Upon checking my inbox earlier today, I found that I had received a letter from Susan Pfeiffer, secretary and beloved friend to Joan Fontaine. Susan and I have been in touch several times–last October when I conducted a written interview with Joan, it was Susan who helped with the correspondence and was an integral part of the interview coming to fruition. And when Joan passed away this past December, we were in touch again. Susan was a very important part of Joan’s life during her last decade. She knew her perhaps better than anyone over these past few years, and in her letter to me today, she asked to clarify some things she has heard over the years about Joan, her life, her legend, and her character.
I have long been protective of Joan, as I feel that she was terribly misunderstood by many people. A progressive thinker and very sensitive to the plight of animals, she was ahead of her time in many ways, in ways inconceivable to most of her generation. In her letter, Susan opened up to me about some of the misconceptions that she often comes across regarding Joan and her life. I am deeply humbled that Susan chose Backlots for this honor.
Joan spent her final years in quietude (she had no computer and no presence on the internet, as has been incorrectly reported), in a beautiful house in Carmel overlooking the Pacific Ocean. When she passed away on December 15, there was some talk that she was cremated and her ashes were scattered on the Pacific Ocean close to her home. Susan would like our readers to know that this is not true–though Susan did not disclose Joan’s true final resting place, she would like us to know that Joan’s ashes were not scattered in the Pacific. There were countless places very special to Joan–she was a woman who loved deeply and became attached to many people, places, and things. Susan describes her as “one of the kindest, loving women I have ever met.”
Joan had two daughters, Deborah (born in 1948) and Martita (a daughter born in Peru in 1946 who came to live with Joan in 1951). In her teens, Martita went through some problems and there was a rift between them. Joan discussed this in her autobiography and as she was a private person who didn’t talk much about her private life, people assumed that the rift remained and Martita and Joan never made up. But, Susan tells us, that rift healed, and healed well. Martita and Joan were close as adults, and Martita came to Joan’s home in Carmel for a visit during Susan’s years with her. She was close to both of her daughters–Deborah and Martita both sent flowers and cards for birthdays and holidays, and they talked often on the phone. Susan tells us: “Joan saved all the cards and letters sent by both Martita and Deborah. They meant a lot to her. She loved both of her girls.”
Perhaps the most discussed part of Joan’s life was her relationship with her sister, Olivia de Havilland. As with many siblings, their relationship was one of very serious ups and downs. At the time of Joan’s death, she and Olivia had not spoken for a long time. Joan is often maligned for this, and Susan tells of countless letters from fans advising Joan to “mend fences” with Olivia, and chastising her for not attending the ceremony when Olivia was awarded the Legion d’Honneur (Joan never received an invitation and didn’t learn of the event until after the fact). However, Susan wants to make it very clear that Joan had no hard feelings toward her sister and that she “never saw any animosity toward Olivia.” Susan tells me that Joan was once approached about the possibility of an on-air interview with her and Olivia together, and Joan agreed to it. Unfortunately, the interview never came to pass and the sisters never had the opportunity to come face to face again.
In addition, Susan recalls speaking with Joan about a rumor regarding her and Errol Flynn being lovers. Errol and Joan were friends/acquaintances, writes Susan, but never lovers. Susan also wishes to clear up a rumor about Joan and Howard Hughes. “Joan never had an affair with Howard Hughes,” she writes. “She was not attracted to him.” This is also corroborated in Joan’s autobiography, in which she relates that Howard Hughes made several passes at her, but she was never interested.
Closing her letter, Susan gives us one final, beautiful insight into Joan Fontaine, the person: “She cared about everyone, and everyone who met her, fell in love with her. She was very special and will be greatly missed.” A true testament to a gentle, caring soul.
Thank you to Susan Pfeiffer for these wonderful insights into a woman who truly is greatly missed.
Thanks for posting this! It’s nice to clear up some of the things that have been circulating, especially since December.
Joan was one of my all time favorites and the first classic actress I became interested in. When I was young, I wrote her a fan letter, and she responded with a beautiful, heartfelt note – her words meant a lot to me then and have stuck with me all these years. She seemed like a wonderful and very interesting person!
Thanks for sharing this with your readership!
My pleasure, Kim, and thanks really go to Susan for this. I also have a beautiful note from Joan that I treasure. She is so greatly missed.
This is such a touching tribute-thank you for posting this.
I find I am sad that Miss Fontaine has died. This is ridiculous, as i never met her. i am just one of the many people who admire her work. I also admire her as a working woman, who made a family and cared for her pets. She seems such a dignified person, with such intelligence, and her beauty is a reflection of her intelligence. I just don’t have the words to describe what I feel, and i am really grateful you have published her last interview and this lovely tribute. I’m glad Miss Fontaine was able to live in her home until the end of her life, with devoted people around her, and her pets. Anther autobiography would have been interesting, for sure!
Have a good evening,
I forgot I had something else to say-the Viv and Larry website, about Vivien Leigh, has a beautiful piece about Olivia deHaviland meeting Vivien Leigh. She (olivia) is another woman of wit, charm, grace and intelligence. She speaks of Miss Leigh’s charm-a cool charm. I love the fact that these actors had brains-the ability to form profound thoughts. Their clothes, their collective charm-I just wish there was more cool charm in this world, and less focus on image.
If it’s not too personal a question, do you know what fragrance Miss Fontaine favoured? I love fragrances, and it’s neat to associate fragrance with people. I know Vivien Leigh favoured Tabac Blond, and Joy. Joy would be the epitome of a cool, charming woman.
It is most definitely not ridiculous that you are sad about her death. She had an effect on all of us–that’s what these prominent people do. Hers was a huge loss. I’m so glad you liked the interview and this tribute, it’s the least I can do in return for all she’s given us.
Yes, Kendra is a good friend of mine. Those de Havilland girls–both of them–had really something about them, didn’t they?
I don’t know what fragrance Joan wore. Interesting question! I might be able to find out…if I do, I’ll let you know!
Thank you! She may have been too private to reveal this.
I wonder if you ever considered writing a biography of Joan. Just some food for thought.
I’m actually working on another project right now (not Joan-related) that is taking up a good deal of my time. I never thought of writing anything about Joan because I knew how private she was and never wanted to intrude on that privacy. I do know, though, that there is a project about Joan in the works by somebody else…not sure where he is in the process though. I’ll keep you posted if I hear anything!
I read your essay with much interest. I, too, recently heard from Susan. I’m doing an article about Joan’s experience with “The Lion in Winter,” a play she did in Austria. This was with Joan’s blessings and cooperation–we spoke on the phone about it several times. Alas, the one photo she sent me, a regal shot of her as “Eleanor of Aquitaine,” was misplaced by the editor. I wrote Joan in April of 2013 to explain the situation and ask for a replacement. There were no more copies, which disheartened me. But about a month back, I suddenly heard from Susan via the mail. She’d found the photo and wanted to send it to me if there was still time. There was, and now I’m able to get the article published. It was something very dear to Joan’s heart, and I’m so happy that Susan supplied the final puzzle piece.
It will be published in “Films of the Golden Age” magazine.
How wonderful, Rod! I am so happy that you got to speak with Joan. THE LION IN WINTER was indeed so dear to Joan’s heart, and I love that you are doing a piece about it. I will look forward to reading it in “Films of the Golden Age!”
Thanks to you both for continuing her legacy with your work As a writer /journalist myself, my one great regret is never having been able to meet the great lady. But I cherish the personal notes and photos she’d sent in recent years. And I must reach out to Susan as well to express my sadness, but also thanks.
Mr Labbe, I’d love to read your article too. Will it be online? i live in nova scotia, and cannot imagine it will be readily available here.
Yes, Susan was a big part of Joan’s life and I think she facilitated a lot of things over these past years. I’m sure she would appreciate hearing from you.
Thanks, Lara, for sharing your correspondence from Susan Pfeiffer. Like most, I had heard/read various rumors about Joan Fontaine’s private life (rift with her daughters, romances, estrangement from her sister) and though I have always been more interested in her work on film than her personal life, gossip and half-truths do make an impression. So glad Ms. Pfeiffer is taking steps to clear up some misconceptions.
Thank you, Patty. Yes, I am glad too. It’s really important with these prominent people that the truth come out.
Thanks for sharing, Lara. So sad that the Joan-Olivia interview never came to fruition.
Yeah that would have been really nice. A shame that it never happened.
Just checked back here. Hopefully, the Lion in Winter article will eventually be on-line. It’ll run first in the actual magazine (Films of the Golden Age). Incidentally, here’s a link to the article I did on Joan (called “A Study in Tenacity”) that led to her calling me about doing the Lion project. Hope you enjoy it! Rod
How do we write to susan
I’m sorry, I can’t give out her contact info, but if you have a specific question, I can ask her.
Not sure this rings true to me. It is unwise to trust when someone ks put on a pedastal. We are all flawed, and Joan was quoted as saying she was unforgiving toward Martita. I hope they did reconcile, but it still displays an ugliness of character.
I hear you. However, as someone who has had contact with Joan myself, and who knows several unrelated people who knew her extremely well, what Susan says rings true to me. Joan was, I think, terribly misunderstood. She did have trouble with people, especially family, and there are reasons for that which are not in any way her fault. But her heart was good. And it saddens me that she died without people understanding her. To me, it’s one of the great tragedies of her life.
Joan and I met when I was just 15 at Famouse Artists Playhouse in Fayetteville, NY. Joan was in a play called ” Susan And God”. She was so beautiful. Webecame instant friends and that friendship lasted for over 50 years. My partner Mark and I visited her in Carmel and she came to vist with us in NY. Joan was a delight. I remember when we first went to visit with Joan in California, she huged us and teared up and said, ” I am so happy you came to see me. I have known you most of my life. I have so many stories about Joan , many very funny and will always have a special place in my heart for her. I am still in the entertainment business, I am a mentalist. Joan gave me some help with that more than once stearing work to me through people she knew. Joan was very giving. I tried to talk with her every couple of weeks and talked with her on the phone just 4 days before her death. I am so happy I called and will always remember not to put off talking with someone you love. Joan was very fond of Susan and I know Joan said many times, ” I don’t know what I would do without her”. I am happy knowing that Joan was with someone she truly cared about in her final days.
Wow, this is so beautiful. Thank you so much for commenting. I, too, have a great fondness for Joan. We never met in person but I could get a sense of her through our correspondence and I found her a lovely woman. Others I know who knew her well say the same as you do. Thanks so much again, it’s so special to hear from people who knew and loved Joan.
Would have loved to have met her
I know it’s been a while, but just wanted to let everyone know that my article about Joan’s involvement in “The Lion in Winter” is now online. Here’s the link. Hope you enjoy it! https://scarletthefilmmagazine.wordpress.com/2016/01/21/joan-fontaine-the-lioness-in-winter/
Rod: So glad to finally get to read this; have read your various postings about it for several years now so am glad to have checked back here just to see if anyone had added to the comments – very glad to have found yours. Lovely piece and a wee bit jealous, as a journalist, of your opportunity to work with Joan on this.
Oh… how wonderful to read this! I’ve been thinking a lot about the relationship of joan and olivia as well as her daughters, and what I read here was the most comforting thing to me in these days. I particularly loved Joan, and I have a very special sympathy for her, more than Olivia. I’m so glad that she didn’t carry a bear grudge of Olivia and her daughters. Thank you very much for sharing this wonderful statements. By the way, is Susan still alive? How could we be in touch with her?
I’m so glad you enjoyed it! Yes, Susan is still alive. I’m not sure how to reliably get in touch with her nowadays–I tried to send her an email a few months ago just to check in, but haven’t gotten a response. I hope she’s doing all right, I know Joan relied on her a lot and they had a bond.