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Remembering Joan Fontaine


Published: December 20, 2013

YUMMY. CAN 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 chef.”

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, too.”

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 elsewhere.

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 Joan.

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 money.

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 30 years.

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 you were.

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 stimulating conversation.

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.