Never Such Devoted Sisters - Jason Ward

Growing up with a sibling is like winning a prize at a village fete tombola that you didn't actually enter--hopefully you'll get something decent, but there's a fair chance you'll end up with a tin of pineapple chunks instead. Through an essentially random process, you're assigned someone who is supposed to be one of the closest people to you, with whom you'll share not just genetic material but a household, a family, and your youth. Who knows whether or not you'll actually like each other?

The stultifying proximity of childhoods and adolescences can accordingly make a sibling one of the most complicated relationships in one's life. This can be a source of comfort and joy, but also mutual agony: there's no one like a sister or brother to transform you into the fourteen-year-old version of yourself. At its best, this means silliness, solidarity and a sense of playful competition. At its worst, you both revert to your worst incarnations, and misery blossoms. Making a sibling relationship work can be hard enough, therefore, without adding public scrutiny, duelling careers, Oscar ceremonies and Adolf Hitler into the mix, as shown by the contentious and compelling lives of two sets of famous sisters: Olivia de Havilland and Joan Fontaine, and the Mitfords.

prize-winning grudges: Olivia de Havilland and Joan Fontaine

Given that the Golden Age movie star Olivia de Havilland is 99 years old and still alive, it could be argued that the publication of her last will and testament in her high school newspaper was somewhat premature. She was, at least, nothing if not generous. “I bequeath to my sister the ability to win boys' hearts,” Olivia wrote, “which she does not have at present.”

Her sister Joan was accustomed to such barbs. Born fifteen months apart, the siblings fought viciously for their entire childhood: they would taunt each other, pull out one another's hair, and whenever it came time for Olivia to pass down her old clothes, she would rip them to bits first. By the age of nine, Joan had already plotted out her sister's murder, aiming to “plug Olivia between the eyes”. As adulthood approached, the physical quarrels fell away but the enmity between the sisters remained, a situation that wasn't helped by them both deciding to become actresses, or from their mother barring Joan from using the family name because Olivia was already doing so.

What was perhaps the apogee of their feud took place on 26 February 1942 at the fourteenth Academy Awards. Seated at the same table, Joan and Olivia were both nominated for best actress. The winner was Joan, who later recalled her sister's response in her memoir: “‘Get up there!’ she whispered commandingly. Now what had I done? All the animus we'd felt towards each other as children, the savage wrestling matches, the time Olivia fractured my collarbone, all came rushing back in kaleidoscopic imagery. My paralysis was total. I felt Olivia would spring across the table and grab me by the hair. I felt age four, being confronted by my older sister.”

Olivia resisted one last hair pull, but when she finally won her own Oscar five years later, she refrained from shaking her sister's hand. “Our relations have been strained for some time--I couldn't change my attitude,” she told a reporter. “Maybe she didn't see me,” Joan told another.

The exact history of Olivia and Joan's fractious relationship is difficult to establish because their version of events often diverged wildly. Joan, easily aggrieved since youth, was more willing to discuss the matter publicly, keen to portray herself as the victim. The reality was probably a little more nuanced--they were two equally competitive, unsentimental and talented sisters whose early animosity carried over as they pursued the same career. Although they'd never be able to admit it, they were as bad, and as good, as one another. Their relationship sputtered on until 1975 when a row over their dying mother caused them to stop speaking permanently, and they never reconciled before Joan's own death in 2013. The timing might have given Joan a certain grim pleasure, as in a 1978 interview she had said, “I married first, won the Oscar before Olivia did, and if I die first, she'll undoubtedly be livid because I beat her to it.

Find the full feature in Oh Comely Issue 30