In 1939, Joan Fontaine, twenty-one years old, was slowly making her way up the Hollywood ladder. MGM signed Fontaine to play a small part in the high profile production The Women, directed by George Cukor, starring Norma Shearer, Joan Crawford, Rosalind Russell and Paulette Goddard. For the young actress, it was a plum assignment.
At the same time, Fontaine was subject to numerous screen tests for the role of the second Mrs. De Winter for David O. Selznick’s Rebecca, first under the direction of John Cromwell and then Alfred Hitchcock. Screen tests are grueling, and the emotional toll is devastating. During this period of her life Fontaine’s nerves were seriously frayed.
Fontaine and her sister Olivia de Havilland lived in the same house in North Hollywood with their overbearing mother Lilian, a failed actress. As always, Joan and Olivia were engaged in a low-intensity conflict. Like so many Hollywood actresses, Fontaine’s father was long gone.
Fontaine freely admits that she had a thing for older men. Ambitious, but deeply vulnerable, the young actress was looking for security, and a “protector.”
She already had a brief affair with her childhood idol, the handsome leading man, Conrad Nagel. Her description of their first intimacy is less than passionate: