ASIJ’s only Oscar-winner, Joan Fontaine ’35, passed away on December 15, 2013. Matt Wilce looks back on her early years in Tokyo and the notorious sibling rivalry that became press fodder for decades.
A hush falls over the ballroom of the Biltmore Hotel as Ginger Rogers finishes reading the nominees for Best Actress at the 1942 Academy Awards. At studio executive and producer David O Selznick’s table sits the second actress to be announced—Joan Fontaine for her role in Suspicion. She’s hardly touched the “fruit cocktail-to-parfait” dinner that’s been served while Oscars have been handed out to John Ford, Walt Disney and Gary Cooper—but not to Orson Welles for Citizen Kane (1941). If it weren’t for one of the other Best Actress nominees sitting across from her at the same table, Joan wouldn’t even be here. A man from Price Waterhouse steps onto the stage and, trembling slightly, hands Ginger Rogers an envelope. The microphone at the podium amplifies the sound of ripping paper and Ginger clears her throat. “And I have the pleasure of telling a secret...”
Earlier that day, Joan was on set at the Warner Brothers Burbank Studios when she received a phone call from the president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, who called to confirm that Joan would be attending the Oscars that evening. [Joan recalled that it was Danish actor Jean Hersholt who called, although Walter Wanger, the producer of Stagecoach (1939) and later Cleopatra (1963), was actually president at that time.] She replied that she was not going to attend. She was in the middle of filming The Constant Nymph (1943) and had no desire to have a late night and then have to get up at 6:30am to drive across town to the studio from Beverly Hills. Joan’s disinterest must have appeared quite odd to the Academy, but then the Oscars were still in their infancy and not yet the hive of hype they are today. In fact it was only a few weeks before on February 3, while reading The Hollywood Reporter, that Joan learned that she was up for a statuette. RKO had screened Suspicion (1941) for just one day at Hollywood’s Pantages Theater on January 11—the last day for films to qualify for the awards.
Having been nominated and losing the year before for Hitchcock’s adaptation of Rebecca (1940)—which she considered a stronger film than Suspicion—Joan felt her chances of winning the Oscar this time were negligible. The newspaper also revealed that one of her fellow nominees was her sister Olivia de Havilland.
After Joan hung up, it didn’t take long for Olivia to call her on set. Her sister was insistent that Joan attend the Oscars that night—her absence would look odd. All the other nominees would be present and Olivia reminded her sister that Joan was also a member of the Academy and expected to attend. In her autobiography, Joan recalled protesting “But I haven’t anything to wear!” Olivia was not to be thwarted by something so easy to address and within an hour she arrived at Joan’s dressing room with a saleslady from I. Magnin & Co and stacks of beige striped boxes from the store containing every dress they had in a size six. Between takes on set, Joan tried on outfits until she settled on a black ankle-length dress, which was hastily altered to fit her. The hairdresser and makeup man from the movie obligingly stayed after filming ended to help turn Joan’s pigtails and freckles into a look more befitting an evening awards presentation.
A few hours later, Joan and Olivia sit opposite each other at a long table at the ceremony—the first sisters to be nominated for the same category—their attention focused on Ginger Rogers and her envelope. “Joan Fontaine!” exclaims Ginger to rapturous applause. Joan freezes and stares across the table to Olivia. “Get up there, get up there!” she whispers commandingly at her sister. Joan takes to the stage to receive the iconic golden statuette and makes her short impromptu speech. “I don’t believe it! I want to thank the ladies and gentlemen that voted for me in this award. I want to thank David Selznick and Alfred Hitchcock who is here tonight. I’d like to say to him, ‘Thank you Hitch with all my heart.’”
Despite Olivia’s grace in accepting defeat for a second year running—after losing for her supporting role as Melanie in Gone with the Wind (1939)—Joan was appalled that she had triumphed over her sister and felt a rush of mixed emotions and pent up childhood animus resurface. Olivia would go on to win two Oscars of her own, for To Each his Own (1946) and The Heiress (1949), but the damage was already done. That moment in the ballroom of The Biltmore Hotel seemingly crystallized the fraught relationship and uneasy rivalry the sisters had already endured. The hair-pulling, childhood wrestling matches and the fractured collarbone Joan received were already in the past, but now, with their joint nomination and Joan’s win, the sisters were catapulted into very public professional enmity that would endure as Hollywood gossip for decades. Joan’s probably unintentional slight of omitting mention of Olivia in her acceptance speech would be repaid in 1946 when Olivia would allegedly snub Joan backstage after winning—wheeling away from her outstretched hand and leaving her sister to shrug things off in a moment famously captured by a Photoplay photographer. The seeds of this sibling rivalry went all the way back to their unconventional early childhood in Tokyo.
Joan de Beauvoir de Havilland entered the world on October 22, 1917 in Tokyo. Her mother Lillian would later claim that she’d been conceived on the chaise longue when tall, handsome Walter de Havilland came home early from his chess club and had a moment before it was time to dress for dinner.
The couple had met at an embassy tea party in Tokyo, where Lillian’s brother was Walter’s colleague at Waseda University—Walter also taught at Imperial University and was a patent attorney. It was in that role that he assisted Tokyo School for Foreign Children (the former name for ASIJ) in obtaining property from the Union Church at #17 Tsukiji in 1910 when the school needed to move location. Prior to that he had stepped in to act as interim principal for the school in the 1906-07 academic year.
Walter pursued Lillian for the next year and fol- lowed her on a return voyage to England via the Panama Canal. As the ship steamed out of New Orleans harbor, he proposed marriage for the last of many times. Lillian replied that they should toss for it and a silver coin was duly flipped. She lost and when they docked in New York a hasty marriage was arranged, an equally hasty honey- moon taken at Niagara Falls and then the onward journey to their home country completed.
Back in Tokyo, they settled into a large, comfortable residence close to the American Embassy in Toranomon in what is now the new wing of The Okura Hotel. The couple soon started their family and Olivia Mary was born on July 1, 1916. A little over a year later Joan joined the family. Right from the start the sisters enjoyed separate existences, each with their own day and night nurses as amahs were plentiful and cheap. Sickly Joan, with her baby eczema caused by her diet of goat’s milk, was of little interest to the active, olive-skinned Olivia.
Joan’s parents maintained an uneasy marriage those first few years. Lillian would later tell TIME magazine that her husband “spoke like God, but behaved like the devil.” Lillian had studied acting at RADA in London and had toured with renowned composer Ralph Vaughn Williams In Tokyo, she put her talents to use entertaining the foreign community with dinner shows, much to the annoyance of her husband. Joan would later quip that Walter “felt women should be seen, preferably undressed, and not heard at all.” He pursued his own interests—chess, go, tennis and geisha—and “delighted in upsetting the social smugness of the British colony as much as possible.” Soon it was his young wife who was upset, when one of the upstairs maids began wearing increasingly costly kimono. It was clear that she’d become more than just a maid and an ultimatum was issued—either the family or Yoki-san would have to go.
The de Havillands set sail for San Francisco in February 1919 for a climate that Lillian felt was more suitable for the children. Walter immediately headed back to Tokyo alone, to Yoki-san, leaving the children and his wife in an apartment near Golden Gate Park. Lillian consulted lawyers and abandoned the idea of continuing on to Italy, as California divorce and custody laws were more sympathetic to mothers. It was an uncertain few years that followed with the family first moving to the Vendome Hotel in San Jose, then to The Lundblands, a Swedish-run boarding house, and finally Green Cottages in Saratoga. The family also spent time at Hakone, a beautiful Japanese estate in the hills near Saratoga complete with tatami rooms, teahouses, ornamental gardens and ponds. Joan later remembered the estate as a “child’s paradise” and a place she felt reconnected with the land of her birth—today it is open to the public and appeared as a location in the film Memoirs of a Geisha (2005).
While they waited for the divorce proceedings to be figured out, Lillian and the girls got on with their lives. Olivia and Joan had already identified their mother’s next husband in the park in San Francisco. Olivia had spotted a mild-looking American gentleman reading a newspaper and decided that he was a good candidate. She pointed at him and called out “Dana-san, Dana-san!” to her mother. Lillian recognized that she was still speaking Japanese and saying “husband” and soon the two little girls had introduced her to their choice of future stepfather, part owner and manager of Hale Brother’s department store, George Fontaine. The nickname stuck and the girls continued to call George “Danny.” While her prospects in America began to look up, things with Walter were getting progressively worse and by the time Joan was 6, he’d begun to cut Lillian off financially. It became clear after consulting with British, American and Japanese legal experts that the only way forward was for Lillian to return to Tokyo and for Walter to sue for divorce there.
By this point Lillian and the girls had moved into a new home with Danny and so it was decided that Olivia and Joan would remain in California with their new guardian and his housekeeper while their mother went to Japan. Joan was inconsolable. It took almost a year for the divorce to be granted by the courts in Tokyo on February 23, 1925 and Lillian returned to California a free woman bearing gifts of Japanese dolls for her daughters. With so much expectation and longing to see her mother, Joan was disappointed by the reality. Her mother, unrecognizable in fashionable new clothes, was more interested in flirting with Danny on the way home from the Embarcadero and the Japanese doll was a stiff ceramic geisha housed in a sandal wood box like a coffin lined with silk.
Three months later the former Mrs de Havilland became Mrs Fontaine. A new Japanese housekeeper moved in but fortunately she turned out to be far different to Yoki-san. The family settled into a routine and the girls, already in school, began their real education— diction lessons, walking lessons, ballet classes and instruction in domestic science. Joan’s early years would continue to be plagued by illness with two serious later incidents that almost killed her. The first saw her contract German measles and strep throat simultaneously which resulted in a fever-induced coma. The second was a case of rheumatic fever at the age of 10 that produced a near-death out of body experience. Double pneumonia and pleurisy and a string of other complaints dogged her childhood.
Even when she was well, Joan suffered at the hands of others. Her relationship with Olivia continued to be strained and her stepfather grew increasingly dicta- to rial with middle age. Olivia’s memories of the period cast doubt on Joan’s preferred role of victim and she recalls being slapped in the face, taunting and merciless mimicry from her younger sibling. Only when pushed to the limit would Olivia snap and retaliate. Both sisters, however, were brutally punished by their stepfather who they nick- named the “Iron Duke.”
Forbidden from dallying on the way back from school, Joan stopped one day to answer an inquiry from a classmate’s mother, only to be interrogated by Danny when she arrived home. When she confessed, he grew enraged and struck her with a blow to the face strong enough to send her reeling through the glass door. Olivia faced his wrath too. She was to play the lead in the Los Gatos High School production of Pride and Prejudice, but all extra- curricular activities were deemed verboten by Danny. Lillian refused to give permission and Olivia opted to keep things secret. The morning of the performance, Olivia came downstairs to be met with red-faced fury and an ultimatum. If she left the house that day then she would leave forever. The decision was made and Olivia left, took to the stage, and never returned. Refusing to stay under the same roof as Mr Fontaine any longer, especially now her sister had left, Joan was sent back to the Lundbland’s boarding house. From there, Joan was sent to be the live-in babysitter for the family of a local newspaper editor in return for room and board. The final straw came with another act of violence, this time at the hands of her sister.
It was a July day in 1933 and the sisters were swimming at a friend’s pool. Joan had brought the baby with her and was holding her when Olivia suddenly became outraged at something Joan had done and flew at her. Olivia threw Joan down onto the flagstones and jumped on her. Joan dropped the baby, who fortunately escaped unscathed. Joan was not so lucky and ended up with a fractured collarbone. From the hospital, Joan wrote to her father in Tokyo.
In August, Walter arrived in the United States and took his now teenage daughters to Carmel for a two-week vacation while he decided how to deal with the disintegration of the family. At the La Playa Hotel it was decided that Olivia would continue to live by herself and would receive $50 a month, Joan would return to Japan with her father. Loaded up with new luggage, suits and evening dresses, 15-year-old Joan prepared to set sail on the Tastuta Maru with Walter, who was more stranger than father. The first three days aboard, Joan suffered from mal de mer, and homesickness, and remained close to the bathroom in her stateroom. Beyond Hawaii, she found her sea legs and companionship with Fred Maytag, the handsome 22-year-old heir to a washing-machine fortune. The attention of this dashing older man brought Joan out of her shell and their dances to the ship’s orchestra and deck-rail talks were much preferable to the deckchair Greek, Latin and chess lessons offered by her father. By the time the ship docked in Yokohama, Joan had blossomed into a sophisticated young lady.
Father and daughter were met by Yoki- san, who Walter had married at the British Embassy in Hanzomon in 1927. Expecting a geisha-like figure in an elegant kimono, Joan was surprised to find her stepmother was a chubby, cigarette-toting, rouged lady in lizard-skin pumps. On the taxi ride to The Imperial Hotel, where the de Havillands resided, Joan was covered in sticky kisses and petted by Yoki-san.
Ensconced in the hotel in a small single room, Joan’s first night back in Japan was a whirlwind of emotions. Her newly reunited father and stepmother had other things on their mind and so she was left alone to ponder the new sounds—the clatter of wooden geta on the street, someone playing a distant shamisen—that drifted through the French windows as she looked out on the city at sunset. “Lonely, lost and confused,” is how she would later describe that first evening, but soon Joan would begin school and a new chapter of her life.
Dressed in the latest American fashions and sporting a renewed British accent courtesy of her father, Joan was enrolled at the Tokyo American School in Naka-Meguro. The missionary children proved too naïve for this worldly teenager from California with the unconventional family and she discovered that only a few of the Embassy and expat kids could match her speed. It was decided that Joan should move into the dormitory, rather than stay with her father and Yoki-san, and so she now became Mrs Corbin the house- mother’s problem. Fortunately Joan’s new roommate, Eleanor Child, proved to be the perfect partner in crime.
Eleanor’s American father was in Japan with Harley-Davidson and her British mother would often invite Joan to join them at their beach house in Hayama. Together the pair were the self-appointed stars of the girls’ dorm and would remain lifelong friends. Eleanor would later marry a French art dealer and her daughter Gigi Perreau would become a Hollywood child star in the 1950s.
Lucille Corbin remembered Joan as a “friendly and gracious addition to the school.” Although one suspects that she wasn’t privy to everything that Joan and Eleanor got up to when they left their cluttered dorm room. The famous story of them shimmying down the drainpipe of the dorm building to head out for a night on the town was later dramatized as part of a showcase during ASIJ’s 75th anniversary celebrations. Given passes by the principal Mr Gladieux, the pair spent their weekends with the Childs in Yokohama dancing with US Ambassador Joseph Grew, drinking sloe gin fizzes with Belgian Ambassador Baron de Bassompierre and socializing with bachelors from British Standard Oil and Shell at Yokohama Country and Athletic Club. In addition to the naval attachés and young businessmen who filled her dance card, Joan’s schoolmate Alfred Nipkow ‘33 also came courting.
Alfred, “handsome and hazel-eyed,” was Joan’s favorite beau and she often spent weekends as the Nipkow’s guests in Yokohama. Alfred’s mother would lend her a fur coat to slip over her ballgown on chilly Saturday nights and send the pair back to school on a Sunday night with their chauffeur. Although the classmates’ romance ended when Joan left Japan, she remained lifelong friends with Alfred, who went on to work intelligence during World War II and received the Congressional Medal of Honor in 2011.
Joan’s life in Tokyo was, however, not “all gimlets and galas.”
Following a series of strained visits and vacations with her father and Yoki-san, the relationship between parent and child deteriorated further. Joan by now had moved out of the dorm and was rooming with her friend Margaret Raben ‘35 and her missionary family. Joan spent a good part of the summer of 1934 reading in her bedroom before another dreaded vacation en famille. Her father booked two rooms at the Keihin Hotel in Kamakura for the month of August and although Joan was delighted to be in close proximity to her friends in Hayama, escaping her sharp-eyed father proved difficult. She did manage to slip away some nights after the eight-course dinner, and Alfred also managed to visit. Sensing that Joan preferred the company of her friends over family, Walter issued an ultimatum.
Joan could stay in Japan, subject to his largesse, forego college and be nursemaid to his new family—Yoki-san was pregnant—or return to America and her mother. There was no choice in Joan’s mind. Despite a slew of offers to get married to allow her to stay in Tokyo, Joan really didn’t have a choice. Having not yet reached the age of majority she couldn’t marry without Walter’s permission and so by September first she had a tourist-class ticket for the S.S. President Hoover. She was seen off by her father who, fishing $50 out of his dog-eared wallet, announced that it was the last money she’d receive from him and that it was “goodbye and good riddance.” Olivia’s allowance was also going to be cut-off.
Joan’s sojourn in Japan was over but her journey to stardom was about to begin—and Olivia’s had just begun. Joan’s immediate return to California was a continuation of her chaotic family life and saw her stay first with friends and later get her own apartment while she attended Los Gatos High School. Her sister Olivia, who was touring in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, soon found herself under contract to Warner Brothers for $200 a month. She now supplied Joan’s allowance in place of their father. Following her stage success, Olivia found herself cast as Hermia again in the film of the same Shakespeare play. Through some old friends of the family who knew the actress May
Robson, an audition for Joan to follow in her big sister’s shoes was arranged at Olivia’s apartment in the Chateau des Fleurs.
The rest, as they say, is history.
Tokyo’s Imperial Hotel has played host to any number of luminaries over the years, but on March 16, 1962 the Peacock Room, decked out in black and gold, sparkled with the presence of Hollywood royalty. Back in the city of her birth for the first time since 1934, Joan Fontaine was guest of honor at her alma mater’s International Ball.
Joan had arrived the day before on a PanAm jetliner and was met a Haneda Airport by sixth grader Alicia Fortinberry ‘69—whose father, Lane, worked for TIME/Life and was co-chair of the event—and TOHO actress Asami Hodaka who appeared in Born in Sin (1962) and Star of Hong Kong (1962).
The award-winning star of Rebecca (1960), Jane Eyre (1943) and Born to be Bad (1950) captivated the school community in a simple apricot dress with intricate brocade on the bodice, her head adorned with a diamond and Mikimoto pearl tiara. Escorted by Richard Scott, she posed for photos with twelfth-grade girls in their national costumes. The “queen of the seventh annual International Ball” then held court with fellow alumnus and US Ambassador to Japan, Edwin O Reischauer ‘27 who was emcee for the evening. Ed’s wife, Haru ‘33 who was also in attendance, allowed her husband to lead the first dance of the evening with the Hollywood icon. One of the highlights of the party was when Joan reached into a golden treasure chest to draw the raffle—the lucky winner Jim Suydan drove home in the grand prize, a Nissan Bluebird Deluxe.
Joan would spend a week back in Tokyo, at the invitation of ASIJ, during which she retraced her steps and visited the Naka- Meguro campus. Catching up with friends, and even the amah who had cared for her as a small child, Joan noted that it felt good to be back in Japan. She had come full circle.
Always a somewhat unreliable narrator of her own drama, Joan’s recollections of what happened and what really occurred occasionally diverge. In a letter written later in her life, she claimed that she had danced with Reischauer at his embassy in Tokyo and that she’d cut the ribbon for the new Chofu campus the following day—evidence of any such ceremony is lacking while photos, programs and newspaper coverage clearly show that she danced with Reischauer at the ASIJ ball.
The famous feud between the sisters is also debatable and often overshadows what was undoubtedly a complex, and at times caring, relationship. While Olivia waited until she turned 100 and Joan had passed away to give a brief glimpse into her side of the story in an interview with the Associated Press, Joan was always more willing to fan the flames of film journalists’ curiosity—although she did play down the vendetta later in life. The story of their turbulent childhood, their sibling rivalry spilling over into an Oscar race, the supposed snubs and reports of romantic rivalry, and their status as the only siblings to both win best actress Academy Awards, all make for a great Hollywood legend. With a new TV show Feud in production chronicling the tale, Tinsletown continues to promote the story of sisterly struggles— true or not, it makes for great drama.
Behind the scenes, things may have been No Bed of Roses for Joan—the title of her 1978 autobiography—but her acting accomplishments speak for themselves. Olivia’s response when her sister passed away in 2013 was certainly more loving than Joan gave her credit for, in effect ruining Joan’s punchline to their supposed life- long rivalry. Joan’s quip to People magazine when promoting her life story was that, “I married first, won the Oscar before Olivia did, and if I die first, she’ll undoubtedly be livid because I beat her to it!”