In the spirit of carpe diem, I have just returned from a trip to Paris to attend the three-day opening of the Olivia de Havilland Theater. It was a trip that I hoped would happen since I learned about the event earlier this year, and by the time it came around, the circumstances were such––COVID-wise and otherwise––that I could go. It was a wonderful event, and I would like to share my experiences with you. This is a version of a blog post that will also appear on a Parisian site in the near future, and when it is posted, I will link it here.
The Olivia de Havilland Theater is the centerpiece of the Monttessuy Center for the Arts at 9 Rue de Monttessuy, the new artistic home for the American University of Paris (AUP). Located in the 7th arrondissement of Paris near the Eiffel Tower, not far from the university’s main campus, the center will serve the growing liberal arts department at the site of the former library, now relocated to the Quai d’Orsay.
In the late 1970s, the building that now houses the Monttessuy Center for the Arts was the art history building, so designated due to its high ceilings that could accommodate the slide projectors of the day. Art history classes later moved to Rue Bosquet, where they stayed for twenty years, but when AUP sold that building, the art department was left without a home. Classes and offices were scattered around campus, and there was no central location for art students to meet. But in 2014, a series of renovations grouped those classrooms and offices together again, and interest in the arts surged at AUP. Over the past five years, the arts department has grown 270%. This led the university to renovate 9 Rue de Monttessuy and recreate it as the hub of AUP artistic life.
The plans included the Olivia de Havilland Theater, the first at the university, with the idea that it would host film festivals, art galleries, panels, and classes. Olivia had always loved school, was a high-achieving student, and thrived in academic environments. But as a teenager, she went through a period of intense struggle. At the age of 16, her stepfather, having learned that she was in a play without his permission, gave her an ultimatum––give up the play, or leave the house forever. Olivia left the house.
This was the beginning of a very dark period for her, and her grades began to slip until she was failing classes. It was her teachers, she remembered, who brought her out of a severe depression and give her life meaning again. With the help of those teachers, she bounced back to the top of her class, graduating second at Los Gatos High School. From then on, she felt a duty to give back to the education system that helped save her. She never forgot her teachers, sending them Christmas cards every year until they had all passed away.
She moved to Paris in 1953 and her son, Benjamin, eventually enrolled at AUP. Olivia saw a way to actively repay the debt she felt she owed, to help students the way her teachers had helped her. She established herself as an active AUP parent, and in the mid-1960s, she became the first female trustee at the university. In 1970, she became a board member.
It was a historic time for Paris, for students, and for the world. Olivia watched the unfolding student unrest from her position as trustee, violence that culminated in the 1968 student revolts in Paris and those at Kent State in 1970. Viewing her position as one of student liaison to the university, she listened directly to student concerns and put students at the forefront of her work on the board. During this tense time, Olivia brought what was happening in the streets directly to the upper echelons of the university. Fighting for the social change the student body demanded, she gave them an advocate and supporter at the highest level of university administration.
In recent years, AUP served as a way for Olivia to remember her son Benjamin, who died of Hodgkin’s lymphoma complications in 1991. She welcomed countless AUP friends, students, and fellow trustees into her home for support and advice, and remained the university’s unfailing champion. In 1994, Olivia was awarded an honorary degree from AUP. In 2015, she was awarded the AUP Presidential Medal of Distinguished Achievement.
Olivia de Havilland died in July 2020 at the age of 104. To celebrate the extraordinary place she held at the university, AUP began plans for a theater in her honor. It has now reached completion and is ready to welcome students.
Three days of festivities led to the formal dedication of the theater and the ribbon cutting for the new Monttessuy Center for the Arts. On October 20, donors, friends, and university trustees attended a screening of To Each His Own, the film that brought Olivia her first Oscar win. Professor Marie Regan introduced the film, calling attention to Olivia’s extraordinary use of her voice to communicate changes in character. The following night, Olivia’s son-in-law Andy Chulack introduced The Heiress, Olivia’s second Oscar-winning role. Chulack, an award-winning television editor, spoke of how well the film was edited and his favorite scene, when Olivia’s character reacts with fury to her father––perhaps reflecting Olivia’s own feelings, Chulack said, when her stepfather abandoned her as a teenager.
At noon on October 22, Ambassador Amy Bondurant moderated a panel with some of Olivia de Havilland’s closest friends and family members, who reflected on their fond and often hilariously funny memories with her. Audience members and panelists opened miniature bottles of champagne together, honoring Olivia’s famous love of champagne. It ended with an enthusiastic imitation of her distinctive laugh, led by Olivia de Havilland’s niece Deborah Dozier Potter.
The formal ribbon cutting occurred that evening. The audience heard remarks from professor Jonathan Shimony, Mayor Rachida Dati, Consul General Colombia Barrosse, university president Celeste Schenck and chair of the board of trustees Doris Daughney, who spoke on the importance of the work AUP is doing for its students and the world, and how this new artistic center will further the development of students’ humanity, the core of AUP’s mission. To most, Olivia de Havilland is known as a film star. Few are aware of her devotion to education, and to AUP in particular. As the Monttessuy Center for the Arts opens, with her theater at the center, Olivia de Havilland’s name will be synonymous with educational excellence, her debt to her teachers repaid with each student who walks through its doors.