Carol Felsenthal
On politics

The Afternoon Joan Fontaine Told Me to Get a Manicure

The author recalls how her worst interview, out of a career of thousands, was conducted with the late actress in a limo to O’Hare.

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In the fall of 1978 I was writing book reviews and struggling to get a freelance career going.  As best as I can recall, I was asked by an editor at the Sun-Times to interview Joan Fontaine, the blonde, icy, high-cheek-boned beauty who died yesterday at age 96. Her memoir, No Bed of Roses, had just been published and Fontaine, who won a best actress Oscar at age 23 for Alfred Hitchcock’s Suspicion, was coming to Chicago on her publicity tour. Her publicist arranged for me to meet her at the green room of Kup’s Show and from there I could interview her in the back seat of her limousine en route to O’Hare.

Kup’s wife, Essee, whom I recall dressed in more Gucci than one person should ever wear at the same time, served cookies. Essee was lively and profane and particularly interested in another guest, James Mason, who was accompanied by his wife, a quiet, sophisticated woman who waited with me and Essee while James and Joan took their places on the set for the taped segment.

Kup, whom I would later come to admire, both because he was kind and generous in putting notices of my book signings, etc. in his column, but also because, years later, soon after his death in 2006, I wrote a profile of him and decided that, for all his malapropisms and embarrassing lapses of memory, there was something brave about him. But then, during that afternoon’s taping, came what Essee laughingly referred to as a “big boner.”

As I recall, Kup asked the actress what it was like to have sex with David Niven, when the person Kup intended to ask about was some other actor. As we watched Fontaine deny ever having had sex with Niven—Niven is the name that sticks in my mind and that of my husband who has heard this story many times—Essee removed her hard leather Gucci shoe and threw it.  I believe she missed her target, her husband’s large head on the monitor, and that it hit the wall. I know that she called Kup  a “fucking idiot” or a “fucking moron.” Essee, who was extremely smart, had, like me, actually read the book—she noted that she had prepped Kup for the interview but obviously had wasted her time—and instantly recognized the mistake.

From there the elegantly coiffed and dressed Joan Fontaine and I embarked on our ride to O’Hare. Stuck in the back seat with her, I felt under siege by her cool blue eyes—she obviously disapproved of both my grooming and my wardrobe—but I plowed ahead with my balky cassette recorder and my reporter’s notebook and my long list of questions. I had typed questions on my IBM Selectric, arranging them in the order I wanted to ask them, the most important first so if we ran out of time I could still write the piece.

The leadoff was undoubtedly about the famous and ugly feud with her slightly (15 months) older sister Olivia De Havilland. As I fumbled with my recorder’s record switch, eager to get through the questions, Fontaine asked me if I booked manicures into my weekly schedule.  No, I answered, and volunteered that I had never had a professional manicure in all my 29 years. She took my hand in her much smaller one and told me that I had lovely long fingers, but did I realize that I was not a healthy “young lady?” The white spots on my fingernails showed a deficiency of I don’t remember what mineral or vitamin and could indicate a serious problem with an internal organ; I no longer remember which organ. In those years I rode a 10-speed bicycle almost everywhere, and my hands and nails took a daily beating from fooling with my lock and struggling, usually unsuccessfully, to quick release my front wheel and lock it to the frame at parking meters which, back in the old days, lined city streets. 

I remember feeling out of control, unhappy, and anxious. By the time we said goodbye at the airport curb and her driver took me back to my apartment at Belmont and Sheridan, I felt like I ought to check into nearby St. Joseph’s Hospital or head out of state to the Mayo Clinic.  My life hadn’t even really started, I feared, and I’m going to be dead in a year. 

I don’t remember how long it took for those white spots to disappear; 35 years later I’ve still never had a manicure. And not one of the hundreds (thousands?) of interviews I’ve done since has been so dreadful. In fact, Joan Fontaine, whom I never saw again, became a kind of benchmark in my mind; no matter how badly I messed up an interview, I’d tell myself it was far better than my Fontaine fiasco.

The obituaries of Fontaine, who arrived in Hollywood in 1935—and who was probably best known for Hitchcock’s Rebecca, adapted from the Daphne du Maurier novel—are worth a read. In Suspicion Fontaine plays the wife of Cary Grant whom she suspects (wrongly) is trying to murder her. Grant was later quoted as saying that casting Fontaine was perfect because “…anyone who knows me realizes that I couldn’t be married to Joan Fontaine for more than 24 hours without wanting to wring her neck.'’

And I understood her better, and realize I got off lightly, when I read today a 1981 piece by UPI Hollywood reporter Vernon Scott in which Fontaine complains about how “… little elegance [is] left in our culture or society. And how long has it been since any of us has attended a dinner party where finger bowls were set at table? We live in a society in which fewer and fewer people have servants and where men go to laundromats as a matter of course.”

According to the Los Angeles Times obituary she was not only estranged from her sister, but from her two daughters. “She once quipped about children at a lecture… `you can acquire enemies. Why give birth to them?’”  

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