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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.