Features & Columns

Silicon Alleys: Golden Girl

Locals remember Olivia de Havilland, Hollywood Golden Age class act
GONE WITH THE WIND: The childhood home of actresses Olivia de Havilland and Joan Fontaine sits empty in Saratoga. Photo by Gary Singh

As I stand at Olivia de Havilland's former doorstep in Saratoga, I imagine the ghosts.

De Havilland, who passed away of natural causes at her Paris residence on July 26, was the final surviving star from Gone With the Wind, and at 104 was one of the last actors left from the Golden Age of Hollywood. She grew up along with her actress sister, Joan Fontaine, in a Tudor Revival-style house not too far from the main crossroads of downtown Saratoga.

A quaint two-story residence with a large backyard, the house retains most of the original architectural design, workmanship and materials, but upon my arrival it looks abandoned.

Olivia and Joan lived in the old house until the mid-1930s, and in 1959, their mother sold it to local architect Warren Heid and his family. The Heids kept in touch with Olivia for the rest of their lives, hosting the actress whenever she came back to town. Heid passed away a few years ago and the house sold again last year.

Heid's grandson Jeff, 31, remembers visiting the house every Sunday for most of his childhood. During one such visit—Jeff says it was during the aughts—the elderly Olivia was also visiting. He tried to assist her down the front stairs, but she would have nothing of it. She could handle herself.

"I held out my arm and said, 'Can I help you down?'" Heid recalls. "She lifted up her hand and said, 'If I can do it, then I should do it.'"

Now as I stand at those same front steps on July 30, the house is empty. But I see a vase of orange roses on the porch, a card that says, "Olivia," and a second bouquet of flowers, perhaps left by grieving fans. Some of the yard foliage has been cleared, and the front window is boarded up. Upstairs, the smaller windows remain open to the elements. The whole place seems neglected.

Adding to this palace intrigue, I see an ominous legal notice: a bright orange City of Saratoga stop work order dated July 28, attached to the front of the house to the left of the doorway. According to the notice, the current owner, Amanda Taylor White, is ordered to stop all construction on the house due to its historical status and must contact the building inspector within 72 hours.

"Any unauthorized person removing this sign will be prosecuted," the notice says. I feel like summoning the ghost of Errol Flynn. If anyone can help, he can.

The childhood home of Olivia de Havilland, Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire, is indeed on the city's Heritage Resources Inventory, the City of Saratoga confirmed to me the next morning. That means any application to make upgrades must be reviewed by the city's Heritage Preservation Commission. Apparently Mrs. White hadn't done that, hence the stop work order.

Whatever the current owner has in mind, the history here is unequaled in Silicon Valley.

Olivia and Joan Fontaine were the only sister combo to each win Oscars for major leading roles. Olivia won Best Actress for To Each His Own (1946) and The Heiress (1949), while Joan took home Best Actress for Hitchcock's Suspicion (1941). Their rivalry is well documented.

Less documented is a cosmic convergence of local history in regards to this house, designed by Andrew P. Hill Jr. in 1923. He was the son of the famous landscape painter who helped save the California Redwoods and is also the namesake of Andrew Hill High School—far downmarket from Saratoga.

After Heid bought the house, he went on to a 50-year architectural career, designing several notable Silicon Valley structures, including the former San Jose Mercury News plant on Ridder Park Drive, now demolished.

Nevertheless, the spirit of Olivia will live on. Of her, Jeff Heid retains fond childhood memories, including a seven-course dinner in Paris on Bastille Day. His family strolled the Paris streets with her as holiday revelers threw firecrackers in every direction.

"Even through the smoke, Olivia was still a paragon of beauty and grace," he said.