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.)
I hated our telephone conversation in every way. You were so right to warn me how lousy connections were and all we seemed to do was say "hello, hello, can you hear me?" Wedged into that went something about whether I'd been on a binge or was someone in my room! Really, you are the most hopelessly suspicious guy. Why are you like that?
You want to trust someone, then you defy her to be anything but honest with you. I simply couldn't live like that and I see only real, terrifying unhappiness for you. Hell! What a dog's life you lead without your trying to make it worse.
I've just begun to live, I realize. The Italians have a superb philosophy which we might well adopt. They're all so happy— no psychiatrists in the country for the Italians are better intergrated [sic] than any people I've yet seen. Sure — they have little ambition and their children run in ragged, filthy clothes about the streets — but they are enjoying life as few of us Americans know how.
Why are we all so ambitious, so intent on emphasising all our assets, talent, social position —all— and we ruin our health and never enjoy our life for one moment.
I am resolved to live a different life upon my return, by golly. I've roped myself down so many years during which I have had few moments of real happiness or real pleasure. I intend to be very selfish from now on and think of pleasing Joan for a change. Maybe I can teach you a little sense in the process.
Be a nice boy — stop quarrelling with me — it's such a waste of valuable time.
Will cable you next week when I know definitely what my plans will be.
Saturday Sept 2nd
You've got me scared again! This time I loved our telephone conversation and every word was very clear - especially the "come home" part of it!
That's all very well, you spoiled boy - but what happens to Joan? I see it quite clearly - I come home - empty house, divided friends, no "occupational theopathy" until "September" [the film September Affair] starts about Nov. 1st. I can't be seen with you, let's face it. You've got a lousy reputation - mebbe good for you but not the girls. No one would believe I wasn't one of your 6900 gals and there's no way to prove I'm not. (Bill does not believe I'm not one of them either, by the way.)
So, then what happens? I stay home waiting all hours for you to telephone to say you got tied up and can't come over this evening? And this I do night after night like Olivia until you get bored with me or I go to the looney-bin? No, no, no - you've got the wrong girl, or rather - you just ain't got her at all.
I do adore you - but I just can't see how it can work. Strangely enough, though I scarcely know you, I miss you- or perhaps I just can't bear being alone and I have to have someone to love. At any rate, I'm going to try to enjoy the remainder of this so-called holiday and leave tomorrow for, at this moment, an unknown destination.
Venice was so beautiful I could hardly bear it. The festival is the most ridiculous farce imaginable due to the fact they can't get enough good films to show + therefore must give awards to those they have. Selznick + Litvak brought theirs so they were a cinch to win - though Joe's performance in "Jenny" [sic] hardly warrants anything. The city was crawling with people we know so it was rather like an inundated Hollywood and Vine. The city itself is the most fabulous I've ever seen, however, fairly beyond the realm of possibility!
Do hope your 4 days' vacation did all the right things for you. Rupert Burns c/o Shell Oil, Nicosia, Cyprus will be my next address. Should reach there between Aug. 8th + 12th.
Just the same.
This is the last part of one of Joan's other letters, written on 11 September 1949 from Cyprus.
Darling Howard - either you should be with me or out of my life entirely - I DREAM of you every night - almost. I see you many times a day in other people - something about their walk or expression - something sometimes, when someone glowers at me - it's exactly like you!!
I DREAD returning to California and probably would remain in Sicily for the rest of my life- but I miss you - I'm not just a little intrigued by you - and I desperately need a little bit of comfort and a soft shoulder to lean on. Have I at least one shoulder of yours?
Bill now writes me short cryptic notes when he forwards my mail - why can't people be nicer about these things?
And look you - isn't this letter-writing a bit one-sided? Don't you think you could take the time to pen me just one postcard? Funny fellow- wish you were here or I were there right this very minute.
Hope you're so damned busy you haven't time to see all those gals every night - but not too busy so that you don't think of me just occasionally.
Howard, Howard, Howard - could it be I love you a little?
The Venice Film Festival, mentioned in the second letter, held its 10th annual edition from 11 August until 1 September 1949. Joan mentions David Selznick, producer of Portrait of Jennie (1948), and Jennie's leading man Joseph Cotten who received the Best Actor Award for his performance (a performance apparently not to Joan's liking). Joan also mentions director Anatole Litvak, whose film The Snake Pit (1948) won the International Award. Interestingly, she doesn't say anything about her sister Olivia who was awarded the prize for Best Actress for The Snake Pit. (Incidentally, the date on the letter is "Saturday September 2nd", but Joan had mistaken either the day or the date as 2 September 1949 was on a Friday. Also, Joan said she would reach Cyprus "between Aug. 8th + 12th", but that of course should be September.)