I love you, Dame Olivia de Havilland (1916-2020)
In 1993, when I was 19, I “discovered” Olivia de Havilland. I was living with my mom in our townhouse just outside of Seattle. That particular day I was relaxing in my bedroom, watching American Movie Classics (before they changed their programming and stopped showing true classics, and added commercials). A film titled “To Each His Own” was just starting, and it sounded interesting. So, I decided to check it out.
To say I was enthralled from the minute Olivia is shown on camera would be an understatement. I sat on my bed that rainy afternoon and watched every frame of
this film…captivated. When it was over, I was literally sobbing…and I continued sobbing 20 minutes after “The End” had appeared on my television. That was when I knew…I absolutely adored this actress…Olivia de Havilland.
In the months to come, I purchased every movie I could starring this amazing woman, I watched “To Each His Own” a dozen more times, and I was learning more and more about her life. She was born on July 1, 1916, had lived in Paris since the mid-50s, had 2 children, was twice divorced, was the sister of Joan Fontaine, had been nominated 4 times for an Academy Award – and had won twice…the first time in 1946 for “To Each His Own” and the second time in 1949 for “The Heiress”, and (best of all) I found an address where I could write her.
I penned several letters to her, all describing my love of “To Each His Own” and, especially, her performance in it. I told her what an inspiration she was to me and that I was enjoying watching her other films as well. Not expecting to hear anything back from her, I continued researching her and watching more of her films. July 1, 1993 was approaching and I found a lovely “Gone With the Wind” postcard that I decided to send to her as a birthday card and I told her that I would be celebrating that special day by watching “Gone With the Wind” again.
A couple of weeks later, I opened my mailbox and found a delicate, blue envelope sitting there…addressed to me…with “Via Air Mail Par Avion” printed on it…complete with two French stamps. My heart skipped a beat (or ten) as I carefully turned the envelope over and saw the return address…it was the same one that I used to write to
Olivia! This letter was from her!! I squealed loudly and ran into the house to open it. Even as I read it, I still couldn’t believe that it was actually from her. That she would take the time to respond to the birthday postcard I had sent her was out of my comprehension.
But, there in front of me was the proof. A beautifully composed, typed thank-you note on blue paper, with her distinct handwritten signature. I cried and read it over and over again.
I continued writing her over the years, sharing with her how I felt about seeing some of her movies for the first time, telling her that I consistently wrote to the American Film Institute about my outrage that they had not yet honored Olivia with a Lifetime Achievement Award, and every Christmas and July 1, I sent her cards and gifts (some handmade).
Between July 1993 and January 1997, I received a total of 11 letters and one very special handwritten birthday note from her.
They are each carefully placed in mylar protectors that I keep in a notebook (which will be the first thing I ever grab if there is a fire). Each letter is an entire story within itself.
Although I had heard that she had stopped answering fan mail around 1997 (which I now know was because she was caring for her ex-husband, Pierre Galante, who died in 1998), I kept writing her – never expecting anything in return.
In September 2000, a friend of mine and myself traveled to London for the first time. Right away I decided that I would take a day trip into Paris. Miss de Havilland had typed her physical Paris address on the back of one of my envelopes, so I knew (in theory) where her house was. I bought a detailed street map of Paris, and found her neighborhood. It didn’t look too difficult. So, I booked my trip on the Eurostar! Three quick hours from Waterloo Station in London to the center of Paris – and I had arrived. Right off the train, my goal was clear, and I ventured out onto the beautiful streets of Paris in search of her house.
The streets of Paris are a bit confusing, but with my trusty map (long before Google), I was able to find her house in about 45 minutes (on foot, mind you). When I turned onto her street, my heart was almost pounding out of my chest. Her lovely 5-story townhouse was the second one on my left. The cobblestone street was so narrow...with street cameras everywhere (she lives right across from an embassy) and policemen shrewdly roamed. Even though I was on the sidewalk across from her residence, it felt like I was much closer than I should be to her front door. Not wanting to be arrested in Paris for loitering or trespassing, I kept walking. I walked around the block a few times and got brave enough to at least take a photo of the street sign “rue Benouville”. As much as I wanted take a quick photo of her house (or, let’s be honest, to sit across from it for hours and just bask in the glory of being so close to her), I decided against it and with one last glance, with tears forming in my eyes, I smiled and moved on.
As I was on a tight time-crunch, the only other thing I had time to do that day was go up in the Arc de Triomphe (which is a few blocks from Olivia’s house). I don’t regret not being able to see all the sights that day, for I felt my time was spent doing precisely what I came to Paris to do. And I was glowing with happiness. I cried with joy almost the entire train ride back to London.
Jump ahead to November 1, 2005. I was 31 years old, and although my correspondence with Mme. de Havilland had slowed down, I remained an ardent and devoted fan. The last letter I had received from her was still the one from 1997. While at work, I stumbled across a press release with the headline “Academy Tribute to Olivia de Havilland Slated for 2006”. My eyes nearly popped out of my head and, had I not been at work, I would have screamed with delight! I immediately started researching this wonderful news and discovered that the event would take place on Thursday, June 15, 2006 at 8pm at the Samuel Goldwyn Theatre. Tickets were only $5 but wouldn’t go on sale until June 1 and were only available through the mail or at the box office (in L.A.).
With absolutely NO question about it, I was going to attend this event! I instantly put in my request for time off from work. Since I reside in Washington state, and there was no way I could get down to Los Angeles to buy tickets in person on June 1st, I put my trust in the U.S. Postal Service and mailed my $10 for 2 tickets. Then…the waiting game.
To say I was absolutely devastated when they returned my money and explained that the event had sold out immediately is a HUGE understatement. I just sobbed – this was such an amazing opportunity to get to see her…IN PERSON…being interviewed by Robert Osborne no less…and I lost it. All because I lived too far away to get to the box office!
But what happened next was a true bewilderment. Three days after getting my rejection notice, I received the invite to the tribute and to the pre-show VIP event. I was in a complete state of confusion. They had returned my money….what was going on? Did they send me this in error? How in the world did I get this?? Still confused, I decided to quit second guessing it and made all my travel arrangements. And on June 15th, there I was at the Samuel Goldwyn theatre!
I was still so nervous waiting outside before the doors opened. Even when I walked up to the lady and showed her my invite – I was seriously expecting her to tell me that this was a mistake and I would have to leave. To my complete relief she smiled and said “please go in” (whaaaat?!)
There I was in this room, which I KNEW was filled with famous people and I only recognized a few, but even then, I couldn’t place them. Until Robert Osborne arrived. It was so wonderful getting to meet him! Such a gentleman. And then the room was instantly bustling with excitement as Olivia made her entrance.
She was so beautiful and I loved how she ran around like a woman much younger than her almost 90 years! I took a bunch of photos of her chatting with others, but I couldn’t get close enough to talk as she was (rightfully so) quite busy with the other guests and the media.
It was then announced that she was going to the meet and greet room in the back, which was reserved for family and friends only. I sat in a chair and watched a long line of people give their names and go into that room that I so longed to enter. I decided that I shouldn’t torture myself so I got a little bite to eat and kept watching the line from afar. After about 20 minutes, I told the friend that had accompanied me “you know what, you only live once” and I got up and walked up to that man with the clipboard.
I said “I am SURE I am not on this list, but I will regret it forever if I don’t ask.” He asked for my last name and I gave it to him. He looked down at the clipboard, looked up at me and verified, “Christina”? My heart skipped about 2,000 beats, and I was weak in the knees as he motioned for me to go into the room.
In that moment, I finally understood that it had been Olivia who had invited me. I hadn’t received a letter from her in years (although I had kept writing her)! Even as I tell this story now, I’m crying. That gesture meant the whole world to me. I still can’t believe it and have to pinch myself.
Once I was in the room, Olivia was in the back and there was a large group of people around her. I was trying to make my way through the crowd when it was announced that Olivia had to leave for the main event. WHAT?? NOOOO!!! I just got in there!!! The crowd was told to line up at the wall while she walked out. I quickly got a good place in line where I saw she was greeting people as she exited. My heart was pounding outside of my chest as she got closer and closer to me.
When she approached me, she took my hand, and asked my name. I leaned down to her ear (I’m 5’9″ to her 5’3” stature) and told her. She seemed to immediately recognize it as she smiled with that classic gleam in her eye and said, “Oh yes! I’m so glad you could be here tonight after all your kindness.” I told her it was a dream come true.
It was all over so quickly and I felt like I was walking on air. I still wish with all my heart I had just taken the chance much earlier and got in that line right away. I missed out on getting a photo with her. But, the memory of getting to finally meet this wonderful woman that I had adored (and continue to adore….and will adore for the rest of my life) for so long is one of my most cherished. I wonder if she ever really knew how much she has touched my heart?
Fast forward again to the Sunday morning of July 26, 2020. I awoke to text messages and Facebook posts from friends…all saying how sorry they were to hear about Olivia’s death. At first, I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. No. This can’t be true. This can’t be happening. I didn’t send her a birthday card this year! I was going to write her again very soon. She couldn’t be gone. Once it truly hit me…I erupted into heavy sobs. The day I had been dreading for years had arrived. Madame de Havilland was dead. I would never be able to write to her again. My heart felt like it shattered into a thousand pieces.
There is a saying that suggests “you should never meet your idols”. I don’t know where this originated, but I truly feel sad that someone had such a poor experience. Perhaps they should have idolized Olivia de Havilland instead.