By Christopher P. Andersen
Updated November 20, 1978 12:00 PM

Since she embarked on a Hollywood career at 18, Joan Fontaine, now 61, has carved her niche in history as the star of such memorable films as Rebecca, Suspicion, This Above All, Jane Eyre and September Affair. But, as the title of her best-selling autobiography, No Bed of Roses (William Morrow, $9.95), suggests, Fontaine did not always find the going smooth. She survived a difficult childhood, an intense rivalry with her equally famous sister, four failed marriages, recurring illnesses and the destruction by fire of her California estate in 1960. Fontaine, who now lives alone in a spacious Manhattan apartment and was most recently seen in the ABC-TV adaptation of The Users, talked about herself with Christopher P. Andersen of PEOPLE.

Who was the most important person in your life?

My mother, Lilian de Havilland. She was beautiful, gracious and a talented actress. My father was an English professor at Waseda and Imperial universities in Tokyo who left Mother for our Japanese maid when I was 2. My mother later married a department store manager, George Milan Fontaine, but she remained the dominant figure in our lives. My family was a combination of the critical and perfectionist—and that’s tough. We didn’t have a loving childhood; my stepfather made sure we had a military childhood. Even our beds were khaki color. The oddest thing was that our parents had absolutely no plans for our future. You normally ask a little child, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” We were never asked that question.

Did your mother ever see you or Olivia in your movies?

She claimed not, but I found out recently that she actually did see our pictures. She told a friend of hers that in Jane Eyre “Joan was defeated by her beauty.” How’s that for a remark? Mother never could express pride in either of her daughters.

What was your early relationship with your sister?

I regret that I remember not one act of kindness from Olivia all through my childhood. One of my earliest memories is when she was 6 and I was 5. She had learned to read and, one night when we were alone, she read aloud the Crucifixion from the Bible with mounting gusto until finally I screamed. Olivia loved it. One July day in 1933 when I was 16, Olivia threw me down in a rage, jumped on top of me and fractured my collarbone.

Why this intense rivalry?

One person called our relationship paranoid—but he didn’t say on whose part. Not mine, though I may have a persecution complex. There must be some explanation. Olivia so hated the idea of having a sibling that she wouldn’t go near my crib. She was always a stout believer in primogeniture.

How is your relationship now?

You can divorce your sister as well as your husbands. I don’t see her at all and I don’t intend to.

What was the last occasion you saw your sister for any length of time?

At our mother’s funeral in 1975. I had kept in touch with Olivia for my mother’s sake, but when she was dying of cancer in California and I was touring in Cactus Flower, nobody called to say she was asking for me. Then Olivia and the executor of the estate took full charge, disposing of Mother’s effects as well as her body—she was cremated—without bothering to consult me. I wasn’t even invited to the memorial service. Of course, I went anyway.

What was the service like?

At the end of it, the minister handed Olivia a box containing my mother’s ashes. She scattered a handful of ashes over the grave site and then silently passed the container to me. Not one word was exchanged. I think it is so ironic that the death of this marvelous woman was reponsible for our final schism.

Do you watch each other’s movies?

No, neither of us does because there are certain family traits that are too close. We would become too self-conscious. By the way, we may not get along personally, but I am absolutely thrilled that my sister has accomplished what she has. Imagine what we could have done if we had gotten together. We could have selected the right scripts, the right directors, the right producers—we could have built our own empire. But it was not to be.

You started out as Joan de Beauvoir de Havilland, but how did you wind up as Joan Fontaine?

I have had eight names, counting my four married surnames. Professionally de Havilland was Olivia’s; she was the first-born and I was not to disgrace her name. I took my first theatrical name, Joan Burfield, from Burfield Street in Hollywood. Then I became Joan St. John. One evening at the Trocadero nightclub, at the urging of a fortune teller, I picked Fontaine, my stepfather’s name. “Take that,” she advised, “Joan Fontaine is a success name.” She was right.

Which of your films are you proudest of?

Rebecca is a fantastic story, marvelously directed and produced. I like The Constant Nymph very much, and although Suspicion isn’t a classic like Rebecca, it’s damn good.

Who was your favorite leading man?

Charles Boyer, with whom I starred in The Constant Nymph. Unlike most of my leading men—with the single exception of Fred Astaire—Boyer’s first concern was the film, not himself.

What about Orson Welles, your co-star in Jane Eyre?

Everything about him is oversize, including his ego. He’s larger than life. I think he is much better combining directing and acting, because he wants control. And he’s right; he’s a genius.

You’ve had four husbands and four divorces. Why such lousy luck with men?

When you’re from a broken home, as I was, longevity in a marriage is not important. It would have been appalling to know I had to have breakfast with any one of those husbands for the rest of my life! Marriage is a love affair, and when the love affair is over, you fold your tent and away you go. But I must say, if I could have combined the good qualities of all my husbands, it would have been fantastic!

What is the toughest part of marriage?

The main problem in marriage is that, for a man, sex is a hunger—like eating. If a man is hungry and can’t get to a fancy French restaurant, he’ll go to a hot dog stand. For a woman, what’s important is love and romance.

What about some of the men you loved but didn’t marry?

Conrad Nagel, the actor, and I were staying with friends in northern California on our way to a duck hunt. He visited my room one night to fix the toilet, drew up a chair and sat by my bed. Suddenly he threw back the covers and, before I could protest, the dire deed was done. I was surprised out of my virginity at 20.

What about Howard Hughes?

He asked me to marry him three times, but it was Olivia who loved Howard Hughes. One day she invited me to a surprise party at the Trocadero where Hughes was the host. On the dance floor, he leaned down and proposed. I was furious—no one two-timed my sister, no matter what our quarrels might be. But when I tried to warn Olivia, sparks flew. I showed her his telephone number in his own handwriting that he had given me, but she was furious at me. No, I was never in love with Howard. He had no humor, no sense of joy, no vivacity. Everything had to be a “deal.”

Who were some of the men you did love?

John Houseman and I were going to be married, but at the last minute I discovered his mother wanted to move in with us. Aly Khan was a marvelous fairy-tale prince and he knew it. He was a butterfly covering as many flowers as he could.

What was your relationship with Adlai Stevenson?

We had a tenderness for each other that grew into something rather serious. There was so much speculation about our marrying in the press that over lunch at his apartment in the Waldorf Towers he told me he could not marry an actress. He still had political ambitions and the “little old ladies from Oshkosh” wouldn’t approve. I told him it was just as well. My family would hardly approve of my marrying a politician.

Will you ever remarry?

I just haven’t time. On two separate occasions recently men offered me $1 million if I would marry them. So I said, “Suppose I already have $1 million? Now what will you give me?” They couldn’t offer anything, not love, not a life together, not adventure—just the dough. I don’t need that. I’m very good with money.

What are you looking forward to?

This is the best period of my life. There are lots of offers, but going back to a sound stage in Hollywood doesn’t appeal anymore. After some 50 films, I want to do things I haven’t done, like appear on the London stage and write a novel. Life’s too short.

How do you want to die?

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 die, she’ll be furious, because again I’ll have got there first!