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“EVERYONE WHO MET HER FELL IN LOVE WITH HER:” A Letter From Susan, the Secretary of Joan Fontaine

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.”

Playing with her daughters, circa 1955.

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.

Sisters share a smile in 1967.

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.

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A Q&A With Joan Fontaine in Honor of Her 96th Birthday

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By Lara Gabrielle Fowler

October 22 marks the 96th birthday of Oscar-winner Joan Fontaine, an actress with the exceptional talent and intelligence to become a veritable Hollywood legend. Graced with a delicate, porcelain beauty, Joan captured Hollywood’s heart early on and with her formidable acting talent became the youngest performer ever to win a Best Actress Oscar, a record that was not broken for 44 years.

Born Joan de Beauvoir de Havilland in Tokyo in 1917, she moved to Saratoga, CA with her mother and older sister Olivia when she was 17 months old. Joan grew up in Saratoga (with a year back in Japan during her high school years) and acted in local productions before heading off to Hollywood as a teenager. She started in several small pictures, before her career suddenly took off and began to soar  with her triumphant performance in Rebecca (1940), for which she earned her first Academy Award nomination. She won the Oscar the following year for her role in Suspicion, and a third nomination came in 1943 for The Constant Nymph. She replayed many of her roles on radio and later took to the stage, notably in Tea and Sympathy and The Lion in Winter, among others, establishing herself as an extremely versatile performer.

Today, Joan lives in Carmel, CA and enjoys life at home with her 4 dogs (she is a lifelong animal lover) and a large garden. She moved to Carmel from New York City in the mid-1980s as she was just beginning to retire from a long and rewarding working life, and it was from Carmel that Miss Fontaine very kindly and generously agreed to answer some questions for Backlots. It is a great honor for me to be able to share them with you, and I hope that you will enjoy her answers as much as I greatly did.

A very happy birthday to Joan, and many more to come!

A Q&A WITH JOAN FONTAINE IN HONOR OF HER BIRTHDAY

       You have a very unique name—Joan de Beauvoir de Havilland. I understand that the name de Havilland comes from Guernsey. How did your parents come to choose de Beauvoir as your middle name?

My parents paid tribute to a close family friend killed in service.

Shortly after the her arrival in California.

      Your autobiography mentions that you have reaped many benefits from being born in Japan, and there have been few drawbacks. You mention the inquisitions into Japanese-born people after the bombing of Pearl Harbor as one of the drawbacks. What are some of the benefits you have had due to your Japanese birth?

Another culture. The wide world opening up.

      Another question about Japan—having spent some time there as a teenager during the Depression, as well as time at home in the United States during the same period, what were your perceptions of the similarities and differences between Japan and the United States during that difficult time in history?

I was in school, so I wasn’t exposed during that time (Japan). And in the U.S., I was working, so again I wasn’t exposed to the hard times that so many were experiencing.

      You began your career at a relatively young age, and acted alongside some of the most established stars of the period while you were still in your teens. Before your 25th birthday you were an internationally renowned Oscar winner. As a naturally introverted young person, were you aware of any stress or overwhelm due to all the attention that you received?

We were all actors doing a job. Everyone was professional. I respected them and they gave me respect. After the Oscar, things did change, they seemed intimidated.

Winning the Oscar for “Suspicion” at the 1942 Academy Awards ceremony.

      Taking into account your international background, did you identify more as a British actress or as an American actress? I know that you officially became an American citizen in 1943. How, if at all, did that affect your identity within the industry, both within yourself and among your peers?

British. The parts I was given were for a British “lady”. I was cast because I was a young British actress. After becoming an American citizen, really nothing changed. By that time I was established.

With Alfred Hitchcock, a director with whom Fontaine was paired twice. In addition to securing Fontaine her first Academy Award nomination, the first film the two made together, “Rebecca,” was Hitchcock’s debut picture in the United States and the only Hitchcock film that has ever won Best Picture. Fontaine is also the only actress that has ever won Best Actress for a role in a Hitchcock film, for “Suspicion” the following year.

      You are an extraordinarily versatile performer, appearing in films, on television, on the stage, and on radio. Which medium gave you the most pleasure, and for what reasons that you can pinpoint?

I have always enjoyed stage work. You can feel the audience reactions and are able to adjust your performance accordingly.

      Like you, I am a native of the San Francisco Bay Area (born and raised in Oakland). As you are a person who grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area and moved back to the general area as an adult, I am very interested in your perspective on how things have changed. Can you tell me a bit about how the demographics, attitudes, pace of life, and landscapes were when you were growing up, as opposed to the way they are now?

This area has grown so much, it is almost unrecognizable.

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The coastline along Carmel, CA, a place I consider to be among the most beautiful spots in the country.

      I understand that you have a love for animals, especially dogs. If I am correct, you have 5** of them! Can you tell me a bit about your passion for animals and how it began?

Animals, all kinds, are one’s friends. As a child, Mother never allowed me to have pets. As an adult I found them to be loyal friends.

      (**NOTE: I was under the impression that Joan had 5 dogs, but she crossed out 5 and wrote 4. One of her dogs unfortunately died, so she now has 4.)

At home with one of the many dogs Joan has had over the years.

      You are a very multi-talented individual. In addition to your gifts for acting, you have also been an interior decorator, a licensed pilot, a cook, a balloonist, and an author. What do you consider to be your crowning achievement in life, regarding your work, your personal life, or your many hobbies?

Receiving the Oscar. Adopting a Peruvian girl.

Joan with her two daughters Martita (adopted from Peru) and Debbie, feeding the pigeons in Paris.