I was very pleased to see Olivia de Havilland, aged 99, has been chosen by the Oldie as their ‘Oldie of the Year’. Olivia was one of the 289 women I interviewed for my first book, WOMEN, part of which was serialised inThe Times for 5 days, in 1987.
Here is what Olivia told me then about the various subjects I broached with all my interviewees, listed under the questions all of them were asked.
My Early Influences
My mother had a sense of responsibility towards both of her children, and I think she rather though they would accomplish something, and she was rather for that. She was a kind of adventurous person herself, though very conventional in many ways. None the less, she won two musical scholarships to Reading College, the first when she was fifteen. It’s only in thinking about my mother now she is gone, and thinking about her in the terms of the period in which she lived, that I see she was quite unusual and had lots of initiative and was quite wonderful. After she won the second musical scholarship, at twenty-one, they wanted her to stay at Reading College as a teacher, but she decided the academic life was rather narrow and got on a ship and went out to Japan to be with her brother, who was a brilliant young man, a lot older than my mother, who had married a Japanese, and they had a child, and that in 1907. She loved the life in Japan and joined the Tokyo Amateur Theatrical Society, who apparently put on very good productions. One day, when she was singing in church, a lady came up and said, may I write a musical play for you? My mother thought, well, I am trained as a musician, but I had better find out something about acting if people are going to write musical plays for me. So off she went, back to London. Then the First World War broke out. My father, whom she had known for seven years in Tokyo, came to London and persuaded her to marry him and so she went the second time to Tokyo. I was born two years later, my dear sister a year and three months after me. And again my mother did something unusual – separation and divorce weren’t all that common then. Off she went with me and my sister, to take us back to England. The war was just over. We had to stop in San Francisco. I had a fever and the doctor said, you cannot cross the country with a child with tonsils like these; they have to come out. So she stayed on in San Francisco and then moved again, down to a better climate south of San Francisco, to a lovely village she found, and decided to change her mind yet again and live in another foreign country. Then she went back to Japan to arrange the divorce from my father. She had technically abandoned him by not living where he lived and where his business was conducted. But she made these decisions, and though I don’t think she thought of herself as a courageous and enterprising person, she really was.
I don’t think I’ve ever felt a real sort of imprisonment in the feminine role. I love being a woman, I love being female. The motion-picture industry was dominated by males, of course. But I rather liked working with them. Most of the administrative positions were held by men. Sometimes I thought their opinions unreasonable, but I have since discovered, as women grow into positions of authority, that they lack practical common sense and good judgement. I found it more frustrating dealing with women in administrative positions than dealing with men in administrative positions. Men are more reasonable, I think, and they have a sense of the architecture of the situation; they understand its structure and elements involved and what has to be respected to have things go well and an objective achieved. I find women thick-headed, muddy-minded, if not bloody-minded. It’s very surprising. I don’t know how to deal with women yet, and I am going to have to do it because I have got to keep them from making their mistakes. I mustn’t be so compliant and so polite
Sometimes men would not trust my judgement because I was a woman. Another thing in the film business was the enraging attitude that, if she is pretty, she has to be stupid. But much worse was to be thought an intellectual, because an intellectual woman obviously was sexless, and to be sexless was fatal in the film industry. That was what you had to put up with and that was maddening, absolutely infuriating. I had to go to London recently for some fittings for films for television, and the travel arrangements were being made by a company apparently run by women. Three of them met me at the airport, and one of them said, oh, you know Miss de Havilland has written a book, to which the second woman remarked, she’s written a book? Really? There are actresses that are intelligent? I’ve never gotten over this, especially because it came from a woman. It’s unbelievable, that women suffer from that prejudice, too.
Sex is one of the most wonderful means of communicating with a man. It is glorious when it is part of a really responsive relationship. Nothing can touch that.
Promiscuity is absolutely bad form. It’s unattractive, it’s wasteful, it’s wasteful of life, and it’s unaesthetic.
I was just talking to a man down in Vienna, and he told me he had been faithful to his wife for ten years. Women were always after him, he was a terribly attractive young man, but he resisted them. And he did that because he knew his wife was faithful. He expected that, of course. He would have been destroyed if she weren’t, psychologically destroyed; men do expect that of their women. But, finally, when the marriage apparently was over, he became very promiscuous for five years. Then the next five years he was promiscuous but more selective. He asked more of this sexual experience than he had before. And finally, and this is really terribly sad, he became disgusted with it all and has given it up. That tells you something. I don’t think promiscuity suits men. It is just as tatty for a man to be promiscuous as for a woman. And it’s terribly irresponsible, because there he is, spreading his seed, and that is a terribly negligent thing to do. Terribly irresponsible towards himself and his possible children. Dreadful, dreadful. It is criminally irresponsible, when you really think it through. Women are supposed to be more selective. Whether they are today or not, I don’t know. I don’t know what moves them, I don’t understand them.
Nothing surpasses having a child. I think abortion is murder. That’s all there is to it. I’m absolutely against it.
I am much more comfortable in the company of men. Much more. I don’t find women interesting, generally speaking. I have women friends, lots of them, but I don’t have the tremendous need for female companionship many women do.
Sexual attraction can be very blinding. It has to be there, of course, but you can be attracted to someone who won’t be good for you at all, not at all. Destructive even. And, in the long run, a deep and destructive disappointment.
I think you have to examine the marriages that endured but may not have lasted. The framework endured, but what about the relationship? In so many cases, it was because that was the convention and there was no other choice for most women. They had to stick with it for practical reasons, all sorts of reasons. They weren’t permitted to work in a dignified and rewarding manner. Maybe the real truth about marriage is that many of them probably didn’t work at all and were absolutely hollow and empty. Women have other alternatives today, they have more choice. We need education on what sort of person we will fulfil and what sort of person will fulfil us in a continuing relationship. Marriage is a very special, very extraordinary relationship. I don’t think you can put just any two people together and have a good marriage result. It’s like casting a film. You can miscast people and you are going to get a very bad film if you do, no matter how good the script may be.
There is such a thing as a masculine mind, the mind that has the sense of architecture. Now, I know some women who have masculine minds. Bette Davis is one, and I respect her mentality deeply and get along with her where other people can’t. The reason is that I know how her mind is going to work. It will go straight to the point, like that, and she is fearless in defending her position, ferocious. And I watch all this and am really fascinated because I respect the way her mind works, I can see the quality of her thinking. She gets right to the point of things, she has a sense of architecture in situations. I don’t understand a women’s mind, anyway. I really don’t. I don’t pay much attention to them and what they have to say. I really don’t, as a general rule, have much respect for women’s minds. They are appallingly inaccurate, superficial, and I think they lack judgement, I really do.
Olivia is certainly a woman not afraid to speak her mind as my readers will deduce from her feisty responses. Her views on women are not ones I share, but I found her a formidable woman of great charm.