for Suspicion, also directed by Hitchcock. She won, beating her sister, who had been nominated for Hold Back the Dawn. Joan and Olivia were sitting at the same table when Joan's name was announced. As Joan wrote in No Bed of Roses, "All the animus we'd felt toward each other as children, the hair-pullings, the savage wrestling matches, the time Olivia fractured my collarbone, all came rushing back in kaleidoscopic imagery. My paralysis was total." Not only was she the first (and only) Hitchcock actor to win an Academy Award, she was the first of the sisters.
At the previous year's ceremony Olivia had hid out in the hotel's kitchen, crying next to a steaming vat of soup, after her devastating Best Supporting Actress loss. Now, losing to her younger sister, seeing her achieve this milestone earlier in her career, dealt another jolting blow to her ego. The next day's headlines made it official: The de Havilland-Fontaine war was on.
The following decade added insult on top of injury, as Joan made a splash in the society pages—something Olivia admittedly did not have the "flair" for—dating, among other high-profile suitors, Olivia's ex paramour, aviator Howard Hughes. When Olivia married novelist Marcus Goodrich in 1946, Joan remarked to the press, "All I know about him is that he's had four wives and written one book. Too bad it's not the other way around." Perhaps not surprisingly, then, Olivia rebuffed Joan's congratulations after winning best actress at the 1947 Oscars — another tiff picked up by the tabloids.
What finally solidified the sisters' rift and spurned their estrangement was their mother's death in 1975. Joan was touring with Cactus Flower when the 88-year-old Mrs. de Havilland was diagnosed with cancer and claimed that no one called to say her mother was asking for her. For her part, Olivia, the executor of the estate, said she rushed to Mummy's side and was with her until the end. After she died, Joan said Olivia had her body cremated without notifying Joan, and didn't invite her to the memorial service. Joan found out about it and attended anyway, but neither sister spoke to each other that day or afterward.
"You can divorce your sister as well as your husbands," Joan told People a few years later. "I don't see her at all and I don't intend to."
Their estrangement lasted until Joan's death in 2013, at age 96. It was something the younger de Havilland sister predicted, in a way. Once asked in an interview how she wanted to die, Joan responded, "Olivia has always said I was first at everything — I got married first, got an Academy Award first, had a child first. If I die [first], she'll be furious, because again I'll have got there first!"