By Lara Gabrielle Fowler
Today marks the 97th birthday of the wonderful Olivia de Havilland, one of the last surviving icons of Hollywood’s Golden Age and the last principal cast member of Gone With the Wind. The recipient of 5 Academy Award nominations and 2 Oscars (earned for her roles in To Each His Own in 1946 and The Heiress in 1949), the Presidential Medal of the Arts and, recently, the coveted Légion d’Honneur from former French president Nicolas Sarkozy, Olivia de Havilland is a true legend and a treasure to the industry.
The powerful final scene of The Heiress, which, in my opinion, singlehandedly won her the Oscar.
Born in Tokyo, she moved to the United States at the age of two and a half and grew up in Saratoga, CA. She acted in local plays before making her big break in a production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream produced by Max Reinhardt. Hollywood followed and she rose to stardom at Warner Brothers (with a loan out to David O. Selznick for a little picture called Gone With the Wind, earning her her first Oscar nomination for the portrayal of the mild and kind Melanie), subsequently breaking out of her contract via a landmark ruling that is still discussed in entertainment law books today, a ruling known as the de Havilland decision. Without a studio contract, she had the freedom to choose her own roles and chose wisely, accruing both of her Oscars after her tenure at Warner Brothers.
After a rocky marriage to the novelist Marcus Goodrich, Olivia relocated to Paris in 1953 with her 3-year-old son Benjamin. She wanted to pursue a fledgling romance with Pierre Galante, the editor of Paris Match, whom she had met at a film festival shortly before. They soon married and had a daughter, Gisèle, in 1956. Though the marriage ultimately didn’t last, Olivia and Pierre remained the best of friends and shared the same house for many years after the divorce. It was Olivia who was taking care of him when he died in her house in the 1990’s. Not long before, her son Benjamin had also passed away at her home, from complications from non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
Contrary to the enormous fame she attained at the height of her stardom in the 1930’s and 1940’s, she maintains a relatively low profile nowadays, making her home in the same modest Paris townhouse that she has occupied since she first moved to Paris in 1953. Since the death of her son, she has been very involved with the American Cathedral in Paris, whom she credits with providing her enormous support in dealing with Benjamin’s long and difficult struggle with cancer. She is also enormously active in the Anglophone community as a whole, often hosting benefits and fundraisers at her home for the American Library and the American University in Paris.
As many of you know, I had the great pleasure to meet Ms. de Havilland at the American Library in Paris 2 years ago when she was introducing I Remember Better When I Paint, a documentary she recently narrated. I found her just the way I hoped she would be–sweet, modest, demonstrative (she held my hand as we talked), and incredibly beautiful. Age seems to have nothing on her, she looks just as beautiful now as she did in her Hollywood days. It was an indescribably great honor to meet her and she signed my copy of her memoir, Every Frenchman Has One, that she wrote in 1962. Always the social butterfly, she stayed long after the event was over, talking to people and ignoring the whispers in her ear that her taxi was outside. After a good 3 or 4 ignored whispers, the organizers finally told her that it really was time to go, and she disappointedly sighed “Oh, they’re making me leave!”
Well Olivia, we hope you never leave! Here’s to 97 more!