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July 2, 2023

Rare Photographs of Olivia de Havilland as a Child

Olivia de Havilland was born on July 1, 1916 in Tokyo, Japan to English parents. Her father, Walter, headed a firm of patent attorneys; her mother, Lilian, a trained singer and actress, was active in the theatrical life of the city’s small English community. Her parents separated when she was only two years old, and along with her younger sister, Joan, she was taken by her mother to the United States, where they settled in Saratoga, California, then a small village outside of San José.

Olivia de Havilland as an infant, with her father, Walter A. de Havilland, her mother, Lilian de Havilland (later Fontaine) and two Japanese nurses. Olivia was born in Japan, where her father had a patent law practice.

10 month old Olivia

Joan Fontaine, Olivia de Havilland and their mother Lilian.

After settling in Saratoga, Mrs. de Havilland divorced Olivia’s father and eventually married a San José businessman, George Fontaine. Young Olivia quickly took to life in her new world. She excelled in school, editing her high school yearbook and winning awards for public speaking. She was also active in a local theatrical company, playing the title role in their production of Alice in Wonderland, and Puck in A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

Olivia had graduated from high school and was planning to attend Mills College on scholarship when she heard that the renowned director Max Reinhardt was planning a massive outdoor production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream to play in San Francisco and Los Angeles. A friend arranged for her to audition for Reinhardt’s general manager, and she was offered the opportunity to understudy the ingénue role of Hermia. This was an extraordinary opportunity for a novice actress. Reinhardt was the leading international theatrical figure of the early 20th century, famous for his elaborate outdoor spectacles. His Midsummer Night’s Dream was to be the largest of all, using the wooded hills above the 25,000-seat Hollywood Bowl to represent Shakespeare’s enchanted forest and a full orchestra playing Mendelssohn’s celebrated score for the play.

De Havilland in the stage play Alice in Wonderland, 1933.

Olivia traveled to Los Angeles to watch Reinhardt’s rehearsals, still planning to attend college in the fall, but when the actress playing Hermia dropped out of the production, 18-year-old Olivia found herself playing the role with a cast of seasoned professionals, in front of all Hollywood. The production was a sensation, and audiences were delighted by the young ingénue with the warm, lilting voice and huge, dark eyes. Warner Brothers studios hired Reinhardt to direct a film version of the play, using Warner Brothers contract players, but Reinhardt insisted on retaining Olivia de Havilland as Hermia. The film was a surprising success, and Warner Brothers signed Olivia de Havilland to a seven-year contract, a standard practice in Hollywood at that time.


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