Joan Fontaine Biography, Book Review, TCM Summer Under the Stars Preview

Joan Fontaine 1954 Klene Dutch Trading CardIn the age of the tell-all Academy Award winning actress Joan Fontaine told more than most. She named names with an almost gleeful vindictiveness, but stood behind her 1978 autobiography, No Bed of Roses, that fall when the press quizzed her about some of its juicier contents.

With both Miss Fontaine and her sister Olivia De Havilland still with us (Fontaine turns 96 this October; De Havilland just celebrated her 97th birthday) and having just read the Fontaine perspective of their longtime rift in No Bed of Roses, my favorite Fontaine tidbit comes courtesy of the final question in one of those late ‘70s promotional pieces. Christopher P. Andersen of People asked Miss Fontaine, “How do you want to die?”

The then 61-year-old actress replied:

“At age 108, flying around the stage in Peter Pan, as a result of my sister cutting the wires. Olivia has always said I was first at everything—I got married first, got an Academy Award first, had a child first. If I did, she’ll be furious, because again I’ll have got there first!”

Hey, it could still happen!

Joan Fontaine Summer Under the Stars

Turner Classic Movies celebrates the movies of Joan Fontaine all day Tuesday, August 6, 2013 with 24-hours of Summer Under the Stars programming beginning at 6:00 am EST.

All three of Joan Fontaine’s Oscar nominated performances are on the schedule with the title she won her Academy Award for, Alfred Hitchcock’s Suspicion (1941), playing at 6:00 pm. Suspicion is followed at 8 pm by the film Fontaine received her first nomination for the previous year, Rebecca (1940), another Hitchcock title based on the bestselling Daphne Du Maurier novel and filmed under the auspices of David O. Selznick for Selznick International.

The film that garnered Fontaine her third Best Actress nomination, The Constant Nymph (1943), which had been tied up by rights issues for nearly sixty years until TCM brought it back at their 2011 Film Festival, plays later that night at 2:15 am. While The Constant Nymph has now aired several times on TCM and even received a DVD release from Warner Archive, it is still the least known of Fontaine’s big three films and to my mind the best of that trio of performances. Fontaine herself repeatedly named it as her favorite of her own films. I’m with her—don’t miss it!

Joan Fontaine and Charles Boyer Bus Pass ad

Charles Boyer and Joan Fontaine pictured in ad for THE CONSTANT NYMPH on this 1943 weekly St. Louis area bus pass. Click the image to see several other bus passes from this series.

Other popular titles on TCM’s Fontaine day include the Max Ophuls classic Letter from an Unknown Woman (1948) at 10:30 pm and Fontaine in support in Gunga Din (1939) at 4:00 pm. The day begins with a pair of early RKO features from 1937 and is rounded out by Fontaine’s screen work from the 1950s.

Joan Fontaine Biography

Joan Fontaine 1951 Artisti del Cinema Trading CardShe was born Joan de Beauvoir de Havilland in Tokyo, where her father was a patent attorney, on October 22, 1917. Her parents separated in 1919 with mother Lilian taking Joan and older sister Olivia, also Tokyo born, with her to settle in Saratoga, California.

Joan attended high school in Saratoga, but returned to Japan when she was sixteen to live with her father. As detailed in No Bed of Roses the relationship between father and daughter quickly soured and Joan returned to the States in 1935.

She followed her sister’s footsteps to an acting career, but not wanting to impinge upon Olivia’s fame began acting under various pseudonyms. She was Joan Burfield for a bit part in MGM’s No More Ladies (1935) and Joan St. John in a San Francisco stage production of Kind Lady that same year.

“I did resent having to change my name. Terribly. I still do,” she said in 1978. “Joan Fontaine. I don’t know who she is. I’m Joan de Havilland. I was born that. Joan Fontaine is sort of a fictitious person I’m looking after, doing the best I can for her” (Flander).

The name Joan Fontaine came courtesy of a fortuneteller stopping by her table at the Trocadero nightclub. “Think of a name with an e on the end” (71), the woman suggested. Joan blurted out her stepfather’s surname, Fontaine, an especially odd choice given that on page 33 of her memoirs Fontaine all but directly accuses George Fontaine of molesting her and Olivia when they were children.

Joan Fontaine signs contract

Brief article spotted in the El Paso Herald Post, March 3, 1937, page 18, announcing Fontaine's signing with RKO. Joan is incorrect identified as Olivia's half-sister.

Fontaine played an unbilled role in RKO’s Quality Street (1937) starring Katharine Hepburn and was Fred Astaire’s first leading lady not named Ginger Rogers in A Damsel in Distress later that year. Like many young contract players Fontaine was mostly tested in a series of “B” movie leads in the late 1930s with her best film appearance to date coming on loan out to MGM for The Women (1939).

The next portion of Joan Fontaine’s Hollywood career, her most successful period, came courtesy of a chance comment about current bestsellers with a gentleman seated next to her at a dinner party. When Fontaine mentioned how she had just read Du Maurier’s Rebecca the man replied, “I just bought the novel today. My name is David Selznick” (90).

Joan Fontaine 1940 Max Cinema Cavalacade Tobacco Card from A and M Wix, Volume 2

Fontaine in REBECCA on 1940 Trading Card.

And so began Joan Fontaine’s wildly successful 1940s on film, a period in which she appeared in just 13 titles but garnered those three Academy Award nominations, including her victory for Suspicion, plus additional popular titles such as Jane Eyre (1943), The Affairs of Susan (1945), Ivy (1947), and Letter from an Unknown Woman (1948).

An aside to those of you who read my review of My Lunches with Orson, it’s now clear to me that the distaste Welles felt for Jane Eyre co-star Fontaine was mutual. Extremely mutual, in fact, as Fontaine dedicates two full pages (153-154) to tearing Welles apart in her autobiography, before casually tossing a couple of additional daggers later in her story.

Fontaine continued to appear in movies through the 1950s at the same pace as the decade before, though without any roles as plum as those classic few from the ‘40s. She also kept busy on the stage, where she replaced Deborah Kerr in 1954’s Tea and Sympathy on Broadway, and with television appearances. Fontaine’s last movie to be released to theaters was her contribution to the ‘60s cycle of horror films featuring noted actresses of Hollywood’s Golden Age, The Witches (1966) made for Hammer Films in England.

Joan Fontaine continued to make television guest appearances and even received a Daytime Emmy nomination for her 1980 work on the soap opera Ryan’s Hope. Her final film appearance was in 1994’s Good King Wenceslas, which originally aired on The Family Channel.

No Bed of Roses

“When you become a legend,” Fontaine told New York Times service writer Judy Flander in 1978, “people become experts on your life.”

Fontaine attempted to put a lid on all that by setting the record straight with No Bed of Roses, but the moody memoirs really wound up adding fuel to the fire and tying her legacy even tighter to that of her sister, Olivia De Havilland, the villain of the piece.

Joan Fontaine boxing

Early Joan Fontaine promotional photo spotted in the Hutchinson News Herald, November 21, 1937, page 10B.

Whether she knew it or not, Fontaine presented herself as a difficult character to get along with, barely taking time to mention a famous name without torching a bit of the legacy behind it along the way. As the years pass and the pages progress Fontaine becomes a bit more likable, though I spent most of my reading perplexed by what is at the very least a totally unforgiving nature.

After 270 pages where practically everyone she’s ever known or worked with is tossed under the bus, Fontaine concludes No Bed of Roses with a touching seven page epilogue that is a beautiful essay of love and appreciation to her recently departed mother. Mother Lilian seems both pawn and chess master when it comes to the decades long bitterness between her two surviving daughters. Fontaine’s parting words to mother complicate all that has come before it in No Bed of Roses leaving us with only a hint of the true relationship between mother and daughter that no one else could ever know.

It seems a shame that 35 years later it still stands as the final word. Olivia de Havilland was said to be working on her own autobiography from the time that her sister’s book was published. It has never materialized. In 2010 French President Nicholas Sarkozy presented Olivia with the Légion d’honneur. Coverage concentrated upon Joan Fontaine’s absence from the ceremony.

Olivia remains in Paris, Joan in California.

That seems to be the final page … unless someone books Peter Pan under the big top for some time in 2025.

Enjoy Joan Fontaine on TCM today and be sure to check out what other film bloggers are talking about at the Summer Under the Stars Blogathon at Sittin' On a Backyard Fence and ScribeHard on Film.

Visit the Summer Under the Stars Blogathon for more Joan Fontaine posts


  • Andersen, Christopher P. “In No Bed of Roses, Joan Fontaine Talks About the Thorns in Her Life.” People 20 Nov 1978. Web. People Archive. 5 Aug 2013.
  • Flander, Judy. “Joan Fontaine Claims Stardom Is Hard Work.” Sarasota Herald-Tribune 16 Oct 1978: 6B. Web. Google News. 5 Aug 2013.
  • Fontaine, Joan. No Bed of Roses: An Autobiography New York: William Morrow, 1978.

Joan Fontaine 5x7 Fan Photo


  1. says

    Thanks for the review of No Bed of Roses. It’s been on my list of books to read for ages. As actors, I’ve Hopefully they can find it in themselves to bury the hatchet some time before it’s too late.

    • says

      Thank you, Kendra. It’s a quick read. All the chapters are short, just 3-4 pages, with most including a shocker of some sort. That shot I included of Fontaine boxing may not be the clearest image on the site, but I thought of No Bed of Roses the second I ran into it! She’s scrapping from cover to cover, barring that final epilogue.

  2. says

    VERY nice analysis! Here’s my take on “No Bed of Roses”–Joan wrote it when she was terribly angry with Olivia over the misunderstanding around their mother’s death. It probably wasn’t a wise move, and I don’t think she really meant for it to be the final straw between her and Olivia. Joan has attempted several times in recent years to reconcile with Olivia, but I don’t think it’s going to happen. I have been in correspondence with Joan for some time, and I’m really impressed with who she is as a person. She’s definitely shy, and doesn’t like a lot of attention. Wants to live a quiet retired life. But she’s wonderful to her fans and answers fan mail like a pro!

    • says

      Thanks, glad you enjoyed it! And thanks for your insight. Yeah, that’s some seriously bad timing, though a book didn’t get published overnight in those days so I’m sure she knew what she was doing at the time. But beyond what’s been aired publicly that’s their business. I’m glad to hear she keeps up the letter writing and that’s pretty neat that you’ve had an ongoing correspondence with her!

      • says

        Yes, I’m sure she did. The book was published 3 years after their mother’s death, and with a major miscommunication/rift like that, it certainly might take a lot longer than 3 years for the dust to settle. I think Joan was angry for a very long time. Recently though, she’s really made an effort to mend those complicated relationships in her life. According to her secretary, she has reconciled with Martita and she and Debbie visit often. And as I mentioned before, she’s tried with Olivia, but Olivia doesn’t seem to be ready. I don’t blame her. I can’t take sides on this because there is no way we can fully know both perspectives–there seems to have been a lot of bad blood starting from the day Joan was born.

        • says

          Had been wondering about Martita and Debbie. Couldn’t find any good news about them publicly so was worried that all remained status quo. She hadn’t presented the Martita story well in No Bed of Roses, or at least I didn’t take it well.

          Absolutely right, people are quick to judge but we can’t possibly know or understand the particulars or emotions behind their exact situation. They might not even fully grasp it themselves! Thanks again!

  3. says

    I’ve always been fascinated by their feud but like Kendra said, I really hope they can make peace before it’s too late. I’ve had Joan’s memoir on my reading list for quite a while now. Next time I’m feeling super catty, I’ll have to pick up a copy. 😉

    Thanks for the great piece, Cliff.


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