"If I die first, she'll be furious": The Oscar-winning silver screen sisters traded many barbs over the years.

By James Hibberd
July 27, 2020 at 03:59 PM EDT
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Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images

It was a celebrity feud that seemingly started at birth and only ended in death.

Silver screen star and two-time Oscar winner Olivia de Havilland, who died Saturday at the age of 104, had a lifelong rivalry with her sister, actress Joan Fontaine (who died in 2013).

Here is a timeline of the main points:

—The sisters were born 15 months apart (de Havilland was older) and their rivalry was apparent even in childhood, when they shared a bedroom. According to PEOPLE, de Havilland would scare Fontaine "with dramatic readings of the Bible's crucifixion scene," while Fontaine would get back at de Havilland by "mimicking every word she said." In her 1978 memoir, No Bed of Roses, Fontaine recalled more physical confrontations, describing "the animus we'd felt toward each other as children, the hair-pullings, the savage wrestling matches, the time Olivia fractured my collarbone..." As further described by Country Living the collarbone incident came about when "Joan was in the water and tried to pull Olivia in by the ankle, but the older, stronger sister put up a fight that resulted in Joan fracturing her collarbone on the pool ledge."

A LIFE magazine profile suggested their hostility was even worse than that: "At the age of 9, Joan decided she would kill her sister. She thought it all out carefully: she would let Olivia hit her once, and then again, in silence. But after the third blow, she would plug Olivia between the eyes." Obviously, she didn't go through with it.

—De Havilland became a working actress first, being cast in a big-screen adaptation of A Midsummer Night's Dream when she was 18 years old. According to Country Living, Fontaine lobbied her older sister to help her become an actress too. De Havilland agreed to help if Joan would change her last name to avoid industry confusion, so Joan took on their stepfather's surname, Fontaine. According to Biography, after the name change de Havilland said, "Joan Fontaine. I don't know who she is."

—Producer David O. Selznick wanted to cast de Havilland in Alfred Hitchcock's 1940 film Rebecca but she was still under contract at Warner Bros. Selznick reportedly asked de Havilland, "Would you mind if I take your sister?" De Havilland told Vanity Fair, "I was losing a brilliant part, but okay." Fontaine got the role — and was nominated for an Oscar, the first for either sister.

—In 1942, the sisters were both nominated for an Oscar in the same category. Fontaine won for Suspicion while de Havilland was nominated for Hold Back the Dawn. Fontaine and de Havilland were seated at the same table during the ceremony, and Fontaine later wrote about the moment, "I felt Olivia would spring across the table and grab me by the hair. I felt age 4, being confronted by my older sister. Damn it, I'd incurred her wrath again!" Later, de Havilland married novelist Marcus Goodrich and her sister reportedly snarked, "All I know about him is that he’s had four wives and written one book. Too bad it’s not the other way around."

—In 1947, de Havilland won her first Oscar for To Each His Own. According to USA Today, Fontaine tried to congratulate de Havilland "and was rebuffed.

—This was a particularly significant event: When their mother was diagnosed with terminal cancer in 1975, de Havilland reportedly went to her side and was with her until she died soon after. Fontaine was on tour with a play at the time and claimed nobody called her to let her know her mother was asking to see her, and she wasn't even invited to the memorial service. Apparently, Fontaine attended anyway and the sisters did not speak to each other. "You can divorce your sister as well as your husbands," Fontaine said to PEOPLE. "I don't see her at all and I don't intend to.

—Fontaine died in 2013 at the age of 96. Years earlier, she had predicted to PEOPLE she would perish first: "Olivia has always said I was first at everything—I got married first, got an Academy Award first, had a child first. If I die [first], she'll be furious, because again I'll have got there first!"

—Three years after her sister's death, de Havilland told USA Today that she still called Fontaine, "Dragon Lady," yet denied there was a feud per se. "A 'feud' implies continuing hostile conduct between two parties," de Havilland said. "I cannot think of a single instance wherein I initiated hostile behavior. But I can think of many occasions where my reaction to deliberately inconsiderate behavior was defensive ... Dragon Lady, as I eventually decided to call her, was a brilliant, multi-talented person, but with an astigmatism in her perception of people and events which often caused her to react in an unfair and even injurious way."

While neither party can be said to have won a feud (and, really, is any feud ever really won?), de Havilland did have the last, and final, word.

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