Olivia de Havilland: The Private Life and Passions of Gone With The Wind's Beloved Melanie

Updated on September 10, 2018
Timothy Anderson profile image

Tim Anderson is a freelance writer/researcher with articles published in The Saturday Evening Post, Playboy magazine, TV Guide, and others.

Olivia de Havilland is the only major Gone With The Wind star still living.
Olivia de Havilland is the only major Gone With The Wind star still living.

Introduction

Olivia Mary de Havilland was born in 1916, and today at age 102 is the oldest-living person to win an Oscar, and the last cast member from one of Hollywood's most celebrated films, Gone With The Wind.

Of all the Olivia de Havilland movies, Gone With The Wind will always be the one she's most remembered for.

She had had a long and award-winning career, acting opposite some of Hollywood's most famous actors. However, the one role for which she will always be remembered is the sweet and caring Melanie from David O. Selznick's legendary 1939 movie.

Here are some fascinating facts and trivia about Olivia de Havilland from her century-long life.

Teen Olivia

1. Olivia de Havilland Was a "Japanese" Baby

Although many movie fans have believed over the years that Olivia was born and raised in England, the fact is she was born in Japan, raised in California, and has never lived in Great Britain.

She was born in Tokyo, Japan in 1916 to British parents, Lillian and Walter de Havilland. Her mother was a former actress in Britain, while her father was an English professor and patent attorney.

Olivia was still an infant when her family left Japan, sailing to California and intending to return to England. However, after a short stay over in San Francisco, her father decided he'd return to Japan and the mistress he'd had while living there. Her parents divorced shortly after that, and her mother took young Olivia and baby sister Joan to Southern California where both girls would grow up to become accomplished Oscar-winning actresses.

In November 1941, the Gone With The Wind movie star became a naturalized citizen of the United States.

“I would prefer to live forever in perfect health, but if I must at some time leave this life, I would like to do so ensconced on a chaise longue, perfumed, wearing a velvet robe and pearl earrings..."

— Olivia de Havilland
Her performance in Captain Blood opposite swashbuckler Errol Flynn helped make Olivia a star!
Her performance in Captain Blood opposite swashbuckler Errol Flynn helped make Olivia a star!

2. How Olivia Outsmarted Movie Mogul Jack Warner

Olivia was director George Cukor's early choice to play Melanie as the Gone With The Wind movie cast was being assembled.

Under contract to Warner Bros., she had agreed to an illegal, and, clandestine meeting with Cukor to read some lines from Melanie's dialogue. He excitedly called the film's producer, David O. Selznick and said he'd found "Melanie." The producer was very firm that the actors chosen had to be absolutely believable as Gone With The Wind characters. Selznick had her read the lines and immediately knew he'd found the perfect actress for the role.

But there was only one problem: Jack Warner refused to cooperate and he owned her contract. So de Havilland quietly reached out to Warner's wife, the former actress Ann Page, and asked if she would meet her for tea at the famous Hollywood restaurant, The Brown Derby. Page agreed.

At their meeting, Olivia told her how important the role was to her. She had read the Gone With The Wind book and knew she wanted to be a part of the big screen venture. So she asked Page if there were any possible way she might help convince her husband to change his mind. Page, seeing the sincerity and determination in the young girl, agreed to help. Exactly what she did in the Warner mansion is not known…. but shortly thereafter, Jack Warner broke down and agreed to lend his young movie star to Selznick in exchange for the loan of the acting services of established star Jimmy Stewart.

The deal was done, and Olivia de Havilland was on her way to cinematic immortality!

Olivia's Gone With The Wind Screen Test

How Well Do You Know Olivia's Movies?

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Donna Reed and Jimmy Stewart in "It's a Wonderful Life"

3. It's a Wonderful Life -- Olivia said "No thank you!"

Every successful actor and actress are offered many parts in various movies, and sometimes the parts they turned down made someone else famous! Or maybe won them a coveted Academy Award Oscar.

In Olivia de Havilland's case, perhaps the most famous role she was offered -- and declined -- was that of "Mary Bailey," the ever-patient wife of George Bailey, played by Jimmy Stewart in Frank Capra's 1946 It's a Wonderful Life movie.

The actress was offered the role, but chose instead to star in Paramount's To Each His Own. It was a smart decision: de Havilland won her first Best Actress Oscar in the 1946 film. The memorable role of Mary Bailey went to actress Donna Reed after Jean Arthur, and a number of other famous actresses turned it down. The movie made Reed a big star.

Another famous movie role offered to de Havilland was that of "Blanche duBois," in 1951's A Streetcar Named Desire. She would have appeared opposite a young, up-and-coming star named Marlon Brando. Hollywood movie lore has it that de Havilland turned the part down, saying "a lady just doesn't say or do those things on screen." The part went to Vivien Leigh who'd acted opposite de Havilland 12 years earlier when they both filmed Gone With The Wind. Leigh apparently didn't share de Havilland's concerns about playing a "skanky" woman. However, in a 2006 interview, de Havilland said the reason she turned down the part is she'd just given birth and playing the role just didn't seem right at the time.

Olivia de Havilland today lives quietly in France.  She is the last surviving member of the Gone With The Wind cast.
Olivia de Havilland today lives quietly in France. She is the last surviving member of the Gone With The Wind cast.
Olivia's famous cousin -- Sir Geoffrey de Havilland.
Olivia's famous cousin -- Sir Geoffrey de Havilland.

4. Olivia's Famous Flying Cousin.

The de Havilland surname was already well known to many Britons long before Olivia made any headlines.

Her cousin was Sir Geoffrey de Havilland and one of Britain's most famous aircraft designers. Born in 1882, he was the owner of the de Havilland Aircraft Company which produced the bomber known as the "Mosquito," considered one of the best warplanes of its era.

Almost 8,000 would be built from 1940 to 1950.

Sir Geoffrey would also build the world's first commercial jet liner, the "Comet," which was first test flown in 1949 before actually beginning passenger service in 1952.

One of Howard Hughes' ladies

5. Olivia and Her Off-Screen Lovers

Many of Hollywood top stars of the 1930s were involved in passionate love affairs and de Havilland -- in her 20s -- was no different.

After Howard Hughes arranged a social meeting, the two began dating. What she didn't know at the time was the famous womanizer was also seeing actress Ginger Rogers. And according to various sources, in 1939 Hughes made a pass at Olivia's younger sister, Joan Fontaine, who was engaged to be married. The sisters had never gotten along and with this news Olivia dropped Hughes and her lifelong feud with Fontaine escalated.

However, Olivia had no intention of sitting home and moping. At the December 1939 New York City premiere of Gone With The Wind, de Havilland showed up on the arm of heart throb Jimmy Stewart.

Stewart, like de Havilland, and who had starred that year in Mr. Smith Goes To Washington, had been nominated for an Academy Award. Irene Selznick, wife of producer David O. Selznick had arranged the "date" between the two stars. For the next few days, the pair began seeing each other, and the romance blossomed and continued for another year or so after they both returned to Los Angeles.

In 1941, with their romance cooling, Jimmy Stewart joined the military and Olivia would fall in love with John Huston, the director of her movie In This Our Life. The relationship began to sizzle on the movie set, and Huston would gift the actress with a little terrier she named Shadrack. That romance was also doomed, but some years later a torch-carrying Huston allegedly got into a long fist-fight with actor Errol Flynn, who he accused of insulting de Havilland in some way.

By 1946, Olivia de Havilland had had enough of living life in Hollywood's "fast lane," and married Hollywood screenwriter Marcus Goodrich.

A young and handsome Howard Hughes.
A young and handsome Howard Hughes.

6. Longest-Living GWTW Alumni

Gone With The Wind had over 50 speaking parts. Of all the actors and actresses who had lines in the movie, only de Havilland survives.

The actress who played John Wilkes' daughter India -- Alicia Rhett -- was 98 when she passed away in January 2014, leaving Olivia as the eldest, and only major cast member still living.

The two male stars of the Gone With The Wind cast -- Clark Gable and Leslie Howard -- each passed away before their two female co-stars. Howard was killed in June 1943 when the commercial airline he was in was shot down by German fighters while traveling between Portugal and England. Gable died of a heart attack in 1960. Vivien Leigh died in 1967 from tuberculosis, leaving de Havilland as the only surviving major cast star.

There is one other person alive today who appeared in the movie: Mickey Kuhn, who played Melanie's infant son Beau, and being a mere baby didn't have a speaking part.

Olivia de Havilland in Robin Hood.
Olivia de Havilland in Robin Hood.

7. Olivia Loses Oscar to First Black Winner

Olivia de Havilland has the distinction of losing the Best Supporting Actress Oscar to the first African-American to ever win the prize, her Gone With The Wind co-star, Hattie McDaniel, who played "Mammy."

The three other actresses nominated for the award were Geraldine Fitzgerald for Wuthering Heights, Edna May Oliver, for Drums Along the Mohawk, and Maria Ouspenskaya for Love Affair.

All of the other main Gone With The Wind cast members except for Leslie Howard would be nominated. Besides McDaniel and Vivien Leigh, Thomas Mitchell who played Scarlett's father won the Best Supporting Actor Academy Award. However, it wasn't for Gone With The Wind, but for his role in 1939's Stagecoach with John Wayne and Claire Trevor. Clark Gable, like Olivia de Havilannd, was nominated but did not win.

It would be another 23 years before the second African-American would win an Oscar, this time, Sidney Poitier in 1963 for Lilies of the Field.

And today, thanks to Hattie's pioneering efforts, more than a dozen African-American actors and actresses have won the coveted Oscar, and the list includes Denzel Washington, Morgan Freeman, Halle Berry, Forrest Whitaker, Cuba Gooding, Jr., Jennifer Hudson, Jamie Foxx, Whoopi Goldberg, Viola Davis, Mo'Nique and others.

Gone With The Wind's Leading Ladies

Hattie McDaniel (Mammy), Olivia de Havilland (Melanie) and Vivien Leigh (Scarlett).
Hattie McDaniel (Mammy), Olivia de Havilland (Melanie) and Vivien Leigh (Scarlett).

Questions & Answers

    © 2016 Tim Anderson

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      • BAMwer profile image

        Beverly Werner 

        2 years ago from Catasauqua

        Good article!

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