A Hollywood Legend Shares Her Wisdom

Olivia_de_Havilland_in_The_Adventures_of_Robin_Hood_trailer_2

Last month, I wrote about 102-year-old actress Olivia de Havilland’s lawsuit against FX Networks for defamation of character, instigated by that network’s unflattering and unauthorized depiction of her in the first-season installment of its pay-television series,  Feud.

As often happens when I write something, my curiosity led me deeper into the subject. I did some internet clicking, and discovered a 2 ½-hour interview with de Havilland from October 5, 2006 (back when she was a mere 90 years old). The interview was conducted by the Academy of Achievement, of which de Havilland is an inducted member. Most of the interview consists of her reminiscences of her childhood, family, and acting career. It’s a fascinating overview of a life well-lived, possessing great cultural value.

The Snake Pit

De Havilland in Oscar-nominated role in 1948 film “The Snake Pit” (Getty Images)

But at the tail end, she holds forth on subjects more expansive and contemporary: the importance of experiencing foreign cultures; literacy and book reading; the lessons of warfare; the European Union; and the American Dream. Her views on these subjects resonated with me.

However, (obviously), de Havilland has more street cred than longitudes. She’s been around a bit longer and experienced a bit more. She was born in Japan to British parents, raised in the U.S., where she became a citizen and had a long movie career, and she’s lived in France for many years. Her words carry slightly more weight than this author’s.

So, here, I’m doing something a little unusual: I’m going to shut up and let someone else talk. I’m re-printing that conclusion of the Academy of Achievement interview. (To view the entire interview, click here, or to read the transcript, click here.)

Please note: this interview occurred a year before the iPhone became embedded in global culture…and ten years before the election of Donald Trump.

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“The Last Belle of Cinema,” Washington, D.C., October 5, 2006 (original source: Academy of Achievement)

Academy of Achievement: You’ve said that in addition to going to college, you believe that American young people should travel abroad.

Olivia de Havilland: I think it is terribly important for this country that the young have at least one year of university in some foreign country. It’s extremely important to understand another culture, another people. Here we are isolated, this huge continent, isolated from the rest of the world by two great oceans. passportWe don’t understand other peoples. It’s so ironic, because we are made up of people of every race whose origin—origins were other countries. We are almost completely ignorant, and we are rather arrogant in our ignorance, and we are going to make terrible blunders that are injurious to other peoples abroad, and in the end, to ourselves. It’s imperative.

Otherwise, we will be a retrogressive nation…and we are on our way. I know three university students: one is going to do postgraduate work, a brilliant girl; another, who I think will also do postgraduate work; another who is 19, a sophomore. The 19-year-old has a capacity for analysis which would be counted as absolutely brilliant in a 45-year-old woman. (But) she can’t spell. She knows her way around a laptop with these mechanisms that spell for you, but she can’t spell, didn’t think it was necessary. Neither can these other two girls. Top students they were. Can’t spell. Now, that’s retrogressive. I’ll bet you anything they can’t add either, because they’ve got the calculator. Also, one of the reasons they can’t spell is they will watch television, you see, instead of reading books. They won’t look up anything in their dictionary even. It is all done by pressing buttons.

girl readingReading! Think of what the brain goes through! It is a very, very special function. When you read, you visualize. You imagine the characters. When you go and watch television, it is not only physically passive—reading is physically passive, certainly—but it is all done for you. It does arouse your interest, your full attention, and your emotions, but by a different process. The other process, the capacity to envision yourself, is very important to develop. If you do that, you are apt to learn to spell anyway, because you will see the difference between words that sound the same, like “manor,” m-a-n-or, and “manner,” m-a-n-n-e-r, and how they are used, how they are spelled differently. Oh, it is imperative, and I think something has to be done to encourage them to learn to spell, to read, to add and subtract.

Academy of Achievement: You’ve lived in France for many years now. You speak French, and you have written very charmingly about life in France. Do you think that living there has changed your perspective?

Olivia de Havilland: It’s been an extraordinary experience, absolutely extraordinary to learn about another culture and other people. It is an immense privilege and an exciting adventure. Not only that, but just living in Europe has been an extraordinary experience, because I have been living in a culture of peace. Those 19-year-old American boys—Omaha Beach, and up and down that coast—they didn’t die for nothing. Think of it. Europe, with all these different countries, each country separate from the other in terms of history, culture, language, all of them, for 2,000 years and more, at war with each other, generation after generation. And all of a sudden, after World War II, they didn’t want to kill each other anymore, and we now have the European Union. It is a miracle. And the culture there is, indeed, a culture of peace, and the thought of solving a problem, a disagreement through war…unthinkable. Unthinkable.

normandy

Cemetery near Omaha Beach, Normandy, France (site of 1944 D-Day invasion)

Imagine if the United States had been created 2,000 years ago and from then until now, Nevada had declared war on California regularly all through those centuries. If Florida had been at war with Alabama, North Dakota with South Dakota, Oregon with Washington and Idaho and Montana and the rest of them, Nebraska, Mississippi, all at war with each other for 2,000 years, and suddenly, one day, they decide they don’t want to kill each other anymore. That’s what’s happened in Europe. War is a very stupid way to settle a disagreement. Unthinkable. Won’t do. And in Europe, you have the feeling that the whole human race has been raised to another level by what has happened there.

Academy of Achievement: What is your sense of the American Dream? Does it still hold true for you?

Olivia de Havilland: I think we have abandoned our dream, and we must get back to it. We must. We absolutely must.

APTOPIX France Olivia de Havilland

(AP photo)

A Boy and a Raccoon

Rascal book

“It was in May 1918 that a new friend and companion came into my life: a character, a personality, and a ring-tailed wonder.”

Among other neuroses, I have obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). It may have started in 1968 when I was 10 and became obsessed with having a wild animal as a pet. A therapist might deduce that I craved attention. Having a wild animal as a pet, instead of a dog or cat, draws attention and makes a young person special.

My favorite wild animal was the raccoon (Procyon lotor). I became a child expert on raccoons, and I’ve always remembered the Latin name that I just tried to impress you with.

It started in fifth grade when I read a children’s book called Little Rascal, about a boy and his pet raccoon. A few months later, I graduated to the full novel, Rascal. The novel was a 1963 bestseller, Newbery Honor book, and the first Dutton Animal Book Award winner. It was popular enough that it became a 1969 Disney movie starring Bill Mumy and Steve Forrest (critic Leonard Maltin gives the film two-and-a-half out of four stars, which I might agree with… movies are seldom as good as the books they’re based on).

I read Rascal several times and saw the movie in the theatre the first week of its release. Eventually, my obsession with raccoons became so strong that in 1970 I captured my own baby raccoon in a box trap and made him a pet, with my dad building a 10-foot-tall cage at the side of our house. Rascal II and I became the talk of the neighborhood. My chatterbox friend used to perch on my scrawny shoulders, his black mask like a pair of racing goggles, while we tooled around the streets on my red Schwinn Sting-Ray. For a short time in 1970, before Rascal felt the call and disappeared to locate a mate, I was a minor celebrity.

But enough about my OCD. May 2018 is 100 years since author Sterling North became acquainted with an animal that changed his life, so I’d like to talk about him, his pet raccoon, and his special book.

Sterling North House

Sterling North House (photo public domain)

Sterling North was raised in the small town of Edgerton in southern Wisconsin, on the banks of Rock River near shallow Lake Koshkonong. In 1918, Lake Koshkonong was a wild and scenic lake rimmed by dark forest. But a dam was built in 1932, creating an enlarged reservoir that is now studded with public beaches and boat landings, and an interstate now cuts along the western shore, so much of the lake’s wildness is gone (in the 1970s, the lake came perilously close to hosting a nuclear power plant). In 1918, North was age 11 and spent many hours both on the lake and in the woods surrounding it. He lived alone with his often-absent father, his mother having died when he was only 7, his two older sisters having moved away, and his older brother, Herschel, was far away in France, fighting to end the war to end all wars.

One evening in May, he and his friend Oscar venture into Wentworth’s Woods, where Sterling’s devoted St. Bernard, Wowser, digs up a den of raccoons. The mother and babies hightail it into the brush, but Oscar scoops one of the babes into his cap. He knows his tyrannical father won’t let him keep it, so he gives it to Sterling. Over the next year, Sterling and Rascal have numerous adventures together.

On the surface, Rascal appears to be a just children’s story about a boy frolicking with a wild animal. But it’s a book equally appealing to grownups. I read it again 9 years ago and discovered layers I didn’t know existed. North’s relationship with the lovable, intelligent Rascal is a friendship as tangible as that between people. In the book, he instills human characteristics in his furry hero, but without stretching credulity or sounding trite. He also captures a bygone time of innocent rural Americana, when hickory and walnut hunting, whippoorwill sighting, pie-eating contests, and trotter races are small treasures, and not corny anachronisms.

Sterling North Society

Sterling North and friends (photo Sterling North Society)

In Rascal, North makes plain that his childhood is unorthodox. His father allows him to keep numerous wild and domestic pets, wander deep into the woods, sleep alone outdoors, skip school, etc. The entire living room is cloaked in sawdust from a canoe that Sterling is building by himself. While Sterling’s martinet eldest sister, Theo, scolds their father for creating an unhealthy household environment, his other sister, Jessica—a surrogate mother for Sterling—is more tender and understanding. She realizes that Sterling’s world of flora and fauna is a way of coping with their mother’s death.

And Sterling’s father indulges their self-sufficiency, knowing that being “different” and not trotting after the pack are a healthy thing.

Sterling’s pet raccoon introduces humor and sunlight into the boy’s life. Rascal also brings about a jarring awakening. After seeing a picture of a trapped raccoon on the cover of his fur catalogue, the sensitive boy pictures Rascal’s soft, inquisitive hand clamped in a jaw trap, and he decides to give up trapping. He declares a “peace” with nature on Armistice Day, November 11, 1918. North concludes this chapter with the memorable sentence: “It is perhaps the only peace treaty that was ever kept.”

John R. Sill

Lake Koshkonong (photo John R. Sill)

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North grew up to be a successful reporter and editor and wrote a children’s book that became a 1949 feature film, So Dear to My Heart, featuring Burl Ives. But Rascal is the book he’s most known for. In Japan, the book became a cartoon series in 1977, and the raccoon character is still very popular there, supposedly bigger than Mickey Mouse.

When he retired, North and his wife moved to Morristown, New Jersey, choosing the location specifically because there were lots of woods and wild animals, including raccoons.

During this time, my aunt and cousin lived in nearby Millington, New Jersey. When my family visited in the early ‘70s, my aunt found out about my interest, and telephoned the North home to see if I could stop by to meet my favorite author (I was too shy to call myself). But Mrs. North said her husband was suffering from a long illness and was unable to have visitors. She said he’d be pleased to hear that I’d called, though.

In January 1975, while a sophomore at boarding school, I read in the back pages of Newsweek that Sterling North had passed away at age 68. It was like another piece of my childhood had passed away.

Rascal_3

(Author photo)