Victoria Amador, 63, formerly of New London, Wisconsin, said when she grew up in the 1960s, it was a “right of passage for young women” to read Margaret Mitchell’s novel “Gone With the Wind.”
Amador read the novel in 1968, then a year later, at age 13, she watched the movie several times, totally “captivated” by the history in the film and the fiery portrayal of Scarlett O’Hara. She saw in Scarlett a woman who wouldn’t allow others to put limits on her life or treat her like a child.
She also was impressed by actress Olivia de Havilland’s portrayal of Melanie Hamilton in the film, a character Amador saw as a young woman of depth, with “. . . great strength, with true manners and with authentic spirit.”
By 1969 three of the lead actors in “Gone With the Wind” — Clark Gable, Vivien Leigh and Leslie Howard – had passed away, but de Havilland was still a working actor living in Paris.
The 13-year-old Amador wrote a fan letter to the two-time Oscar winner, expressing her teenage desire to also be an actress. Several weeks later an airmail envelope arrived with a French stamp answering Amador’s questions.
Amador wrote back and asked the Hollywood actress if she wanted to become pen pals.
“And she wrote back and that started a 50-year correspondence,” she said.
On Wednesday, June 5, at Out of the Woods Winery in Hayward, Amador discussed that 50-year pen pal relationship and meeting the actress in Paris. She had come to Hayward to discuss her new book “Olivia de Havilland, Lady Triumphant,” just published by University Press of Kentucky.
Amador’s connection to Hayward is through her college friend Elizabeth “Buffy” Riley. Both majored in theater at UW-Eau-Claire. Riley called Amador one of the best actresses she had ever witnessed.
Amador once pursued the same path de Havilland had taken into acting, but in 1981 she instead decided to become an academic, to pursue a Ph.D. and teach at the college level.
De Havilland wrote to the young college student that if she thought of teaching as a “form of communication, which mainly what acting is, too,” that Amador could also find creative fulfillment in being an academic.
In the late 1980s, Amador began teaching in Europe and pursued a personal meeting with de Havilland at her residence in Paris, where she had lived since 1953.
Every time Amador wrote of coming to Paris and asking for a meeting, she repeatedly received a similar message from de Havilland: “Dear Victoria, I’m so sorry but unfortunately I’m busy.”
The correspondence continued into a fourth decade without the two ever meeting, then finally when Amador was in Paris she marshaled up the courage to present herself unannounced at de Havilland’s door with a bouquet of flowers — but no meeting transpired.
Finally in 2012, Amador received an invitation from de Havilland for tea, but when Amador arrived she was informed de Havilland was ill. Later, Amador received yet another invitation and at last arrived at de Havilland’s large house, waiting for the actress to appear down a majestic stairway covered in red carpet, a fitting entrance for a Hollywood actress.
“And there she was, Olivia de Havilland,” Amador said. “She was wearing a white silk blouse with her trademark pearls, a black skirt, and she came to me and said, ‘At last we meet.’”
The meeting was “one of the most wonderful moments of my life,” Amador said. The two talked about their lives and de Havilland even expressed empathy for Amador’s then -recent divorce.
On why it took over 40 years for the two to meet after decades of correspondence, Amador said, de Havilland also corresponded with several others and by the time Amador was able to visit the actress in Paris de Havilland was in her late 80s and was much less active.
In 2013, Amador was scheduled to visit de Havilland again, when actress Joan Fontaine, de Havilland’s sister, passed away. The visit was canceled.
The sisters “had been estranged for almost 40 years,” Amador said, “but Olivia didn’t know Joan had been ill, so when Joan died at age 93, it was a surprise and I think it set her into a bit of a spiral.”
In 2015, Amador again visited de Havilland, but this time the meeting occurred at the St. James Hotel, a former chateau, where the actress had moved while her house was under renovation. The actress made an appearance wearing a black velvet and golden embroidered caftan bought for her by Amador.
The 2015 meeting was a three-bottles-of-champagne gathering at which they caught up with one another and de Havilland discussed her life goals, including reaching the age 100.
On July 1, 2016, de Havilland turned 100 and the magazine “Vanity Fair” ran a feature on her. That same year de Havilland’s book, “Every Frenchman Has One,” was reissued and the actress sat for a book signing in Paris.
De Havilland turns 103 this July 1.
Hollywood’s Golden Age
“I wanted to get this written before Olivia went to the great studio in the sky,” Amador said of the book.
As an academic and teacher, Amador said, her interest is the golden age of Hollywood, women in film and female role models.
“For me I’ve been so fortunate that Olivia de Havilland has really been a role model for me for 50 years, so what this book is designed to do is examine her long and rich life, and inspire a renewed appreciation of her career, because Olivia was amazing,” she said. “She worked from 1935 to 1988, which is a long, long time to be viable, and in 1986, two years before she retired, she won a Golden Globe for best supporting actress. She’s got two Oscars — so does Bette Davis (the two were good friends) — and five (Oscar) nominations.”
De Havilland made history when she sued film producer Jack Warner to be released from a studio contract after seven years when the studio claimed she still owed it more time because of a suspension issued on her for refusing roles. In the lawsuit, which she won, de Havilland spent $13,000 (roughly $200,000 in today’s dollars) and two years of her life to fight the studio right at time when her career was peaking, but she was still able to work while the lawsuit was being waged.
“That decision — called the de Havilland decision — is still in force today,” Amador said.
Besides two Oscars, de Havilland has been awarded the Légion d´ Honneur in France, the Presidential Arts Medal in the U.S. and appointment to Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire.
Amador said de Havilland had some high profile romances, such as with billionaire Howard Hughes, actor Jimmy Stewart, who she wanted to marry, and famous film director John Huston, whom she called “the great romance of her life.”
During research for the book, Amador told de Havilland she had met with Huston’s daughters, including actress Anjelica Huston.
“O really, you talked about Johnny,” de Havilland said. “No one knows the true story but me.”
Amador said the big question she asks in the book is why de Havilland is not more recognized as a legend of cinema.
She recounted several of her great roles besides “Gone With the Wind,” including “Captain Blood,” “The Adventures of Robin Hood,” “The Charge of the Light Bridgade,” “To Each his Own,” “The Snake Pit,” “The Heiress,” “The Strawberry Blonde,” “Hold Back the Dawn,” “The Dark Mirror,” “Hush … Hush Sweet Charlotte” and many more.
Amador said de Havilland didn’t play the Hollywood game, and by moving to Paris and just taking roles that fit her life and allowed her to be devoted to her two children she stayed out of the limelight.
And after winning her second Oscar in 1949, Amador said, it appeared de Havilland didn’t feel she had anything else to prove.
“So despite all the wonderful opportunities that she’s had, despite all the wonderful awards, I think she’s been forgotten, except for ‘Gone With the Wind,’” said Amador.
In 2017, de Havilland sued the producer of “Feud,” a mini-series recounting the working relationship between actresses Joan Crawford and Bette Davis. In the movie de Havilland is portrayed by Catherine Zeta-Jones, who uses inflammatory language when talking about Joan Fontaine, which de Havilland claimed she never used. The resulting lawsuit made it all the way to the Supreme Court where it failed to be taken up by the court.
While writing the book, Amador said, de Havilland insisted on sending all her responses to questions via email and would not allow any recording of their conversations.
As part of her research, Amador spent a week at the Academy Award Library in Beverly Hills, California, reviewing original memos and notes.
“The more I found out about her, the more respect I had for her,” Amador said. “She is tough. She is a tough cookie.”
It took Amador seven years to finish the book and at no time, she said, did de Havilland try to shape it or even offer suggestions.
When asked what de Havilland takes the most pride in concerning her career, Amador said she is very proud of winning the lawsuit against Jack Warner, and of her role in “Heiress,” for which she won her second Oscar, and, of course, for “Gone With the Wind.”
Amador took several questions about writing the book and about her relationship with de Havilland.
She encouraged the audience to revisit de Havilland’s movies and appreciate her work.