Friday, September 21, 2018
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Olivia de Havilland, oldest living Oscar winner, was my pen pal

At 100, Olivia de Havilland is the oldest living Oscar winner. She won the best actress honor twice, in fact. She is half of the only set of sisters to both win the Academy Award for best actress. She's also the namesake and catalyst for the "De Havilland Law," one of the most significant, far-reaching rulings in Hollywood that reduced the power of studios over actors.

All of this may be in her book one day, but she told Vanity Fair last year that she's in no rush to write her memoir. She does, however, do the New York Times crossword puzzle daily. And she's being portrayed in the upcoming Ryan Murphy series Feud: Bette and Joan by Catherine Zeta-Jones.

Add to de Havilland's list of attributes: She was once my pen pal.

She wasn't the first choice for my sixth-grade project on a living person I greatly admired. I'm afraid she figured that out by reading between the lines of the letter I sent her in 1980.

But de Havilland was as gracious as Melanie Wilkes herself to my pushy requests for autographed pictures of Vivien Leigh or Clark Gable. I used the lame excuse that I wanted a tangible piece of the movie that was the epicenter of my life at the time.

"I hope these few words will serve as a palpable souvenir of something you love so greatly," she wrote me on beautiful stationery with a watercolor print of a volcano in 1980.

At least I was truthful about being obsessed with Gone With the Wind. I'd read the book, all 1,037 pages, twice that year. I'd managed to see the Civil War saga at least three times.

When Mrs. Corey, who taught my sixth-grade class, told us we were doing a project on a living person we greatly admired, I immediately knew I had few options. Clearly, I wasn't going to do a relative. Too boring. (Sorry, Mom and Dad.) I didn't care a single bit about local, state or national politicians. Classmates who felt the same opted for former first ladies, astronauts, civil rights leaders and Olympians. Not me. The thing I admired most was Gone With the Wind.

But Vivien Leigh, who played the passionate and beautifully flawed Scarlett, was already dead at 53 from tuberculosis. Margaret Mitchell, the first-time author and one-hit wonder, was killed by a drunk driver in Atlanta at 49. And Clark Gable, who played Rhett Butler, died at 59 after suffering a heart attack.

It was probably a letter to de Havilland from my father that he included along with my note that prompted her to respond at all. I don't know exactly what he wrote. I can tell from her response to him in a separate letter that he acknowledged my preference for Scarlett, but said he was buoyed by the fact that I also loved Melanie.

"That Katherine Victoria, a Scarlett by nature, should regard so highly Melanie is a grand sign. If she merges within her the best of each character she will be perfectly adapted for modern life — and she will have a happy life, too," she wrote. "Scarlett's vigor, resourcefulness and perseverance are such splendid qualities in their positive expression. And Melanie's compassion, generosity and lovingness are gifts very precious indeed."

While my letter was in black ink on thick stationery, his was scripted with a ballpoint pen on flimsy Airmail paper. De Havilland wasn't about to waste too much money on postage for total strangers.

• • •

De Havilland and her sister, Joan Fontaine, are the only siblings to ever both win lead acting Oscars. Both were nominated in 1942, de Havilland for Hold Back the Dawn and Fontaine for Alfred Hitchcock's Suspicion. Fontaine won. In 1947, de Havilland took the best actress Oscar for To Each His Own. She got a second best actress nod in 1950 for The Heiress.

Proving de Havilland perhaps embodied some of Scarlett's "vigor," as she called it, she and her sister had a very contentious relationship since their childhood and went for years-long bouts of not speaking, until Fontaine's death in 2013.

But de Havilland never claimed to be as kind and unselfish as her trademark character.

She shared the following with my father: "I identified with Melanie out of an appreciation for the values she represented that seemed so threatened when I was growing up and so worth preserving. One way to keep them alive was to play the role. A real life Melanie I have once or twice encountered. My own daughter to my joy is not unlike her."

Along with stupidly requesting movie souvenirs in my letter to the legendary actor, I did manage to also ask what it was like to be in what many say is the greatest movie of all time.

"As to the experience of working in Gone With the Wind it was a wonderfully happy one for me. I was deeply attached to the character of Melanie, who had a rare wisdom of the heart, and I looked forward each day to living her life during the hours of filming," she recounted. "Furthermore, I surmised that Gone With the Wind might have an unusual destiny — that it might live longer than the year or two which was the fate of most movies of that day. The thought of being part of something which would endure was very fulfilling, even exhilarating."

De Havilland was a true movie star of Hollywood's Golden Era. She was involved with Jimmy Stewart, Errol Flynn and Howard Hughes. She sued Warner Brothers Studios to let her out of an unfair contract and won. She and Fontaine's feuds were fodder for the gossip columns penned by Louella Parsons and Hedda Hopper.

De Havilland was also a bit of a prankster who once secretly tied herself to a piece of heavy lighting equipment on the set of Gone With the Wind, so when an unsuspecting Gable tried to pick her up for the scene when they flee Atlanta, he couldn't budge her small frame. She left Hollywood behind, however, to live in Paris in the 1950s and still lives there today.

I don't know if it's French wine, her sense of humor, dismissing Hollywood, distance from her sister or simply a contented state of mind that brought de Havilland such longevity. But I hope my pen pal may one day share her secret with me.

Contact Katherine Snow Smith at [email protected]

     
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