By JOHN MERONEY
Olivia de Havilland is going to set the record straight.
Her reason for turning down the role of Blanche Du Bois in "A Streetcar Named Desire" wasn't because she believed a lady would never play the part, despite accounts to the contrary. "That is a complete misquote," she says. "I had just given birth to my son. That was a transforming experience, and when the script was presented to me, I couldn't relate to it."
Nor does she teach Sunday school in Paris, where she lives. "Completely untrue," she says about this familiar story. "It puts me in such an embarrassing position with the very qualified ladies who do. I read the Scriptures at the American Cathedral on Christmas and Easter, that's it. It's a task I love."
When the grande dame of film says, "Oh, let's get that straight," one ought to take special notice; even at age 90, she recalls everything in vivid, Technicolor detail. And what a life it is to remember. She starred with Clark Gable and Vivien Leigh in the most successful picture of all time, "Gone With the Wind"; was romanced by Jimmy Stewart, Howard Hughes and John Huston; victoriously sued her boss, studio mogul Jack Warner, to get out from under his thumb in a case that was the beginning of the end of the studio system; and, as she revealed on one recent afternoon, mentored a 35-year-old Ronald Reagan.
These reasons, and the little fact that she's a splendid actress (two Academy Awards, for "To Each His Own" and "The Heiress"), are why Hollywood has rolled out its red carpet for her this summer. She has been celebrated with events at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and a two-week retrospective at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art -- all confirming her status as film royalty.
Despite a lifetime of close-ups, Olivia de Havilland remains something of an enigma. In the 1940s, psychoanalyzing her was a popular Hollywood pastime. She preferred supper at home, in bed, instead of dancing at Ciro's on Sunset. Single until age 30, she first married a writer and then later a magazine editor -- not movie stars. Home has been a continent away from L.A. since 1954. All this is unusual for a major actress, but perhaps most surprising are the shadowy twists and turns in her life that occurred exactly 60 years ago this summer.
The public has never known the extent of it, but Ms. de Havilland was drawn into a maelstrom of Cold War intrigue in 1946. She discussed it in detail only once, when she was accused of being a communist in 1958 and was secretly called to Washington by the House Committee on Un-American Activities. "I wore a red suit and I said, 'Please don't think that the color explains my political opinion.' The staff investigator was infuriated with that line and roared, 'Strike that from the record.'"
Ms. de Havilland is often playfully mischievous. When Errol Flynn flirtatiously toyed with her on the set of "The Adventures of Robin Hood," she got even with him by flubbing kissing scenes, making them more passionate than needed, requiring retakes. The result: "He had, if I may say so, a little trouble with his tights," she remembers. But she now turns solemn when discussing a time that she says ought to be a "matter for reflection and a search for answers." As she prepares to return to Paris to complete her long-awaited autobiography, Ms. de Havilland is hopeful that her unique story will cause the still contentious blacklist era to be re-examined in a new light.
"I wanted to be what my high-school civics and history teacher thought of as a good American," Ms. de Havilland remembers. "That automatically involved taking an interest in government." She could do little, though, because she wasn't a citizen. Born in Tokyo to parents who were British subjects, Ms. de Havilland moved to California at age two.
How fortunate then that she found herself at a White House luncheon in 1940, shortly after the "Gone With the Wind" premiere. She was awestruck by President Roosevelt. "I began to realize he took initiatives during the Depression that saved the country -- and probably saved it from communism."
Naturalized as a citizen shortly before Pearl Harbor, Ms. de Havilland campaigned for FDR's re-election in 1944 and traveled overseas to support the troops. After the war, she happily pledged her support for FDR's legacy through involvement with the Independent Citizens' Committee of the Arts, Sciences and Professions, a national public policy advocacy group with more than 3,000 members (including Bette Davis, Gregory Peck and Humphrey Bogart) in its Hollywood chapter. "I thought, 'I'll join and try to be a good citizen,'" says Ms. de Havilland.
But that dedication was exploited for a darker agenda. In June 1946, Ms. de Havilland was asked to deliver speeches that seemed to be straight from the Communist Party line. This was disturbing to her given that the Kremlin had declared, the year before, that communism and capitalism could not co-exist in the world and war with the U.S. was inevitable. She refused and rewrote the speeches, this time championing President Truman's anti-Communist program, making her persona non grata in Communist Party circles. In executive meetings of the Citizens' Committee, Ms. de Havilland also took note that the group rarely embraced the kind of independent spirit it publicly proclaimed. It always ended up siding with the Soviet Union even though the rank-and-file members were noncommunist. "I thought, 'If we reserve the right to criticize the American policies, why don't we reserve the right to criticize Russia?'" After scrutiny, Ms. de Havilland saw that this had become quite impossible.
As Ms. de Havilland returns to that time, her every word is deliberate, punctuated for maximum dramatic effect. "A motion that ordinarily would have no chance of being adopted by the entire membership would be introduced early in the meeting, and someone would filibuster so that the chairman would finally put the motion on the table," she remembers. "Somebody else would then filibuster about another issue. And I thought, 'Why is this?' The most intelligent men would get up and talk absolute drivel for 15 minutes. Most people got fatigued and would leave. And by 11 o'clock, there would be only about six people left -- a nucleus -- and me. And suddenly, the controversial motion was taken off the table, voted on, and passed.
"I realized a nucleus of people was controlling the organization without a majority of the members of the board being aware of it. And I knew they had to be communists."
Ms. de Havilland felt a great sense of personal betrayal that the communists had used her, other celebrities and liberalism as covers for their party work. But she was also deeply offended because the Communist Party "stood for the overthrow of governments by violent force, not by evolution. That upset me frightfully, and it was absolutely unacceptable," she says. Exasperated, she decided to resign. But producer Dore Schary, another FDR loyalist, persuaded her to stay by arguing that her departure would be an embarrassment for Democrats and detrimental in the coming midterm elections.
Gambling that she might have a chance to turn the tide in the organization, Ms. de Havilland began taking the lead in trying to circumvent the organization's communist core. Her ultimate goal was to have an anticommunist declaration by the committee appear in newspapers. Night after night, she opened her apartment above Sunset Boulevard to a small group who sympathized, mostly writers and producers. Even by Hollywood standards, the atmosphere was strange: Instead of talking about pictures, Ms. de Havilland's group was making plans to fight communism. "There I was, the only woman in the group," she says, "this little Brit trying to be a good American."
The actress also had her eye on Ronald Reagan, a recent addition to the organization, as a possible ally. They had worked together in 1940 on a picture called "Santa Fe Trail." Now, in meetings, "I noticed that Ronnie made statements that seemed to jibe with what my small group was all about," remembers Ms. de Havilland. "So I said, 'We should ask him to join us.' Before that, I'd wondered if he was a communist," she says, laughing, "and it seemed that he wondered if I was one."
Ms. de Havilland was impressed with what she saw in Reagan. "We told Ronnie what we were about," she says, "and he volunteered to take on the writing of this declaration. He came back and read what he had written." And in what proved to be a galvanizing moment for the man who would be president, Ms. de Havilland encouraged him to take a tougher stand on communism. "I said, 'Ronnie, it's not strong enough. It's not strong enough. It has to be stronger than that or I won't accept it," she says.
Meanwhile, Ms. de Havilland was becoming increasingly anxious. Her life seemed to take on an air of the cloak and dagger. The atmosphere at Citizens' Committee meetings had turned ferocious whenever there was a mention of condemning communism. Adding to the distress, the film industry was in the grips of one of the most violent labor strikes in American history, and many believed the Communist Party was the culprit. But Ms. de Havilland's loyalty to the Democratic Party, and ultimately her patriotism, spurred her on.
One evening that summer confirmed her fears. When an anticommunist statement was suggested, the meeting erupted in "pure bedlam," she says. Musician Artie Shaw began extolling the Soviet constitution as a standard of democracy. "He said to me, 'Have you read the Russian constitution?'" remembers Ms. de Havilland, "and I said, 'No I haven't -- and how recently have you read ours?'"
When Ms. de Havilland finally tried to introduce Reagan's revised declaration in July, the meeting became "so heated and contentious that I thought, 'This is it.' I had fought long enough, and as hard as I could, and I resigned," she says. During the next few weeks, Reagan and others from Ms. de Havilland's group followed. She went on to start her next film and never again immersed herself in political activism the way she did during that important summer.
As Ms. de Havilland begins to analyze this important period of her life, a clear victory often seems elusive. On the one hand, she and her group failed in their efforts to swing the Citizens' Committee to their side. Nationally, Democrats lost control of the U.S. House that fall in part because they avoided the kind of firmly declared anticommunism Ms. de Havilland advocated and were perceived as being "soft on communism." And, at least in Hollywood, the blacklist is now an honor roll, as critic Hilton Kramer once observed. But there were definite vindications: Ms. de Havilland succeeded at making a communist-controlled organization irrelevant because without her, Reagan and other noncommunists in the forefront it lost its potency. Many in key positions in the organization, such as screenwriters Dalton Trumbo and John Howard Lawson, later publicly confessed to being communists. And, in one authoritative exclamation point for Ms. de Havilland's side, Ronnie made the cover of the Economist in 2004 as "The Man Who Beat Communism."
Even with the dichotomy, Ms. de Havilland seems up to the challenge of sorting it all out. "Olivia is a very observant person," says Robert Osborne, host of Turner Classic Movies and Ms. de Havilland's longtime friend. "She's wise. She'll see a situation and give you three or four different angles about what's really going on. You say, 'Oh my God, of course' -- she's thought this out and she's right."
But there's one question that still haunts her from that era: why so many brilliant people were seduced by communism in the first place. "That," says Ms. de Havilland pensively, "is a mystery."
Mr. Meroney is at work on a book about Ronald Reagan's life in Hollywood. He provides the audio commentary, with director Vincent Sherman, for "Ronald Reagan: The Signature Collection," a DVD set of several Reagan films, just out from Warner Bros.Printed in The Wall Street Journal, page D5