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What happened when Olivia de Havilland, now 100, stormed Paris in 1962

NONFICTION

Every Frenchman Has One

By Olivia de Havilland

Random House

202 pages, $16

By Susan Wloszczyna

Much like a gale-battered weather vane, my thoughts about the movie version of “Gone With the Wind” have regularly changed direction, especially its troublesome depiction of slavery despite my admiration for Hattie McDaniel’s performance as Mammy.

But since this month has been buoyed by a cavalcade of centennial birthday wishes for the Civil War epic’s lone surviving star player, Olivia de Havilland, I have been ruminating on how I misjudged Melanie when I was a young girl after my first exposure to the 1939 best-picture Oscar winner during a re-release in theaters. Given the influence of women’s lib at the time, I was more enraptured by Vivien Leigh’s fiery Scarlett, a scrappy survivor who shunned society’s rules and defied the stereotype of a Southern belle, than the seemingly meek and submissive Melanie.

But since then, I have formed a greater appreciation of this kind and empathetic soul. Melanie probably was the one person who best understood and tolerated the complexities of Scarlett’s volatile temperament, even if the headstrong creature persisted in pursuing her husband, Ashley.  At first, I dismissed her as a wimpy pushover who shunned confrontation. But on subsequent viewings, I would realize that her genuine goodness as a human caused her to be a less flamboyant but, perhaps, a more admirable survivor.

So when I found myself supremely enchanted  by “Every Frenchman Has One,”  a slim yet substantially entertaining  account of De Havilland’s culture-shock induction into the ways of day-to-day French life that was first published in 1962 and reissued for her 100th birthday, I also had to revise my opinion about the actress as well. De Havilland always seemed sublimely feminine and, when allowed to be, spirited in her eight films opposite the dashing Errol Flynn, including 1938’s “The Adventures of Robin Hood,” during the Golden Age of Hollywood. She also proved she could summon a well of darker emotions in some of her later efforts, including the 1948 mental-asylum drama “The Snake Pit.”

But little did I imagine that this tome inspired by her 1953 move to Paris following her marriage to “Paris Match” magazine editor Pierre Galante would reveal such a marvelous reserve of mischievous wit and self-deprecating humor in just 20 short vignettes.  Start with the fact De Havilland did not know how to speak the language when she first arrived. As she writes, ”Of course the thing that staggers you when you first come to France is the fact that all the French speak French – even the children.” She tongue-in cheekily talks about dedicating herself to taking lessons and using taxi drivers as her Parisian guinea pigs, which includes confusing the word for “stop” – arret – with the one for “fishbone” – arête.

And while these  essays might be over a half-century old, they often reveal prejudices about the French that, rightly or wrongly, linger on like stinky cheese today.  Such as the country’s notorious  snootiness if downright rudeness of its salespeople. According to de Havilland,  “It wouldn’t occur to you, I know, but I’ve an awful lot in common with Napoleon Bonaparte: exactly the same problem with the French.” That problem? The word “impossible.” He heard it from the military, she heard from store clerks who repeatedly claimed whatever item she sought, no matter how commonplace, was not to be found on their shelves.

De Havilland recounts going to 10 stores where women meant to serve customers insisted that they did not have rubber boots for her young son, Benjamin, until the actress found success at No. 11. Why? Because the person waiting on her was new on the job and didn’t know better. Then there was the time that she was searching for a child’s black necktie for Ben. She was told, yet again, such an article “n’existe pas.” But, luckily, the very tie she wanted was hanging right behind the woman, which de Havilland couldn’t help but  point out. The clerk’s cagey retort?  “You mean, Madame, a plain black tie.” 

Like a delicious collection of bon bons waiting to be gobbled, juicy anecdotal material is mined from an array of inviting topics: whether to curtsy or not to curtsy; the art of going to an exclusive hairdresser for the first time; converting Centigrade into Fahrenheit; the myth of the French maid; why an accident is better than a close call when it comes to French drivers; and workmen who willfully disregard  the wishes set forth in detailed remodeling plans for de Havilland’s almost century-old home.  There is also a Q&A postscript in the new edition with insight on why Paris has been her home for the past 63 years.

Despite her ladylike presence in films, the actress does not shy away from earthier matters, either, such as the excess of opportunities for men to relieve themselves in public places but not for women. She comes to suspect that the French female bladder “may not exist at all.” Then there is the preference for downplaying a woman’s bust when it comes to fashion – the exact opposite of America, land of bigger-is-better bosomy abundance. Says de Havilland, “In France, it’s assumed that if you’re a woman, you are sexy, and you don’t have to put a dress on to prove it, too.” As for the book’s title, it does indeed refer to a body part but NOT the one you are guessing.

The only passage that took me aback was when de Havilland makes a lone passing reference to her younger sister, Joan – as in Fontaine, with whom she engaged in a lifelong rivalry. De Havilland – who is Episcopalian but raised Gisele, her daughter with Galante, as a Catholic – recounts how she struggled to win over the nuns who taught at the convent school that she attended in Belmont, Calif., despite being a Protestant. Alas, Joan had been at the school six months before her sister had enrolled and already had upstaged her.  As de Havilland recalls, “With the really beastly shrewdness that younger sisters are wont to have, she had a vision. Right there, during Mass, she had seen the Virgin Mary, and had immediately fainted.”

Joan would leave the school before her sister’s arrival but the damage was done. “Now, you just try following to a convent a younger sister who has had a Vision. Just try it.”

Fontaine would go on to accomplish many other feats before her death in 2013 at age 96, including being honored with a best actress Oscar for 1941’s “Suspicion,” becoming the lone performer to win for an Alfred Hitchcock film in the process. Unfortunately, that meant de Havilland would lose for her work in “Hold Back the Dawn” in the same category that year, although she would eventually claim two acting Oscars herself. But did Fontaine ever write such a charming book as “Every Frenchman Has One” that possesses a gem of a tale that perfectly illustrates the roots of their sibling feud with such aplomb? Mais, non!  

Susan Wloszczyna is the Buffalo-raised former film writer for USA Today. She is a current contributor to the Roger Ebert website.