...Tearful "Rest in Peace to the Beautiful Olivia de Havilland"
Bathed in vibrant 1939 Technicolor, she sashayed onto the screen: eyes bright, manner eager, smile luminous. She then spoke. Her words were as serene as lemonade on a hot summer day. Soothing. Kind. Utterly captivating. I swore this character Melanie Hamilton was the sweetest character ever captured on film. I was bowled over at just how amazingly “nice” she was. You truly felt that this character was incapable of one bad thought. She was so physically beautiful and was pure in her kind-hearted intentions, though not unintelligent. How could Melanie put up with the spoiled, petulant Scarlett O’Hara played by Vivien Leigh? This Melanie was a saint.
But more importantly, who was this talented actress portraying her?
That was my introduction to actress Olivia de Havilland back in 2010. I was watching, for the very first time, “Gone With the Wind” (1939), arguably the greatest movie of all time.
Ten years later, I am awash in tears at Olivia’s passing. Olivia de Havilland passed away peacefully in her sleep, last Saturday, July 26th, at home in Paris. She was 104.
In the Bright Lights…
To the world, she was a two-time Academy Award winner, the oldest living Academy Award winner, the last surviving principal actor from “Gone With the Wind,” and a tough fighter of injustice in the Old Hollywood studio system (even having a law named after her, the monumentally impactful “De Havilland Law” of 1943). Huge accolades. Prestigious honors.
She was also a stalwart friend of folks like fellow superstar Bette Davis. She also dated illustrious men like billionaire tycoon and movie director Howard Hughes, and good-guy actor Jimmy Stewart. How glamorous. She also had a scandalous decades-long feud with her sister, fellow actress Joan Fontaine (who passed away in 2013, aged 96). Unquestionably, Olivia’s life was that of legend. She was a living legend, and one of the last remaining Old Hollywood starlets still alive in 2020, or even perhaps the very last. She was a direct link to a magnificent bygone era.
My Personal Journey with Olivia…
For me personally, Olivia de Havilland was inspiration for my 2016 memoir. I even dedicated a whole chapter to “the Great Olivia.” That was my nickname for her, which I always hoped she’d like. In my book, she’s a symbol of graceful aging. In 2016, at the age of 100, she shows us how to survive in perhaps an alien world, to not lose yourself when all around you is changing, and how to simply have the strength to keep going. Wake up every day. Get out of bed. Eat food. Exercise. You get the gist. How does one continue to do that YEAR after YEAR after YEAR, all the while knowing your contemporaries are, forgive my bluntness, passing away left and right?
In my memoir, I directly pose the question: “What does a person do when so many people from their generation have passed away – and many of them a long time ago?” For instance, how does she feel when watching “Gone With the Wind” knowing that ALL of her castmates are deceased? Ouch. But Olivia responded beautifully when an interviewer asked her just this. Essentially, she answered that she felt uplifted, and happy, when seeing her old amigos onscreen. She felt as if she were reconnecting with them in a special way. Instead of feeling alone, or sad, she felt positive. I love that.
Olivia had a way of looking at loss that was inspirational. I came to imagine Olivia de Havilland sitting peacefully in her gorgeous blue-decorated home in Paris, which she once described as being “as tall and narrow as a chimney” as she did her crossword puzzles (a noted favorite pastime of hers) and sipped her champagne (another duly noted favorite pastime). I learned that at the age of 100, she was still mentally bright and sharp. She was also still conducting interviews, but only by e-mail, as she confessed that her vision and hearing were progressively failing her. I was endeared to the idea of Olivia de Havilland, who lived during the time when Western Union telegrams were actually popular (they’re still around, but who uses them really?) sitting down at her computer and typing away on an electronic keyboard. This keyboard then whisks her message off to NYC or LA in the mere blink of an eye. This was a woman born in 1916, after all. AMAZING!
Olivia de Havilland was also my beloved July “birthday buddy.” She’s July 1st, and I’m July 4th. As I write in my memoir, I have such fond memories of preparing for my big 40th July 4th birthday back in 2016, all the while knowing that Olivia was preparing for her big 100th birthday on July 1st. Whopping. 100. I remember being thrilled that so many media outlets were doing interviews with her, and writing articles about her. I’m a firm believer that every human being has an amazingly valuable life story, and centenarians especially! Her wisdom, strength, practicality, and sweetness at age 100 definitely shone through in these pieces. The world hadn’t forgotten her, and neither had I. I felt so lucky to share her pixie-dust, to have her “centenarian” golden glitter float my way, even if only for a few days.
A Family Affair…
That same 2016 year, my 75-year-old mother, recently widowed and living alone for the first time in decades, got the nickname of Olivia. Whenever I caught my mother pouting her lip and getting down on her life, I would playfully exclaim, “Olivia!” It was my mantra. It was my “you can do it!” word of encouragement. I told her, “If Olivia de Havilland can be beautiful and livin’ it up in Paris at age 100, you can beautiful and livin’ it up in Connecticut at 75. Mom, you’re just a young’un!” My mother would chuckle. Her eyes would light up. And I knew my nickname was working.
Then, not long after I finished writing my memoir in 2017, and prepared to start submitting it to agents in NYC, one of my family members had the brilliant, though intimidating, idea of my reaching out to Olivia about my book. This was around the time of Olivia’s “Feud” case in 2017 (where she took legal action against the popular TV show and its depiction of her). This family member had done a little quick amateur detective work, located the attorney representing Olivia, and texted me the webpage with (ding, ding!) the attorney’s e-mail address. Well, who would’ve thought. I e-mailed the attorney, and got a response! She said she would pass my request (for permission from Olivia to appear in my book) on to Ms. de Havilland herself. It was more pixie-dust magic for me. I immediately texted my friends and family, telling them that Olivia had my e-mailed letter, which was a letter about me, my memoir, and her poignant symbolism in it. That meant Olivia de Havilland knew me!
I don’t know if I can say it was a “proud” moment for me, as I remember feeling a little nervous (more like very!) at the reality of an “Olivia and Me” connection, but I do recall feeling “happy.” I rushed off to the restroom at my office and just took a few moments to collect myself. I stared at myself in the mirror, gave myself a few spritzes of water to the face, that kind of thing. (Had I still kept a little vial of perfume in my purse, I’m sure I would’ve used a perfume spritz instead, which I’m thinking Olivia would’ve admired.)
Had I really thought I would get a response from the lawyer? I’m not sure. All I know is, out of all the mail I’m sure Olivia, her agent, attorney, etc. receive, I was surprised to receive a response. Now did I hear from Olivia after that? No, but truth be told, I decided soon after to press “pause” and then “permanent pause” on the publishing of my memoir. For those blog readers who know me, you are well familiar with my “private” personality. As much as I ADORE my memoir, I got cold feet on sharing it with the world. Therefore, I didn’t hear from Olivia which didn’t surprise me, but I also didn’t follow up. Blast! In the end, I missed my chance to truly speak with Olivia. Trust me, I did think of this when she passed away last weekend. But, I know that that regret doesn’t have to diminish the strong soul connection I feel with this lovely lady.
The Last Few Years…
Since then, I’ve kept Olivia de Havilland close to my heart, and on my radar. I’ve thought of her every July, and marveled at her accumulation of years, 101, 102, 103, and now 104. I dove deep into her movies like never before, and shared them with family and friends. Obscure treasures like “The Snake Pit” (1948) and “The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex” (1939), then “The Strawberry Blonde" (1941), “Light in the Piazza” (1962) and even the scary ‘60s cult classic “Lady in a Cage” (1964). Finally, who doesn’t love her in the campy disaster flicks “Airport ‘77” (1977) and “The Swarm” (1978)? I also read her delightful memoir called “Every Frenchman Has One” from 1961, which chronicled her 1950s shift from American to French life. (Trust me, what every Frenchman has will surprise you. It’s not what you think. What wit!) Olivia had truly become a wonderful fixture in my and my loved ones’ lives. She no longer belonged only to Old Hollywood.
Even this year, in terrible Pandemic 2020, I thought of Olivia, and wished her well. Over the years I had come to feel reassured by just the sheer knowledge of her existence. She was reliable: “Just as the sun will rise, so too will Olivia de Havilland.” Somewhere over there in Paris, I imagined her “hangin’ in” just like the rest of us. It brought me peace, even if I felt sad that her “beyond” golden years on earth were being engulfed by a deadly global disease. Really? She was alive for the Spanish Flu pandemic in 1918, and now she was enduring the Coronavirus pandemic of 2020. It seemed unfair.
But come to find out, she’s been spared. Go figure. She was born in the time of a pandemic, and now she’s died in a pandemic. What grim bookends. But, I’m happy that Olivia’s been saved grief. I feel a little lonely for myself without her. I’m not going to lie. But I’ll survive.
There are people and things that keep us going in life, and Olivia was one of them for me. She had come to mean so much. I hope that her final years were filled with happiness, serenity, laughter, and everything she wanted. She was a human being above all. As I say in my memoir, she was a person of both capital and lower-case letters, as each of us is. I think there is a dignity to that, and her one hundred “plus” years on this planet no doubt command our respect.
I’ll leave by saying, it feels gratifying, though slightly strange, to share in the many dozens of Olivia de Havilland tributes circulating in the media this week. For so long, she’s been a hidden gem that I shared only with friends and family. Still, I always knew that I wasn’t the only one to see her beauty. How could I be?
Olivia, you lit up my TV screen, my memoir, this blog. Quite simply, you lit up my life. We were beyond fortunate to have you for as long as we did. People see you, remember you, and love you. I hope wherever you are, you know that.