Apart from competing for film roles and the attention of their mother, sisters Olivia de Havilland and Joan Fontaine also competed for men. Olivia was the first to date actor Brian Aherne but it was Joan who eventually married him (the couple was married from 1939 until 1945). Besides Aherne, both sisters were involved with eccentric billionaire Howard Hughes, which complicated their relationship even more.
Olivia was also the first to date Hughes. But while she was dating him, Hughes proposed to her sister. At a surprise party given in Joan's honour shortly before her wedding to Aherne, Hughes proposed to Joan on the dance floor, telling her it was a mistake to marry Aherne. In her autobiography No Bed of Roses (1978), Joan recalled:
I was shocked. Olivia had been seeing him steadily. I knew her feelings for him were intense, that the relative tranquility at Nella Vista now rested upon the frequency of his telephone calls. No one two-timed my sister, whatever our domestic quarrels might be. Not if I could help it. I had heard rumors that Howard saw girls in shifts (no pun intended). Olivia was on the early shift, while actresses such as [Katharine] Hepburn and [Ginger] Rogers were rumored to have later dates with him. Howard evidently needed very little sleep.
As I was leaving the nightclub with Olivia, Hughes slipped me his private telephone number, whispering that I was to call him as soon as possible. The next day I phoned him and arranged to meet him that afternoon. I had to find out whether he was serious or indulging in some ghoulish jest. [...] He seemed in deadly earnest and had not changed his mind from the previous evening. I, seething inside at his disloyalty to Olivia, said nothing.
Upon returning to Nella Vista, I showed Olivia the slip of paper with Howard's private number written in his own handwriting and told her about my afternoon's encounter. I gently tried to explain that her heart belonged to a heel. In addition to the rumors in newspaper columns, the warnings from her friends, now she had real proof. Sparks flew. Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned ... especially in favor of her sister. This, plus my engagement to Brian, was very hard for her to take.
Joan, Olivia and Joan's husband Brian Aherne are having tea in the early 1940s.
While the relationship between Olivia and Howard Hughes ended, Hughes would ask Joan to marry him two more times, i.e. first after her divorce from Aherne and next when Hughes became her boss at RKO as she was divorcing producer William Dozier. On both occasions Joan again rejected him. In her autobiography Joan said she was never in love with Hughes and never had an affair with him. She felt he had "no humor, no gaiety, no sense of joy" and everything with him "seemed to be a "deal", a business arrangement." Still, judging by some of the letters Joan had written Hughes in 1949, she seemed to have been under his spell more than she would let on in her memoir.
Seen below are three of Joan's letters, two in full and the third letter in part. The first two letters were written in Italy where in the summer of 1949 exteriors for the film September Affair (1950) were shot. After her film duties in Italy and seeing the sights there, Joan took a trip to Cyprus from where she wrote the third letter. In particular the last two letters show Joan's obvious adoration for Hughes. Ultimately, however, she realised there was no future for them unless she was willing to share him with his "6900 gals". (At the time of writing these letters, Joan was in the middle of her divorce from Dozier, a divorce which would not be finalised until 1951.)