you believe that Joan Fontaine said I was “yummy”?
I’ll never forget the night three years ago. My anticipation
was almost trumped by my nervousness.
I was co-hosting a dinner party, and guess who was coming to
dinner? Our friends, Clay Couri and Jimmy Durham, were
bringing “Mrs. de Winter,” “Lina,” “Lisa Berndle,” “Tessa
Sanger,” and “Christobel Caine Carey,” fictitious women, all
played in the movies by Joan Fontaine.
As if we needed more pressure, we learned that Joan was a
Cordon Bleu chef — “Cordon Bleu” being defined colloquially as
“a person highly distinguished in a field, especially a master
Of course, we needn’t have worried. Joan was gracious,
charming and witty. A few days later, my hostess friend
received a note thanking her for “a delicious evening all
around — a super hostess and a yummy dinner! Jerry was yummy,
Joan Fontaine, whose real name was Joan de Beauvoir de
Havilland, died Sunday at her beloved home on Lower Walden
Road in Carmel Highlands. She was 96, and her long life and
legendary Hollywood career have been amply chronicled
While she was born in Tokyo and became loved around the world
for her movie roles, during her decades living in the Monterey
Peninsula, she was embraced as just another neighbor, though,
you’d have to admit, a very special one.
I met her for the first time at a dinner at Clay and Jimmy’s,
who lived down the road from Joan. She was 92 years old. There
was a delicacy to her that had little to do with her age. I
remember her lavender Belgian shoes. They looked as delicate
as she was. I felt certain that they had been fitted for her
by some European prince.
What amazed me most upon meeting her was that she knew who I
was. Naturally, I was a fan. I almost named my oldest daughter
Christobel, after Joan’s character in “The Constant Nymph.”
Compliments came from her to you, when they should have been
going in the other direction. But then, how do you compliment
a legend without sounding obsequious?
Jimmy Durham and Clay Couri were Joan’s neighbors in the
Carmel Highlands for more than 15 years. Couri was a long time
director of music for St. John’s Chapel, where Joan had been
married decades earlier to actor Brian Aherne. Clay and Joan
were often co-conspirators in highjinx, usually instigated by
Clay Couri: “Gardening was one of her passions. She
was extremely proud of her roses. She also had a 1989 Jaguar
that she loved. In 2004, the Jaguar was one wounded cat. It
was going to be so expensive to repair that she decided to
buy a new one.
Joan had no patience for sales pitches, so she asked me
to help her buy a new Jaguar. I called a friend at the
dealership, asking him to line up all his X-type Jags,
because I would be there in 20 minutes with Joan Fontaine.
She went back and forth among the cars for a few minutes.
Finally, she picked a black one. She asked that the back
seat and trunk be lined with plastic. When that was
accomplished she handed the salesman ten thousand dollars,
saying she would be back the next day with the rest of the
She peeled out of the lot, heading in the opposite
direction from where she lived. Fifteen minutes later she
passed by the lot going exceedingly fast in the other
direction. The Jag’s trunk was wide open, stuffed with
plants, as was the back seat. She drove like the Red Baron.”
Jimmy Durham: “We went to the movies often, usually
downtown to the Golden State or Osio. Once after a movie,
she wanted to go to Rosine’s and get a chocolate soda. We
were told that we couldn’t get a chocolate soda there. Joan
says, ‘You have milk, right? And ice cream and chocolate
syrup, right? And a glass to put them in, right?’ She was
hilarious and she got her chocolate soda.”
Joan was an active correspondent. Layne Littlepage, who
admired Joan and vice versa, saved a number of Joan’s notes.
Layne Littlepage: “When I think of Joan, these
adjectives immediately come to mind: Beautiful, fragile,
indomitable, witty, charming, brilliant. And when you met
Joan, you were one degree of separation from the famous and
accomplished of the 20th Century — people like Cary Grant,
George Gershwin, The Duke of Windsor, Noel Coward, Evelyn
Waugh, Cole Porter, Fred Astaire, Marilyn Monroe, Alfred
Hitchcock, Katharine Hepburn, Joan Crawford, David O.
Selznick, Vivian Leigh, Lawrence Olivier, Adlai Stevenson,
John Kennedy, Jackie Kennedy and Bobby Kennedy, and Lyndon
Johnson. Her career began when she was a teenager. At the
time of her death, she may have been the only living person
to have known George Gershwin.”
Cliff Bagwell, a neighbor, was friends with Joan for more than
Cliff Bagwell: “Joan was so kind and generous, and,
oh my, she was so courteous. And what a gardener! Her roses
were the most beautiful in the area. She talked to her roses
and knew all of them by name. She shared them, too. Joan
took bunches of roses to her neighbors. Always to the
shut-ins first. You know, she was very intelligent with an
extremely high IQ. I would ask her why she was hanging out
with a poor old country boy like me. She would say “Cliff,
you’re just loaded with common sense.”
Morley Brown and Joan Fontaine go back more than 25 years.
Joan told me she thought Morley and her husband, Ron Weitzman,
were such a wonderful couple — the combination and contrast of
their different personalities made them special.
Morley Brown: “I met Joan at a charity event many
years ago. I asked her if she would serve on the board of
the Salvation Army. She accepted and jumped in immediately
with all her vibrancy and enthusiasm. I loved and admired
her because she did so many kind deeds quietly, without any
recognition. She was a movie star but didn’t want to be one
here. She wanted to be an ordinary person.”
Jimmy Durham: “Joan liked to eat at fine
restaurants, but every so often, she wanted to go somewhere
she hadn’t tried. We were going to see ‘Down with Love’ at
the Golden State. She decided on Taco Bell. ‘Let’s go in
there. It looks like good food,’ she said. She wanted to try
everything, so she ordered a plate with samples of 10
different items. She loved it and we ate like pigs. Then she
got a cup of coffee to go. We went inside the theater and
sat under the balcony, a place she never liked to be.
Every once in a while, she would crouch down with her
head almost on the floor. “Don’t mind me. I’m sipping my
coffee. I don’t want anyone to know I broke the rules by
sneaking food into the theater.”
Clay Couri: “Joan was not only true to her word,
she was very punctual. She would come to dinner at our house
at precisely 6 p.m. She’d have a glass of sherry. At 6:15
she would announce, “Time to eat!” And we would go in to
dinner. Then while she was on her last bite of dessert, she
would wordlessly pass her car keys to Jimmy. He would turn
her car around in our driveway, and she’d blast off so she
could drive home before dark.”
Cliff Bagwell: “When they were living in Saratoga,
Joan’s mother would visit friends in Carmel. That’s when
Joan fell in love with this area. Later on, when she
was making movies, she would come here and rent a place
where she would read scripts. And she loved golf.”
Yes, Joan did, indeed, love golf. She got a hole-in-one on the
par-3 15th Hole at Cypress Point. In her autobiography, she
described the incident. She writes that her husband, Brian
Aherne, had a frugal nature.
After the 18th hole, he bundled her into their car while she
was still in her golf shoes. He told her to keep her head down
under the dashboard, while he sped away to avoid buying the
traditional round of drinks by the lucky golfer.
Whenever she was asked, “What’s your handicap?” The same reply
always came to mind: “Men.”
Noel Beutel was Joan’s friend, as well as her caregiver. She
was with her when she died.
Noel Beutel: “Joan was such a kind woman, and so
very thoughtful. When she asked, ‘How are you doing?’ she
really meant it and listened intently while you told her how
She loved getting out with friends for lunch and
movies. And of course, there was her love of dogs. She
always had three or four rescued dogs living with her. She
took care of the dogs, and the dogs took care of her.
There were three dogs with her at the end — Kita, Fang,
and Samantha. I’m thankful that it happened so fast. She
didn’t suffer. She just went to sleep and didn’t wake up.”
Back to that “yummy” dinner party. Joan, surprisingly, brought
up her sister, Olivia de Havilland, and how they had not
spoken since their mother’s funeral. She asked if any of us
had similar experiences with siblings. The topic made for
She didn’t go into details about her relationship with her
sister, as she was more intent on hearing our stories.
However, I could not but think the broken relationship with
Olivia was always trudging along somewhere on the back roads
of her mind.
In 2008 Joan did a Q&A with Vanity Fair Magazine. Here are
the last two questions from that interview:
Q. How would you like to die?
A. In bed — alone.
Q. What is your motto?
A. Free at last.