DAME OLIVIA Mary de Havilland, aged 104, died on July 25 in Paris. Entertainment Weekly cites that the last surviving cast member of Hollywood epic Gone with the Wind “died peacefully in her sleep.”
In February this year, Hollywood actor Kirk Douglas, another Hollywood centenarian, died. Only a handful of witnesses of the Golden Age of Hollywood live today, headed by 105-year-old actor Norman Lloyd (whose last film credit was in 2015 for Trainwreck).
De Havilland was born to English parents in Tokyo on July 1, 1916: to actress Lilian Ruse (later Fontaine) and academic (and later patent attorney) Walter de Havilland. Her father was an uncle of aviation pioneers Sir Geoffrey de Havilland and Hereward de Havilland, making the De Havilland company founders her cousins. Her sister, another famous actress, Joan Fontaine, was born in 1917. The sisters would go down in history as the only pair of sisters so far to have won Academy Awards in acting: the younger sister won first, getting the Academy Award for Best Actress in 1942 for her work in Suspicion. Both sisters were nominated for the same award that year, De Havilland having been nominated for her role in Hold Back the Dawn. De Havilland, for her part, won the Best Actress award in 1946 for To Each His Own. She won a second one for period drama The Heiress in 1949. De Havilland was nominated, but did not receive the award, for Best Supporting Actress in what was arguably her most famous role, playing the gentle Melanie Wilkes next to Vivian Leigh’s volatile Scarlett O’Hara in 1939’s Gone with the Wind. She lost out to co-star Hattie McDaniel (playing Mammy), who became the first African-American to win an Academy Award.
The sisters had reportedly gone through an on-and-off feud throughout their shared childhood and career, but had become completely estranged in the late 1970s, after their mother died in 1975. In 1978, while promoting her autobiography No Bed of Roses, Ms. Fontaine told People magazine, responding to a question about how she wanted to die: “At age 108, flying around the stage in Peter Pan, as a result of my sister cutting the wires,” she said. “Olivia has always said I was first at everything — I got married first, got an Academy Award first, had a child first. If I die, she’ll be furious, because again I’ll have got there first!” Ms. Fontaine died in 2013 at the age of 96, almost seven years before her sister. At her sister’s death, De Havilland said in a statement, “I was shocked and saddened to learn of the passing of my sister, Joan Fontaine, and my niece, Deborah, and I appreciate the many kind expressions of sympathy that we have received.”
While slowing down in the 1950s due to her marriage to Paris Match editor Pierre Galante in 1955, De Havilland continued appearing in films and in television up until 1988 — even winning a Golden Globe for Best Supporting Actress in a Series, Miniseries, or Television Film for her role as the Dowager Empress of Russia in the 1986 miniseries Anastasia: The Mystery of Anna. As recently as 2009, De Havilland served as narrator for the documentary I Remember Better When I Paint. In 2010, she became a Chevalier of the Légion d’honneur, and in 2017, she was created Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire, the oldest woman to receive the honor.
She was married twice: first to author Marcus Goodrich, with whom she had a son, Benjamin (who died in 1991). Her second marriage to Pierre Galante, which ended in divorce in 1979, produced daughter Gisèle Galante.
De Havilland, in a 2016 interview with Vanity Fair, said that her secret to her long life were “the three L’s — love, laughter, and light.” — Joseph L. Garcia