Olivia De Havilland, 1916-2020

Yesterday, we learned of the loss of a family friend: Olivia de Havilland died in Paris at the age of 104.

Meeting in Paris

The photo below shows our brush with fame in 2005. It was a lovely Paris evening in her home near the Bois de Boulogne. There was too much champagne and the cocktail hour extended from 7-10. 

Gathering at Olivia’s house in Paris

The second photo is a closeup of Susan’s mother with Olivia. They had attended the same tiny grade school in Saratoga, CA; Rhoda was in the grade with Joan Fontaine, Olivia’s younger sister. But Olivia is the sister she maintained the most contact with.

Rhoda and Olivia, Paris, 2005

At the cocktail party they agreed that the shade of paint used on the recent high school renovation was far too garish.

Family connection

For our family, any movie starring Olivia De Havilland is special. In case you don’t know, we go way back.

In grammar school, Olivia was just a year ahead of Susan’s mother, Rhoda, who was in the same grade as Jane Eyre, aka Olivia’s sister, Joan Fontaine. They maintained a connection ever after.

On the other side, my mother felt a special connection to Olivia, because she had attended college in Milledgeville, Georgia, the home of Margaret Mitchell, author of Gone with the Wind. The movie version (1939) featured Olivia as Melanie.

Both the book and the movie romanticize the antebellum South, the “Lost Cause,” and the horrors of slavery. Although Olivia was acclaimed for her role and made no protest at the time, I like to think that she would have later recognized and agreed with many of the current critiques of the movie.

Olivia’s son Benjamin was my age, and in graduate school at the University of Texas when I was. He was in Mathematics while I was in Computer Science. I don’t remember him, but it’s possible that we were in some classes together.

Benjamin died at age 42. Once Olivia realized that he and I had even a tenuous connection it seemed that she and I had suddenly become close friends. 

Commitment to justice

Throughout her career, Olivia exemplified both excellent acting and a commitment to helping others. She sought roles that expanded artistic limits, but  also promoted social good.

Although she was acclaimed for her role as Melanie, co-starring with Errol Flynn, and her Oscars for “To Each His Own” (1946) and  “The Heiress” (1949), she was critical of the social impact of filmmaking in the Hollywood star system and sought to break out of the racism and sexism in both the industry and the movies themselves.

She was the lead in The Snake Pit (1948), one of the first films to attempt a realistic portrayal of mental illness. In 2008, she was awarded the US National Medal of Arts.

She was successful in a lawsuit to secure greater creative freedom for performers. This led to the De Havilland law, which imposes a seven-year limit on contracts for service.

Among Olivia’s many civic contributions in Paris were her devotion to the American Library and to Les Arts George V at the American Cathedral. Later, she gave us tickets to concerts there. I especially remember a Harold Arlen retrospective.

Olivia was a good and generous person, in addition to her notable talents as actor and entertainer. I’m glad that I got to know her at least a little.

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