The two-time Oscar winner was best known for her role in Gone with the Wind

By Stephen M. Silverman
Updated July 27, 2020 07:33 AM
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Olivia de Havilland, a top box-office name of the 1930s and 40s whose credits include Gone With the Wind, has died. She was 104.

The veteran actress and two-time Oscar winner died in her sleep at home in Paris on Saturday, PEOPLE confirms.

Less than a month earlier, de Havilland, who had been the oldest surviving star of the controversial 1939 film, which also starred Vivien Leigh and Clark Gable, celebrated her birthday on July 1.

She was, by all accounts, one of a kind.

Known for her dedication and hard work, “She rarely stops acting (or rehearsing) when she leaves the set,” Time magazine marveled in a 1948 cover story, when she starred in the shocking screen exposé about mental institutions, The Snake Pit.

Born in Tokyo in 1916, “Livvie,” her younger sister Joan Fontaine (herself an Oscar-winning actress, for Alfred Hitchcock‘s 1941 Suspicion“) and their actress-mother Lillian moved to California in 1919 after their father Walter, a British patent attorney, took up with the housekeeper.

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A Hollywood Bowl production of A Midsummer Nights Dream led to Olivia’s contract in 1935 with Warner Bros., which produced a movie version of the Shakespeare comedy. Reprising her role as Hermia, de Havilland started costarring the following year with the studio’s great swashbuckler Errol Flynn, and, in eight films together, the duo became one of the great screen teams of their time.

Not Errol Flynn’s Lover

During that time and ever after, de Havilland insisted that, despite Flynn’s oversexed reputation and her own crush on him, the two were never real-life lovers. Their movies together included Captain Blood, Dodge City, The Charge of the Light Brigade and the Technicolor classic The Adventures of Robin Hood, in 1938.

Both have confessed to being in love with the other – despite Flynn’s marriages to other women – and both have denied the relationship was consummated.

“There are no words to describe my feelings for Errol Flynn,” she told PEOPLE in July 2016. De Havilland praised him as an “extraordinary” man: “Wonderful to talk to and listen to, most of the time fascinating company.”

But it was her role the following year, as the eternally selfless Melanie Hamilton, the cousin from Atlanta who steals the gentlemanly Ashley Wilkes (Leslie Howard) from under from the clutches of the vixen Scarlett O’Hara (Vivien Leigh), that inspired an entire generation of Americans to name their baby daughters Melanie.

The film has since been criticized for its romanticized portrait of the pre-Civil War South, with HBO Max recently adding an introduction that provides historical context.

MPTV.net

Off-screen, de Havilland was anything but sweetness and light. With fierce determination and guts, she fought studio boss Jack L. Warner — indeed, the entire studio contract system — and in a landmark legal case that came to be known as the De Havilland Law helped end binding seven-year contracts for all Hollywood actors.

The 1944 de Havilland Decision, “made it clear that California law limits to seven years the time an employer can enforce a contract with an employee.”

While Warner Bros. made good on its vow never to hire her again, de Havilland went to Paramount and ended up bringing home two Best Actress Oscars: as a career mother in the weepie To Each His Own (1946) and as the spinster attractive only for her money in The Heiress (1949).

In 2017, at the age of 100, the actress was named a Dame Commander in Queen Elizabeth II‘s Birthday Honors list, becoming the oldest-ever person to achieve the distinction. Of the honor, de Havilland said in a statement to PEOPLE that she was “extremely proud."

Hollywood Expatriate

After she moved to Paris when she married French journalist Pierre Galante in 1955 — it was her second marriage; first, to novelist Marcus Goodrich lasted from 1946 until their divorce in 1953 — de Havilland’s professional career slowed down, though she occasionally made movies and appeared on American TV, including The Love Boat.

For decades she also famously feuded with her sister Joan Fontaine, for reasons that remained a mystery for years. The actress opened up about the fight in 2016.

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“She was a brilliant person, very gifted and, alas, [had] an astigmatism in her perception of both people and situations, which could cause and did cause great distress in others,” she said of Fontaine.

“I was among those and eventually this brought about an estrangement between us which did not change in the last years of her life.”

Fontaine died in 2013 at the age of 96, and the sisterly schism was never patched up. They had not spoken since 1975, and as Fontaine had told PEOPLE in 1978: “You can divorce your sister as well as your husbands. I don’t see her at all and I don’t intend to.”

Everett

De Havilland’s marriage to Goodrich produced a son, Benjamin, who died of cancer at age 52, in 1991. She also had a child in 1956 with Galant, whom de Havilland divorced in 1979, though they remained friends for the rest of his life. Their daughter, Giséle, is a journalist in France.

As de Havilland’s friend, Turner Classic Movies host Robert Osborne, told USA Today in September 2014, on the 75th anniversary of Gone With the Wind (which marked its tenth commercial release): “[Olivia] says she had such hopes for the movie. She thought it might be shown for five or six years. It was different then. Movies played in theaters in those days — people saw it and then the movie disappeared. But this one never disappeared.”