CARMEL, Calif. —
Fontaine was born Joan de Havilland in 1917 in Tokyo, where her British parents lived. Both she and her sister, born in 1916, were sickly, and their mother hoped a change of climate would improve their health when she moved the family to California in 1919 after the breakup of her marriage.
“There was always something wrong with me,” Fontaine recalled. “For a while I averaged about two days a week in school. I had headaches, I had all kinds of pains. I was kept away from other children, never allowed to do the things they did.”
She returned to East Asia at the age of 15, taking up amateur theatricals and studying art. After returning to California, Fontaine appeared in a play called “Call It A Day” in Los Angeles in 1937, gaining the attention of an agent who signed her to her first film, “Quality Street.” Her sister was already an established film actress. Fontaine changed her last name, taking that of her mother’s second husband.
She married four times. Fontaine’s first husband was actor Brian Aherne; the second, film executive William Dozier; the third, film producer Collin Hudson Young. The ex-husband of actress Ida Lupino, Young produced “The Bigamist,” with Lupino and Fontaine starring and Lupino directing. Fontaine’s last husband was Sports Illustrated golf editor Alfred Wright Jr.
Dozier and Fontaine had a daughter, Deborah Leslie, whose godmother was actress Maureen O’Sullivan. Fontaine later adopted a child from Peru, Maritita Pareja.
Despite divorce, Fontaine remained philosophical about love and marriage.
“Goodness knows, I tried,” she said after her second marriage failed. “But I think it’s virtually impossible for the right kind of man to be married to a movie star.”
“Something happens when he steps off a train and someone says, ‘Step right this way, Mr. Fontaine.’ That hurts. Any man with self-respect can’t take it, and I wouldn’t want to marry the other kind.”