Joan Fontaine and Olivia de Havilland were born 15 months apart. They found their own success as actresses during the glitz and glamor of Hollywood’s Golden Age. But instead of their DNA bringing them together, their kinship only led to one of the most talked-about sibling rivalries in the history of Hollywood.
The British-American sisters’ feud began in their childhood and ended up lasting a lifetime – even beyond the grave. The sisters, who grew estranged, eventually found a place in their hearts to respect – even admire each other — but the resentment and envy were always present. This is a look into one of Hollywood’s coldest feuds among sisters, which began in the de Havilland home.
It was apparent from the very beginning that Olivia and Joan just weren’t getting along. Joan, the younger one (born October 22, 1917), felt that Olivia (born July 1, 1916) was favored by their mother. And so, as the story typically goes, sibling jealousy was a major factor in the origin of what would become a lifelong feud.
Olivia once said, “Our biggest problem was that we had to share a room.” Even though the sisters did occasionally play together, their battles occurred frequently, featuring slaps by Joan and hair-pulling by Olivia. Joan had accused Olivia of destroying her outgrown clothes so that she wouldn’t have to hand them down to her younger sister.
Oh, and there was also the time when Olivia broke Joan’s collarbone when Joan tried to pull her older sister into a swimming pool. In 1942, the young women were profiled in LIFE magazine during a particularly low point in their relationship. The article serves as a candid picture of just how deep their hatred for each other was.
The piece in the magazine stated: “At the age of nine, Joan decided she would kill her sister. She thought it all out carefully: She would let Olivia hit her once and then again in silence. But after the third blow, she would plug Olivia between the eyes.”
Joan reportedly had a plan, which was to plead self-defense. Of course, she never went through with it. Instead, the bitterness between the girls developed further and took on different forms as they grew older. At first, it was the younger Joan who was living in Olivia’s shadow in Hollywood.
When Joan returned home after spending a few years with their ex-pat father in Japan, she learned that her sister was on the verge of a Hollywood career. She decided that she too wanted to be a film star. Olivia, however, didn’t like the sound of that. Instead, she tried to send Joan to boarding school (or as the British call it, finishing school).
Olivia once admitted to Vanity Fair that she wanted Hollywood as her “domain” and San Francisco society to be Joan’s. But Joan insisted on telling her older sister, “I want to do what you’re doing.”
Whether Olivia approved or not, she didn’t have much of a choice. And so, Joan crossed the pond to come live with Olivia and their mother in Hollywood. At the time, Olivia was under contract with Warner Brothers and didn’t want Joan to be part of the same studio.
Olivia, who believed there was only room for one de Havilland in Tinseltown, encouraged Joan to take on a different last name. Joan didn’t like the idea, especially when it came from her older, bitter sister. But once a fortune teller suggested that she needed a stage name ending with “e” in order to achieve success, Joan chose the last name Fontaine.
It was actually her stepfather’s name. And although she changed her last name, it remained a source of bitterness for Joan. She later said of her moniker: “Joan Fontaine. I don’t know who she is.”
Joan also hated having to be her older sister’s chauffeur, having to drive her to and from the studio. The anger didn’t diminish when Olivia gave Joan a place to live in Los Angeles as she was launching her acting career as Joan Fontaine.
Before long, the sisters became known for their feud. Olivia had already found success as Errol Flynn’s co-star in Captain Blood in 1935 as well as The Adventures of Robin Hood in 1938. Joan, on the other hand, was struggling with the flop A Damsel in Distress (1937) which she co-starred in with Fred Astaire.
Naturally, the sisters didn’t just fight over films and stardom; they fought over men as well. Joan found a way to get back at her sister by breaking an unwritten rule: She married one of her sister’s old boyfriends. Joan tied the knot with Brian Aherne in 1939.
In those days, a woman getting married was considered a way to complete her life, so marrying before her older sister was her triumph over her. Joan went on to marry three more times, but the revenge was already written.
On the night before Joan and Brian’s wedding, Olivia’s then-boyfriend, billionaire Howard Hughes, tried to convince Joan not to marry Brian as they shared a celebratory dance. Apparently it was because Hughes wanted to marry her himself. Appalled with the suggestion, Joan shared the story with Olivia, but she either didn’t believe her or didn’t want to believe her.
One of the many battles between the sisters had to do with Hughes. Olivia had met Hughes when they filmed Gone with the Wind. “When I met him, he had not terribly long before made this great heroic flight to Moscow, beating all records… he was a great hero, and that impressed me.”
Olivia and Hughes came to be more than just co-stars, but according to Joan, it was her he wanted to be with, not Olivia. And that pass he made at her the night before their wedding was one of many. “He asked me to marry him three times, but it was Olivia who loved Howard Hughes,” Joan told People in 1978.
One day, Olivia invited Joan to a surprise party where Hughes was the host. Joan recalled Hughes leaning down on one knee and proposing to her. But Joan didn’t take his proposals well, and her reasoning might surprise anyone who followed their feud…
Joan explained: “I was furious. No one two-timed my sister, no matter what our quarrels might be.” The thing is, her attempts to alert her older sister to Hughes’ inappropriate behavior only caused more tension between the two. When she tried to warn Olivia, “sparks flew.”
Joan even showed Olivia his telephone number that he had written down and given to her. But Olivia was too furious to listen to her, Joan recalled. Joan was far less impressed by Hughes than her sister. “No, I was never in love with Howard,” she stated to People. “He had no humor, no sense of joy, no vivacity. Everything had to be a ‘deal.’”
After having played Melanie in Gone with the Wind, Olivia’s career reached new heights. Joan’s career started to take off a year later, in 1940, when she starred in Rebecca. But still, neither sister let the other enjoy success without taking some of the credit.
As it turns out, Joan was turned down for the part of Melanie for being “too stylish.” She claims that she was the one who suggested her sister for the part. And then, when Olivia’s Warner Bros. studio contract kept her from starring in Rebecca, Olivia suggested Joan would be perfect for the role.
Apparently, it was because Joan was blonde and her co-star Laurence Olivier had dark brown hair. The sisters’ feud soon played out for the world to see at the Academy Awards ceremony in 1942 where both Olivia and Joan were nominated for Best Actress.
Olivia was nominated for Hold Back the Dawn and Joan for Suspicion. The word on the red carpet was that Olivia was going to take home the Oscar, which is why people were shocked when Joan received the Oscar instead.
Olivia seemed to ignore her sister’s congratulations when she went up to collect the statue. Then, when it came time for Olivia to win her own Oscar in 1947, winning Best Actress for To Each His Own, it was her turn to snub her sister.
It wasn’t exactly payback for Joan’s previous Oscar win but rather payback for Joan’s criticism of her. After Olivia married novelist Marcus Goodrich, Joan publicly stated that, “All I know about him is that he’s had four wives and written one book. Too bad it’s not the other way around.” Ouch.
A lot of their resentment can be explained by their upbringing. In their early years, when the girls were alone, 6-year-old Olivia would purposely scare Joan with dramatic readings of the Bible’s crucifixion scene, as Joan recalled in an interview with People in 1978.
Joan learned to get under her sister’s skin by mimicking every word she said, even mimicking her when she called her a “copycat.” Their family environment didn’t help, though. The girls were born to British parents in Tokyo, and when they were toddlers, the girls moved to California after their father had an affair with the maid.
Mrs. de Havilland soon remarried a retail manager named George Fontaine. He was a strict man who enforced a “military childhood” with khaki-colored beds, as Joan later revealed. Whenever the girls misbehaved, the “Iron Duke,” as Olivia called him, would offer them a choice…
He told them that they could either swallow cod-liver oil, which would cause them to vomit, or take a beating on the shins with a wooden hanger. (Remember, this took place in the early 1920s…). After Olivia showed up at school with her legs covered in bruises, administrators warned Mr. Fontaine to stop, but he didn’t.
It only makes you wonder why Joan would eventually choose his last name as her own with memories such as these. Regardless, their mother didn’t really help. Mrs. Fontaine was a perfectionist who harped on the way her daughters enunciated their words.
She was hell-bent on the girls growing up with “perfect upper-class English accents.” It was a characteristic that eventually pitted them against each other as two highly coveted stars in the entertainment business. Mrs. de Havilland was once an actress herself, but she hid her professional past from her girls.
Olivia remembers the time she discovered her mother’s secret box when she was five. In it was her mother’s stage makeup. “It was like finding buried treasure. I tried the rouge, the eye shadow, the lipstick. But I couldn’t get the rouge off,” Olivia recalled to Vanity Fair.
But finding mom’s secret box was a big no-no. “Mummy spanked me terribly,” Olivia recalled. “Never do this again!” she yelled at the little girl and ordered her to never tell her “sibling” (which was how Olivia referred to her sister later in her life).
Even after her daughters’ careers took off, Mrs. de Havilland never watched the films they starred in. According to Joan, their mother’s only remark of her work was that she was “defeated by her beauty” in the film Jane Eyre. “Mother never could express pride in either of her daughters,” Joan said.
There were other incidences that caused the sisters’ dysfunction to escalate, like the time when the girls were roughhousing in a swimming pool. Joan, in the water, tried to pull Olivia in by the ankle. But Olivia was stronger and put up a fight.
That poolside brawl resulted in Joan fracturing her collarbone. She ended up in a cast, and Olivia lost her pool privileges. Joan’s 1978 autobiography, No Bed of Roses (which Olivia dubbed “No Shred of Truth”), claimed the brawl happened when they were 15 and 16.
But, according to Olivia, it happened a decade earlier, when they were five and six. Shortly after that incident, Joan left to live with their biological father and went to an English high school in Tokyo for a year. It must have been a wild culture shock for her.
When Joan returned to live with her mother and Olivia when she was 17, 18-year-old Olivia was on the brink of stardom. She had just finished shooting the Warner Bros. screen adaptation of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
Olivia recalled the opening night at the San Francisco Opera House when “Mummy” and Joan came – which was the first time she had seen her sister in years. “I didn’t even recognize her. She had bleached hair. She was smoking. She was no longer my younger sister.” It marked a new chapter in their feud story.
Warner Bros. had already signed Olivia as a contract actor under a seven-year term after the film Dream, but her sheer talent led other studios to scout her out. MGM approached Olivia about playing Melanie in Gone with the Wind after seeing her performance as Maid Marian opposite Errol Flynn in The Adventures of Robin Hood.
Securing the part meant a lot of persuading on behalf of Olivia and the film producer David O. Selznick. Olivia finally appealed to Jack Warner’s wife and only then the studio exec finally gave in. But when Selznick tried to press his luck with something else, Warner Bros. wasn’t having it.
Selznick tried to put Olivia “on loan” for Alfred Hitchcock’s Rebecca, but Warner Bros. rejected the idea. So, Selznick went to Olivia and asked her: “Would you mind if I take your sister?” Olivia later recalled feeling that she “was losing a brilliant part, but okay.”
She was nominated the next year for Suspicion and got nominated for that, too. Then, it came time for her to share the Oscar table with her sister, on the “night of the snub.”
The next year, in 1941, she beat her sister again at the Oscars, winning for Suspicion. Joan later wrote in No Bed of Roses, “All the animus we’d felt toward each other as children, the hair-pulling, the savage wrestling matches, the time Olivia fractured my collarbone, all came rushing back in kaleidoscopic imagery. My paralysis was total.”
Not only was Joan the first and only actor in a Hitchcock film to win an Academy Award, she was the first of the two sisters. The year before that, at the Oscar ceremony, Olivia hid out in the hotel’s kitchen after her devastating loss in the Best Supporting Actress category.
Olivia reportedly cried next to a steaming tub of soup after losing to her younger sister. Having witnessed her little sister achieve such a milestone earlier in her career was a jolting blow to her ego. It didn’t help when she read the next day’s headlines: “The de Havilland-Fontaine war was on.”
The following decade only added insult to injury, as Joan was the one who seemingly took over her sister’s Hollywood “domain,” essentially stealing her thunder. Joan was making a splash in the society pages — something Olivia admitted she didn’t have the “flair” for.
At an Academy Award reunion in 1979, the sisters were placed on separate ends of the stage. Ten years later, Joan changed her hotel room when she found out she was booked in the room next to Olivia’s. One thing that finally solidified the sisters’ rift and essentially cemented their estrangement was the death of their mother in 1975.
Joan was touring at the time with Cactus Flower when 88-year-old Mrs. de Havilland was diagnosed with cancer. Joan claimed that no one even called to tell her that her mother was asking for her.
Olivia, the executor of the estate, stated that she was the one who rushed to Mummy’s side and was with her until the very end. After she passed, Olivia had the body cremated without ever notifying Joan. Joan also claimed that Olivia didn’t even invite her to the memorial service.
She found out about it and came to the service anyway, but neither one spoke to the other on that day or afterward. “You can divorce your sister as well as your husbands,” Joan famously told People a few years later.
“I don’t see her at all and I don’t intend to.” The sisters’ resulting estrangement lasted until Joan passed away in 2013 at the age of 96. She was once asked in an interview how she wanted to die, to which Joan responded…
Joan said that Olivia always “said I was first at everything: I got married first, got an Academy Award first, had a child first. If I die first, she’ll be furious, because again I’ll have got there first!” But it looks like Olivia had the last laugh, as she only passed away in July 2020, at the age of 104.
Even though Joan expected Olivia to be furious that she passed away first, the older sister actually expressed sadness after her death. In an interview in honor of her 100th birthday in 2016, Olivia spoke of her relationship with Joan.
In a rare interview with The Associated Press, she revealed some things that she never really talked about before regarding her sister, or the “Dragon Lady” as she called her sometimes. Olivia said the “legendary” feud between her sister originated in an article titled “Sister Act” in Life Magazine.
It was published after the 1942 Oscars, when the sisters fought for the same award. “A feud implies continuing hostile conduct between two parties,” she said. “I cannot think of a single instance wherein I initiated hostile behavior.”
She did admit, though, that she had sometimes been “defensive,” adding that it “was always loving, but sometimes estranged and, in the later years, severed.” What Joan had written in her autobiography, however, painted an altogether different story. “I felt Olivia would spring across the table and grab me by the hair. I felt age 4, being confronted by my older sister. Damn it, I’d incurred her wrath again!”
After her 1947 win, Joan was snubbed in front of everyone by Olivia, as Olivia’s publicist said, “This goes back for years and years, ever since they were children.” Over the years, Olivia mostly kept her silence, but in the AP interview, she called these memories of her sister “multi-faceted, varying from endearing to alienating.”
While she admitted to calling her Dragon Lady, she also stated that Joan was a “brilliant, multi-talented person,” with an “astigmatism in her perception of people and events.” According to Olivia, it’s what often caused Joan to react in an “unfair and even injurious way.”
Even on her 100th birthday, Olivia stated that “if Dragon Lady were alive today, out of self-protection I would maintain my silence!” It looks as though not all has been forgiven. She remained in relative good health and humor until age 100, but age-related macular degeneration damaged her vision.
The centenarian revisited one of her most famous roles, the role of Melanie Hamilton from Gone with the Wind. When asked why she didn’t aim for the role of Scarlett O’Hara (the one many top actresses of the time were vying for), she gave her reasons…
“Scarlett did not interest me,” Olivia explained, “as she epitomized the ‘New Woman’ who was self-sustaining, like myself.” Melanie, on the other hand, was “more traditional.” She said that she really just wanted to be part of Gone with the Wind because she sensed that the film would have a longer life than others.
She moved to Paris in 1953 and has referred to it as a “marvelous development” in her life. Her late husband, Pierre Galante, insisted on it, and she found no reason to return to the States. She was active with the American community in Paris, centered around the American Cathedral.
Olivia looked back on the Golden Era of Hollywood, and recalled that by 1953, Hollywood was “a dismal, tragic place.” For her, sexism was something she simply had to accept. She saw just how most men felt threatened and mistrustful of women who spoke their minds.
She said that a woman had to employ “immense tact” whenever she had to deal with directors and producers. In regards to payment, women received less compensation than men for their work. But Olivia wasn’t submissive to all the Hollywood ways of functioning.
The actress gave her famous name to a landmark legal case — the de Havilland Law — a lawsuit she filed against Warner Brothers in 1943 over a contract dispute. She won the suit and forever loosened the studios’ grip on their actors and actresses.
Once her victory was confirmed, she was free to choose the films that she made. Paramount presented her with the script of To Each His Own, which was exactly the kind of challenge she fought for. In the interview, Olivia highlighted a main drawback of her unusual longevity: “All the artists I had known during the Golden Era live elsewhere,” she said, “including the after world.”
One of Olivia’s most demanding roles was in 1948’s The Snake Pit where she played a young bride who turns mentally ill and is sent to an institution. The film was a fearless study of mental illness and the treatments that were available back then, such as narcotics and electroshock.
Olivia was nominated for an Oscar for that role, but didn’t win. She did earn an Oscar, however, the next year for her part in The Heiress. In that role, Oliva portrayed a repressed spinster who was dominated by her protective father.
The films she loved, she said in 1964, were The Snake Pit, The Heiress and, “of course,” Gone with the Wind. It was Hollywood that she hated, which is why she left to live in Paris with her husband. She was married twice; both ended in divorce.
The first was in 1946, to Marcus Aurelius Goodrich, the Texas-born novelist, screenwriter and journalist. With him, she had a son, Benjamin, and the couple divorced in 1952. She then married Pierre Galante, who was an author of military histories and an editor of the magazine Paris Match.
They married in 1955, after meeting in France. They moved to Paris, had a daughter named Gisele, and later divorced in 1979. Olivia’s son Benjamin died in 1991. Before she ever became a married woman, Olivia enjoyed some Hollywood romances.
Apart from the notorious courtship with Howard Hughes, Olivia had romantic relationships with James Stewart, and director John Huston. She even reunited with Huston after her first divorce. Olivia once revealed that she turned away a young John F. Kennedy, who visited Hollywood after his PT-boat service in World War II.
Since the mid – ‘60s, Olivia’s acting was mainly confined to sporadic roles in TV series like The Love Boat and TV movies like The Royal Romance of Charles and Diana (1982), where she played the Queen Mother. She was also in the mini-series Roots: The Next Generation (1979) and 1986’s Anastasia: The Mystery of Anna.
In 1965, Olivia became the first woman at the Cannes Film Festival to head the jury. She only returned to films occasionally, for example in 1977’s successful disaster movie Airport ’77 alongside a cast of veteran actors. Her last Hollywood film was 1979’s The Fifth Musketeer.
Even when Olivia was well into her 80s, she never gave up on the idea of returning to the spotlight. In 2003, she was a presenter at the Academy Awards, and she narrated I Remember Better When I Paint, a 2009 documentary about art therapy and Alzheimer’s disease.
In Paris, she lived in a five-story townhouse that had been built in 1880, while never missing Hollywood. “I loved being around real buildings, real castles, real churches — not ones made of canvas,” she once said to Vanity Fair. Her longevity is partly due to her active lifestyle that she maintained until the end.