In July 2019 Dame Olivia de Havilland reached an astonishing 103 years old. And the Golden Age great can also boast of having possessed a glittering Hollywood career – one that encapsulates not only more than half a century’s work, but also two Academy Award wins. But the actress’ remarkable achievements have arguably been eclipsed by her turbulent relationship with younger sister and fellow Oscar winner Joan Fontaine.
Even as young girls, future stars de Havilland and Fontaine quarreled. And although it’s said that the sisters attempted reconciliation multiple times, a spat in 1975 reportedly kept them apart forever. In fact, even after Fontaine’s death in 2013, de Havilland filed a lawsuit that related to their lifelong struggle to get along. So, where did it all begin?
Well, de Havilland – born Olivia Mary – and Fontaine – born Joan de Beauvoir – came into the world 15 months apart. But the sisters’ closeness in age foretold little about the relationship that they’d go on to share. Early on, in fact, de Havilland struggled with the thought of having a little sister, according to biographer Charles Higham. And shamelessly, she’d apparently shred the hand-me-downs that were meant for Fontaine, leaving her younger sibling to sew them back together.
Shockingly, Fontaine told People in 1978, “I regret that I remember not one act of kindness from Olivia all through my childhood.” By contrast, she did divulge one of her earliest memories of her sister’s alleged bullying. And this, Fontaine claimed, happened when she and de Havilland were five and six years old, respectively.
Fontaine went on to explain, “[My sister] had learned to read. And one night when we were alone, she read aloud from the Crucifixion from the Bible with mounting gusto until finally I screamed. Olivia loved it.” In a 2016 interview with Vanity Fair, de Havilland also admitted of her turbulent relationship with her sister, “Our biggest problem was that we had to share a room.”
Indeed, sharing proved to be a big problem for Fontaine, too. Apparently, you see, she resented the fact that the girls’ mother, Lilian, seemed to favor de Havilland. As Fontaine grew older, then, she picked up ways to bug her big sister. De Havilland recalled to Vanity Fair, for example, that her sibling would purposefully drive her crazy by mimicking everything that she said.
What’s more, it seems as though de Havilland and Fontaine’s home environment did little to cultivate a loving bond, either. The sisters were born in Tokyo, Japan, where their British parents had met. There, their father, Walter, was an English professor, while Lilian, who was a stage actress, performed in recitals for the European colony.
But this exotic start did not end well for the family. Infidelity on Walter’s part, for instance, marred and eventually broke up his relationship with Lilian. And both would end up remarrying on different sides of the world. After a stint in England, Walter eventually returned to Japan to live with their housekeeper, with whom he had cheated. Lilian, meanwhile, took the girls to California and found a new spouse, too.
In addition, Lilian’s new husband, George, apparently raised the girls very strictly, making for a less than warm upbringing. In 1978 Fontaine would explain to People, “My family was a combination of the critical and perfectionist – and that’s tough. We didn’t have a loving childhood; my stepfather made sure we had a military childhood.” Ultimately, then, George came to be known as “the Iron Duke” to the sisters.
But Lilian also had strict standards for her daughters. Apparently, you see, she wanted her girls to speak with proper British accents – in spite of their American upbringing. And strangely, according to de Havilland’s Vanity Fair interview, Lillian kept her own acting experience a secret from the girls. In fact, de Havilland claimed that her mother had spanked her when she’d uncovered her hidden stash of stage makeup.
Yet it seems that even their tough parents did little to bring de Havilland and Fontaine together. In any case, they often liked to get each other into trouble. De Havilland would pull funny faces, for example, so that her sister would laugh at the dinner table and spit out her drink in the process. And as a result of her outbursts, Fontaine would receive a beating from their stepfather, according to Vanity Fair.
Mind you, de Havilland and Fontaine also quarreled when their parents weren’t around. In one incident, the younger sister even broke her collarbone – although the siblings’ accounts of this differ. You see, de Havilland claimed that the accident had occurred when she’d been around six. On that occasion, while Fontaine had apparently tried to pull her into a pool, de Havilland had resisted, with the result being that Fontaine had chipped her shoulder on the pool’s ledge in the ensuing struggle. In the end, then, that injury had allegedly led to de Havilland being banned from swimming.
In Fontaine’s memory, however, she had been 16 and Olivia 17 when the incident had occurred. Fontaine told People, “One July day in 1933 when I was 16, Olivia threw me down in a rage, jumped on top of me and fractured my collarbone.” Disturbingly, she added in the same interview, “Olivia so hated the idea of having a sibling that she wouldn’t go near my crib.”
Now, if Fontaine’s timeline is to be believed, she left home shortly after cracking her collarbone. In 1933, you see, she moved out to her birthplace, Japan, to live with her father and his new wife. Then, when she came back to California the following year, she found her sister on the brink of Hollywood stardom. In fact, de Havilland bagged a Warner Brothers contract that November.
Yes, de Havilland landed a role in the big-screen adaptation of A Midsummer Night’s Dream after impressing scouts in the theater production. And when Fontaine and Lilian had attended the play’s opening night, de Havilland hadn’t even recognized her sister, who had just returned from Japan. She told Vanity Fair, “She had bleached hair; she was smoking; she was no longer my younger sister.”
After seeing Fontaine so changed, de Havilland had encouraged her to finish her education – but her younger sister apparently had a new plan. De Havilland recalled, “I advised [Fontaine] to go to Los Gatos High School and graduate. ‘I don’t want to,’ she told me defiantly. ‘I want to do what you are doing.’” And so Fontaine did just that – although there was a caveat.
You see, de Havilland refused to allow Fontaine to come to Hollywood and use their family name. She even promised her younger sister that she could live with her in LA – if she chose a different stage name. At first, however, Fontaine refused – that is, until a psychic apparently gave her the same piece of advice. De Havilland explained to Vanity Fair, “I gave her examples of younger sisters who changed their names and had the best careers: Loretta Young and Sally Blane, for instance.”
In addition, Fontaine told People, “Professionally, de Havilland was Olivia’s; she was the first-born, and I was not to disgrace her name.” And so she proceeded to shuttle through a slew of different surnames, including Burfield and St. John. Then, the actress said, “At the urging of a fortune teller, I picked Fontaine – my stepfather’s surname. ‘Take that,’ [the psychic] advised. ‘Joan Fontaine is a success name.’”
In the meantime, de Havilland’s Hollywood career had begun to take off, with several studios wanting her on their sets. MGM, for example, haggled to get her into Gone with the Wind, and Warner Bros. eventually agreed to this. Nevertheless, the company wasn’t open to lending de Havilland out a second time to star in Alfred Hitchcock’s Rebecca.
Fortunately, those casting Rebecca had an easy second option: Fontaine. And signing onto the Hitchcock flick proved to be a star-making turn for the younger sister, as her performance ultimately earned her an Academy Award nod for Best Actress in 1940. Incidentally, de Havilland garnered a nomination that year, too, for Best Supporting Actress in Gone with the Wind – but neither sister took home a statuette.
In 1942, however, the Oscars would pit de Havilland and Fontaine against each other – and only one sister would walk away victorious. Both women had been nominated in the Best Actress category; Fontaine had again partnered with Hitchcock for the movie Suspicion, while de Havilland had starred in drama Hold Back the Dawn.
Perhaps only adding to the tension, Fontaine and de Havilland were both at the same table when actress Ginger Rogers made the announcement: Fontaine was the winner. And according to her 1978 autobiography, No Bed of Roses, the star froze when she heard her name. She wrote, “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.”
According to Judith Kass’ 1976 book Olivia de Havilland, though, the losing sister graciously cheered “We’ve got it!” when Fontaine’s name was called. Yet Higham has claimed that Fontaine ignored her sibling when she tried to congratulate her, leaving her upset.
Still, regardless of what actually happened between de Havilland and Fontaine that night, the media seemingly sensed some tension between the pair. The next day, Fontaine’s win wasn’t the only Oscar story to make headlines; according to Vanity Fair, “the war of the star sisters” suddenly became a recurring tabloid theme. And the siblings’ differences seemingly continued to widen as their contrasting public personas crystallized.
For one thing, Fontaine’s behind-the-scenes life apparently grabbed the public’s attention more often than de Havilland’s. The latter explained to Vanity Fair, “Joan had a lot of dash that men admired immensely.” Indeed, she dated the likes of Prince Aly Khan and Howard Hughes – who, incidentally, also had a relationship with her sister. And yet de Havilland didn’t quite make the tabloids because, as she put it herself, she was “a simple person.”
In the end, de Havilland did find love in novelist and journalist Marcus Goodrich, whom she married in 1946. But that union seemingly drove the sisters apart even further – especially after a comment that Fontaine notoriously made about her sister’s husband. The star remarked, “All I know about [Goodrich] is that he’s had four wives and written one book. Too bad it’s not the other way around.”
And while de Havilland expected an apology for what Fontaine had said, she supposedly never got one. Then came another tense incident between the famous sisters. In 1947 – so, five years after Fontaine had won her Oscar – de Havilland earned another Best Actress nomination: this time for the movie To Each His Own.
Joan Crawford had initially been asked to present the statuette during the ceremony, but she’d ultimately canceled. This led the Academy to make an interesting substitution: they asked Fontaine to give away the Oscar, which just so happened to go to her sister. According to The Independent, the Academy may have believed that the stage would encourage the siblings to bury the hatchet.
And yet when Fontaine called de Havilland’s name, the on-stage reunion didn’t go as the Academy had perhaps wanted. The women didn’t even hug, with de Havilland rejecting her sister’s attempt at a handshake, too. Obviously, then, the tension remained strong between the siblings. But although in the future the animosity would cool down, this would only last for a short while.
In 1953, you see, de Havilland split from Goodrich – the husband whom Fontaine had insulted to the press. And this separation opened up communication between the sisters again. In fact, in 1961 de Havilland spent Christmas at her sister’s New York City apartment. But while this reunion seemingly signaled the start of a thaw between the pair, their relationship would grow cold again – and this time, it would be for good.
Apparently, the rift started up once more after Lilian’s cancer diagnosis, which came in 1975. At the time, Fontaine’s work on a tour of Cactus Flower was keeping her away from home, leaving de Havilland to care for her mother with the help of her daughter Gisele. Despite the assistance, though, Lilian succumbed to her disease that same year.
And Fontaine later claimed to People that de Havilland hadn’t let her know Lilian had requested to see her. The secrecy had apparently only increased, too, once the sisters’ mother had died. Fontaine explained, “Olivia and the executor of the estate took full charge, disposing of mother’s effects as well as her body – she was cremated – without bothering to consult me.”
Adding insult to injury, de Havilland allegedly even failed to invite Fontaine to her mother’s memorial service – although she attended regardless. By contrast, de Havilland claimed that she’d kept Fontaine abreast of the funeral plans but that her sister had simply said she couldn’t make it. In either case, though, it didn’t bode well for the future of their relationship.
In fact, de Havilland and Fontaine apparently never spoke again. As Fontaine put it in 1978 to People, “You can divorce your sister as well as your husbands. I don’t see her at all, and I don’t intend to.” So, for the rest of the sisters’ lives, they stayed apart. And if Hollywood events drew them together again, they seemingly took great care to avoid each other.
Indeed, de Havilland and Fontaine allegedly remained estranged for nearly 40 years – until the latter died of natural causes in 2013. And some years prior, she had predicted that she’d be the first one to pass away. In 1978 Fontaine had explained to People, “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, she’ll be furious, because again I’ll have got there first!”
A day after her sister’s death, de Havilland released a statement, expressing that the news had “shocked and saddened” her. But William Stadiem, who would interview de Havilland for Vanity Fair in 2016, would have a different take after meeting the centenarian. In fact, he would suggest that her simple statement had been hiding something deeper. Stadiem explained, “Olivia’s official statement… belies a deep and enduring grief that no veteran thespian façade can fully conceal.”
Fast-forward three years, and on July 1, 2019, de Havilland turned a remarkable 103 years old. She’s told Vanity Fair, however, that she plans to live until she’s 110. Presumably, then, the actress, who’s known to be a great writer, will pen her memoir during that time. And that book may well offer further insight into her complex relationship with her sister.
Surprisingly, though, just when you thought Fontaine’s death had put an end to the sibling rivalry story, de Havilland opened up another chapter. In 2017, you see, she filed a lawsuit against the FX network’s show Feud: Bette and Joan. Now, although the program centers around the relationship between actresses Bette Davis and Joan Crawford, a fictionalized de Havilland is also featured.
And funnily enough, de Havilland claimed that the portrayal damaged her “professional reputation for integrity, honesty, generosity, self-sacrifice and dignity.” Presumably, this had something to do with the way in which the fictional de Havilland speaks about her sister in the TV show. For example, de Havilland – played by Catherine Zeta-Jones – twice refers to her sibling as a “bitch.”
But as you may expect, the California court system dismissed de Havilland’s case. And when she appealed this decision to the Supreme Court, it, too, knocked her back. In the end, then, the actress’ legal claim finished much like her lifelong battles with her younger sister: with no one answer as to who was right and who was to blame.