To Commemorate Joan Fontaine’s Death

at age 96, I decided to look at the autobiography she wrote in the late 1970s, “No Bed of Roses”.  What a strange book it is……and how unusual a person Fontaine must have been been.

It’s like there were two different Joan Fontaines.

Joan Fontaine, the actress, comes across as a hard worker and successful professional, who had no problem getting work, and who got along well with her fellow actors, directors and other screen and stage personnel.

Joan Fontaine, the person, comes across as someone who hadn’t a clue how to manage her life.

Part of this can be attributed to an absolutely wacky upbringing – a crazy father, a crazy mother, and a rivalry with her sister, Olivia de Havilland that often knew no bounds.  She recognized the uniqueness of her family situation, but seemed, like a Greek hero, to avoid the plans of the gods, by repeating so many of her parents’ mistakes.

The de Havillands (that was her family name; Fontaine was the name of a stepfather, her mother’s second husband) were English, but living in Japan when the two girls were born (Olivia was the older, but less than two years separated them). Her father came from a very old, aristocratic family, and had the haughtiness to prove it; her mother’s family was less distinguished. Her father was well educated, and quite a good linguist; he taught English in Japan.  Her mother had gone to Japan because she had a brother teaching at the same school.

The marriage did not last, and mother and daughters caught a boat to San Francisco – planning on continuing to Italy, but learning that the Italian laws would not be friendly if de Havilland made a demand for his children. So they stayed, and eventually became American citizens.

Being a single mother with two young daughters was not much fun, even in California of the 1920s. Joan’s mother found a new man, a businessman named Fontaine, who (according to Joan) turned out to be a much too strict disciplinarian (and for a year, her mother left them with their stepfather when she went to Japan to obtain her divorce).  Both girls rebelled in their way, and eventually Olivia went to live with a family down the road, and Joan was sent back to Japan to live with her (now remarried) father.  This did not work well either, and Joan eventually ran away from her father, caught a ship to America (without telling her mother), calling an old family friend when she got off the boat with about $20 in her pocket, who gave her a temporary place to stay. Her relationship with her mother was off and on, and her relationship with her father virtually non-existent after she left Japan.  (He left Japan too as the clouds of the Second World War grew, and wound up in Vancouver for the rest of his life. America was beneath him.)  I could go on….but you get the picture.

Then there was precocious Olivia, who was the elder, learned to read first, and was clearly, it appears, her mother’s favorite.  When Olivia decided to go into acting (their mother had done her share of acting at one time), her mother became a stage mother, pretty much leaving Joan to fend for herself, moving to Los Angeles with Olivia while Joan stayed with the evil stepfather.  And of course, her mother’s marriage to Fontaine ended.

Joan herself seemed to stumble into acting, but took to it like the proverbial duck takes to the proverbial water.  She got roles, she met people, she got more roles, and apparently did it at a time when the easiest way to do it was to sleep with the casting agent, something she really did not appear to have done.

Men were obviously very attracted to Joan, and she appears to have wanted nothing more than a loving husband taking care of her, the typical little house with the picket fence, and children.  As long, of course, as she did not have to give up her career which by then was taking her all around the world on a continual basis making her films.

She was married three times, each time to someone who didn’t stand a chance of being the husband that she said she was looking for.  She had her daughter, and grew as distant to her as her mother had been to Joan. Madonna-style, she brought a young girl back from the mountains of Peru (she never adopted her) to give her a chance at a much fuller life; she did have a much fuller life but became entirely estranged from Joan.

Yet, while all this was going on, Joan Fontaine was making wonderful films, getting awards, appearing on Broadway, touring in plays all over the world, meeting all the right people (actors, sportsmen, presidents and royalty), learning to fly, to do competitive fishing, to jump horses, to crew hot air balloons, and more and more.

Joan’s mother and father both lived into their 90s.  Her sister is now 97, and Joan died at 96.  You would think that she must have been a very healthy person.  But the contrary is true.  She was a very sickly child, often hospitalized.  She had to miss a lot of school because of various illnesses.  When she was an adult, she went through a period of years when she had mysterious weaknesses and continual fevers.  She had an accident where she crushed some discs which led to recurring back problems.  Yet her career, and her traveling, continued.

How honest she was in the book,, it is hard to say.  And because her book was published in 1978, the last 35 years are not accounted for.  It would be interesting to know if she ever was able to resolve her difficulties in relating to the others in her life for more than a few days – I understand that she never reconciled with her daughter or sister.

There are a few odd things in the book.  When Fontaine married her second husband, William Dozier, she received a phone call from a Los Angeles gossip reporter asking her if she knew about the “damaging episode” in her husband’s past?  She did not, but her husband told her it was just a “youthful aberration”.  She knew then her marriage would not last.  OK, I get the words, and I can guess what might have happened.  But Fontaine never says what the “damaging episode” was.  Why would she leave this out, as she talks about a lot of damaging episodes in this book?

Secondly, after her final marriage failed, she spent at least 8 years with a man she does not identify by name, but calls “Dr. Noh”.  Why wouldn’t she give his name? She was with him continually and publicly for 8 years.  Odd.

Worth reading?  Sure.  Titillating? Not at all.  Bed of roses?  Depends on your definition.

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