Amid Divorce, Disaster Movies and the Feud with Sister Joan, Olivia De Havilland Finds Solace Serving Her Church
This is not one-shot Hollywood telethon tokenism for de Havilland. Olivia's heart as well as voice are in the church—and have been ever since she joined the Altar Guild in 1972, doing the then woman's work of polishing brass vases. Three years later, when women were finally allowed to read the epistles and lessons at Episcopal services, de Havilland was one of the first. That was at the American Cathedral in Paris, where Olivia has lived since marrying French journalist Pierre Galante in 1955. (They were divorced this January after a long separation.)
At the same time, Olivia's secular career is far from finished. "I can't imagine retiring," she says, and indeed de Havilland has just been seen as the wife of a plantation owner in the opening episodes of Roots II. Admittedly, the two-time Oscar winner (for To Each His Own and The Heiress in the '40s) has settled for lesser properties these days, like Airport '77 and The Swarm. She also tours the women's club lecture circuit, is writing a prologue for a new edition of her 1962 memoir, Every Frenchman Has One, and plans to start an update. Will it answer some of her sister Joan Fontaine's caustic comments in the best-selling No Bed of Roses? "My book will have nothing to do with my sister's," says de Havilland, who was depicted by Fontaine as a sadistic elder (by one year) sibling. "I have not read it, but I think I have become a monomania with her. It is painful to think that her own life is incomplete to such a degree that it's still so keyed to me."
Born in Tokyo, Olivia, Joan and their mother moved to California in 1919 after their British father, a patent attorney, took up with the Japanese maid. "My mother was religious," recalls Olivia, "but she didn't go to church." Olivia arranged to have herself baptized at 16, but stopped going to church through most of her Hollywood career. She returned to the fold after her son, Benjamin (by her first husband, novelist Marcus Goodrich), was born. When he was just 19, he became seriously ill. "She looked after him herself," recalls the Very Rev. Sturgis Riddle, a longtime friend and dean emeritus of the Paris cathedral. "She had deep faith that through love and prayer he would be helped." After Benjamin, now 29 and a mathematician in California, recovered, his mother threw herself into volunteer work for the church. "I find it thrilling," she says. "It's so boring, this selfish life we lead to survive."
De Havilland also has a daughter, Gisèle, 22, who is just finishing criminal law studies in France. For six of the 16 years of her separation from Galante, de Havilland and he lived in separate parts of their 12-room Paris townhouse, but she is now contemplating selling it and relocating to Washington, D.C. "People ask me why don't I move back to California," de Havilland says, "but I want a new life." She also admits she would like a new love. "A man in my life? What a divine idea. I am the woman who arrives at parties alone and goes home with a married couple. That is carrying Episcopalian discretion to a very great extreme."