Waiting for Olivia de Havilland

Escorting Olivia de Havilland home from the American Library in Paris.

Escorting Olivia de Havilland home from the American Library in Paris.

March 22, 2011

It’s hard to believe that I am headed for the American Library in Paris to meet one of the greatest movie stars of all time, an actress whose performance in The Heiress captivated my imagination when I was a teenager, a half a century ago. But, it’s true, I am about to meet Olivia de Havilland, and I was so nervous all day that I could not eat.

I walk around the block, because I am way too early, and stumble into a thrift shop where a stern French lady sells me a dirty doily and a strip of embroidered muslin for two euros. I stuff them into my briefcase and dig for my cell phone to call Library Director Charles Trueheart, who is making sure that Ms. de Havilland, a devoted library supporter, is properly escorted to and from the library for the evening screening of the film I Remember Better When I Paint, which she narrates. Co-directed by Berna Huebner, another library supporter and former library board member, the film documents the use of art in treating people with Alzheimer’s disease.

I wait in the reading room and try to make the minutes tick by more slowly. I don’t want this day to end, don’t want the time to fly by. Berna Huebner arrives and gives me a big kiss because I tell her that I have my Flip video camera with me. “Go ahead and videotape,” Berna says. “I told her it’s for the record. She agreed to do that.”

Soon the door opens and in walks Olivia de Havilland, 94 years old and showing none of the signs of old age that are about to be examined in the film that she is about to introduce. I am the one feeling old on this trip to Paris, my hair almost as white as hers, liver spots starting to appear on my hands. It does not seem possible that she is thirty years older than I, old enough to be my mother. She settles into an office chair. Everything about her–the nylons, the little shoes, legs crossed at the ankles–speaks of elegance and style. She is completely open, in the moment, and a keen listener, her composure seeming to come from a calm place deep within, filled with boundless joie de vivre for her adopted country. Berna leads the conversation. We talk about the film and then the introductions, which we have just rehearsed.

I explain to her that I am a journalist representing the American Library Association and would love to interview her one day about her love of libraries and reading. She begins to tell the story of her first job, at age 16, in the public library in Saratoga, California. “So you started out becoming a librarian?” I interject. She gives me a wise grin that looks so much like the kind smile Melanie Hamilton, her character in Gone with the Wind, gave the infamous Scarlett O’Hara. “Well, in a manner of speaking,” she chuckles. But she doesn’t want me to turn on my tape recorder, even though I tell her “I don’t want to miss a word” of our conversation. “I’ll say it all again for you,” she promises. “We’ll have tea.”

After some twenty minutes of chatting about her early love of libraries and her lasting love of the American Library in Paris, we begin to talk about I Remember Better When I Paint and how when her friend Berna told her about it, “I asked her if there would be a narrator, and when she said yes, I told her how much I would love to be that narrator.”

As inured as I thought I had become to the American cult of celebrity, chatting with Olivia de Havilland was like a dream. The actors who appeared on the silver screen when I was a teenager sneaking out of bed to watch old Hollywood movies transported me out of our farm in Michigan and into a magical place. The Heiress was one film that did it for me almost more than any other and made me appreciate what writers like Henry James had achieved. I could see in Olivia de Havilland’s performance as the woman scorned by both father and lover, the genius of the James original, Washington Square. I did not see de Havilland’s performance in Gone with the Wind as a teenager because it had not yet been released to television, but when I finally did see it on the big screen, what a monumental cinematic work it seemed.

The staff starts to clear the reading room, which is being set up for the premiere of I Remember Better When I Paint. I tuck my new American Library in Paris membership card away in my wallet. A small group of guests begins to assemble. We escort Olivia de Havilland to the front row, near the podium, where she stands as friends greet her. She is radiant in an elegant satin dress with a matching jacket, her white hair swept up in a French twist.

Berna Huebner, goes to the podium and introduces Olivia de Havilland, who then introduces the movie. Her words are chosen and articulated carefully, her voice resonant and tender, speaking of friends and colleagues who have suffered from the “affliction” of Alzheimer’s. After her introduction, she sits down and watches the movie with the rest of us.

A few minutes after the film ended, I told Ms. de Havilland to let me know when she was ready to leave and the staff would arrange for a taxi. “How about now,” she smiled, knowing that many of the assembled fans would linger, hoping to have few words with her and to bask in her glow. She took my arm and we walked to the front desk, where a staff member called for the taxi. Seeing that there was time, she stationed herself behind the check-out desk like a library clerk and signed books and memorabilia, patiently chatting with many of the young women who were clearly thrilled to be in her presence.

I was told that the taxi was waiting and, feeling like a bad cop, announced that it was time for Ms. de Havilland to leave, no more autographs. She took my arm, and out the door we went to the waiting cab. Once inside, we began to chat about Paris and tested each other’s French. “I’m not as good at it as I used to be,” she admitted, after making sure the driver had understood the directions to her home on rue Benouville.

It was one of those Paris nights when the streets glisten from a sudden rain and the air is crisp and freshly rinsed. I tried to watch every turn the driver took, as the Eiffel Tower, the Seine, the Beaux-Arts buildings whizzed by in the dark, but I could not stop looking at the beautiful woman sitting next to me and smiling, could not stop telling her how grateful we all were for her narration of the film and for attending the premiere. But she would have none of talking about her. She wanted to know about me. Where was I from. What did I write. I explain that I am in France looking for traces of my Polish grandmother’s brother, who is said to have worked in the coal mines near Lille before World War II.

“So you are Polish,” she says. “Let me see, what do I know how to say in Polish? ‘Ya lyublyu tebya.’ How is that? No, I think that is Russian.”

“I think it is Russian, but I think I know what you said.” Olivia de Havilland has just looked me in the eye and said “I love you” in a taxi cab on a surreal Paris night.

I escorted this beautiful lady to her door, holding her arm, and impulsively kissed her hand. “Au revoir. Merci beaucoup.”

“Do call when you return from Lille,” she urged. I floated on Parisien air.
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