Behind Joan Fontaine’s Epic Feud With Sister Olivia de Havilland

Joan Fontaine and Olivia De Havilland
Joan Fontaine and Olivia De Havilland

According to Joan Fontaine, the actress was born to feud with sister Olivia de Havilland. Literally.

"Olivia so hated the idea of having a sibling that she wouldn't go near my crib," Fontaine told People magazine in 1978.

Fontaine, the Oscar-winning star of "Suspicion," and de Havilland, the two-time Best Actress honoree and star of "Gone With the Wind," were parties to one of Hollywood's all-time chilliest relationships. The siblings' legendary rivalry apparently was carried to the grave Sunday when Fontaine died in her sleep in her Carmel, California, home.

Fontaine was 96. De Havilland, who survives her, is 97. By most accounts, the last time the two spoke was during the Ford Administration. As Fontaine put it, "You can divorce your sister as well as your husbands."

[Related: Legendary Actress Joan Fontaine Dies at 96]

More often than not, de Havilland didn't say anything at all. "That is the one subject on which I never speak," she told London's Independent in 2009. "Never."

Fontaine gave her version of things in the 1978 memoir "No Bed of Roses." (Though long said to have been at work on her own autobiography, de Havilland has yet to publish one.)

In the interview with People, which was timed to promote her book, Fontaine talked about how, as children, de Havilland made her cry by reading aloud, and loudly, from the Bible, and how, as teens, de Havilland broke Fontaine's collarbone "in a rage."

On paper, at least, the two were close. They were born just 15 months apart. They moved from Tokyo, where they were born to British parents, to California together. They made their big-screen debuts in the same year, 1935.

Gone With the Wind
Gone With the Wind

De Havilland had the more immediate success, courtesy the Errol Flynn swashbuckler "Captain Blood." Four years later, de Havilland received her first Academy Award nomination, for Best Supporting Actress, for her turn as the saintly Melanie Hamilton in the 1939 blockbuster "Gone With the Wind."

De Havilland was next nominated for the 1941 romance, "Hold Back the Dawn." This time she was in the Best Actress category, and this time her competition included Fontaine, who'd had a hit in Alfred Hitchcock's "Rebecca" and who was back in the Oscar running for "Suspicion," also directed by Hitchcock.

Though much has been made of Oscar's role in the sisters' feud, neither de Havilland nor Fontaine stressed the awards as a turning point in their relationship. Or, that is, neither seemed to view the 1942 ceremony, at which Fontaine won, that way.

As for the 1947 ceremony...

The 19th Annual Academy Awards was where the sisters' longstanding tensions went as viral as things could go viral in the Teletype age. De Havilland was up for Best Actress for the drama "To Each His Own." After she claimed the statuette, her first win after three career nominations, Fontaine attempted to congratulate her sister offstage. She was snubbed.

"I started to shake hands with her, but she seemed very occupied and busy," Fontaine told the Associated Press days later. "Maybe she didn't see me."

Oh, de Havilland saw her all right.

"Our relations have been quite strained for some time — I couldn't change my attitude," de Havilland said in the same AP account.

About the only thing the sisters agreed on was a hug, or lack thereof: both shot down a report that they'd embraced.

De Havilland told her side of the feud in 1957. In an interview with the AP's Bob Thomas, she said that Fontaine had said "cutting" things about her husband, Marcus Goodrich, whom de Havilland had married in 1946, and that her sister shouldn't have been surprised to get the brush off at the Oscars.

"She was aware there was an estrangement between us," de Havilland said.

De Havilland was not bitter when she gave the interview: She said relations with Fontaine had improved after the Goodrich union ended in 1953, and as the idea of waiting on an apology from her sister came to seem "silly."


In the 1960s, according to a 2010 Daily Mail accounting of the sisters' history, Fontaine bailed out de Havilland financially.

But things took a decisive and definitive turn for the worse in 1975 when the sisters' mother died.

"Olivia and the executor of the estate took full charge, disposing of Mother's effects as well as her body — she was cremated — without bothering to consult me," Fontaine told People. "I wasn't even invited to the memorial service. Of course, I went anyway."

The two were never close again. They saw to it. The actresses reportedly had special requests at the 1978 and 1988 Oscars, two ceremonies which they both attended: Keep me away from her, and vice versa.

The feud produced a definitive soundbite — "I married first, won the Oscar before Olivia did and if I die first, she'll undoubtedly be livid because I beat her to it!," from Fontaine's 1978 People magazine interview — but not much in the way of public vitriol. Even the definitive soundbite feels less harsh when read in its entirety: "Olivia has always said I was first at everything," Fontaine began, before reeling off what she and her sister apparently had acknowledged were Fontaine's firsts.

Hollywood Reporter correspondent Scott Feinberg, who'd interviewed both Fontaine and de Havilland this past year, tweeted Sunday that while the sisters "certainly weren’t close, they weren’t passionately feuding, either."

In 2008, Vanity Fair asked Fontaine what she most disliked. The answer was one word — and it wasn't a name. It was simply "noise."