On the Passing of Olivia de Havilland

An old family friend takes with her the last living motion picture industry link to my grandfather’s legacy

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Olivia de Havilland’s 1946 film, produced by my grandfather, Charles Brackett

On the subject of Olivia de Havilland

When you see an obituary of someone you knew very early in life, connected to you as a family friend, the memories of that person come back in a swirling haze of truth and wishes that clears only momentarily to reveal a wonderful character who once meant so much but who, over the years, stepped silently into the fog of uncertain recollection.

Sometimes, the headlined death make you feel like one of your life’s anchor chains, carelessly untethered, has slipped over the side of the boat, disappearing into the cold, dark depths of irretrievable time.

An enduring friendship

So it was that I felt that way upon hearing of the death of Olivia de Havilland, one of my grandfather’s, Charles Brackett’s, dearest friends who starred in two of the movies he wrote (Hold Back the Dawn, 1941, for which Olivia won an Oscar) and wrote and produced (To Each His Own, 1946).

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Olivia de Havilland

Olivia de Havilland was one of my grandfather’s best friends, a friendship Charlie shared with her younger sister, Joan Fontaine, despite the sisters’ estrangement. As little as I was when I first met (or was held by) Ms. de Havilland (I was, I am told, barely a year old), the years that followed proved Olivia to be an attentive and caring woman who often visited the Bel Air house on Bellagio Road, frequently at Christmastime when she would join us for dinner, or attend one of my grandfather’s parties.

A determined correspondent

Olivia was an amazingly prolific “thank you” note writer, and an almost daily correspondent, not only to my grandfather (I have a basket of her letters, penned on monogrammed blue stationery), but to her friends and associates in the movie industry. When I read her letters and notes during my work on my grandfather’s biography, I was charmed by her cleverness in the notes she wrote in crossword style.

I wish my memories were clearer, more bonafide, so that I could add some substance to my recollections of Olivia de Havilland, but the fact is I knew her as a visitor in my grandfather’s world, not in my life as a military kid, often too distant from Hollywood and my grandfather to keep up the acquaintance with someone who genuinely cared for Charlie.

Long-distance voices comfort a little boy

When I was very young (many of you know this story), I was blinded in both eyes by an accidental household chemical spill. I was in bandages for many months, and during that time, my parents and my grandfather made sure people read books to me either in person or over the phone.

I cannot be certain who my grandfather wrangled into doing long-distance phone calls and chapter readings to a little boy in Virginia, but I was told later in life that many of the stars of my grandfather’s movies, or his actor friends, participated in the call cycle. I recall one in particular — Raymond Massey — because his voice was so distinguishable, and I’d met him often enough. But there were womens’ voices as well, including Dody Smith, the author of The Hundred and One Dalmatians (she read me portions of the book from her home in England).

I like to think, without any substance behind the thought, that one of those voices was Olivia de Havilland’s, because it was the sort of kindness she would have extended to her friend’s little grandson.

With her death, Olivia de Havilland closed the book of my grandfather’s last living acquaintances.

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Charles Brackett, writer/producer of To Each His Own, and writer for Hold Back the Dawn (family picture)

Too many times I thought of reaching out to her as I worked through the early research of Charlie Brackett’s life, and when I was producing the book of his Hollywood-era diaries (It’s the Pictures That Got Small), but, truth be told, I was unsure if she would welcome a call from a distant memory. Now I will never know what conversation we might have enjoyed. My bad.

I have rambled on here…Too much, too long, I suppose. But I think I have license to remember a lovely person, someone whose departure from this mortal coil marks the passing of the last living link to the anchor that was my grandfather. I hope she are Charlie are enjoying each other’s company again.

Written by

Journalist, former Capitol Hill staff (House and Senate), former Cabinet speechwriter, editor, photojournalist and bird photographer. Top Writer Quora 2016–2017

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