‘40s star Joan Fontaine was a recluse ‘by choice,’ ‘absolutely despised’ her sister Olivia de Havilland: book
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EXCLUSIVE: It was 1997 when Bill Cassara headed to Villa Fontana in the Carmel Highlands of Calif. to assist a movie star who was receiving harassing phone calls.
The encounter would leave a lasting mark on the author's life.
For over 30 years, the retired sergeant worked in the Monterey County Sheriff’s Office. And throughout his decades-long career, he met and befriended several Hollywood legends, including Doris Day, Phyllis Coates and Clint Eastwood, among others.
Bill Cassara worked for over 30 years in the Monterey County Sheriff’s Office in California. (Photo courtesy of Bill Cassara)
Cassara, who has written several books about films, recently released his own memoir titled "Hollywood in Monterey: Chronicles of a Cop," which reveals some of his favorite encounters from over the years.
"Joan Fontaine was receiving a series of harassing phone calls from a former business associate and she had enough," Cassara told Fox News. "So she called the sheriff’s office and I stopped by to help her with the matter. It was just another routine call. But then I looked at this oversized lithograph up on her wall. And her home was just adorned with souvenirs from her movie days."
"I remembered I told her that I was glad to have met her and I was familiar with her work," Cassara continued. "She immediately relaxed and noticed I was looking around. Then she said proudly, ‘Those were from my days as a contract player for RKO.’"
Joan Fontaine lived alone but preferred her solitude after a decades-long career in Hollywood, pal Bill Cassara claimed. (Photo by The LIFE Picture Collection via Getty Images)
It was then that Cassara received the grand tour from Fontaine herself.
"She took my arm and showed me what she had," Cassara shared. "We walked through every room in the house. She showed me the Academy Award for ‘Suspicion.’ We looked at personal keepsakes from over the years. She just seemed thrilled to share her story. Before I left, I offered her my business card in case she ever needed help with anything. To my surprise, she immediately called me."
For much of the ‘40s, Fontaine was one of Hollywood’s most sought-after stars. She was featured in films by Billy Wilder, Fritz Lang, George Cukor, Nicholas Ray and Alfred Hitchcock, among others. But at this point in her life, Fontaine was living alone and had left Hollywood after she was reportedly offered to play Elvis Presley's mom in a film.
Joan Fontaine won the 1942 Oscar for 'Best Actress' in 'Suspicion.' (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
Soon after Cassara met Fontaine, the 80-year-old invited him for lunch on his day off, insisting there was something she wanted to discuss with him.
"She brought a book that was already inscribed to me," said Cassara. "It was her autobiography, ‘No Bed of Roses.’ She said, ‘I want you to read this book. It’s me.’"
Cassara said he took the time to read his new pal’s memoir. When he was done, she quickly invited him to lunch again on his day off. This time, she held nothing back.
Actress Olivia de Havilland (left) with her sister, actress Joan Fontaine, circa 1945. (Photo by Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images)
"I was surprised at how candid she was about her sister Olivia de Havilland," said Cassara. "She absolutely despised her. In fact, she was so disturbed over the idea that she would predecease her and Olivia would then somehow come to her home and steal the keepsakes that had once belonged to their mother. Now mind you, Olivia was living in Paris. But [Joan] went as far as to say, ‘I want you to be at my house when I die.’"
Fontaine’s troubled relationship with de Havilland, a fellow Oscar-winning actress, was no secret in Hollywood. Their feud was famously magnified by the 1941 Oscar race that pitted the sisters against each other for "Best Actress." Fontaine was nominated for "Suspicion" while de Havilland was cited for "Hold Back the Dawn."
When Fontaine won, it was alleged that de Havilland refused to congratulate her sibling. In response, Fontaine allegedly made a remark about de Havilland’s poor choice of agents and husbands. It is believed their hardened feelings towards each other stemmed from childhood.
Actress Olivia de Havilland starred in 'Gone With the Wind.' (Photo by Donaldson Collection/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)
Fontaine bitterly wrote about de Havilland in her book and went on to tell a reporter that she could not recall "one act of kindness from Olivia all through my childhood."
Cassara said he had zero interest in playing referee between the battling stars.
"I always resisted asking her questions [about Olivia]," he said. "She was very tough with journalists who would dare ask. She chewed them up and spit them out. But it was obvious that they were not on good terms. From my understanding, the sisters always competed for their mother’s affections. And their mother made it a point for them to compete against each other. Even then, Joan thought of her mother’s approval. It was very deep."
Joan Fontaine is married to the charming but untrustworthy Cary Grant in 'Suspicion' directed by Alfred Hitchcock. (Photo via John Kobal Foundation/Getty Images)
But it was also clear to Cassara that Fontaine needed a friend. He claimed that Fontaine, who was scheduled for hip surgery, was "horribly afraid she would die on the operating table." She suffered a fall in her rose garden when one of her three dogs jumped on her unexpectedly, causing her to roll down the incline over many rows of thorny bushes.
"I’m Italian, so I made it a point to cook up a big pot of spaghetti for her," he said. "She had a physical therapist come in every day, but no one had thought about food. So she was very taken with that. She said, ‘My neighbors would never have done this for me.’ So I was just happy to help out."
Cassara claimed Fontaine was a recluse "by choice."
Bill Cassara (center) with his wife Michelle Benton (left) and Joan Fontaine (right). (Photo courtesy of Bill Cassara.)
"She lived alone," he explained. "She enjoyed her solitude. She didn’t want to be in front of the public. She didn’t want to go to events. She would always say ‘I’m free.’"
"But she wasn’t just living alone in this multimillion-dollar home overlooking the ocean and reliving her old memories over and over," he shared. "She had a Bentley and a Mercedes-Benz. She would drive to church on Sundays and to the cinemas around the area. It was very important to her to be up to date on all the new releases."
And Fontaine never lost her interest in acting. In her lifetime, she appeared in about 30 dinner theater plays. And her last credited role was that of Queen Ludmilla in the 1994 TV film "Good King Wenceslas."
Joan Fontaine passed away in 2013 at age 96. (Getty Images)
She also didn’t mind playing hostess for a special occasion.
"When I started dating my wife, Joan was eager to meet her," said Cassara. "She wanted to know everything about her. Once they did meet, Joan told me, 'I approve.' She later said, 'Why don’t you kids get married at my place?' And we did! It was quite the adventure."
Fontaine passed away in 2013 at age 96. In a rare 2016 interview with The Associated Press, de Havilland referred to her late sister as a "dragon lady" and said her memories of Fontaine were "multi-faceted, varying from endearing to alienating." De Havilland passed away in 2020 at age 104.
For over 30 years Bill Cassara, a retired sergeant, worked in the Monterey County Sheriff’s Office. And throughout his decades-long career, he met and befriended several Hollywood legends, including Doris Day, Phyllis Coates and Clint Eastwood, among others.
"Joan was a movie star, yes, but she was also a good friend," said Cassara. "I remember our warm conversations and company. During her final years, yes she lived alone, but she wanted to live life on her own terms - and I think she did just that."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.