Joan Fontaine Was ‘Furious’ When Howard Hughes Proposed, and It Had to Do With Her Sister-Rival Olivia de Havilland

Joan Fontaine and Olivia de Havilland’s decades-long feud was the stuff of Hollywood legend. The sisters were two of the most celebrated stars of the silver screen during Tinseltown’s golden age. But they had a rivalry that went back to their childhood. 

Over the years, Fontaine and de Havilland sparred over acting roles, men, and family affairs. (Fontaine claimed her older sister didn’t invite her to their mother’s memorial service.) One of the many arguments between the sisters had to do with billionaire Howard Hughes.  

Olivia de Havilland and Joan Fontaine were sisters — and bitter rivals 

Olivia de Havilland and Joan Fontaine
Olivia de Havilland and Joan Fontaine | Silver Screen Collection/Archive Photos/Getty Images

De Havilland — who was older than Fontaine by 15 months — was the first of the sisters to pursue an acting career. She landed a role as understudy to Gloria Stuart (who would later play an elderly Rose in Titanic) in a play, and after the other actor bowed out, she stepped into the lead role. A film contract and success in movies such as The Adventures of Robin Hood followed, according to the Hollywood Reporter.  

As de Havilland’s star rose, Fontaine was drafted to chauffeur her older sister around. But then a studio employee approached her and suggested she try acting too. A career — and an epic rivalry — was born. Both women went on to be nominated for multiple Oscars, including in 1942, when they were recognized in the same category (Fontaine won).  

Olivia de Havilland dated Howard Hughes 

Howard Hughes
Howard Hughes in 1937 | Pictures Inc./The LIFE Picture Collection via Getty Images

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De Havilland and Fontaine sniped at each other over their careers. Fontaine once even said she was considered for the role of Melanie in Gone With the Wind, but lost it because she was “too stylish.” She then suggested the director consider her (presumably less chic) sister. 

The feud extended to the pair’s romantic relationships. de Havilland and Fontaine traded nasty remarks about each other’s husbands. Fontaine married first — to a man her sister had dated. (The two later divorced.) Then, Fontaine caught the eye of another man her sister was involved with — businessman and film producer Howard Hughes.

“I had met Howard Hughes just before we started the filming [Gone With the Wind],” de Havilland recalled in an interview with the Academy of Achievement. “When I met him, he had not terribly long before made this great heroic flight to Moscow, beating all records. I don’t think anyone had tried that, and he was a great hero, and that impressed me. He was a rather shy man.” 

Joan Fontaine said Howard Hughes asked her to marry him 

De Havilland and Hughes might have been an item, but according to Fontaine, he made a pass at her — multiple times.  

“He asked me to marry him three times, but it was Olivia who loved Howard Hughes,” Fontaine told People in a 1978 interview. “One day she invited me to a surprise party at the Trocadero where Hughes was the host. On the dance floor, he leaned down and proposed.”

Fontaine said she didn’t take Hughes’ overtures well. “I was furious — no one two-timed my sister, no matter what our quarrels might be,” she said. 

However, her attempts to alert her sister to Hughes’ behavior only caused more problems. 

“But when I tried to warn Olivia, sparks flew. I showed her his telephone number in his own handwriting that he had given me, but she was furious at me,” Fontaine said. 

Fontaine also seemed far less impressed with Hughes than her sister. 

“No, I was never in love with Howard,” she told People. “He had no humor, no sense of joy, no vivacity. Everything had to be a ‘deal.’”

The sisters had a frosty relationship until Fontaine’s death

olivia de havilland joan fontaine
[L-R] Olivia de Havilland; Joan Fontaine | Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images

Fontaine and DeHavilland’s relationship was frosty throughout their long lives. While there were periods where the two were speaking and even friendly, they had a falling out over their mother’s death and Fontaine’s 1978 autobiography No Bed of Roses. Fontaine died in 2013 at age 96. De Havilland died in 2020 at age 104.  

In a 2016 interview (via the Washington Post), DeHavilland reflected on her relationship with her sister, who she dubbed “Dragon Lady.” 

“On my part, it was always loving, but sometimes estranged and, in the later years, severed,” she said.