July 26, 2020, one of my most admired people in the world, passed away. Born on July 1, 1916, she had a long and accomplished career as an actor, author, and most gracious lady. Her name was Olivia de Havilland. Many of you will remember some of her iconic roles in motion pictures, such as Melanie in Gone With the Wind. And sadly, some of you will be too young to remember her at all. Thank goodness for film archives and the Internet.
Before I get into the meat of my story, I’d like to fill you in a little on Ms. de Havilland’s many varied career accomplishments in her 104 years. She was nominated for five Academy Awards and won two Oscars; the first for To Each His Own in 1946, and the second for The Heiress in 1949. She wrote a bestselling book called, Every Frenchman Has One. She campaigned for women actors for fair treatment and even won a lawsuit which changed Hollywood.
On Nov. 17, 2008, at the age of 92, she received the National Medal of Arts from President George W. Bush at a White House ceremony, “For her persuasive and compelling skill as an actress in roles from Shakespeare’s Hermia to Margaret Mitchell’s Melanie.”
She received honorary Doctorate degrees from The American University of Paris, France, The University of Hertfordshire in England, and Mills College in California, U.S.A..
In 2010 she received the Légion d’honneur in Paris, France; the highest honor for military and civil merits.
And in June 2017, two weeks before her 101st birthday, she was appointed Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire by Queen Elizabeth II.
I mentioned all this to let you know why I considered her someone really special. What an amazing life she led, and her death announcement reminded me of an experience I shall never forget.
In the early 1980’s, my son and I were in a Scottish bagpipe band, called the St. Andrew’s Pipes and Drums of Montgomery, AL. Former Post Master General under President Nixon, later businessman and philanthropist Winton M. Blount had a huge estate and his estate manager was our bass drummer, John Lesenger. Finding a place to practice our piping was a problem until Mr. Blount offered us part of the estate as our marching and practice space. Out there on the estate, we couldn’t disturb anyone.
Mr. Blount’s wife, Carolyn, was an avid Shakespeare supporter and together they offered to finance a new home for the financially strapped Alabama Shakespeare Festival if it would move to Montgomery. Not only that, The Blounts gave up part of their estate for that new home. The groundbreaking ceremony was Aug. 10, 1983 heralded by the St. Andrews Pipes and Drums with such dignitaries as Gov. George Wallace and Mayor Folmar in attendance.
Mr. Blount’s son, Thomas and Perry Pittman designed the 100,000-square-foot, 21.5 million complex, christened the Carolyn Blount Theater which houses two theaters—the 750 seat Festival stage and the 225 seat Octagon—as well as production shops, a costume shop, dressing rooms, rehearsal halls and administrative work spaces.
The opening occurred on Dec. 7, 1985 led once more by the St Andrew’s Pipes and Drums and the occasion sparked national interest and actors Tony Randall and Olivia de Havilland served as masters of ceremonies.
Before the public was allowed in, those people most involved with the event were given the opportunity to tour the theaters. As pipers, my son and I were among that group. We all wandered around at leisure and I walked through the big theater and through to the smaller octagon shaped one in the semi-round and came out on stage center with the audience seats in front of me. I was alone and the room was quiet. I stood silently with my eyes closed remembering my college acting days when all of a sudden I opened my eyes and looked down and sitting facing me in the front row was Olivia de Havilland. I was frozen in place until she smiled at me ever so gently. That moment took my breath away. Tears come to me as I remember this. I walked over to her and asked if I could sit next to her and she said, “Of course.” I told her how much I admired her talent and enjoyed her movies and we chatted for a few minutes. I’ll never forget how gracious she was. It truly was a moment of magic in my life. Brava, Olivia de Havilland!
Coco Ihle is the author of SHE HAD TO KNOW, an atmospheric traditional mystery set mainly in Scotland. Join her here each 11th of the month.