We’re giving a book away this week! One lucky reader will win a book of their choice, choosing from seven of our newest titles. From now until Sunday, July 21, we will spotlight one of the books up for grabs on our blog. Answer our questions in the comments or on social media, and you’ll be entered into the drawing! For more details on the giveaway, CLICK HERE.
Today’s feature title is Olivia de Havilland: Lady Triumphant. Legendary actress and two-time Academy Award winner Olivia de Havilland, best known for her role as Melanie Wilkes in Gone with the Wind (1939), portrayed elegant and refined characters. At the same time, de Havilland herself was a survivor with a fierce desire to direct her own destiny on and off the screen. She fought and won a lawsuit against Warner Bros. over a contract dispute that changed the studio contract system forever. From her iconic romance with James Stewart to her unending feud with Joan Fontaine, this work offers unprecedented access to the world behind the Hollywood screen and is a tribute to one of Hollywood’s greatest legends.
Author Victoria Amador corresponded with de Havilland for forty years! They even met multiple times in the actress’s Paris home. We hope you’ll enjoy the story of how these two met, shared by the author below from the book’s introduction.
from “Olivia and Me”, Introduction to Olivia de Havilland: Lady Triumphant
I decided to write a fan letter.
Vivien Leigh had died two years earlier, in 1967, of tuberculosis. Leslie Howard had been shot down in 1943 while flying a mission during World War II. Clark Gable had suffered a heart attack in 1960 shortly after completing work on The Misfits. Olivia de Havilland, thankfully, was alive and well and living in Paris with her second husband, Pierre Galante, secrétaire général of Paris Match, and her two children. So I typed a fan letter on my new manual typewriter with a script font—ladylike, I remember thinking, feminine and strong, as I banged on the keys. I told her how much I loved her performances in Gone with the Wind, Captain Blood, and Hush, Hush. I asked her about Gable, Leigh, and Howard; told her I wanted to be an actress; thanked her for her attention; and sent the letter off to Paris (I had found her address in Who’s Who and Current Biography). I was thirteen years old.
Remarkably, several weeks later, a neat airmail envelope arrived with a French postage stamp. It was from Olivia de Havilland. It is a miracle I didn’t tear it to bits in my haste to open the letter. And there, on tissue-fine stationery, was a typewritten response to my letter, answering my questions about Leigh (“a consummate actress”), Gable (“a true gentleman”), and Howard (“wonderful to work with”). She also affirmed, as she has in countless interviews, that Melanie “is the role I most loved playing and she is very real, indeed, to me.” The actress even included an autographed photograph of herself as Melanie—of course, I desperately wanted one, but I hadn’t requested it for fear she would think I was writing solely for that purpose—signed in dark blue ink in her distinctive, curving hand (a good example appears in a note she writes in My Cousin Rachel). The screams of joy are still echoing off the barns in central Wisconsin, and the framed photograph sits before me as I write this.
I showed every human being I had ever met the response from Olivia, as she became known to me and my mother (who also knew and loved her films). I decided to write back so she wouldn’t think I was just another fan braying for a photo. I remember suggesting that we become pen pals, and I shared my interests with her, which included the Green Bay Packers, horror films, cats, and becoming a stage actress. I also learned from further research that she had a son named Benjamin from her first marriage and a daughter named Gisèle who was only a year younger than me, so I thought Olivia might be particularly kind to a young person near her daughter’s age. Thus our correspondence began, and it has continued for forty-nine years (she was always “Miss de Havilland” in our correspondence until the spring of 2016, when she asked me to call her “Miss D”; since her 2017 damehood, she is “Dame Olivia”).
I sent Olivia everything about myself—newspaper clippings reviewing plays I was in or announcing scholarships I’d won; invitations to all my graduations (alas, she never attended any). I even sent her articles about herself that I thought she might have missed. I asked questions about her films: Did she keep her costumes? A few. Was Errol Flynn a good kisser? I knew the answer to that just by watching them onscreen together, and she was far too elegant to answer. Was she really friends with Bette Davis? Very good friends indeed.
In later years, when I studied and worked in Europe, I sent her endless requests to meet me in Paris; it became my favorite city, in part because my favorite correspondent lived there. She always declined. But she continued to answer my letters, typewritten replies on her trademark Della Robbia blue paper. Sometimes years passed between notes (there was a long silence when her son had died, and another long break when she was nursing her ex-husband, who was suffering from lung cancer); sometimes two or three would arrive in a flurry. I kept every one. Now that we email, I receive fewer typed notes, but I hear from her even more regularly and still scream happily, if more restrainedly.
Our exchanges weren’t always terribly profound—how could they be? But we found enough common ground to sustain our correspondence. Olivia’s kindness to me as I matured was generous beyond belief. In 1973 she offered a handwritten P.S. to one note: “Special good luck to you for this last year of school—may your grades be excellent, and your plans for the future clarify.” I wrote to her in 1981 about my decision to move into academe and teaching rather than pursue an acting career, and she wisely advised me, “If you think of your teaching as a form of communication (this is mainly what acting is, too) and of the immense need people have to articulate and organize their own thoughts, and to convey them intelligibly, you may find creative ways to teach those courses of yours which will satisfy you very deeply.”
When I completed my PhD, she kindly wrote, “Dear Dr. Victoria, isn’t it wonderful to be able to address you this way!” Olivia had intended to major in communications at Mills College before those plans were derailed by Max Reinhardt and a Warner Brothers contract, and I always felt this shared interest forged a special bond between us. In an email interview with People in honor of her 100th birthday, she mentioned regretting that she hadn’t attended college and observed, “‘The scholarship I won in 1934 is still waiting for me!’” I smiled at the thought that she might have been my teacher or my colleague. In some ways, with our correspondence and with the writing of this book, she has been both.
Her generosity to me over the years has been remarkable. When I was in Paris for my fiftieth birthday, my customary requested meeting was denied due to her ill health, but she sent a bountiful basket of fifty roses to my hotel, along with a long, handwritten note (on the Colette-blue paper) asserting that the “50s are marvellous years—enjoy them to the fullest!” I still have the letter, the dried petals, and the basket.
Regrettably for me, yet understandably, Olivia continued to ignore or avoid my repeated requests for a meeting in Paris. Why should she consent, after all? I was not a renowned journalist or a working actress, and she had a busy life, as well as numerous other correspondents and a wide fan base. Olivia was also a very discreet, very private person. Even though I had gone to university with the partner of her longtime agent Jim Wilhelm, and even though another friend’s acquaintance worked with the American Cathedral in Paris, which she attended regularly, those connections weren’t door-openers either.
So the years and the decades passed. Olivia was now in her mid-nineties. I was an academic, presenting papers about her career for conferences and writing about her for various publications. We continued to correspond, and the fan in me refused to give up. Every time I visited Paris over the years, I always sent a letter with my travel details and a request for a visit; she always politely and regretfully declined. It must have been terribly annoying, but Olivia was always gracious in her refusals.
Then, in August 2010, I was in Paris for three days with a friend, and I took a bolder step. As usual, I’d written to Olivia to tell her I was coming and hoped for a meeting—after all, I was now middle aged and she was a walking miracle—and heard nothing. I’d decided to have roses delivered to her home when my steadfast travel companion, Jane, made a bold suggestion—why not go to her home with the flowers and my business card and ring the bell? If she wasn’t in, I could leave the flowers for her. If she was in, who knew?
We hope you enjoyed today’s sneak peak. To enter the giveaway today, share with us one of your favorite classic films! We can never have a movie to-watch list long enough. Comment below and you’ll be entered to win Olivia de Havilland: Lady Triumphant or another book of your choice from seven of our newest titles.
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