I take the first steps on my blog journey by recounting an amazing day I had last week; a day that I believe sparked the flame for this writing venture.
On October 22, 2017, Joan Fontaine would have been 100 years old. She almost made it, passing away only four years ago at the age of 96. Joan Fontaine has been a fixture in my admiration of classic film since I was 11 years old. Her waifish beauty, delicate countenance yet powerful ability to show emotional turmoil has always had an enormous effect on me. She has made some brilliant films; many of which are burned into film history forever, and yet very little information exists about her. Perhaps I am attracted to mystery, but when it comes to Joan Fontaine, I have always been left wanting more.
Her death made me think that I had missed an opportunity to get to know her; that somehow her entire history vanished with her and was lost forever. In hindsight, this is a ridiculous thought. The opportunity to learn more about her is not at all lost. I live in northern California – precisely the place where Joan grew up and lived most of her life. Knowing how much she loved this state, I feel great joy that we have shared this powerful love of the place we live(d).
Therefore, to honor her centennial, I ventured to Saratoga, California, where Joan Fontaine and her sister, Olivia De Havilland, spent their childhood. With the help of Lara G. Fowler (of Backlots.net), we created a flexible itinerary of notable places to visit that were connected to Joan’s past.
I wanted our first stop to be the most personal to Joan, and one that I was all too eager to see in person. The house at 20250 La Paloma Avenue was bought by Lilian De Havilland in 1923, and not much has changed since then. Lara explained that it has really only changed hands once since Lilian and the girls occupied it, when it was sold to Warren and Sheila Heid in 1959.
The house is located on the corner of a beautiful tree-laden suburban street and is undoubtedly the oldest house on the block. The fruit trees and orchards that made up most of Santa Clara County in the last century are long gone; surrounding the house now are gleaming new houses stuck close together. Alternatively, 20250 is located on quite a bit of property, with a large backyard lined with tall shrubs for privacy.
Luck was absolutely on our side that day; shortly after we arrived and spent a few minutes gazing up at the house, Sheila Heid and her son arrived with groceries. Sheila was quite elderly and couldn’t speak for long, but we were able to exchange pleasantries before she went inside. Later, her son came out to talk to us for a few minutes. He confirmed that the house was indeed purchased by his parents in 1958 and that the family is quite close with Olivia and they manage to keep in touch.
To our delight, Mr. Heid Jr. motioned us to follow him to the other side of the driveway. He crouched and pointed at the ground; a small, faint handprint was there in the concrete. They were told it belonged to Olivia; I think it does. What a find!
We thanked Mr. Heid and took one last look at the house before leaving. It was very strange to be standing there – I’m not quite sure why. Perhaps it was the thought that something has changed so little in the last 100 years when everything around it has changed so completely. And of course, the thought that this goes on living while Joan is gone. Very strange indeed.
Our next stop was Hakone Gardens; one of Joan’s favorite places. This Japanese garden is located at the base of Big Basin State Park, an enormous land preserve in the Santa Cruz Mountains. The blue sky and warm autumnal sunshine were a beautiful compliment to the serenity of the space. We ate our lunch while listening to Joan’s incredible voice in a 1970s broadcast of BBC’s Desert Island Discs (pausing it of course every 2 seconds because, Joan.) before touring the grounds.
The garden is certainly an oasis in the middle of a suburban sprawl, but it’s more rugged and overgrown than what you imagine a manicured Japanese tea garden to be. An impressive pagoda dominates the space; however the focal point is the river that weaves through the garden. In the shallow waters, enormous coy swim freely as do families of active turtles who are enjoying the warm sun on top of rocks and stones.
In the small museum near the entrance, we read a brief history of the gardens; bought by an entrepreneur and his wife and opened in 1915. It is lovely to imagine how beautiful and unique the space must have been back then, and a comforting place for the De Havillands to escape to as newcomers to America.
We move on from the gardens to the Saratoga Historical Society to see what information we can gather on the family. Lara inquired ahead, and one of the archivists graciously set aside some material for us to sift through. It was amazing! We found newspaper clippings, handwritten notes, and original letters of correspondence from Olivia herself to the lead historian, Melita Oden. These letters were fascinating, and something I would like to return to another time. In one of these letters, Olivia refers to various photographs and stills she sent to the Society. On the list for next time.
From there, Lara and I went about our wandering; first to the Saratoga Elementary School, only two blocks away. Lara explained that upon arriving to Saratoga, Lilian and the girls first lived in a place called Lundblad’s Lodge, which was a large property right next door to the school and had a main house surrounded by smaller cottages. Miraculously, the cottages are still there. Heavily renovated of course, but nonetheless, the original blue print had been maintained after all this time. This situation was perfect for the young girls who simply walked across the street to get to school.
From there we continued to the Saratoga Library and The Foothill Club (where Olivia starred in a local production of Alice and Wonderland) just to soak up the waning hours of the day surrounded by all things Fontaine.
We concluded our celebration at dinner, where Lara and I toasted Joan Fontaine’s 100 years. Oh and we had cake too 😉
So there it is! A long-winded story of a Sunday in October. But this was an important day for me. Being able to freely recognize someone I have long admired made me feel a powerful sense of validation and connectedness. I have never been able to fully share my enthusiasm for classic film, until now! Thank you, Lara, for helping me celebrate and for keeping this world alive for me. Now stay tuned for Part II, when I return to Saratoga to pour over those letters!