If you are a longtime reader of Backlots, you have read of my connection to Olivia de Havilland. From the evening I spent with her at the American Library in Paris, to Backlots’ coverage of her court case against FX, Olivia de Havilland has been close to my heart for many years. Her career and her impact on the film industry have been well covered here and elsewhere. But not as well documented is the effect she had on the American University of Paris, during the era of the Vietnam War and beyond.
Olivia had a strong moral backbone and an instinct to fight for change. As an actress, she made waves in the industry as an advocate for labor rights. Faced with the possibility of an interminable contract at Warner Bros. due to the practice of adding suspension time to the end of seven-year agreements, Olivia successfully sued the studio and established the De Havilland Law, holding the industry to contracts of no longer than seven calendar years. The De Havilland Law has been used to assert labor rights in the entertainment industry for writers, actors, and musical performers, and is considered among the most important factors in the eventual fall of the studio system.
In 1953, Olivia moved to Paris with her son, Benjamin. When it came time for Benjamin to attend college, he chose the American University of Paris (known familiarly as AUP), a relatively recent Paris institution founded in 1962. Olivia had never gone to college, despite a deep desire to do so. A straight-A student at Los Gatos High School, Olivia had received a full scholarship to Mills College, hoping to become a teacher. Teachers saved her life during a very dark period in high school, she recalled, and she wanted to give back. But her career skyrocketed faster than she expected, and she was never able to go to Mills. Upon Benjamin’s enrollment at AUP, Olivia realized that she now had an opportunity to do what she had always wanted to do, use her influence to speak up for students the way her teachers had done for her. She established herself as an active AUP parent, and in the mid-1960s she was elected trustee, the first female trustee ever at the university. In 1970, she became a board member.
Olivia served the university during an unprecedented, tumultuous time for students in Paris and all over the world. The student protests in 1968 brought brutal police attacks against students occupying Paris universities in protest of Vietnam War policy and strict student codes of conduct. In response, students took to the streets, tearing up cobblestones and hurling them at the police. Workers at several French companies participated in sympathy strikes in solidarity. Students and their allies built barricades in the Latin Quarter and overturned cars, demanding change in university policy and France’s social structure. The situation got to the point where President de Gaulle secretly fled to Germany, fearing civil war or a revolution. The protests are credited with bringing a wave of social revolution in France, and for normalizing women’s rights and LGBTQ+ rights in French society.
Two years later, in May 1970, protests at Kent State University turned bloody. Kent State had been a center of anti-Vietnam protests, and at the time of the shootings, the students had been protesting Nixon’s Cambodia Campaign when the Ohio National Guard was called in. Following a standoff on May 4, after deploying tear gas and threatening the students with bayonets, the National Guard fired their weapons through the crowd, killing four students.
Olivia watched these events closely, and listened directly to student concerns. She viewed her position as one of student liaison to the university, and put students at the forefront of everything she did. During this tense time, Olivia brought what was going on in the streets directly to the upper echelons of the university. Fighting for the social change the student body demanded, she provided them with an advocate and supporter at the highest level of university administration.
That devotion and genuine care for the students of AUP continued for the rest of her life. She frequently used her name and position to help raise money for student causes, and her personal assistants were hired from the AUP student body. 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 was well known for welcoming AUP friends, students, and fellow trustees into her home for support and advice, remaining 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.
After her death in July 2020, AUP began plans for a new auditorium in Olivia’s name, to honor the extraordinary place she held at the university. The Olivia de Havilland Auditorium will be the first ever at the university. As AUP envisions it, the Olivia de Havilland Auditorium will be the centerpiece for the new Monttessuy Center for the Arts which will serve the growing liberal arts department at the site of the former library, now relocated to the Quai d’Orsay. The auditorium will host film festivals, art galleries, panels, and classes, to an arts department that has grown 270% in the past 5 years. In October 2021, there will be a weekend devoted to Olivia’s memory at AUP, which will culminate in a ribbon-cutting ceremony for the new auditorium. It will cement Olivia’s legacy at AUP, for the students she loved and cared for so deeply.
If you would like to learn more about the new arts center, honoring Olivia and the students of AUP, here is the website for the Monttessuy Center for the Arts. You can also click here if you would like to donate directly to the effort. There is an option to specifically support the auditorium, or give to general programs that will serve AUP liberal arts students. Toward the bottom of the page, you will see “If you have a special purpose for your donation, please let us know,” and you can select whichever menu option you choose.
Thank you for reading and may the legacy of Olivia de Havilland live on in the students of AUP and universities throughout the world.