No Bed of Roses: an Autobiography by Joan Fontaine

I was just dying to get my hands on No Bed of Roses, Joan Fontaine’s autobiography. I loved her as the highly expressive “second Mrs. de Winter” in Alfred Hitchcock’s Rebecca, and she was lovely in Suspicion, too. The book has several pages of old photos. Here are some images (not from the book) of Joan Fontaine in Rebecca:

Fontaine opens No Bed of Roses with an introduction in which she explains why she wrote her autobiography. She claims many people reported on her life and career inaccurately in the media and that “someone had to set the record straight.” Joan Fontaine was born Joan de Beauvoir de Havilland on October 22, 1917. She changed her name to Fontaine, which was her step-father’s last name, because her sister Olivia became a famous actress first and Hollywood couldn’t have two de Havillands. Olivia and Joan were born 15 months apart, and Joan suggests theirs was a fierce rivalry. Of course, Joan felt that she was the victim throughout. When describing their differences, Fontaine refers to herself in the 3rd person. For example, “Obedient Joan now walks in a permanent ballet fifth position, while defiant Olivia’s toes point straight ahead.”

Olivia_DeHavilland-2
Sister Olivia de Havilland

Throughout her life, Fontaine was married four times and had been engaged many more times. She basically had a 5th husband but didn’t put it on paper. Many of these marriages began months after initially meeting, and I wondered why. Then, I realized Fontaine was criticized in the media or was threatened with losing custody of her daughter if she had a man in her house who wasn’t her husband. After golfing, Fontaine was asked “What’s your handicap?” to which she responded “Men.”

Fontaine had a worrisome childhood. Her step-father sent her to school in handcuffs because she wouldn’t stop biting her nails. The same man washed her too intimately when Fontaine’s mother was absent for all of 1924. When she was twenty, she became acquainted with a much older actor on whom she’d had a crush as a girl. Fontaine’s mother pushed the relationship, letting Joan travel with him, though they stayed in separate rooms. One night, she claims he “threw back my bedcovers, and before I could protest, the dire deed was done. One might say I was surprised out of my virginity.”

As sister Olivia’s fame rose, Joan Fontaine was told to serve dinner to Olivia’s guests and then stay in her room. Both sisters were born in Japan, and when Joan is sent to her father, who still lived there, she claims she was ignored there too. Yet, her argument that her Japanese step-mother was terrible is far from convincing. It’s still the fact that a British family had children in Japan and the mother relocated to California while the father stayed in Japan that is difficult. These such moments touched my heart and gave me an idea of why Fontaine seems to stumble through adulthood.

I was largely disappointed by No Bed of Roses. Fontaine seems removed from reality. When she was pregnant with her daughter, Fontaine and her husband chose to remodel to create a nursery. Therefore, her husband sent her to live in a hotel suite for a few months. Fontaine complains that her mother had traveled away, her sister was with her husband, and Fontaine’s husband was too busy with business meetings. Thus, she was left “alone to cope with room service.” Imagine the most challenging part of your pregnancy is calling and opening the door for room service.

Near the end of the memoir, Fontaine has a recurring illness that prevents her from working. Meanwhile, she fights to win custody of her daughter in court, which leads to her running low on money. On the next page, Fontaine has landed a role in a play, been paid, and bought her latest husband a Thunderbird for Christmas. She’s displeased that he buys her a frying pan. Maybe he was more money conscious, Joan? The autobiography is sprinkled with such frustrating moments that prevent me from sympathizing with Fontaine when things are challenging.

However, the biggest flaw of No Bed of Roses is the name dropping, much of which left this reader skimming. We’re talking old actors. Fontaine was born in 1917, and most of her friends and co-workers were her age or older, so not really people I know. Oddly, there is little discussion of what it was like working with certain directors or actors. My beloved Rebecca is a four-page chapter! And in that chapter, Fontaine claims that Laurence Olivier wanted his fiance to play the second Mrs. de Winter, so he was a pill. Then, because the other actors — including Gladys Cooper, Judith Anderson, Nigel Bruce, and George Saunders — were older, they would talk about the “good old days” and leave out the twenty-one year old Joan. Mainly, in the “Rebecca” chapter, she complained about her co-stars and then listed all the non-British people in Hollywood who were cliquey with the British Hollywood people. The movie Suspicion, for which Fontaine earned an Academy Award, doesn’t even get a chapter.

Fontaine and Cary Grant
Cary Grant & Joan Fontaine in Suspicion

Joan Fontaine presents herself as a nervous woman who needs validation and wants everyone to love her, and the result is more of a phone book of Hollywood’s elite. Most unprofessionally, Fontaine complains about people by name, such as when she said Laurence Olivier’s fiance never cleaned her litter boxes, so the house stank. Fortunately, I was able to separate Joan Fontaine from the second Mrs. de Winter and shall keep my happy memories of the film and leave Fontaine’s personality in the pages of this book — which I’m about to donate.

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36 comments

  1. I think I’d dislike all of the name-dropping, too. It seems clear that there are some difficult things that happened in Fontaine’s life, no doubt of that. But I see your point about the sort of distance she has from reality (that room service bit had me shaking my head). Hmmm……nope. Not interested in reading this.

    • I’m just going to keep watching Rebecca and forget I read this. Actually, because Fontaine’s personality is so different from that if her characters in Rebecca, I would forget I was reading a book by the same woman, so that’s a relief.

  2. Hmm, sounds like a scorned bitter woman complaining about all of life’s slights, and not any of its joys. Something to get out from the library rather than buy.

  3. I would never read a celebrity autobiography and yet if one sneaks into the piles of audiobooks I take from the library I almost invariably enjoy it. They are are certainly not like us! And living in a suite in a hotel!? the cost would be unimaginable, well, to me anyway.

  4. Wow – great review of a disappointing sounding book. I was sympathizing with Fontaine when I read about her tough childhood – but then she sounds like someone who never was able to rise above all of that, a perpetual victim. The litter box remark made me chuckle out loud. A most entertaining review to read, Melanie!

    • Thanks! It felt really petty that she cling to Laurence Olivier preferring his fiance all those years to throw the woman under the bus and make her sounds disgusting. The situation was Fontaine and Olivier’s partner apartment swapped for a time because each had a place in a location in which the other had to work.

      I have actually thought of Fontaine as the perpetual victim, but I think you’re right. And by writing about herself in 3rd person when she compared herself to her sister created distance designed to make the reader feel bad for an unknown girl, momentarily forgetting Fontaine was that girl.

    • 😂😂 I don’t know if it’s worthy of a warning label. I’m just disappointed Fontaine wasn’t interesting nor did she write about her experiences in Hollywood. She wrote about the people in Hollywood.

  5. I enjoy memoirs where authors distance themselves and are neither victims nor heroes. I think we have a power to spin our past either way and I am not sure if either of that actually serves us. Judging from your well thought-out review, Fontaine fell into the victim mentality trap, something I would personally find frustrating to read.
    Thanks for sharing your thoughts with us, I really enjoyed your review.

    • Thank you! I think with autobiography the author can take a more clinical approach, a sort of “just the facts.” Memoir is often more creative, selective, and about a certain theme or time. Fontaine choose autobiography, so I guess she felt it was the truth….there are articles that discuss the Olivia/Joan rivalry, but I don’t get why they would be rivals unless they were trying for the same roles. It’s like writers: no need to be competitive, there is always room for more books!

      • I had no idea about that difference between an autobiography and a memoir, that really useful to know, thanks! It makes sense. 🙂

        And yes, absolutely agree with you about unnecessary rivalry! That mentality always lead to suffering rather than contentment.

        • One of my favorite autobiographies is of Malcolm X. The book starts just before he was born and ends right before he is assassinated. Most autobiographies start when the person is born and move to whenever they are writing. They kind of stop at present day, which is so weird to me! Just sort of, “Oh, I’ve caught up to myself!”

          • I definitely want to check Malcolm X! Thanks for the recommendation. 😊 And that ‘I’ve caught up to myself’ made me laugh, so true! 😂

  6. Well at least you got a better glimpse of who she was as a person even if you weren’t too fond of her. I wonder how many young actresses have similar stories of being kind of groomed by older actors and how many had parents who might have encouraged it. Horrifying to think about.

    • I’ll bet quite a few. Matches seem more about if the man is established, which usually means older, and women must be married ASAP so there are no questions about her virginity/respectability.

  7. This post reminds me of a few things: I finally read Rebecca a few years ago and only watched the film last year. I’m terrible about watching movie adaptations because it’s hard to not compare them.
    But most of all this reminds me of how nonfiction has the potential to be informative but in some cases (as if appears with this book) not so great.

    • Hitchcock liked to interpret and play with novel adaptations, but the producer of Rebecca, Selznick, really watched Hitchcock careful to make sure he did no such thing. For this I am grateful. However, Fontaine says Selznick made her miserable because he was in control of her contract and made her miserable. Contracts worked differently then, almost like the actors were owned and had zero control; Olivia de Havilland was actually the one to change that in court!

  8. I vaguely remember that she was thought of as a rather unpleasant type in my youth which I assume was when she was already pretty old (for a Hollywood actress of that era). That may just have been as a result of all the divorces though – still very much frowned on back then. My dad always claimed he could tell she was insane just by looking at her. Mind you, my dad claimed that about half the actresses of the time! The real problem was he was usually right…

    • She claims the press often made her look okay. She would give examples of what she said then what they published. I believe the press at the time could be bought off with gifts, etc. Some tabloid journalists, she claimed, would make the rounds to various studios to collect gifts.

      • I think the British press was often harder on Hollywood stars than the American press – there was an awful lot of disapproval of their “lax morals” with all these marriages and divorces. We’ve kinda caught up now, though… 😀

  9. hahah I actually like the sounds of this book, just because she sounds so far removed from reality-but then aren’t all celebrities? And if they didn’t start off like that, they certainly end up like it. Oh well. I’d love some room service right about now…

  10. Spectacular review, Melanie! In fact, I’d like you to write the definitive biography of Joan Fontaine because I was SO READY to read this book reading your review– that is until I reached the part where this book sounds like it contains all reasons I have a hit-or-miss relationship with celebrity biographies. Because name dropping and whining are not high on my list of things I care about. You did a stellar job hooking me to Joan’s story in the beginning. Well done! Well done, indeed!

  11. This sounded interesting until you mentioned all the name dropping. I sometimes wonder why people as famous as Fontaine need to name drop! I suppose no amount of fame can give someone a sense of security.

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