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Heiress Olivia 

Sipping tea with Hollywood royalty

Wednesday, Jun 7 2006
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Onscreen, she was romanced by Errol Flynn, James Cagney, Leslie Howard, Charles Boyer, Henry Fonda, Montgomery Clift, Richard Burton and Robert Mitchum. In life, she was perhaps the great love in the turbulent career of John Huston. She was responsible for the decisive legal action that freed contract players from their seven-year sentences (with time added on for defiant behavior). She won two Oscars and was nominated for three others. She also makes the quite preposterous claim that on July 1 she will turn 90. Why preposterous? Because Olivia de Havilland is as alert, quick-witted, good-natured, funny and attractive as many people half her age.

“Where shall we do the interview?” I ask.

“I want you to be comfortable,” she says.

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“And I want the same for you,” I tell her.

“I have a large bed,” she says, with raised eyebrows.

Well, we decide to sit down in the shade of her daughter’s garden in Malibu. There is a pearl-gray atmosphere over the shore this afternoon, sweet and heavy. She has a cup of tea for sipping, and we chat like old friends. This is entirely her kindness and ease. We have never met before, but we have corresponded, and she recalls the matters we discussed then — the details of that great ordeal known as Gone With the Wind, which occurred 67 years ago, when the road out to Malibu was so much less crowded. I am sitting in the garden with one of the last survivors of Hollywood in the 1930s. Olivia de Havilland was a movie star in 1935, when she was only 19.

“Can you imagine?” she asks. “I was a very well-raised girl. My mother and my sister and I had our Jane Austen life in the Californian countryside — afternoon tea, enormous walks and big breakfasts. And there I was sitting next to Errol Flynn.” She stops and breathes in deeply. She plays with the edge of her silk scarf. “When I met him, when they decided at Warners that the two of us could do Captain Blood, I was 18 and he was 25. To say I was disturbed — and in those days you were supposed never to show your feelings to a man! We rehearsed some scenes one day, and then we went to the commissariat for lunch. I was so shy, I couldn’t even sit at his table. But then we walked back to the stage together. We were alone, and he asked me, very seriously, ‘What do you want out of life?’

“I said, ‘I want respect for difficult work well done.’ I was so young, I just said it. But then I asked him, ‘What do you want?’ and he said, ‘I want success!’ I guessed he meant wealth and fame. He was so vulnerable and so willful. And I had such a crush. If I’d been a little less innocent I’d have been in trouble.”

In which case, several histories might have worked out very differently. But Olivia de Havilland had not had an ordinary upbringing; truth to tell, the woman who was on her way to being the screen’s greatest Maid Marian — the epitome of Saxon womanhood — had authentic aristocratic Norman origins. It’s a story that spills out when I ask what her parents gave her above all — apart from the instinct to ward off Errol Flynn with talk of respect. “I didn’t really know my father very well,” she says, “but he gave me a name and a tradition to live up to.”

She was the daughter of Walter de Havilland, from a thousand years of Havillands based on the isle of Guernsey, an international-patent lawyer who had gone to work in Tokyo early in the 20th century. Then this brave young Englishwoman, Lilian Ruse, a trained singer, took it in her head to try Japan. It was in 1907, in Tokyo, that Lilian met Walter, and he soon wondered, “Would a girl like you ever marry a chap like me?” No, she told him. But matters lingered and seven years later, back in England, Walter tried again and won her hand. He took his bride back to Japan in 1914. Olivia was born there in 1916, and a year later, another daughter, Joan — more of her later.

Alas, the union didn’t last. Alleging a need to have her daughters put under Western medical care, Lilian moved them to California, got a divorce and then married a San Jose department-store manager. They lived in the foothills in Saratoga, and the two girls were united in constant fighting with each other and a precocious talent for theater, not hindered by the fact that they were both beauties.

Olivia was in high school when she was cast to play Hermia in a production of A Midsummer Night‘s Dream. This was very much against the wishes of her stepfather, who believed acting could only lead a fine young woman astray. He told Olivia to either give up the play or leave his house forever. So she left. Some friends supported her and she won a place at Mills College. But then she heard that Max Reinhardt, the great Viennese director, was going to do Dream at the Hollywood Bowl, and then as a film. She understudied. But Gloria Stuart — set to play Hermia — was tied up in a movie, and so adventure bloomed. Young Olivia never took up her place at Mills, but Warners put her under contract in 1935 and gave her one of the greatest ever pieces of screen chemistry in the form of Flynn, with whom she would make nine films (including Captain Blood, The Charge of the Light Brigade, The Adventures of Robin Hood, The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex and They Died With Their Boots On).

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