Dame Olivia de Havilland was a British actress whose name was synonymous with Hollywood’s golden age.
After a career spanning more than 50 years, she was twice an Oscar winner. She shot to international stardom in the classic epic Gone With The Wind and was at the peak of her career in the 1940s and 1950s.
Although she lived abroad for most of her life, she descended from an old English family whose name remains equally famous in the world of aviation engineering.
Olivia Mary de Havilland was born in Tokyo to the daughter of patent attorney Walter de Havilland and his wife Lilian.
Her parents moved to California when she was three and divorced when she was a girl. Both Olivia and her sister Joan stayed with their mother in Saratoga.
Their mother had studied drama in London and proved to be an excellent teacher for her daughters.
After starring in lead plays in school, Olivia planned to become a speech therapy teacher and won a scholarship to study at Mills College, Berkeley.
But she never took the scholarship because she was noticed by a scout for Max Reinhardt while playing Puck in a school production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
Her decision to become an actress at the age of 16 sparked a furious argument with her stepfather who ordered her to leave the house. But Olivia was not deterred and was left for Gloria Stuart in the role of Hermia in Reinhardt’s Midsummer Night’s Dream in the Hollywood Bowl.
Stuart was suddenly recalled to her film studio, and Olivia stepped straight into the role.
She was an instant success, with the Warner studio offering her a film test that gave her the opportunity to reprise the role in Reinhardt’s 1935 film production.
Spurred on by this success, her younger sister Joan also decided to become an actress and moved into Olivia’s flat. She decided to take their stepfather’s last name, Fontaine, to avoid confusion between them.
Joan’s career also flourished, but professional rivalry between the sisters soon led to an irreconcilable divide.
Meanwhile, Olivia had signed a contract with Warner Brothers, and a few more films followed.
The studio then decided to screen her with an unknown actor named Errol Flynn in Captain Blood.
The chemistry between the two caused a sensation. It would be the first of many films they made together and without a doubt put them both in the Hollywood galaxy.
Early movies included Anthony Adverse, The Great Garrick, The Adventures Of Robin Hood, Dodge City, The Private Lives Of Elizabeth and Essex, and The Male Animal.
At the age of 22, George Cukor took Olivia to David O Selznick for a screen test for the role of Melanie in Gone With The Wind, for which several leading actresses had auditioned.
She got the chance to fill the role, on loan to MGM from Warner Brothers in exchange for James Stewart. The film’s release in 1939 turned her into a megastar.
Continuing acclaim for her acting in such films as Hold Back The Dawn, My Cousin Rachel and The Ambassador’s Daughter, it was her appearances in To Each His Own in 1946 and The Heiress in 1949 that earned her Oscars to add to her countless other prizes.
In addition to her success as an actress, she achieved a major victory for her profession when she won a contract battle in court against Warner. She said the biggest significance of winning her case was that studios were unable to enforce pre-war salary contracts on stars who had served during World War II.
Olivia married author Marcus Goodrich twice in 1946, from whom she divorced in 1953 and with whom she had a son. After the divorce, she settled in Paris and in 1955 married journalist Pierre Galante, with whom she had a daughter.
She continued to live in France despite Galante’s divorce in 1979.
In 1988, she happened to play the aunt of Wallis Simpson, Duchess of Windsor, in a television movie The Woman He Loved – a neighbor and friend of the Windsors who had also made their home in France.
In her later years, she retained the elegance and professionalism for which she was known and which still appeared on the big screen.
But it was perhaps inevitable that she would remain connected to Gone With The Wind and that she was regularly invited to lecture on the film.
In 2008, at the age of 92, she was awarded the National Medal of Arts by President George W. Bush.
In 2010 she again received a state prize, this time in France, where President Nicolas Sarkozy made her Chevalier of the Legion d’Honneur. He told the actress, “You honor France because it chose us.”
In June 2017, two weeks before her 101st birthday, Olivia was named a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire in the 2017 Birthday Honors for services to drama by the Queen. She remains the oldest woman to ever receive the honor.
De Havilland’s son Benjamin Goodrich, who was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s disease at the age of 17, died at the age of 42.
She is survived by a daughter, Gisele Galante.