Treasured icon Olivia Mary de Havilland has celebrated her 104th birthday. The British-American actress is one of the last surviving stars from the Golden Age of Hollywood, but her five-decade-long film career makes up only part of the legendary icon’s life story.
De Havilland was born on July 1, 1916, in Tokyo, Japan, to British parents. She moved with her parents and sister, actress Joan Fontaine, to the United States in 1919.
Journalist Winston Burdett identified the young actress’s talent during her screen debut in Reinhardt’s 1934 movie adaptation of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which was filmed at Warner Bros studio. Burdett wrote in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle that de Havilland “does greater justice to Shakespeare’s language than anyone else in the cast.”
De Havilland then became a household name for her role as Melanie Hamilton in Gone with the Wind at the tender age of 22, and soon her reputation as a popular screen starlet far preceded her.
During the Second World War, de Havilland took a pause from her Hollywood commitments to entertain the U.S. troops stationed at more isolated battlefronts in the Pacific. According to Stars and Stripes, the actress contracted pneumonia on her travels but persevered in her patriotic mission and always entertained without charging a fee.
Back in Hollywood, de Havilland formed a strong on- and off-screen bond with fellow heartthrob Errol Flynn. Both would later admit in interviews that they had fallen in love, reports The Telegraph, but de Havilland maintained that they never engaged in a romantic relationship.
The actress did marry, twice, and bore two children. Her first marriage was to Navy veteran Marcus Goodrich in 1946; the second was to Paris Match editor Pierre Galante nine years later. Both unions ended in divorce.
Both de Havilland and her sister were excellent, renowned actresses in their own right. Fontaine won the “Best Actress” Oscar for her role in Suspicion in 1941, an award for which her sister was also nominated; de Havilland later won two Oscars: one for To Each His Own in 1947 and another for The Heiress in 1950.
Early on in her movie career, de Havilland also launched and won a legal battle against Warner Bros., which has had a positive ripple effect in the movie industry ever since.
Wishing to emancipate herself from a lengthy contract, de Havilland took the entertainment conglomerate to court in 1943. With de Havilland boosted by the support of the Screen Actors Guild, the Supreme Court of California ruled in de Havilland’s favor.
All future contracts, they ruled, would be capped at seven years of service. According to Reuters, de Havilland’s victory—otherwise known as Labor Code Section 2855—stands to this day.
De Havilland chose to make her permanent home in Paris, a city in which she has lived since the 1950s. In 1962, de Havilland used her expertise to publish a book on French culture and tradition, called Every Frenchman Has One.
The actress was honored with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame on Feb. 8, 1960, and was appointed a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire in 2017 for her contributions to the motion picture industry.
In her long career, de Havilland has appeared in no less than 49 feature films.
According to a Vanity Fair interview, the 104-year-old actress attributes her health and longevity to the “three *L’*s—love, laughter, and light.”
On her 104th birthday, de Havilland’s star continues to shine as bright as her legacy.