Olivia de Havilland: the view from France

Olivia de Havilland has just made a major discovery: ''Nobody speaks English better than the English!'' Now a mature, impeccably coiffed, groomed, and manicured beauty, the lady who will probably forever be known as Miss Melanie of ''Gone With The Wind'' has just finished filming an Agatha Christie movie in England: ''Murder Is Easy,'' (CBS, Saturday, Jan. 2, 9-11 p.m. -- see preview on these pages Dec. 30).

After 28 years of living in France -- although born in Saratoga, Calif. - she felt it necessary to study an English accent with an English coach: ''It all came back to me quickly.'' She giggles the effervescent giggle of the teenage girl who lies just beneath the surface of this mature charmer. ''But I discovered that the English really do speak English rather well.''

Lunching with Miss de Havilland at one of New York's nouvelle-chic cafes, Le Relais, her charismatic quality bounces right off the pate de maison and into the lunchtime crowd of youngish models who have probably never seen most of her 1940s to '50s films but who recognize star quality when it hits them.

Has she been plagued by her identification with Melanie of ''Gone With The Wind?''

''Not at all. I remember the experience with a great deal of pleasure, and I appreciate it when younger people, who have just seen the film in one of its re-releases, come up to me in awe that I took part in that ancient masterpiece and still survive.''

Does she sometimes get confused with her bilingualism?

''Sometimes, after I have spoken only French for a while, I have to brush up on my English.

''You know the French are trying to prevent English from creeping into their language, but it is, nevertheless. Like ''okay.'' The French pronounce it with an 'H' -- hokay. And you know they all go off for 'le weekend.' So it's a losing battle.''

Is there still a lot of anti-American feeling in Paris?

She shakes her head vigorously. ''No. And I never noticed any ever. I think it is paranoia on the part of some Americans. Perhaps some provincial Americans expect the French to have the same open and friendly manner that they have. But Paris is not the provinces -- it is a city where there is a natural urban formality and strictness. But it certainly is true that the French love to scold -- they're like that with each other, too. I've adapted to that and play the game myself. After a little while, though, you laugh at them and at yourself.

''But I believe that French anti-Americanism is an American invention. I've simply never encountered it.''

Does Miss de Havilland see much American television in Paris where she lives?

''It is there and other people see it, but not my family because I have no television set. I thought my son and daughter, who were good students, would be somnambulized by a TV set, so I had it removed years ago. I am glad to say that my son is now working on his master's in business administration and my daughter passed the law exam on her first try and is in her second year as an apprentice lawyer in Paris. All because they were studying and reading instead of watching TV.''

She suddenly remembers why she is being interviewed and chuckles. ''All of which is not exactly what CBS would want me to tell you.''

Miss de Havilland explains that her son's father is her first husband, author Marcus Aurelius Goodrich, and her daughter's father is ex-husband magazine editor Pierre Galant.''

Both my husbands were men of words. Words are something wonderful to me. I love four-syllable words even though Hemingway has made them unfashionable. But I think four, five, and six syllable words are absolutely glorious.''

Before the interviewer can figure out how to use the word ''antidisestablishmentarian'' in a casual remark, Miss de Havilland continues. ''I read a lot, too. And I do crossword puzzles. I'm pretty good -- but it takes years to get that good.

''The great thing with a crossword puzzle -- like life -- is if you can't get it right away, wait until tomorrow. Look at it when you wake up. Suddenly you may see one solution. Then wait another day and you may see another solution. Only after a week do I allow myself to look it up in a dictionary or encyclopedia. But I always finish what I start.''

Does Miss de Havilland plan to stay in France forever?

She shakes her head sadly. ''No, I plan to return to America. I love Paris but it is time to leave it behind. I love Paris especially in August when it belongs to the tourists -- especially the Japanese tourists. They're so respectful -- they don't even speak Japanese. They just take photographs silently.

''I have this darling house and a dear little garden in the back. I can sit out there until 10:30 p.m. and it's still light in the summer. But now it is for sale and as the value of the franc goes down, the value of my house goes down every day. . . .''

Where will she choose to locate?

''A lot of people would like me to come back to Saratoga where I was born. But it would be a mistake for me to go back to a past setting, a past life. I want a whole new one. I'm entering a whole new phase of life, age-wise, and I'm fascinated. It's an uncharted land. I want a new setting, a new Paris for that life.''

How about Kansas City?

''No. You'll find me on a coastline or on a mountain.''Is there a philosophy that has guided Olivia de Havilland through her life?

''That's an awful question,'' she says and playfully hits the interviewer's arm in retaliation. ''You have to shift and change, according to necessity.

''Right now I am facing my new life in America with immense curiosity and anticipation. I think of it as a new adventure. I'm right at the edge of a chasm and it's sort of time to leap off. Of course, I expect to sprout wings and fly over the chasm to the valley on the other side where I will find my mountain or coastline.''

Whatever mountain or coastline Olivia de Havilland finally settles on, she is the kind of person who will undoubtedly find excitement in bigger and better crossword puzzles, bigger and better challenges.

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