February 1946: Queen Elizabeth and the Royal Family attending a ballet at the opening to the Covent Garden Royal Opera House
Photo by David E. Scherman
DECEMBER 7, 1941. Pearl Harbor. Roosevelt’s voice over the radio telling the American people that this day would “live in infamy.” Hollywood was stunned but soon rallied: there might be a buck to make out of the war at that. A series of war films were rushed into production.
On my twenty-second birthday, my one day off in the two-month shooting schedule, the assistant director called our house at noon, saying Hitchcock wanted me on set at four that afternoon to rehearse a scene for the next day. No, I didn’t need to be in costume and makeup. Begrudgingly, I drove to the studio, where I was told to wait on the set in my green canvas cubicle until called. When I could have been home, working in the garden, enjoying my day of leisure!
Suddenly I heard “Happy Birthday to You” being sung by many voices. Emerging from my dressing room, I was surrounded by the entire crew, Monty Westmore, George Barnes and his assistant, Jack Warren, my hairdresser, the wardrobe girl, and Hitchcock. On a tea table, the gift of one of the carpenters, who had made it himself, stood a lighted birthday cake. An afghan crocheted by the wardrobe girl. Assorted presents from the crew. The only actor present was Reginald Denny, who told me the hour’s delay was caused by the fact that numerous telephone calls had been placed to Judith Anderson’s dressing room, where the other actors had congregated.
“I donned my wedding dress, unfortunately putting the petticoat under instead of over the hoop of my satin gown. The photographs of us coming out of the church, published in a spread of the wedding by Life magazine, clearly show my error. My wedding day had not started well.”
“After we’d signed necessary documents, he asked of us two things. First, that I be baptized. I promised that I would, but didn’t say when. His second request was that we kneel down and pray before consummating our marriage, and every time subsequently that we indulged in marital relations. Embarrassed, scarcely knowing each other, Brian and I got the giggles.”
Microphones were thrust in front of us. Brian was to deliver a message to the R.A.F. pilots who would be listening to a shortwave rebroadcast. Did he have anything in particular to say to these brave airmen? Brian said yes, indeed, he did. “Chaps, keep your peckers up!” Silence enveloped the Temple. The girls fled in embarrassment. The presiding minister blanched. Only when I got my English husband back to our hotel did I inform him that in America “pecker” did not mean “chin.”
From the dais, Ginger Rogers, to whom I had lost the previous year, slowly read the list of nominees for the best-actress award:
- Bette Davis for The Little Foxes
- Greer Garson for Blossom in the Dust
- Barbara Stanwyck for Ball of Fire
- Olivia de Havilland for Hold Back the Dawn
- Joan Fontaine for Suspicion
And then she said, “The envelope, please.” The banquet room was silent. The gentleman from Price, Waterhouse slithered onto the stage. With trembling hand he presented Ginger with the sealed document. The mike amplified the sound of the ripping of paper. Ginger cleared her throat. “The winner is … Joan Fontaine for Sus—” The last syllables were drowned in gasps, whistles, applause.
I froze. I stared across the table, where Olivia was sitting directly opposite me. “Get up there, get up there,” she whispered commandingly. Now what had I done! All the animus we’d felt toward each other as children, the hair-pullings, the savage wrestling matches, the time Olivia fractured my collarbone, all came rushing back in kaleidoscopic imagery. My paralysis was total. I felt Olivia would spring across the table and grab me by the hair. I felt age four, being confronted by my older sister. Damn it, I’d incurred her wrath again!
Actually, Olivia took the situation very graciously. I am sure it was not a pleasant moment for her, as she’d lost the preivous year for Melanie in Gone With the Wind in the supporting-actress category. (She’s made it up with two Oscars since, for To Each His Own in 1946, and for The Heiress in 1949, so the evening was only a temporary setback.)
There was nothing for it but that I get up, shakily make my way to the rostrum, and accept the award. Cries of “Speak, speak!” echoed through the room as I tried to find my voice. I haven’t the faintest idea what I said in my acceptance speech. God knows I hadn’t rehearsed anything.
It was a bittersweet moment. I was appalled that I’d won over my sister. At twenty-three I may have been the youngest leading lady to receive an Oscar.
February 26, 1942
One morning two weeks later the telephone rang as I was cooking breakfast in my rented cottage near Warwick. It was the first I knew that Olivia had arrived in Santa Barbara. “How is she? How is she?” I blurted, my heart beating fast.
“Well,” too calmly replied my sister, “she’s sitting up in bed. I’ve put a ribbon in her hair and given her a manicure.” She continued without hesitation,” Id don’t think she has cancer at all.”