July 8, 2014 by Ville Raivio
In 1963, Cary Grant was at the ripe age of 58 and had nothing more to prove to anyone — but he was in trouble. As part of a settlement with Joe Hyams, a well-known columnist and Hollywood biographer, he agreed to a life story to be published in Ladies’ Home Journal. The bio took magazine form in three parts, published during 1963 in issues from January to April. The pieces were first written by Hyams based on a series of tape recordings with Grant. The texts were sent for Grant’s review before publishing. The star went through his musings in Hyams’ words, but decided to re-write most of the content in his own choices. The final say is his alone, and comes as close to the style icon as we’ll ever get in characters — in around 26 000 words in 14 chapters and some fourty pages.
The Grant text shines a light on the writer’s sorry childhood, pull toward showbusiness, time with the Pender troupe, rise to fame, years in acting, influences, hypnotism, his closest friends, experimentations with LSD, personal life, four failed marriages and ripe old age. Grant fans, you’re welcome.
My family name is Leach. To which, at my christening, was added Archibald Alexander, with no opportunity for me to protest. For more than half my fifty-eight years I have cautiously peered from behind the facade of a man known as Cary Grant. The protection of that facade proved both an advantage and a disadvantage. If I couldn’t clearly see out, how could anyone see in?
I was born in the provincial city of Bristol, England, but have avidly frequented the brightest capitals of the world ever since, and now keep a permanent residence in the so-called, through misnamed, glamour capital of Hollywood.
I had no sisters, was separated from my mother when I was nine years old, was stammeringly shy in the presence of girls; yet have married three times and found myself making love on the screen — in public, mind you, in front of millions of people — to such fascinating women as Ingrid Bergman, Doris Day, Mae West, Irene Dunne, Deborah Kerr, Eva Marie Saint, Sophia Loren, Marlene Dietrich and Grace Kelly.
I was an only child, and first saw the light of day — or rather the dark of night — around 1:00 a.m. on a cold January morning, in a suburban stone house which, lacking modern heating conveniences, kept only one step ahead of freezing by means of small coal fires in small bedroom fireplaces; and ever since, I’ve persistently arranged to spend every possible moment where the sun shines warmest. My father made no more than a modest living and we had little money. Yet today I am considered, except among the wealthy, to be wealthy. I received only a sketchy education by most scholastic standards, lacked confidence and the courage to enjoy life, but on the screen seem to have successfully epitomized an informed, capable and happy man. A series of contradictions too evident to be coincidental. Perhaps the original circumstances caused, created and provoked all the others. Perhaps they can all be reconciled into one complete life, my own, as I recall each step that led to each next step and look back on the path of my life from this older and, I trust, more mature viewpoint.
I have spent the greater part of my life fluctuating between Archie Leach and Cary Grant; unsure of either, suspecting each. Only recently have I begun to unify them into one person: the man and boy in me, the hate and the love and all the degrees of each in me, and the power of God in me.
I’ve read many paragraphs, many articles, many books about many people in many professions, and I’ve read about myself. And it’s seldom that I can say on reading such information, “I know that man or woman.” Indeed, often, when I read about myself, it is so not about me that I’m inclined to believe it’s really about the writer. Much of it is fantasy, exaggeration, drivel or further embellished retellings of past inaccuracies. For instance, hardly a week goes by that I don’t read about my proficiency in yoga, my fanatical attention to diet and my regular swimming workouts. In truth I know little or nothing about yoga, and had it not been for my second wife, Barbara Hutton (whose ability to sit peaceably for hours in the lotus position gained my admiration but, I lazily admit, not my imitation), I might never have known anything at all about even the basic yoga positions. My diet is extraordinary perhaps only from the viewpoint of my close friends, who have named me “the scavenger” because, after finishing every morsel of my own meal, I look around to purloin whatever little delicacies they’ve left uneaten on their plates. Being a good leaver is practically a requisite for any friend who is invited to luncheon or to dine with me, I can tell you. And about the only regular swimming I do is in my head around each April fifteenth, when I’m confronted with those astronomical income-tax figures.
Now if those sorts of exercises — or lack of them — keep me fit, then I’ve got the right system. On the other hand, if I happen to drop dead tomorrow, then I’ve obviously been doing it wrong.
As a younger man it puzzled me that so many people of prominence seemed so carelessly eager to reveal intimate, and what I considered to be private, matters about themselves, in public print. Why did they do it? Was it vanity? Did they crave publicity at any cost? Were they desperate to correct or revise past impressions by telling what they thought to be the truth about themselves? Did they write about themselves rather than suffer a further succession of inaccuracies written by someone else? Or did they hope that by personally telling their own personal experiences they might help their fellowman? I now recognize that it’s each of those motivations, but also believe that if only one thing I write about myself can prove of aid to only one reader, then it’s been worth the effort and time expended.
We all try to occupy ourselves as best we can, even if it proves to be the worst we can, from the moment we’re born until the moment we die. The circumstances governing the methods of the occupation are created by our parents when we are very young; and mine, like most parents, I suppose, did the best they could to prepare me for life, according to the limits of their knowledge.
I doubt if I was a happy child because, like most people, I conveniently find it difficult to remember those early formative years. Also, I had no other child with whom to exchange notes or attempt to ascertain the degree of his or her happiness as compared with mine.
My earliest memory is of being publicly bathed in a portable enamel bathtub, in the kitchen before the fire at my grandmother’s house, where my mother was, I suppose, spending the day. It was quite an old house which either had no bathroom or, more likely, was unheated and too cold for me to be there. I was just a squirming mass of protesting flesh: protesting against being dunked and washed all over in front of my grandmother. The enormity of such an offense. Now if that is my earliest memory why had I, a mere baby, such a sense of embarrassed shame? How could I have learned such overwhelming modesty at such an early age? What misteaching could have possibly been accountable?
My second memory is of being awakened late one evening by the noise of a party far below in the drawing room, and of my father’s coming up and carrying me downstairs on his shoulders to be shown off to the guests and to lisp unhappily and haltingly through the first poem I ever learned. There I was wrapped in a blanket reciting Up in a Balloon So High while my father, showing both pride and strength at the same time, held me at arm’s length high above his head in the air. It was a high-ceilinged room and I remember being very close to the high center chandelier. I think my father was high too.
It seemed to me that I was kept in long baby clothes much longer than any other child and perhaps, for a while, wasn’t at all sure whether I was a boy or a girl. Then, later, I was kept far too long, I swear to you, in short pants. I wore curls too long, too, and like most little boys ached for the day they’d be cut off. I wonder why little boys are ashamed to be mistaken for little girls. Why do they take such pride in being little boys? Do little girls take similar pride in their sex and not wish to be mistaken for little boys?
My young father earned his first money, according to the only record obtainable, pressing suits — coats and trousers and vests — for a Bristol clothing manufacturer, and progressed in that firm too slowly to satisfy my mother’s dreams. Yet somehow she managed to keep me warmly clothed and well fed. Which was quite an accomplishment because, although I was a skinny child, I was a voracious eater.
We could afford only a bare but presentable existence and, since my parents did not seem particularly happy together anyway, the lack of sufficient money became an excuse for regular sessions of reproach , against which my father resignedly learned the futility of trying to defend himself. This is not to say who was wrong or right. They were both probably both. From my childish viewpoint I couldn’t properly assess their emotions or their reasoning. I seemed to be caught in a subtle battle which eventually took residence inside my own slowly forming character.
I had no opportunity to observe or associate with other adults, and although my father and mother each came from a large family, and I had many aunts and uncles, few of them, as far as I could appreciate, glowed with the joy of life.
Physically, my parents appeared ideally suited to each other. I have photographs of them, taken a few years prior to my birth, constantly before me on my office desk at Universal-International Studios, where I spend many hours. My father was a handsome, tallish man with a fancy moustache, but the photograph does not show that he possessed an outwardly cheerful sense of humor and, to balance it, an inwardly sad acceptance of the dull life he had chosen. My mother was a delicate black-haired beauty, with olive skin, frail and feminine to look upon. What isn’t apparent in the photograph is the extent of her strength, and her will to control — a deep need to receive unreservedly the very affection she sought to control. I remember the grief of my father and mother the morning King Edward VII died, and saw them sharing a common bond of sympathy. A rare moment.
And, before that, I now recollect awakening in my crib during a thunderstorm and seeing them outlined against the window by a flash of lightning. Their backs were toward me and their arms around each other’s waists as they looked out at the rain; and now, today, as I think of it, I recall the intense feeling of being cut out from their unfamiliar unity.
They were churchgoing people named Elias James Leach and Elsie Kingdom Leach, of Episcopalian Protestant faith, polite to strangers and observant of the laws and social mores. I was taught “to speak only when spoken to,” that my father was not “made of a mint of money,” and that “it does not grow on trees.” I learned to brush the mud off my shoes and onto the mat before entering the house, to hang up my school cap and coat on the allotted peg in the hall, to care for my clothes since “they are not made of iron.”
A few years after my birth we moved to a bigger house; perhaps to accommodate the process of my growth. It had a long garden. In one section there was a large patch of grass surrounding a fine old apple tree near which my father lovingly sank strong, high, wooden supports for a swing. I took pride in the fact of that swing, the possession of it, but lacked the daring and abandon of a free swinger; and my father’s rhythmic shoves, although gentle, seemed much too perilous. Either I have always lacked bravery or, as I prefer to regard it, never been foolhardy.
Since then I have attempted gradually to overcome my fear of heights. Even by learning, years later, to walk on stilts in a theatrical troupe specializing in pantomime and acrobatics. I’ve flown for years in all sorts of weather in all sorts of aircraft: in open cockpits; intrans-continental Ford trimotors; in unscheduled small airmail planes in snowstorms over the Alleghenies; and, happily many times, alongside the most able pilot of them all, Howard Hughes, in his converted bomber — sometimes setting down on small Mexican fields into which only such a confident, experienced flier would attempt to land. Yet no cure of my acrophobia was so decisive as making two films for that remarkable director, Alfred Hitchcock: To Catch a Thief, in which I dashed over sloping rooftops of four-storied French Riviera villas with no net below, while trying either to rob Grace Kelly or to save her from being robbed; and North by Northwest, in which I heroically hung both up and down on replicas of sections of Mount Rushmore, rafter-high on the tallest stage of Hollywood. I’ve always felt queasily uncertain whether or not Hitchcock was pleased at seeing me survive each day’s work. I can only hope it was as great a relief to him as it was a disappointment. Still, I rescued by Eva Marie Saint and Grace Kelly, and each of them went on to raising happy and beautiful children. I wish I could say the same.
At the end of our garden there were wild strawberry patches leading to fields which today are covered by suburban houses, but which at that time, since I was only four years old, were forbidden and unexplored territory for me. We often ate under the shade of our apple tree, particularly on summer Sundays, on a trestle table set up for the occasion, while my father jumped up every moment or so to inspect the progress of each item in his vegetable garden. I, on the other hand, was constantly told to sit still and “stop bobbing up and down.” I could never understand the equity of a rule that didn’t also work for one’s parents. But those, I now appreciate, were the happiest days for the three of us.
In our garden there were fuchsias, hollyhocks, geraniums and primroses, and my father also planted daffodils and crocuses and lilies of the valley. In the adjoining fields there were daisies and buttercups and dandelions. Local toddler gossip had it that if you played with daisies you were a pansy, which was pretty confusing in itself; that if a buttercup’s color reflected itself under your chin you loved butter, which wasn’t too farfetched; and that if you picked dandelions you would dampen the be — which, coincidentally, proved perfectly true. Such is the voodoo practiced by children.
I was taken to my first school when I was four and a half years old, though the accepted beginner’s age was five. My mother was convinced I was brighter than most children of my age and had evidently succeeded in convincing or haranguing the schoolmaster into believing so too — because, frightened and fearful, I began schooling that same day. There I sat in a little sailor suite sharing a little wooden desk, the front of which was joined to the seat as a unit, with a little girl. I persevered proudly in ABC’s, clay modeling and crayon drawing, and miserably in arithmetic and my ability to communicate with the little girl.
Very gradually I grew accustomed to associating with other children. Or, rather, mostly with other boys. Little boys. In fact, I was, to my surprised delight invited to play goalkeeper on the football team — a rather scrubby group who hadn’t sufficient bravery to play with the girls during recreation time, and kicked a soccer ball around instead. We had no goalposts, just chalk lines marked on a jagged stone wall, at each end of the playground, to denote where they should be. Whenever the ball struck a wall between the lines, that was considered a goal. I whacked into that wall countless times, skinning bare knuckles and knees, and snagging my clothes, desperately trying to save the other side from scoring, until it dawned on my why no one was eager to be goalkeeper, and why, probably, they had invited me.
It’s very cold, very damp in the English winter, and everyone else had the excitement and joy and circulative benefit of kicking the ball about except me, who stood very cold, very damp at the end of the yard waiting for someone to kick the ball in my direction. If that ball slammed past me, I alone — no other member of the team, naturally, but I alone — was held, to my mystification, responsible for the catastrophe. Still, on the other hand, a well-saved goal (you know, one of those fancy balletlike flying jobs) was roundly praised and made me feel prouder than possibly anything I’ve ever done since. Right then and there I learned the deep satisfaction derived from receiving the adulation of my fellow little man. Perhaps it began the process that resulted in my search for it ever since.
No money, no material reward is comparable to the praise, the shouts of well done and accompanying pat on the back of one’s fellowman. Applause and laughter in the theater have a similar effect; and sometimes, today, I stand with Russell Downing, the manager of the finest, largest cinema in the world, the Radio City Music Hall in New York, in a quiet darkened corner, and listen to that huge audience roaring with laughter at something I’ve done, the tilt of my head or a facial reaction, and joy seems to burst within me.
To think that all those people, for even a moment, were able to forget their personal problems and troubles and concertedly laugh with or at me. It is, as best I can explain, an extreme magnification of the feeling one gets from successfully telling an amusing joke or story to a group of friends. Yes, there are few satisfactions as satisfactory as the approbation and goodwill of others; and only this moment does it strike me where I first learned to enjoy and to seek it: in my schoolyard.
The most intriguing toy I ever got my hands on was a pair of pinking scissors with which my mother made a neat crinkled edge on the shelving and table oilcloth. The symmetrical result fascinated me. I couldn’t fathom how the scissors did it, and for practically one whole morning, while mother was out in the garden, I put pinked edges on almost everything reachable, including my own nightshirt. Also my father’s favorite weekly magazine. I still have great admiration for whoever invented those magic scissors, but have fortunately controlled the impulse to own a pair.
Each Christmas my stockings were hung with a laundry peg attached to the ball-fringed mantelpiece cover in my bedroom. In those days English schoolboys wore black or gray woolen stockings turned down about two inches all around at the top to show a white woven stripe below bare chapped knees. I always thought that too much of my Yuletide stockings were filled with tangerines and nuts and dates, any of which I could have collared downstairs while passing the sideboard.
Still, there were always a few other presents, too large for the stockings, arranged on the mantelpiece or in front of the fireplace on the floor below, where I could see them upon awakening: a pair of skates; some boxes of tin soldiers, perhaps even a small fort to keep them in; and once a shiny hussar’s outfit wonderfully arranged in a flat, colorful cardboard box, with shiny breastplate, gold braid, fringed epaulets, a toy sword in a gleaming tin scabbard, and a hussar’s hat with insignia. I was a dashing sight, but still couldn’t completely win my mother away from my father.
One year I got a magic lantern with colored comic slides. I gave my only children’s party because of acquiring that magic lantern. The only children’s party I remember ever attending: my own. Father rigged up a sheet at the end of a back room which was usually used as a storage room, where the din would be less likely to disturb the district. Mother had some throw carpets, chairs, cushions and the long cloth-covered trestle table put in, and I invited our local infant world to my magic-lantern show. The lantern was candle-powered, a large candle with a large reflector behind it. Lemonade and biscuits and those inevitable tangerines, nuts, muscatels and dates were served, and blancmange and cake for dessert, because this was before the days of such luxuries as ice cream. We also had paper hats and noise-makers. It was a fine party.
My father ran the show to avoid my setting fire to the house, I suppose; but I chose the order in which the slides were to be seen, and accompanied the showing of each with what I thought was appropriate comic comment. But I was so regularly drowned out by other comic commentators that I couldn’t tell if I was a success or not. Perhaps that’s why I eventually entered the movies: so that the audience couldn’t talk back to me.
I learned to collect and swap foreign stamps. To polish my shoes, to raise my cap politely and automatically to adults of both sexes, to pick up my feet, to resist wiping a perspiring brow or a running nose on my coat sleeve, according to the seasonal necessity; to pretend delight while my father sang his party songs, I Dreamt I Dwelt in Marble Halls, in a tight-throated untrained high baritone he brought out at family parties — he sometimes sang The Man Who Broke the Bank at Monte Carlo in mimicry of whoever was the popular music-hall singer of that day. I often sat fascinated at the way my father kept his stylish moustache from drowning in the teacup as he drank. I learned to do errands for my mother without asking for an addition to my weekly allowance of sixpence (which was, probably, the equivalent of two shillings today; though I was docked twopence for each blib I made on the Sunday tablecloth — and to run to meet my father at a certain part of the road as he came home from work each Saturday noon and, for a polite disciplined moment or two, to withhold my eagerness to raid his pockets for the small gifts he’d hidden for my scrabbling expectant hands to find.)
One or two of those men with whom he exchanged daily banter write to me occasionally. They are quite elderly now and retired, but their letters still speak affectionately of my father, who died in 1933, of what was medically recorded as extreme toxicity, but what was more probably the inevitable result of a slow-breaking heart, brought about by an inability to alter the circumstances of his life. My own life, at the time of his death, was following a similar pattern. My first wife, Virginia Cherrill, a great beauty and former leading lady of Charlie Chaplin in the unforgettable City Lights, was divorcing me and getting ready to marry the Earl of Jersey. Which was very intelligent of her.
Odd, but I don’t remember my father’s departure from Bristol. Perhaps I felt guilty at being secretly pleased. Or was I pleased? Now I had my mother to myself, and recent weekly school reports had earned me some sharp paternal reprimands. Curious thing about my school reports: I was either at the top of the class or at the bottom. Definite early signs of great instability. I was so palpably eager to present each good report at home that the hiding of each bad report was equally noticeable. Anyway, I don’t remember my father’s going, but I missed him very much despite all his and, therefore, my faults.
Soon after my father left, when I was nine, my mother and I moved to a larger, more expensive house. We were accompanied by two young women cousins of mine who, not that they were entering the new secretarial world for young ladies, contributed, I believe, to the household expenses. They lived in a separate part of the house that I cannot remember entering.
That summer holiday I visited my father at Southampton. I found him gay and younger-seeming, and rather sporty-looking too, which wouldn’t have suited my mother at all. However, he was able to remain in Southampton for only a few months. The burden of earning sufficient to sustain two separate households, even at his increased salary, became too much for him, and he returned to Bristol and his old firm, where, in exchange for not giving back the watch his fellow workers presented to him when he left, he received their endless but fond chaffing. So again we moved, to a less costly house, but still with sufficient rooms to accommodate my paying cousins.
One of them had a beau for a few weeks: a titled Italian, no less, or perhaps I just told everyone that he was; anyway, the most attractive thing about him, as far as I was concerned, was a fine motorcar in which I enjoyed my first automobile ride. It was a long, open touring job, and I remember sitting high up alone in the back seat trying to induce my cousin, and her elegant beau, to drive through a section of the town where I could see and be seen by, or wave to and be pelted at by, my schoolmates.
Motorcars were a rarity in those days. The only other one I became familiar with in our district was owned by the father of a boy who lived in the large house at the corner. A little group of us often sat in the back of that car in the semidark of the garage, a converted greenhouse, with the owner’s son usually in the driver’s seat, and pretended we were roaring along up and down hills and around corners. But our pleasure was soon prohibited, even before I got a turn to sit at the steering wheel, because the scuffling of our boots scratched up the enamel with which the backs of front seats were painted then. Remember, this was the year 1913. The year I first fell in love.
She was the local butcher’s daughter, plump, pretty, and frankly flirtatious. Once while taking a message to my grandmother, my mother’s mother, but going far out of my way in order to pass this siren’s front garden where she played, I was looking back to see if she was looking back to see me, and smacked into the lamppost, dome first, saw great stars and staggered rubber-legged to the curb, where I sat stunned into sheepish, but only semi, recovery. The lasting of my shame kept me from going past her house from that day on, and never again did I see the provocative light of my poignant childhood’s first love.
My mother made my first pair of long trousers. They were white flannel for wearing at the local annual church bazaar and open-air carnival, where I was to be allowed to take tickets on the merry-go-round. Those homemade trousers didn’t seem to fit or appear as well, nor was the flannel of the same quality, as the shop-bought ready-made versions of white flannels I saw on other boys. I was crestfallen and my day at the carnival spoiled. The long hours of my mother’s labor and love went unappreciated, until now as I look back upon it. How sad that we can’t know what we know until we know it. I wonder if the appearance of my name on so many best-dressed lists is a consequence of the boyish shame from wearing those homemade flannel trousers.
Each Saturday afternoon, surrounded by a shrieking turbulence of assorted children clutching small bags of sweets, apples and licorice strands, I queued up to attend the local cinema where the comedians Charles Chaplin, Ford Sterling, Roscoe Arbuckle, Mack Swain and John Bunny with Flora Finch, together with Bronco Billy Anderson, the cowboy star, were our greatest favorites. Much pushing broke out, and many a toffee-covered fist waved in dispute over the relative talents of Ford Sterling, who headed the famous Keystone Kops, and Charlie Chaplin. The unrestrained wriggling and lung exercise of those Saturday matinees, free from parental supervision, was the high point of my week.
As I grew older I was occasionally taken to the cinema by my mother and father. Though separately. My mother took me to the Claire Street Cinema, the town’s most elite, where one could take tea while watching the films, and where I was first introduced to a pastry fork: a perplexing combination of fork and knife; who needs it? I saw my first so-called talking pictures in that theater. Two short subjects. One was of a woman singing an opera aria while she was trying to defend her honor, I think. She was being pushed back over a table by the villain, but while engaging his interest by singing in his face she surreptitiously stole a dagger from his belt scabbard and stabbed him right on her high note. It took him quite a long time to die, but while he did it he learned that virtue triumphed. So that’s why I never play villains in pictures.
The other short film showed a group of blacksmiths singing in chorus as they whacked away at their anvils. The sound, as far as I understood things then, came from a phonograph behind the screen. The forerunner of today’s perfectly synchronized sound films.
Now my father, on the other hand, since he respected the value of money, because he worked hard and long hours to get it, took me to a less pretentious, less expensive, though larger, cinema called the Metropole; a drafty barnlike structure in those days with hard seats and bare floors on which we could stamp at the villain and keep our feet warm at the same time. It smelled of raincoats and galoshes, and no tea or pastry forks. Yet it was, of the two, my favorite place.
Our weekly visit followed a regular routine. My father stopped at his favorite little bacconist’s shop and bought his favorite pipe tobacco, because men could smoke at the Metropole, and then, at the next shop, a few of our favorite apples, either russets or Morgan Sweets, and an occasional small bag of white round peppermints; or, if I was on my most winning behavior, even a bar of chocolate. Then on to our favorite film: a spellbinding weekly serial, entitled The Clutching Hand. Honest. It invariably would up with the hero or heroine in dire danger, in order, I guess, to tempt the customers back for the next episode. We lived and loved each adventure, and each following week I neglected a lot of school homework conjecturing how that hero and heroine could possibly get out of the extraordinary fix in which they’d been left. I wonder why movie houses of today don’t show a weekly serial. Even television series are hardly in serial form; each episode has a complete plot rather than a continuous story. I like to think life continues, no matter how hazardous.
As I grew older I was permitted to stay up longer. There was no radio or television when I was a child, only a plethora of homework which didn’t appeal to me at all. Indeed, I dreaded it and, though I’d begun studying for a scholarship to enter a better school, my head seemed stubbornly set against the penetration of academic knowledge.
My piano teacher, an unhandsome irascible woman, came to the house specifically, I think, to rap the knuckles of my left hand with a ruler. Curiously, although I was left-handed my interpretation of the bass notes was decidedly weak. If my bass hand were as strong as I suspect my base nature to be, I’d be a virtuoso; but my piano playing has evidently not improved over the years, because, after about one and one half minutes of bored attention, my friends either leave stealthily or resume their conversations.
I was not turning out to be a model boy. It depressed me to be good, according to what I judged was an adult’s conception of good, and matters around me were not going well. The First World War was imminent and the relationship between my mother and father seemed steadily to grow unhappier. My father came home tired at the end of each day’s work and went early to bed, and one weekend when I came home from school my mother wasn’t there. My cousins told me, or rather on inquiry led me to believe that she had gone away to a local seaside resort. It seemed rater unusual, but I accepted it as one of those peculiarly unaccountable things that grown-ups are apt to do. However, the weeks went by and when mother did not return it gradually dawned on me that perhaps she was not coming back at all. My father seemed to be in correspondence with her and always told me she sent her love, which of course, I always asked to have returned. There was a void in my life, a sadness of spirit that affected each daily activity with which I occupied myself in order to overcome it; but there was no further explanation of mother’s absence, and I gradually got accustomed to the fact that she was not home each time I came home — nor, it transpired, was she expected to come home.
A long time later I learned that she had experienced a nervous breakdown and been taken to an institution in a nearby quiet country town to recuperate. I was not to see my mother again for more than twenty years, by which time my name was changed and I was a full-grown man living in America, thousands of miles away in California. I was known to most people of the world by sight and by name, yet not to my mother.
It was only recently that I recognized a clue to the cause of mother’s retreat within herself. Some years prior to my birth my parents had another child. Their firstborn. A baby boy who, alas, died of some sort of convulsions after only a few months of life. My mother, I learned, sat beside his cot night and day, loving, caring and praying for him, until she was exhausted; and one night, after the doctor ordered her to bed for a few hours to avoid a collapse, her baby died as she slept. Perhaps such a shock, the suppression of such a memory, was the reason for her ultimate withdrawal from the world.
Today at eight-six my mother is well, very active, wiry and witty, and extremely good company. Sometimes we laugh together until tears come into our eyes. She is a small woman, and looking at her, I often puzzle how I grew to be 6’2″. She shops tenaciously for small antiques and local dealers have learned either to put up the price in advance so that they can pull it down later, or, if they’re lucky enough to see her coming, pull down the shutters and close the doors, to protect themselves from the impact of her charms and the honesty of her age. She does her own marketing and every bit of her own housework — in a house that, by provincial standards, is by no means small — and whenever it’s suggested that she get someone to help her she avers she can do it better herself, dear, that she doesn’t want anyone around telling her what to do or getting in her way, dear, and that the very fact of the occupation keeps her going, you see, dear. All of which is undoubtedly true.
I first found out about the birds and the bees listening to a youthful corner slouch one summer evening under a streetlamp at the end of our street. I didn’t appreciate the information, nor was I sure it was correct, and something about the young man’s smirkingly patronizing manner while doling out the details made me heartily dislike him from that moment on. His information proved to be correct, as I later found out; though it was many years before I had the courage to put it to a test. It turned out to be a workable and pleasurable theory, and civilization’s certainly go hold of a good thing there, but I still haven’t forgiven that young man.
During the war we were issued ration books for our food, and unless one was a relative or gushingly familiar with the local grocer, there was little hope of obtaining either sugar or butter, and absolutely no chance for importations of any kind. I grew accustomed to drinking my tea without sugar, and still do not use it in either tea or coffee. However, at that time I didn’t appreciate the beneficial quality or the taste of margarine. I missed butter very much. Today I eat margarine again.
At the end of the spring term, with summer in sight and the cadet corps dispersing for the coming vacation, I applied for war work wherever my services as a boy scout could best be used. In those midwar years, with everybody of every age aiding the war effort in one way or another, and even youths of sixteen being taken into the army, it was my need not only to help wherever I could but, also, to get away from Bristol for a while. I was so often alone and unsettled at home that I welcomed any occupation that promised activity. I was given work as a messenger and guide at Southampton, in the dock area where the public was forbidden and no one permitted unless wearing a uniform or carrying a special pass.
I saw thousands of young men sail away into the night toward France, packed in transport ships that were, prayerfully, fast enough to outdistance the enemy submarines that waited for them in the English Channel and if I was on gangplank duty I sadly noticed the quick moment of apprehension cross every face, the first premonition of danger as I issued every soldier a life belt and accompanied it with a few cheerful notes of instruction to hide my feelings. Hundreds of those men drowned only a few miles from their homeland before even reaching the battlefront.
Although it was not part of our duties, the scouts often delivered messages and many letters for the soldiers waiting in the sheds on their last day in England. It was a point of honor among us not to take money for our small services. So, as we had no other way of escaping their touching gratitude, we accepted mementos instead — a military button or regimental badge — and displayed them with the pride of collectors, attached to our belts, which were heavy with tokens. The soldiers sometimes cave us cake and tea obtained from the canteen at the end of each shed in which they were kept enclosed the day before embarkation.
All military movement into and out of the docks was made throughout the night. Soldiers poured through Southampton and rows of sheds were filled and refilled. There were no seats and the men sat or lay around the floor among their kits. Some of them had already been out to the front once and lost an arm or let, yet were returning to fight again. One officer, a Guardsman, had been to the front twice before and had lost an arm, and leg at the knee, but was still going back again to rejoin his regiment in the trenches.
Mixed with it’s tragedy there was a strange atmosphere of excitement and adventure in Southampton, and when I returned home, I regularly haunted the Bristol wharves where in those days, schooners and steamships came right up the Avon River into the center of town; and on weekends, when most of my school friends were playing cricket, I sat alone for hours watching the ships come and go, sailing with them to far places on the tide of my imagination, trying to release myself from the emotional tensions which disarranged my thoughts. I once even applied for a job as cabin boy, but was turned down not only because I was too young, but because I couldn’t bring permission from my parents.
Yet coincidentally at such a dispirited time, destiny was zeroing in on my future. I’ve often wondered whether destiny creates the course of the man or whether man creates the course of his destiny. Probably both.
My unfavorite classes at school were algebra, geometry, trigonometry and Latin; my favorites were geography, history, art and chemistry; and it was in chemistry lab around which I loitered on rainy days when I couldn’t play fives (an English version of handball) that I met destiny in the form of the science professor’s part-time assistant: an electrician, brought in from the outside to help with our experiments.
He was a jovial, friendly man with children of his own, and one day, in kindly response to my eagerness to learn about anything electrical, he invited me to visit the newly built Bristol Hippodrome, in which he’d installed the switchboard and lighting system. The Saturday matinee was in full swing when I arrived backstage; and there I suddenly found myself articulate self in a dazzling land of smiling, jostling people wearing and not wearing all sorts of costumes and doing all sorts of clever things.
And that’s when I knew!
What other life could there be but that of an actor? They happily traveled and toured. They were classless, cheerful and carefree. They gaily laughed, lived and loved. Yet? H’m. Little did I know. But an actor’s life for me. And how was I, still only thirteen years old, to join them?
I hung about that theater at every opportunity until my electrician friend, possibly to get some relief from my constant questioning, arranged an introduction to the manager of another theater in Bristol, the Empire, where I was invited to sit with and assist the men who worked the arc lamps, known as limelights, which shone from small precarious platforms, or perches, rather high up at each side of the stage.
No one seemed to pay me anything and I didn’t quite know how I was supposed to assist anyone, except by getting my fingers burned while fumblingly changing some redhot carbons; but I was in the happy world of make-believe and that was all that mattered, and I dropped by the theater as often as possible. I had a place to be. And people let me be there.
At one performance while I held that splendid job I decided to wander out to the front of the theater and “assist” the man who worked the large center arc in the balcony, known as the dress circle. And, well, come to think of it, I might as well see the show at the same time.
The star attraction that week was a famed magician, The Great David Devant, the originator of many spectacular illusions which are still used by magicians today. I sat spellbound alongside the limelight man until he tapped my arm and indicated for me to hold his lamp steady a moment while he lighted a cigarette. I later learned that during certain magic tricks the balcony spotlight was supposed, according to strict instructions, to stay unwaveringly directed onto a center point of the stage; but the man didn’t tell me, and I was so raptly watching to learn how the illusion was done that I unconsciously allowed the beam of light to drop downward slowly and — holy cow — suddenly there was a blinding flash of light reflected from under a table, where two mirrors were fixed that otherwise would have remained undetected by the audience.
The trick was ruined. Mr. Devant shot an exasperated look toward the source of the light, the operator yanked it out of my hand and, with some choice swear words ringing in my ears, I stammered an apology and slunk off appalled at my blunder.
Well, I didn’t seem to be welcome at the Empire again after that, so I began to reappear backstage at the Hippodrome. I hung around anyone who’d put up with me. I couldn’t stay late; only for the early part of the evening. I ran all sorts of messages and earnestly strove to learn the fascinating reasons and beliefs behind an actor’s vernacular. Much more interesting than Latin.
Don’t milk your bows. Pick up your cue. Never walk on the other fellow’s line. Playing to the gods meant performing to the gallery, or top balcony. Six-sheeting out front referred to actors who stood around the theater lobby or stage door hoping to be recognized by the audience as they came out; a six-sheet being the term used for a life-sized theatrical poster. An actor was never out of work. He was “at liberty.” Waiting for a ghost to walk meant waiting for the manager with the weekly salary. There seemed to be no left or right side of the stage; just a prompt side and an O.P side, meaning opposite of prompt.
Oh, it was a fine language, and one evening while my ears were cocked for other phrases to absorb I learned about Bob Pender’s troupe of young performers — or knockabout comedians, as they were called — the ranks of which were being regularly depleted as soon as each boy came of military age; and before I knew it I was writing a letter to Mr. Pender purportedly from my own father. I enclosed a snapshot and, since I was tall for my age and thought I looked older, conveniently neglected to explain that I was not yet fourteen and, therefore, not legally allowed to leave school.
You wouldn’t believe it, but in no time at all, although it seemed weeks to a fellow with a surreptitious eye on his father’s mailbox, back came an answer from Bob Pender suggesting to my father that his promising-looking son Archibald should go to Norwich, where the troupe was performing, for an interview; what’s more, he enclosed the railway fare!
Never was there such inner excitement. Of joy, disbelief, fear, confidence and indecision. In the secrecy of my room I could neither sleep or sit. I packed and unpacked; and after hours of coin spinning and head scratching found myself quietly leaving the house in the middle of the night and walking the deserted streets toward the railway station where, dizzy at my own daring, I waited for an early-morning train. To Norwich. And adventure.
I can’t remember anything about the journey. I was probably trying to figure out what my father would try to figure out. He and I often awoke and left the house at different hours without seeing each other. So it might be quite some time before I would be missed. After traveling for at least four hours I arrived at about 10 a.m. and went directly to the theater where, putting his troupe through their morning limbering-up exercises, I found Bob Pender.
He was a stocky, strongly built, likable man of about forty-two who had been renowned as the great Drury Lane clown. I suspected that he suspected that Archie and Elias James Leach were the same correspondent, but he introduced me to his kind wife Margaret, a well-known dancer whom he’d met when she was ballet mistress at the Folies-Bergerè in Paris, and they questioned me about my birth certificate, which I said was home. Which was true. It was. After looking me over carefully they agreed that if it was still all right with my father they would apprentice me to their troupe. They gave me a short handwritten contract stipulating that I as to receive my keep and ten shillings pocket money weekly. And hallelujah, I was an actor!
Over the years I’ve signed many lengthy, involved typed contracts calling for me to earn great sums of money, but no employment contract since has ever matched the thrill of that one sheet of ordinary notepaper stating that I was to have the opportunity of learning a profession that appealed to me more than any other in the world.
I was taken to live in the same digs (another actors’ term: short for diggings; meaning room-and-board in a private house) with Mr. and Mrs. Pender, and two or three of the youngest members of the company who were also kept under the proprietor’s parental wings; and the following morning, on the bare theater stage, I began instruction in ground tumbling and acrobatic dances along with an athletic group of ten or eleven teen-age boys from all walks of life. As the newcomer, the novice, I felt, and looked, clumsy and inept among the others, and my progress suffered from the disparity. But slowly, and too often painfully, I showed improvement and began to feel the pride and confidence of accomplishment. I was resigned to the fact that it would be some time before I was proficient enough actually to join the others in front of an audience.
I practiced making up and thickly covered my face with greasepaint that took hours to apply in imitation of what I took to be the prevailing theatrical mode. Nowadays I don’t wear any at all. In truth, I find myself embarrassed in the company of most actors and actresses who do. Ah, beware of snobbery; it is the unwelcome recognition of one’s own past failings.
It as inevitable, of course, that my father would find me. It took him a good ten days, though, by which time we had moved on to a town called Ipswich. One night between shows the stage-door keeper told me that a man who said he was my father was waiting to see me. And there he was all right.
Luckily, Bob Pender was just coming out of his nearby dressing room, and I managed to introduce them to each other before father and I were able to exchange too many unamusing words which we might later regret. Now my father was a high-degree Mason, whatever that meant, and so was Bob Pender. There was as lucky a stroke of fate as ever took care of matters! They wore similar insignia dangling from their watch chains, and within the space of a handshake seemed to have arrived at some special understanding. So, while I anxiously twiddled my thumbs and thoughts, they went off together for a drink at the next-door pub. In order, they said, to decide my future. How do you like that? It was decided I needed to finish my education
So, back I was taken to Bristol without ever once performing on the stage; though I told every openmouthed classmate that I had. Still, by way of compensation, I held many an audience of small fellow Fairfieldians goggle-eyed. Some even came back for an encore and brought a friend. I demonstrated cartwheels, handsprings, nip-ups and spot rolls — my complete theatrical repertoire up to that point. But they soon tired of me and, when I could no longer get the conversation around to my wondrous experiences in the theater and had slowly deflated to my accustomed insignificance, I grew lonely for the boys of the Pender troupe and determined to rejoin them.
Although I regret the recollection, I did my unlevel best to flunk at everything. The only class I attended with any interest and alacrity was the twice-weekly instruction in the gymnasium. I never truly enjoyed acrobatics, and wanted to keep fit, and add to my proficiency only as a means to an end.
In all other ways I confess to exasperating every professor who had the misfortune to come into contact with me.
One poor man, the singing teacher, go so choleric that he threw a bunch of keys at me. With a will to annoy him, and at the same time cleverly amuse the class, I’d been wide opening my mouth and forming exaggerated words without singing a note. I think the song was Who is Sylvia, What is She? a standard semiclassic. In retrospect, I realize my foolishness probably went unappreciated by everyone and was regarded as exactly what it was. Foolishness. I didn’t deserve the luck, but those keys just missed cracking me in the mouth.
Still, y’know, I’ve recently seen young people on television earning a livelihood by mouthing words to someone else’s song. So you can see how original I’d become even that long ago.
My, how unclever of me not to have taken cheerful advantage of every opportunity to learn, to acquire skills of any kind, when I had the chance. Instead I cut class after class. One afternoon another boy of equal curiosity and I decided to sneak over to the girls’ side of the school to investigate the inside of the girls’ lavatories — known to polite Americans as rest rooms. No one was around. I kept watch at the end of the corridor while he went in to see what it looked like in there. And then just as it came my turn to explore the inner sanctum, I was suddenly, out of nowhere, shrilly nabbed by a powerful female who must have been the hockey teacher at least. Anyway, that did it. My fellow culprit dashed to freedom, and in no time at all I was on the carpet in the study of Augustus “Gussie” Smith, the headmaster. I’d been a frequent visitor there and evidently that was the last straw.
The following morning when the school filed in for morning prayer in the assembly-hall my name was called and I was marched up the steps onto the dais and taken to stand next to Gussie Smith, where, with a quivering lip that I did my best to control, I hazily heard such words as “inattentive … irresponsible and incorrigible … discredit to the school,” and so forth, and through a trance-like mixture of emotions realized I was being publicly expelled in front of the assembled school.
I couldn’t see very well as I went back down the steps to go and collect my books, but remember crossing to the bicycle shed and hearing the students’ footsteps marching off to their classrooms accompanied by the familiar tinny sound of the assembly-hall piano.
The morning march-out was often played by one of the students as a reward for good grades or some other accomplishments. I had proudly and loudly played it twice. That was all I could think about as I strapped the books on the back of my bicycle and pedaled away from Fairfield.
Though he must have been very disappointed in me, my father did not reproach me when he found me at home that evening. He quietly accepted the inevitability of the news and we discussed my behavior and needs and happiness and future, until he seemed reconciled to the uselessness of hindering my purpose further. I had just turned fourteen, the legal age at which a boy could work in the world, and I was the boy who was eager to work in it. Three days later I was back with the Pender troupe; and with three months we were playing that very same Empire Theater in my hometown, by which time I was actually appearing in the act. I didn’t have much to do but, with my old friends all around me backstage and my father seated in the audience, I excitedly threw myself into a performance that made up in exuberance what it lacked in experience.
Father enjoyed a glad reunion and a drink as well with Bob Pender and, after the evening’s last performance, we walked home together in the quiet summer darkness of the Bristol streets. We hardly spoke, but I felt so proud of his pleasure and so much pleasure in his pride. And I happily remember that we held hands for part of that walk.
Touring the English provinces with the troupe, I grew to appreciate the fine art of pantomime. No dialogue was used in our act and each day, on a bare stage, we learned not only dancing, tumbling and stilt-walking under the expert tuition of Bob Pender, but also how to convey a mood or meaning without words. How to establish communication silently with an audience, using the minimum of movement and expression; how best immediately and precisely to effect an emotional response — a laugh or, sometimes, a tear. The greatest pantomimists of our day have been able to induce both at once. Charles Chaplin, Cantinflas, Marcel Marceau, Jacques Tati, Fernanel, and England’s Richard Herne. And in bygone years Grock, the Lupino family, Bobby Clark, and the unforgettable tramp cyclist Joe Jackson; and currently the more familiar Danny Kay, Red Skelton, Sid Caesar, and even Jack Benny with his slow, calculated reactions. Surprisingly, Hitchcock is one of the most subtle pantomimists of them all; it’s such a pity he doesn’t do it professionally, so that everyone might have the joy of watching him as I have.
While playing the great Gulliver circuit of vaudeville theaters in London, most of us boys lived with Mr. and Mrs. Pender in their big suburban home in Brixton. It had a long garden walk at the front and a smaller garden at back, and was quite near (as we always brightly informed every other vaudevillian) to the house of Lady de Frece, better known as Vesta Tilley, the greatest music-hall star of that day.
We slept in dormitory-style rooms. Lights out at ten; up, washed, dressed, and downstairs for breakfast at seven-thirty; followed by an hour’s reading or recreation and later the morning’s limbering-up exercises. One day a lady in the next-door house walked to the front gate, past the trees where she could get a clearer view of a daylight air raid, and was swiftly and shockingly decapitated by a piece of shrapnel in the morning sun of her English garden.
The day that first world war ended we were playing in Preston, Lancashire. There were very few people in the theater that evening, and after the show I walked around the center of town with some of the other boys. The streets were filled with people, but there didn’t seem to be any particular gaiety. As in every other town in England, so many of Preston’s families had lost a husband or son, or someone close to them, that the finish of the war was hardly and occasion for revelry but rather for reverie. Their only consolation was that there was never, never again to be another war. No. Never. That was on November 11, 1918.
I spent the following Christmas at ColwynBay, a small seaside town in Wales. Playing in a theater built on, of all windy wintry places, a pier. So many young former members of the company were already being discharged from the army that Bob Pender obtained engagements for two complete troupes in the type of Christmas shows that so particularly suited our tumbling talents: the traditional English pantomimes. Which aren’t pantomimes at all, by the way, but fairy stories such as Cinderella, Mother Goose, Puss in Boots, and so on, told in part musical-comedy and part slapstick form. They’re colorfully and quite expensively presented in most English towns for usually, a packed eight-week run. The best troupe, the older troupe, played the better pantomime in Liverpool.
So that’s how I came to be in cold Colwyn Bay; walking the next-to-highest stilts in a graduated line of other stilt walkers, with my head inside a huge papier-mâché mask on which sat a large, white, limp lady’s bonnet with a frill around it, and my elongated body and long, long legs encased in a great calico dress that had frilled collar and cuffs to match the hat. Well, naturally! It was the most spectacular of the many acts we performed to delight children who yearly sit entranced at the magic of English pantomime.
But it was the London tours to which we all looked forward most, and I nostalgically remember scrambling for the front seat on top of open-air buses or top decks of the tramcars in order to have an unobstructed view of every journey. It was on such trips that I learned to love each district, each section of London. I still do.
At each theater I carefully watched the celebrated headline artists from the wings, and grew to respect the diligence and application and long experience it took to acquire such expert timing and unaffected confidence, the amount of effort that resulted in such effortlessness. I strove to make everything I did at least appear relaxed. Perhaps by relaxing outwardly I could eventually relax inwardly. Sometimes I even began to enjoy myself on the stage.
The troupe prospered and expanded and I got a raise to 1 pound a week pocket money (almost $5 at the rate of exchange in those days, and what’s more it bought more), and one day Bob Pender announced the longed-for news that he’d booked an engagement for himself and a company of eight boys to appear in a Charles Dillingham production at the Globe Theater in New York City!
And who do you think was one of those eight boys selected to go? I was. I. That’s who.
In July, 1920, we sailed for America on the S.S. Olympic and cloud eight.
Among the fellow passengers were newlyweds Douglas Fairbanks Sr. and Mary Pickford, the world’s most popular honeymooners and the first film stars I ever met. They were gracious and patient in face of constant harassment, by people with cameras and autograph books, whenever they appeared on deck; and once even I found myself being photographed with Mr. Fairbanks during a game of shuffleboard. As I stood beside him I tried with shy, inadequate words to tell him of my adulation. He was a splendidly trained athlete and acrobat, affable and warmed by success and well-being. A gentleman in the true sense of the word. A gentle man. Only a strong man can be gentle; and it suddenly dawns on me as this is being written that I’ve doggedly striven to keep tanned ever since, only because of a desire to emulate his healthful appearance.
Some time later, when our company played in Los Angeles, he invited us to watch him work at his United Artists Studio on the Thief of Bagdad sets; and later again, at a preview of mine, he complimented me on a performance I’d given, and my cup overflowed. I felt no urge to remind him that we’d met twice before; it didn’t seem necessary; it was enough to feel the glow of his goodwill. His son Douglas Fairbanks Jr., with whom I share a long friendship, is endowed with the same friendliness of manner and consideration for his fellowman. Each year, as his family grows, I pleasurably look forward to a Christmas card bearing their latest photograph taken at their home in London.
But I wasn’t thinking about London aboard the S.S. Olympic. London was behind me. I would soon be in New York City, and unlikely ever to meet any more film stars. I was sixteen and, therefore, knew that I knew everything. It was just that I hadn’t seen everything. And I hadn’t.
ManhattanIsland. That skyline in the early-morning July sunshine. New York City. There it was; but was I there? Was I actually there at the ship’s rail, neatly scrubbed and polished, standing with a small, solitary band of Pender-troupe boys–none of whom had slept all night for fear of missing the first glimpse of America? The excitement. Those skyscrapers I had seen so many times before. Oh my, yes. In England. In Bristol. In the films.
That familiar silhouette, of which the highest edifice, the most prominent spire, in that year of 1920, was the WoolworthBuilding. If any happy medium, any fortune-telling gypsy, had prophesied I would marry the heiress granddaughter of its founder, no palm would have been crossed with my silver. Father always advised me to strike a happy medium, and it would have been the perfect excuse. That’s a very feeble joke, which I set up purposely, and not very well either; but it’s the kind of joke only an ex-vaudevillian such as I can’t resist. All right, don’t forgive me. I don’t care.
I used to apologize for every little thing I said or did, or hadn’t said or hadn’t done, or forgotten to say, etc.; I used to apologize for living. Now I’ve given it up — I mean, apologizing. Not living; I’ve only just started that.
Lady Elsie Mendl, a dear nonagenarian, toward whom I gravitated for amusing conversation and relaxed relief at many a dreary dinner party, often adjured that one should “never explain, never complain.”
One afternoon, when she was 91 years old, I carried her in my arms down a narrow winding back stairway in a wing of her exquisite villa in Versailles and, not being able to see, but only gingerly feel the steps beneath my feet, I was troubled for my precious cargo’s safety. Yet Elsie chattered unconcernedly and gaily about her plans for redecorating and entertaining and living. That was about a year or so before her death. Any words of philosophy from such a woman are worth consideration. So nowadays I accept the consequence, whether reward or penalty, or whatever I say, write, or do, and “never complain, never explain.”
After customs’ inspection, at which I had absolutely no treasures to declare, one of producer Charles Dillingham’s representatives herded us directly to the Globe Theater where we waited around, stealing wide-eyed glances at Broadway and Times Square, while our mentor, Bob Pender, went into grave discussion with his old friend Fred Stone, the versatile star of the musical comedy that was rehearsing there. It transpired that, because of Mr. Stone’s change of routines in his new show, our act was to be placed in Mr. Dillingham’s other production, which was about to open at the New York Hippodrome.
So off we scurried to present ourselves at the Hippodrome, then on Sixth Avenue between 43rd and 44th streets: the world’s largest theater; playing daily matinees and night performances, except Sundays, to 10,000 people a week, more than 2,000,000 people each season. It contained a revolving stage a city block wide and possibly a half block deep, on which appeared only the most renowned and spectacular acts of those days, selected from every nationality and country: “Poodles” Hanneford and The Riding Hanneford Family; Marceline the clown; The Long Tack Sam Company of Illusionists; Joe Jackson the tramp cyclist; Powers Elephants, an amazing water spectacle in which expert girl swimmers and high divers appeared and reappeared in an understage tank containing 960,000 gallons of water; a highly trained ballet corps of 80 members; a chorus of 100 singers — and us; our little petrified troupe of English music-hall knockabout comedians, pantomimists and stilt-walkers.
There were more than 1,000 people in the cast and approximately 800 nonperforming employees. It was necessary for everyone, from stars to roustabouts, to punch a time clock so that, by curtain time, each person would be accounted for or, if there were absentees, replacements speedily rearranged in the various acts and chorus formations throughout the show.
It was an astonishing assemblage. A talented, colorful family of colorful, spangled performers in a mammoth, colorful extravaganza and, from opening night to closing, our troupe was an unexpectedly big, colorful success. In the show — and in the family. That remarkable international family. We loved them all, and reflectively they loved us. What you give you get.
Because of our youth, we teen-agers lived under the jurisdictional eyes of Bob and Mrs. Pender — across the hall from them, in a sort of long Pullman apartment, in which each of us had to go through one another’s bedrooms to get to the bathroom. The fellow at the end had the comfort of being closest, but the discomfort of the traffic’s full concentration. I was the farthest away, nearest Eighth Avenue.
We had rotating duties. I learned to keep accounts for, cater for, and market for, to wash dishes for, to make the beds for, and to cook for every other occupant of that apartment, according to the daily allotted task. Well, thanks to my Boy Scout training, I knew how to cook a stew. You see, certain vegetables took longer to cook than others, and the meat went in at a different time from the potatoes. Right.
Stew was my piece de resistance when the weekly turn came around for me to cook. Perhaps I should have been a chef. There’s that stew; and I’ve done rather well with ham, too, don’t you think? I’ve always imagined it might be helpful to own a restaurant, in which one could serve healthy portions of rare opportunities, fresh viewpoints and sweet talk, buttered up, mixed emotions, dry wit, shredded ego and warm handshakes — which gives you some idea of the kind of word games we play in Hollywood between scenes in order to keep the cast happy, while we waste all those millions and millions and millions of dollars I keep reading about.
It’s well publicized that none of us in Hollywood knows what he is doing — according to all those who aren’t doing it with us. Wonder who gets all that wasted money, by the way? It’s spent. Somebody gets it. Somebody benefits somewhere in our industry. Never mind; it gives two or three vociferous journalists a fine opportunity to mind someone else’s business, while exposing their envy and lack of exact knowledge. Wonder why that small group of writers (they’re males too; fancy that) are so concerned about the doings of actors; and if they themselves have ever wondered why?
Over a long period of time a general image of a public figure emerges no matter what truths, semitruths, or actual untruths have been written about him. The press has treated me extremely well over my long period of time, and I’ve had pleasant and mutually benefiting relationships with almost all its members.
Only a very few are guilty of the sensationalism that attracts the unhealthy mind. But those few cause, even if undeliberate and subconscious, momentary harm, and I’m appalled at the unconscionable way they twist and distort facts. Why does the printed word take on such authenticity? They besmirch their profession in much the same manner that a few tasteless producers color public opinion about the whole of Hollywood.
In recent years much inaccurate, biased and, alas, too often, vituperative copy has been written about Marlon Brando, Elizabeth Taylor, Frank Sinatra and Marilyn Monroe, and recently in the Letters to the Editor column of a magazine I came across this: “Sirs: To those who helped make Marilyn Monroe’s life happy, thank you and God bless you. To the ones, and you know who you are, who helped toward her destruction, there is nothing I as an individual can say.” Makes you think?
It saddens and astonishes me that the very people who frenetically fight to acquire the luxuries of life, so obviously resent those who’ve already acquired them. It lurks behind their every word and action. But what man can stand another’s success if he feels that his own lack of it suffers by the comparison?
Well, it’s a free country. Everyone has a right to air his ignorance and dissatisfactions. Including me.
There have been writer-directors, writer-producers, film cutter-directors, director-producers, and cameramen-directors; but let actors become actor-producers — oh, it shouldn’t happen to a worser, lessable fellow; and all the resenters and dissenters club together. With clubs. When I hear someone question or damn the trend toward independent production of today’s stars, I’m reminded of a group of remarkably capable people of the previous era: Charles Chaplin, Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks, who not only studied their craft thoroughly and made films of their own choosing — quite successfully, too, according to the public’s reaction — but banded together to manage their own studio, distributing company and circuit of theaters as well, under the United Artists banner. Their retirement from active film-making was the beginning of that organization’s decline; and only recently, with a new aggregation of independent companies, in which artists share in the profits, has it again begun to flourish.
To anyone with knowledge of the film industry’s inner workings, it’s ludicrous to blame upon stars the troubles that beset some major companies. Indeed, one trouble is that there are insufficient stars. But articles written about the men most responsible for mismanagement of studios and production, for worldwide distribution leases and methods of bookkeeping, for lack of forethought in light of changing conditions, and reluctance to build new stars; or for the sales of films to the movie theater’s greatest competitor, television, would bring little revenue to the writer or attention to his words, because the names of the men who were at fault are without reader interest. So the stars it is.
Yet Universal Studios, where I work, presently engages the services of more stars than any other company in Hollywood — Rock Hudson, Doris Day, Marlon Brando, Kirk Douglas, Tony Curtis, Gregory Peck and others — and consequently has become, under the capable leadership of Milton Rackmil, the most successfully functioning company in our business. Stars are proffered complete financing for their ventures and, with the collaboration of the best writers, producers, directors and technical talent available under the protective shelter of Universal-International’s goodwill, have turned out the recent record-breaking successes that are reflected in the company’s highly profitable operation, and financial statements.
In a world in which almost everyone blames someone else for a position in which he himself has put himself, and in my profession particularly, criticism — rather than encouragement — is defended as if it’s a virtue; but if those self-appointed criticizers, both within and outside our belabored industry, keep up their criticism long enough, there won’t be any industry, or stars, left to criticize. Then what will the criticizers criticize? Themselves? That’ll be the unlikely day.
Somewhere they’ll manage to seek out new targets for whatever hurts them. Everybody does. Ah, well, if every knock is a boost, it’s no wonder we’re so amazingly successful!
In 1951 a friend of mine, an erstwhile writer and director named Don Hartman, became head of production at Paramount’s Hollywood studios where, on his first day in office, some of the corporation’s New York business executives came to welcome him. At that gathering one of the men opined that a recent film was an excellent film, since it represented an investment of about $1,000,000 and had made $2,000,000 in profit. Don agreed that it was profitable all right, but disagreed with the claim that it was an excellent film — and was momentarily squelched with the reply that he, Don, was an artist and therefore did not understand business. That night at dinner with me Don couldn’t get the remark out of his mind; and suddenly it occurred to him how best he might have retorted.
He could have told that meeting, and that man, about a certain fellow who owned a typewriter and some foolscap, erasers and pencils — an outlay, including part amortization of the typewriter’s cost, of probably not more than $30 — and, with that total investment, turned out a piece of writing for which, only that week, Harry Cohn, then head of Columbia Pictures, gratefully paid $1,000,000. The writer’s name was Garson Kanin and the writing was called Born Yesterday.
My mind went to Larry Adler, who, carrying only a pocket harmonica, need never be without means of sustenance. He could enter any place in the world, where any language is spoken, and by playing a few melodious ear-arresting notes, earn the bacon and eggs, three, and be effusively offered shelter and comfort, free. Think of that. A means of livelihood in a small harmonica. Added to a large talent! Oh, I bow deeply to artists!
Warming to his own examples, Don Hartman thought about another man, in France. Unretired, even now, at 82. A man who had some used paintbrushes, a lot of half-squeezed tubes of oil paint and a canvas. An investment of, let’s say, oh, $22.80? Well, this fellow, this nonbusinessman, this artist, put some paint upon that canvas and calmly sat down to wait for the phone to ring, which was hardly a moment, and said, “Yes, Mr. Soandso, if you will really enjoy having it, I could arrange to sell you my new painting. A quarter of a million dollars, please.” And the caller answered, “Oh, thank you, thank you! Please save it for me. I’ll be right over, Mr. Picasso.” Now what did that Paramount executive mean: artists aren’t businessmen?
I can only suggest that businessmen retaliate by becoming artists, so that they, too, can more quickly acquire all those butlers, valets, chauffeurs, playgirls and high-powered cars; and caviar and champagne and emerald-studded swimming pools; and a colossal gold-plated mansion.
Well, that Eighth Avenue apartment was no mansion, I can tell you. It wasn’t even much of an apartment, and the nearest thing to a swimming pool was the kitchen tub where we nightly lined up after the show, to wash our socks and handkerchiefs and, whenever the order of the day demanded, the dish towels; followed by a cue at the communal iron and ironing board. I was able by now to keep house, cook, sew buttons on, and do my own laundry, and consequently had a fair degree of independence. So, naturally, having such independence, it was about time to become dependent upon a girl. How extraordinary that as soon as a man becomes self-reliant he wants to become reliant upon one of the opposite sex. I suppose that’s because it is the only way for him to someday teach a son how to become self-reliant — so that he in turn can become reliant upon one of the fairer and, I’m certain, stronger sex.
She was in the show. A ballet dancer. Blond, blue-eyed and bountifully bosomed. About a year or so older than I. Of all the Hippodrome girls, I lavished my timorous ogles only on her. And only from afar. She didn’t seem unmindful of my distant infatuation, but somehow neither of us ever managed to improve the relationship. Still, her presence inspired me to better work whenever she was watching, and I became extraordinarily reliant upon her smiles of approbation. Ah, it takes a woman to bring out the best in a man and sometimes, alas, the worst in a man, depending upon what you consider worst or best, of course. Often they’re interchangeable.
At Christmas, after hours of shopping and agonizing indecision, I selected an incredible gift for her, now that I think back over it. A multicolored woolen coat-sweater-and-scarf combination that would have won the first two falls with any rainbow. In those days I hadn’t aspired to the extravagant production costs of dressing one’s leading lady, nor to the fashion world of Norell, Balenciaga, Molyneux or Dior. I bought it at Macy’s. Proving that even then I knew where to get good value.
I missed my inamorata’s encouraging looks on Sundays, but, what with sampling different-flavored ice-cream sodas (for breakfast, mind you; how could I have done that?), and those huge banana splits (which were unknown in England then), and the days’ sight-seeing and the evenings’ movies (there were no Sunday movies in England either), my thoughts kept busily occupied.
I traveled New York City from one end to the other. From the Bronx Zoo to the Battery.
I spent hours on the open-air tops of Fifth Avenue buses. (How unkind of the company to have discontinued them.) I contentedly rode from Washington Square, up the Avenue and across 72nd Street, to the beauty of Riverside Drive, with its quiet mansions and impeccably kept apartment buildings. It’s all quite different now. I passed Grant’s tomb countless without an inkling that I would someday be known by the same name. Even if not similarly memorialized.
With the Hippodrome season closing and the performers planning future engagements in faraway places, and everyone trotting around saying good-byes, humor-coated in a variety of accents, languages and embraces, I became quite despondent. I dreaded the bustle of packing backstage that last night, as I have at the finish of every show or film I’ve been associated with ever since. I am always content to stay doing what I’m doing wherever I’m doing it; only circumstances seem to propel me on. I seldom leave anyone or anyplace of my own conscious volition. When the meal or party or association is over, and the people or person close to me no longer there, I seem unwishing to move; without urge to change the situation, even though it could be for the better. Perhaps death is like that. Perhaps it is better on the other side of death; but I’m in no hurry to get there to prove it.
Meanwhile I manage to like wherever I am; inside and outside of me.
The show closed. The building began to empty. And while the other boys impatiently waited outside the stage door, I languished around the time clock, longing for a last tender look from my beloved. Her name was Gladys Kincaid and, for her, I can only hope that by now, unlike me, she has hordes of tiny grandchildren joyously romping all over her.
When she appeared, I remember standing there tongue-tied and fuddle-headed, while people milled around us at the time clock, and those nitwits outside kept putting their heads around the door yelling “hurry up” and “come on.” Oh, the pangs of youth! Charles Lederer once wrote that a youth is a series of low-comedy disasters. We both stood there, though with the condition of my knees I’m amazed I stayed upright, mumbling something like “I do hope we see each other again.” Both of us together. At the same time. Same words. And then she was gone. And I was left there, alone, with her lingering perfume. And my shyness. Which I could have kicked. Here I was seventeen, and incapable of sufficient progression toward testing that birds-and bees theory. Sufficient progression! I hadn’t even held her hand!
That following day, Sunday, our troupe departed for Philadelphia to begin what turned out to be a glorious tour of the entire B. F. Keith Vaudeville Circuit. We performed in new, first-class, well-equipped theaters in Cleveland, Boston, Chicago and throughout the principal cities of the East, including, at the tour’s end, the epitome of variety theaters, that goal of all vaudevillians, the Palace in New York City. It was 1921. The beginning of an era that became known as the “Roaring Twenties.” An era that caroused unmindfully toward its eventual stock-market collapse — payment of the piper.
The popular songs were Japanese Sandman, Margie, Avalon and Whispering.
Man o’ War was the great horse, having won both the Belmont and Preakness stakes.
The Eighteenth Amendment, prohibiting the sale of liquor, was in effect. In Manhattan alone there were more than 5,000 speakeasies. Americans seemed frantic to appear sophisticated by looking blasé, bored or blotto.
Young girls were known as flappers, and young men as either cake eaters or finale hoppers. No, I don’t know why. The shimmy-shake, a dance not unlike the twist, was being shook at every party or nightclub in New York.
The Treaty of Versailles had been signed, and trade with Germany resumed.
F. Scott Fitzgerald was coming into prominence.
Life expectancy was 55 years as compared with 50 at the turn of the century.
The motorcar, thanks to Ford, was becoming available to middle- and lower-income groups.
Bill Tilden was the men’s singles tennis champion. Sacco and Vanzetti were found guilty of the crime of killing a paymaster.
The Jest, starring John and Lionel Barrymore, was the theater’s dramatic success, and Marilyn Miller sang and danced in Jerome Kern’s Sally , the hit musical. Jack Dempsey was heavy weight champion of the world, and Woodrow Wilson was in the final days of his Presidency.
In 1922, during the tour, I was excited and pleased by being presented to ex-President Wilson when he attended a performance at the KeithTheater in Washington, D.C. He sat in the back row close to an exit nearest the stage-door alley and, as he left the theater in a wheelchair, the members of our troupe together with the Foy family, who headlined that particular vaudeville bill, were lined up to meet him. He warmly complimented our antics and seemed happy to be there, and I was struck by the smiling simplicity of this kind man. He died in 1924.
Also during the tour I saw Jack Dempsey at Atlantic City. I had been basking and snoring in the sun on a deserted strand of beach, which he’d probably chosen to avoid causing a commotion at one of the more frequented beaches. It was mandatory in those days for men to keep their chests covered, and he wore a green one-piece bathing suit. His legs were slim, but his rippling shoulder muscles were perfectly developed. He looked to be about my own height of six feet one and could not have weighed much more than 180 pounds, which is what I weigh today. Yet that frame carried enough punching power to floor a man as huge as Jess Willard.
Within only moments of his appearance on the beach, dozens of running, shouting people seemed to come from nowhere, zeroing in on him, waving pieces of wet autograph paper, thoughtlessly intent upon bedeviling his evident desire for a quiet, peaceful swim. Poor man. It should have given me pause to wonder about the kind of public life a celebrity leads. Yet, oh, for the life of a celebrity!
Hmmmm. Once in later years I spotted Charles Chaplin in a drugstore near Times Square and, watching from an unnoticed distance, saw person after person contrive to talk to him or approach him on some pretext or another or, too often, to ask for his autograph. What do people do with autographs? It’s a harmless enough pursuit, but with what useful objective?
I have written thousands upon thousands of autographs. The daily stream begins with the first showing of one’s face in the morning and ceases only at night in the privacy of one’s rooms. The gratification of just one request brings the next watchful person toward me, resulting in an endless chain, as newcomers arrive to see who is in the middle of that group over there. By the time I’ve escaped, the original requester is home comfortably tucked in bed. I’ve been stuck in hotel lobbies, restaurants, airports, washrooms, and parking lots. I’ve been backed up against walls, and conspicuously pinned in the middle of traffic and theater rows; an innocent blight to all who had the misfortune to be seated near me. Well-abiding citizens regard me with baleful eyes as the cause of the blockade or disturbance that whirls around them. According to them, I’m to blame. Not the autograph seeker. No, the fact of me is to blame. If I refuse to sign, I’m mean. If I agree to sign, I’m a menace What to do?
Except for children, whose requests I try to fulfill whenever practical, the people I would like most to know are those least inclined to approach me. Instead I am often confronted by the aggressive type. Their tactless trespassing as I lift a fork to mouth is accompanied with remarks such as “My children will kill me if I don’t bring home your autograph” or “My wife won’t believe I saw you if I don’t get your signature.” Such opening gambits trouble me about the status of their family relationships. I get indigestion. I burp.
It has been written that I am rude to autograph seekers. That’s not true. I am rude only to rude autograph seekers.
Still, there are compensations, and the ceaseless daily bother is forgotten when occasionally some considerate person comes quietly alongside me to say “Mr. G., I just want to thank you on behalf of my family and myself for the many happy hours you’ve given us.” I want to embrace him or her before they slip from my view, leaving me aglow and breathing easily again.
Some parents, in a foolish effort calculated to touch the cockles of my heart and bring attention to themselves as well, have even steered little two- or three-year-old children off in the direction of my table. The bewildered little tot wouldn’t even recognize President Kennedy, much less me, and usually winds up entangled in a waiter’s legs or looking beseechingly up into my dinner partner’s face while the piece of paper floats slowly to the floor. That poor sweet child. Those poor silly parents.
Attracted though I’ve always been, I’ve never invaded a celebrity’s privacy. But one day while walking along Broadway past the Hotel Astor, I saw Greta Garbo approaching and stood stock-still in surprise as she went by; then dashed wildly around the corner, through the whole length of the Hotel Astor lobby, along what was known as Peacock Alley, and quickly composed myself at the other end in order to stand nonchalantly on the next corner to watch her go by again. What is it that attracts one’s curiosity toward a public face? Do we want to see if their eyes are the same color we thought they were? If they have freckles, warts or blemishes? If their appearance holds some secret that we can fathom? If they’re as tall or short or older or younger than we expect them to be? Do we want to make sure that they are human and therefore not unlike ourselves? And why would we want to do that anyway? I’ve never been certain what people expect to find. I just hope they aren’t too disappointed when it concerns me.
At the tour’s end, accompanied by other ambitious members of the troupe, including Bob Pender’s younger brother, I decided to remain in America and try to obtain work on my own. After kindly giving me the amount of my return fare to England in case I should ever need it, Mr. Pender left for London with his sadly depleted company — the company he had so patiently and lovingly worked to train and maintain. It must have been very disappointing and difficult for him to leave so many of his boys behind in America, our land of opportunity; but youth, in its eagerness to drive ahead, seldom recognizes the troubles caused or debts accrued while passing. And here, as I reminisce, the fullness of my gratitude to Bob Pender and his wife, both of whom are now dead, wells up within me. I hope they know.
That summer, like most summers in the theatrical world, jobs were scarce. Especially for nontalking vaudevillians. There was a wide gulf between a talking actor and a silent actor, and no one seemed willing to help me bridge it. “Have you ever spoken lines?” “What experience have you had?” Even today it’s difficult for me to believe I once dreaded those questions at each interview, and in every agent’s office. No, I hadn’t spoken lines, and wasn’t sure I wouldn’t keel over in fright if I ever had to; and my youthful appearance at eighteen, which is such an indefinite age in any profession, signified little experience and qualified me for practically no theatrical jobs at all. To speak a line on a stage became my ambition, my highest hurdle, my greatest fear.
Eventually, of course, I learned to risk hearing the sound of my own voice in front of an audience; and later, in films, to accepting its accent resounding in the immense amplification of our modern movie theaters. I’ve also reluctantly grown accustomed to the tremendous size of my face in close-ups; to accepting the magnification of all my imperfections. All there. The way I sound. The way I move. The way I look. All magnified to the very bags under my eyes. It’s quite easy for everyone else to think it’s easy; but could you bear such magnification? Seeing yourself as others see you is not only ‘orribly revealing, it’s downright masochistic, that’s wot it is.
Until only a few years ago I had a recurring vocational nightmare stemming from my early fears in the theater. In the dream I stand on the lighted stage of a vast theater facing a silent, waiting audience. I am the star, and I am surrounded by a large cast of actors, each of whom knows exactly what to do and what to say! An I can’t remember my lines! I can’t remember them because I’ve been too lazy to study them. I can find no way to bluff it through, and I stand there, inept and insecure. I make a fool of myself,. I am ashamed. I try to speak, but don’t know what I am talking about. Now, actually, in life, I don’t mind not knowing what I’m talking about. It’s just that I don’t want anyone else to know that I don’t know what I’m talking about.
The meaning of my dream would be clear to any amateur psychologist. Even though now well established in my profession, I often feel insufficiently prepared, insufficiently knowledgeable; fearful of appearing foolish and publicly shamed.
I sat and stood around the National Vaudeville Artists Club in West 46th Street, a comfortable haven after the hot pavements I walked daily that summer of 1922, hoping for a dropped word, a clue about a job. Free from the sedate influence of Mr. and Mrs. Pender, I acquired the corniest habits in my attempts t become quickly Americanized. I’d been to the Palace to see the Marx Brothers, billed as the “Greatest Comedy Act in Show Business; Barring None.” I noticed that Zeppo, the young handsome one, the “straight” man, the fellow I copied (who else?), wore a miniature, neatly tied bow tie. It was called — hold onto your chair — a jazz bow. Well, if that was the fashion, it was at least inexpensive enough for me to follow.
So, sporting the new tie, attached to a rubber band which went around underneath my collar, I went to visit an old acquaintance whose good opinion I sought — a comedian named Don Barclay, who had been friendly to each of our troupe when he headlined with us in England. He was in a new show and greeted me warmly in his dressing room, but said nothing about my clever new tie. So eventually, and rather casually I thought, I got the conversation around to style trends, and in particular my jazz bow and what did he think of it? Don Barclay looked at it with benign concentration, then slowly reached over and pulled it away from my neck and let it snap back. We both burst out laughing, and that was the last time I wore the tie; but Don and I have been friends ever since. Years later we worked together, as comedian and straight man, through long Army, USO and hospital tours, during which we often couldn’t find a clean shirt, much less a fashionable tie.
After a few jobless weeks my savings were spent, and I began nibbling into the emergency money put aside for return passage to England. Eating, for such a ravenous appetite, was a bit of a problem; but fortunately, being a tall dark-blue-suited young bachelor who wouldn’t arrive wearing brown shoes, fall off the chair, or drink from a finger bowl, I was often invited at the last minute to round out the guests at dinner tables on which were some fine spreads.
One evening a young man named Marks whose father, I believe, conceived the idea of daylight saving time, invited me to dine at his family’s home on Park Avenue. I was asked to call for Lucrezia Bori, the Metropolitan Opera lyric soprano, who was the rage of New York at that time.
Although I felt only awkwardly adequate as her escort, she treated me as if I were a sought-after, mature man-about-town, and carefully requested that we walk to the party along Park Avenue, because the exercise, she said, would be good for us.
In every way it was a fine, fateful evening. At the dinner I met a man named George Tilyew. We exchanged the “and-what-line-of-business-are-you-in?” genialities, and he told me he had offices at Coney Island in Steeplechase Park, which I gathered his family owned, operated, leased or managed; I wasn’t fully listening at that point because my mind, always alert to the possibility of a job, was wondering how best to benefit from the introduction. Steeplechase? Hmmmm! An amusement park, wasn’t it?
I remembered seeing a man walking on stilts along Broadway advertising something or other, and heard myself suggesting to Mr. Tilyew that perhaps I could do the same for him. He agreed that perhaps I could. I said, yes, well, perhaps I could advertise SteeplechasePark by walking up and down in front of the place. I didn’t care to invade that other fellow’s stilt-walking territory and risk getting my comeuppance or, rather, comedownance. Mr. Tilyew said yes, perhaps I could, it might be a fine idea, and would I see him at his office whenever convenient? Would I?
Leaving the party, Miss Bori again suggested that we walk, this time because the cool evening breeze would be relaxing, she said; and with a job in tomorrow’s offing, and pride in my companion, I felt confident and protective. A seldom feeling.
It wasn’t until years later, when that dear Lucrezia Bori lunched with me at Paramount Studios in Hollywood, that I learned she had correctly guessed that the cost of cab fares would have busted me for the week.
The most famous, the most talented are, I’ve always found, the most considerate. Humility and greatness become part of each other, and a delightful old story suddenly comes to mind to illustrate the point. A headwaiter was asked how he managed to seat satisfactorily the celebrities that frequented his restaurant, and he replied, “Oh, I never bother about it. Usually those who matter don’t mind. And those who mind don’t matter.”
I’ve known so many celebrities throughout my life. So many renowned, colorful people who have been good to me, tolerant of me and helpful to me, and I wish to acquaint you with some of their names, not merely in a burst of immodesty or name-dropping, but because I’m proud of having known them and look forward to seeing what I write about them. I shall relish dropping their names and trust they’ll often drop mine. Aside from those mentioned elsewhere in my story — because I never mention people who’ve shown me unfriendliness — they include:
Noel Coward: whose success as actor, playwright, director, and composer-lyricist, was so remarkable that it attracted my youthful, but pitiable, emulation. In the late 1920’s I’d wavered between imitating two older English actors, of the natural, relaxed school, Sir Gerald DuMaurier and A. E. Matthews, and was seriously considering being Jack Buchanan and Ronald Squire as well; but Noel Coward’s performance in Private Lives narrowed the field, and many a musical-comedy road company was afflicted with my breezy new gestures and puzzling accent. Still, everyone has to start somewhere and, in a way, everything starts with pretense. One pretends to do something, or copy someone or some teacher, until it can be done confidently and easily in what becomes one’s own manner. I doubt if Noel was flattered by my mimicry, but we’ve remained friends over the years. I lunched with him recently in my home town of Bristol.
Joseph Von Sternberg: the director of Marlene Dietrich, Herbert Marshall and me in Blonde Venus . In 1932. The first morning of shooting he suddenly stopped everything, grabbed a comb, and parted my hair on the wrong side, where it’s been ever since. He bemoaned, berated and beseeched me to relax, but it was years before I could move at ease before a camera. Years before I could stop my right eyebrow from lifting — a sure sign of inner defenses and tensions, to be seen in many actors and actresses. Some transfer it to a twitching stiffened elbow.
And Marlene Dietrich: who smilingly accepted my immaturity and inexperience with comforting patience.
Irene M. Selznick: daughter of an industrial pioneer, Louis B. Mayer; proud producer of two grown sons, and of Tennessee Williams’s splendid stage play A Streetcar Named Desire , which brought Marlon Brando such unforgettable acclaim. Irene has listened to some pretty deep confidences of mine and, merely by listening, unreproachful and unshocked, has helped more than she can know. Irene has perception and integrity and, together with many other of her friends, I’ve been a moderate investor in each of the plays she’s produced in New York; they include Bell, Book and Candle, The Chalk Garden, and The Complaisant Lover . And, whenever possible, I’ve flown East to attend each opening night with her; we sit in the back row, where my nervousness and concern for everyone in the cast seems to put her serenely at ease.
Countess Dorothy di Frasso: a friend for over 20 years. A friend whose rare ability to laugh at herself so often dispelled my own gloom. Although I had previously dined with Barbara Hutton on the Normandie in 1938, it was Dorothy who reintroduced us, when she and Barbara returned from a visit to Honolulu.
Dorothy’s escapades were the gossip’s delight, and her palatial Villa Madama in Rome was the scene of indescribably lavish parties. The Villa Madama, the classic site of so many Hubert Robert paintings, was taken over by Mussolini’s Fascisti government for Hitler’s use during the war. In light of events to come, it was Dorothy’s haunting grief that she didn’t arrange to leave a time bomb in the place before departing to live in America. She died in her sleep in 1954 — on a train returning to Los Angeles from Las Vegas, where she had visited Marlene Dietrich. It was my unhappy mission to accompany her body to New York for the funeral and a gathering of those who, like myself, would miss her amusing presence and the loyalty of her friendship.
Merle Oberlon: who, propelled by my cowardly insistence and her own irresistible sense of the romantic, approached Betsy Drake on the deck of the Queen Mary and introduced herself; then, while I hid in the nearest companionway, she invited Betsy on my behalf to join us at lunch. That was how, in 1947, I met the dear wife who recently divorced me.
Frederick Lonsdale: the fey, wise and humor-filled playwright, author of The Last of Mrs. Cheyney and may other successes, who spent years of his life crossing by ship between London and New York and who, like me, was deeply attracted to Betsy when we all met on the Queen Mary. In fact, had Freddy been 20 years younger, I would certainly have lost her to him. Until his death in 1954 he was probably my closest friend.
Sir Alexander Korda: the imaginative power behind the forming of London Films. A man of old-world charm and an amused regard of life. He sometimes stayed with me at my home in Bel Air and I with him at Claridge’s in London.
During the early years of transoceanic flying, Alex and I crossed the Atlantic many times and, accustomed to the unreliability of planes’ heating systems in those days, we learned to bring along heavy sweaters. On one trip, in 1946, after comfortably settling ourselves, we both began fumbling around in our airplane bags beneath the seats, and simultaneously came up, grinningly pleased with ourselves, holding two identical pairs of brown fleece-lined zipper-fronted slipper boots we’d bought at Abercrombie & Fitch as a surprise for each other. We had four pairs between us.
Cole Porter: probably the world’s best known living composer of contemporary music; about whom the film Night and Day was made in 1945, and whose life I so ineptly portrayed, with little understanding of such extraordinary talent or the graciousness of its possessor. Although Cole must have sensed my lack of insight, he appeared genuinely pleased about the picture, and frequently invited me to his home and many entertaining parties there. His welcoming smile, seldom absent from his face, still remains fresh in my memory; yet I’ve never properly voiced my appreciation to him, nor the extent of my admiration.
Ingrid Bergman: a fascinating, full-blooded yet temperate woman who has the courage to live in accord with her needs, and strength enough to accept and benefit by the consequences of her beliefs in an inhibited, critical and frightened society. Ingrid needs no uninvited busybody to proclaim her debts; she knows and pays them herself. I commend her highly to you.
A few years ago I visited Ingrid and her husband, Lars Schmidt, at their comfortable house in the country outside Paris, and, hearing them discuss a wish to purchase an old, curved, unvarnished wooden cabinet to fit into a particular corner, I decided to try to find one as a surprise present. Two years later I saw the perfect piece in a Chelsea shop window in London, and put in a call to Ingrid to see if she had bought one by then, and happily learned she hadn’t; but while I was sitting out the incredible time it takes to reach the continental operator, and the usual hours of delay on European calls, the dealer sold the cabinet to some man who sauntered in off the street. What about that? I have never effectively explained to Ingrid why she and Lars haven’t received that perfect cabinet I told her I’d found.
Clifford Odets: who wrote and directed the film version of None But the Lonely Heart with Ethel Barrymore, Barry Fitzgerald and me. The film received many awards, none of which were as meaningful as the reward of Clifford’s lasting friendship. I enjoy his stentorian convictions and the courage he has to emphatically proclaim his everchanging beliefs. A stimulating, generous man.
Peggy Lee and Judy Garland: each of whom touches me deeply. They move me strangely, not only by their songs but by their presence. When I am with them, I feel content and happily at ease without need for oral communication.
Howard Hawks: who directed the popular Bringing Up Baby, His Girl Friday, Only Angels Have Wings, I was a Male War Bride, and the not-so-popular Monkey Business.
George Stevens: the director of Penny Serenade, Talk of the Town and Gunga Din.
Leo McCarey: who directed The Awful Truth and An Affair to Remember.
George Cukor: who directed Holiday, Philadelphia Story and Sylvia Scarlett.
And, of course, Alfred Hitchcock: who made Suspicion, Notorious, To Catch a Thief and North by Northwest.
Each of those directors permitted me the release of improvisation during the rehearsing of each scene — rather in the manner that Dave Brubeck’s musical group improvises on the central theme, never losing sight of the original mood, key or rhythm, no matter how far out they go. The above directors permitted me to discover how far out I could go with confidence, while guided by their quiet, sensitive directorial approval. I am deeply indebted to each of them for their permission. And their patience.
Stanley Donen: the young director with whom I formed the Grandon Company, which produced Indiscreet and The Grass Is Greener. Recently he proffered the irresistible bait of Audrey Hepburn in the leading feminine role of Charade; and a promise that Peter Stone, its author, would rewrite the central characters in a way that would bridge the wide difference between Audrey’s age mine. That’s going to be some bridge. We’re making the picture, as I write these words, in Paris — where, in testimony to Stanley’s persuasiveness, I shall spend a chilly winter missing the warm Palm Springs desert and the home and horses I enjoy there. Stanley and I disagree about many points of picture-making, but no disagreement disturbs our mutual regard. Someone once said that if two partners in business are in constant agreement one of them is unnecessary!
Because their names are so often exploited, I find myself reluctant to include Princess Grace and Prince Rainier of Monaco. But they’re the most attractive couple I know — young and mature, gay and serious, indulgent yet protective parents of two unusually beautiful children. When I’m in their company, my pleasure places a perpetual grin on my face. Grace keeps fondly in touch with friends she made in Hollywood, before leaving such an unfillable vacancy in the ranks of our leading stars, and her husband, Prince Ranier, equally shares her welcome of those same friends.
I’ve rarely been privileged to celebrate a holiday, whether Easter, Thanksgiving or Christmas, with a family, but about three years ago, Betsy and I attended a quiet Easter Sunday service in the family chapel at Monaco. And, later, watching the children excitedly running back and forth to their mother and father during the traditional egg hunt, I was suddenly caught unawares in a large wave of gladness for being there, and sadness for a childhood I couldn’t clearly remember or appreciate.
Grace and Rainier are considerate, stimulating hosts, and recently, after dinner in their unpretentious, comfortable apartment in Paris, the conversation of our small group ranged from the serious subject of rearing (and what more serious subject is there than the guiding of a life?) To word games and wince-making puns. We talked of absent friends, particularly of David Niven and his wife Jordis, who brighten any group anywhere. And, listening to such easy, pleasant conversation, I thought how satisfying it is to be accepted by these affectionate but unaffected people.
Robert Arthur: the producer, whose offices adjoin mine and who worked so diligently toward the tremendous box-office success of Operation Petticoat and That Touch of Mink. He and Stanley Shapiro, the unequaled comedy writer who wrote both pictures, have been steadying influences to my flights of impracticability.
And the closest to me of all, my lawyer-manager, Stanley Fox, without whose friendship and counsel I’d be adrift.
There are other people whose names you might know. Mostly successful self-made men — though, in a way, every man is self-made, I suppose — men in politics and the garment industry, men in sports and the financial world; and still others whose names or the degree of our closeness you could not know, but who will, when they read this, know that I know.
Some I see often. Some I see seldom. Some, alas, are dead. But I still feel the communion of their love. For all of them I’ve had special feelings.
Recently someone said that he’d never met anyone who had been inside my home. It seemed to the interviewer, who repeated it, that the statement signified I had no friends. Well, it’s probably true that he didn’t know anybody who had been inside my home, but then I don’t know anyone who has been inside his.
I know men and women who have dozens of people around them constantly, and not a friend amongst them. They group together in fear and secret dislike of one another, and when not with one another openly gossip about one another.
There is one man whose name I omitted in deference to his profession: the doctor who guided me through the therapeutic ordeal of many sessions and experiments with a hallucinogenic drug known as LSD. Much has been written about them, and later I shall try to describe the experiences and what have been, for me, their beneficial results.
Now, let me see. Where was I in my story? …
Oh, yes. I got the job at Coney Island.
In 1922, Coney Island was clean, freshly painted and well dept. There was little or no traffic on the main avenues, and people dressed in their carnival best. With a great new boardwalk and a great new hotel it was heralded to become the great new Eastern seaside resort that it never became. After extolling its past glories while driving there a few years ago with a friend of Spencer Tracy’s and min, a distinguished Boston physician, I was shocked to come upon its dilapidation and decadence. I imagine the good doctor was too; perhaps he thought I needed a doctor! Still, to an eager, ambitious 18-year-old Englishman with, possibly, the blood of Vikings in his veins, it looked like this must be the place.
I presented myself to Mr. Tilyou for the job at his SteeplechasePark and he, true to his word, presented me with a doorman’s uniform: a bright-green coat with red braid and a bright-green jockey cap with read peak. Well! I supplied the long tubelike black trousers — specially made, too; cost a bomb — and stilts to go with them, and there I was, high in the air, striding slowly up and down, up and down, up and down, advertising the place. I wore no placards, just that resplendent uniform and an unstiff upper lip.
You see how everything we learn comes in handy? If I hadn’t been badgered, cajoled, dared, bullied and helped into walking those high stilts when I was a boy in the Pender troupe, I might have starved that summer — or gone back to Bristol. And this might never have been written. You lucky people.
I got $40 a week. P-retty good in 1922, when it bought so much more than it buys today. Five dollars a day except for Saturdays and Sundays. I got $10 for each of those two days, due to occupational unpredictablities. Y’see, with the children out of school roaming around looking for something educational, my tall figure presented a tempting target for aspiring Jack the Giant-killers. Saturdays and Sundays were hazardous. No doubt about it.
There were all sorts of opening moves, and from my altitude I could follow the beginning of each maneuver, the strategy and deploy. I could predict the concerted rush, and spot the deceptive saunter resulting in the rear-guard shove; or the playful ring-around-the-rosy, with me as the rosy, beaming daffily down on the little faces of impending disaster. I dreaded the lone ace who came zeroing in out of the sun, flying a small bamboo cane with a curved handle. One good yank as he whizzed past and he’d won the encounter hands down (my hands down), with full honors and an accolade from admiring bystanders.
After a few graceful air-clutching staggers, it still took about three lifetime seconds for me to topple — TIMBER! — and by the time I was spread-eagled on the street, those frolicsome urchins were yards away, innocently pointing at airplanes that weren’t there.
Still, I occasionally outwitted them by grabbing a nearby awning, wile parrying with an elongated wooden leg; but often some sturdy young squirt, joined quickly by volunteers of his cowardly gang, and sometimes even a crazy stranger or two, would grab the stilt’s foot and tug steadily. It became an interesting speculation which would come away first — the awning, or me. Usually I came away first, resulting in an entirely different, much more entertaining, sort of flailing parabolic descent, known as the backward high gruesome.
Well, that job didn’t last long, I can tell you.
I had kept in touch with other ex-members of the Pender troupe, and through them learned that R. H. Burnside, the Hippodrome director, was trying to round up as many of us as possible, to utilize our acrobatic abilities in h is next production. The previous season’s show was called Good Times, and the coming season’s Better Times. I hope everyone’s life makes such seasonal progress. Mine did. I am not sure how much better the times were, but I met love again! A showgirl in the show. A tall girl. And this time, this better time, we often managed to see each other after the evening performance.
One night, we attended a late party in someone’s apartment, somewhere or other. Prohibition was in force, so naturally everyone drank. I drank hard apple cider, thinking it least likely to affect me; and in no time at all was laid to rest in a spare bedroom; where I was hazily joined, thanks to the maneuvering of some well-meaning friends, by the lady in question. We awakened to find ourselves falteringly, fumblingly and quite unsatisfactorily attempting to ascertain whether those blessed birds and bees knew what they were doing. Up to that date, my closest contact with wine and women; but I cannot add it was an occasion for song.
Oh, well, I had a lot of life and improvement ahead of me. I was only 19, and neither the experience nor my age gave me confidence enough to know I was a man. Hardly. Not yet.
The young lady lived with her family far out in Brooklyn. Too far for me to accompany her after each evening’s performance and still return by subway before the cold winter’s dawn. I tried once or twice, but gave it up and, instead, spent suppertimes with other ex-Pender troupe members discussing the new act we were preparing for vaudeville after Better Times closed.
We broke in our act playing small nearby Eastern towns before embarking on a long tour of the Pantages circuit of theaters that took us, by weekly engagements, through Canada to the West Coast, and back across the United States. My romance floundered in a mist of obligatory habit. We wrote and telephoned each other dutifully for a few months, and then simultaneously ceased.
There were no cross-country commercial airlines in those days, and I caught my first glimpses of Southern California, with its vineyards and orange groves, through a train window. In Los Angeles, I saw palm trees for the first time in my life. I was impressed by Hollywood’s wide boulevards and their extraordinary cleanliness in the pre-smog sunshine of almost 40 years ago. I didn’t know I would make my home there one day. And yet, I did know. There is some deep prophetic awareness within each of us. I cannot remember consciously daring to hope I would be successful at anything; yet, at the same time, I knew I would be. Which leads me to believe that all of us, with a clear knowledge of the past and present, and an estimation of the consequence of every action we intend taking in the future, could foretell the paths of our lives. Certainly, we ourselves create those paths.
In Milwaukee, we met our old friends the young Foy family. Except, this time, unlike the previous time when we’d worked on the same bill, they were playing at a different theater. A better theater. And staying at a better hotel, where we were daily invited for breakfast and introduced to a custom with which our parsimony had kept us unacquainted: The signing of the dining-room check. Such abandon! “Put it on our check” they said, while my eyes and gastric juices popped. As an active, growing young man, I was never able to stretch my limited budget as far as my stomach; so I remain indebted to the Foy family for many a free plate of bacon and eggs, with potatoes, toast, milk and tip; and, of course, to their renowned father, Eddie Foy, Sr., who must have raised a high eyebrow and fine rumpus at the size of his Milwaukee hotel bill. So convenient, that signing of the meal check, don’t you think? Especially when someone else is doing the signing; which is rather seldom these affluent days, I must say.
Habitually, I’m a man who examines and totals the restaurant check. And so should you at today’s prices; but if you’re afraid to, disinclined to, or too embarrassed to, then that’s up to you. I indulge in no such insecurities. I examine my bills. Just as any other sensible man would when doing business at any other place.
Which reminds me that Time magazine recently claimed I still have the first nickel I ever made. I really should look for it. A nickel of that vintage ought to be a collector’s item by now and worth quite a bit more. Perhaps, like all those bartenders who keep the first dollar they take in, I could frame it so that the income-tax department would always know where to find the four and a half cents they collect from each five I earn. Of course, I’d prefer they didn’t, but if they didn’t, then I might not be able to write with such freedom or in such safety.
Time also reported I counted out change to one of my wives. Now isn’t that odd? Especially since I don’t remember giving any of them any change at any time. I was more intent upon getting theirs for my piggy bank.
I like money. Anybody know anyone who doesn’t? You do? He’s a liar.
When it comes to income tax, I have little knowledge of its ever-changing regulations and complexities, and leave such matters to men who specialize in them. I have the ability to earn large sums and trust they will be properly, fairly and legally used and administered. Hundreds of letters asking for personal help reach me weekly from scattered hopefuls. But aside from the nationwide charities, the local Community Chest, and certain other organizations which receive annual donations from me, my advisers insist I give to none of them.
There has recently been an extraordinary rash of people eager to make easy pin money by compiling a cookbook of celebrities’ recipes. I’ve given up answering them. There’s an even larger accumulation of mail from people who’ve decided to hold auction sales of “little personal items” from celebrities. It is no longer possible to answer each request. It would take a larger office staff than I now possess and my home would be empty of belongings and I would be broke and, in turn, unable to retain either the home or the office.
After that successful 1924 vaudeville season, during which most of us saved sufficient money to feel our independence, we also began feeling the strain of our incompatibilities. And so, unable to amiably discuss our mutual dissatisfactions, we disbanded and returned to New York. Some of the troupe left for England, and others, including myself, remained in America.
I wish I could report a sudden meteoric rise of career, but summer and its slack theatrical season was around again. I remained in New York, eking out my savings while living in a very small but clean, pleasant room at the National Vaudeville Artists Club, where I was again permitted to run up bills while trying to run down jobs. I still think of that club and its staff with fond, grateful memory. At night, many well-known theatrical figures of vaudeville and musical comedy came there for late supper after their shows, and at almost any other time during the day I could be surrounded by the sound of friendly voices. I met performers of every kind and often teamed in temporary partnership with young comedians no more experienced than myself, in order to obtain a day’s work here and a day’s work there. Usually somewhere close to New York, on a Saturday or Sunday, when small theaters advertised, as a sort of weekend bonus, three or four “outstanding” acts, to embellish their movie program.
We were paid the regular minimum scale of $62.50 a day. For the two of us. Less 10 percent agent’s commission. Less cost of travel, less cost of keeping our clothes clean for the performances, less tips at the theater and meals between shows. Leaving less and less and, too often, nothing. But I was glad for the work. The experiences were of incalculable benefit, because it was during these one- and two-day engagements that I began learning the fundamentals of my craft. (Give me a sentence with the word fundamental: I went horseback riding yesterday, and now I have to eat fun da mental.”)Eventually, after graduating to more entertaining routines with more accomplished comedians and more regular bookings, I played practically every small town in America. As the “straight man,” I learned to time laughs. When to talk into an audience’s laughter. When no to talk into the laughter. When to wait for the laugh. When not to wait for a laugh. When to move on a laugh, when not to move on a laugh. In all sorts of theaters, of all sizes, playing to all types of people; timing laughs that changed in volume and length at every performance.
I was 21 years old and still six years away from Hollywood. Six years of intensive, diligent work toward an unknown goal.
While playing some short but lucrative engagements in and around New York, I struck up a happy acquaintance with a musical-comedy juvenile named Max Hoffman, Jr., and through him met Reginald Hammerstein, a stage director and younger brother of Oscar Hammerstein II. One evening, in the nightclub where Helen Morgan sang her unforgettably poignant songs, Reggie suggested that instead of pursuing what was becoming a profitable livelihood in vaudeville, I should begin training for musical comedy. He concluded that although I might someday become quite popular on vaudeville circuits throughout the country, it would still not bring me recognition on Broadway, the New York center of the theatrical world. It was logical and sound advice, and I have never regretted taking it, nor forgotten the considerate manner in which it was offered.
Reggie was about my own age. Usually I found myself gravitating to older people to seek advice, or to enjoy their amused regard of life and be reassured that people could mature with age. Of course, nowadays, people older than myself are becoming increasingly difficult to find; but I’m consoled to note that young people, in turn, now gravitate to me.
Yet, what hopeful advice can one give a younger person? How can young people, products of today’s sociological order, derive comfort from the words and deeds of our political, scientific, religious, moralistic and philosophic leaders, regardless how well intended, when the combined result of all their rules, regulations and beliefs has, cyclically, led us to armament and eventual war?
In society’s present stage of evolution, how can anyone tell anyone else how best to live? I can only advise you to relax and, just as all lasting religions prescribe, have faith in a master plan far greater than our minds can yet perceive. Find, through prayer, an inner peace for yourself no matter what goes on around you. Perhaps someday there will be a magic moment when everyone everywhere prays simultaneously, in unity, for eternal peace.
Until that great day, do the best you can. For yourself. And for your fellow man. Take care of yourself and of each other.
Permit me to suggest that you dress neatly and cleanly. A young person who dresses well usually behaves well. Learn good manners. Good manners and a pleasant personality, even without a college education, will take you far.
What is the use of packing our heads with general or academic learning, instruction or information, if neither the learning nor the use of it, in a world of competitive rather than concerted efforts, can bring you personal happiness? Most of us, certainly myself, spend years congesting our minds with useless bits of knowledge that will go with us to the grave, and leave little room or time for philosophic thought and the quiet meditation of life beyond the grave.
Reggie Hammerstein cheerfully took me to the offices of his uncle, Arthur Hammerstien, who was soon to begin rehearsals of he expensive, well-produced but ill-destined operetta, Golden Dawn, which opened the newly built Hammerstien Theater at Broadway and 54th Street in 1927. I played a small part and understudied the leading man, Paul Gregory. On matinee, he arrived at the theater only a moment before curtain time. I had feverishly dressed preparing to go on in his place, quaking with fright; with the overture ringing in my ears, I begged him never to do that to me again! Despite that familiar movie plot about the understudy finally getting the great opportunity, I was one who welcomed it not.
When Golden Dawn closed after a disappointingly short run, Mr. Hammerstein groomed me for the lead in his next venture, a musical version of Polly With a Past. We opened in Wilmington, Delaware, where a local critic wrote that “Archie Leach has a strong masculine manner, but unfortunately fails to bring out the beauty of the score.” My musical-comedy inexperience was too evident to go unnoticed, and I was taken out of Polly and replaced before it opened on Broadway, where it too, unluckily for that wonderful man Mr. Arthur Hammerstein, was not a success.
At this point, Marilyn Miller became interested in me as a replacement for her leading man in Rosalie. The male star of the show, of course, was the great comedian Jack Donahue, whom I knew and greatly admired. But Mr. Hammerstien and Mr. Ziegfeld, who produced Miss Miller’s show, were hardly on friendly terms and, over my complaining voice, my contract was taken over by the Messrs. J.J. and Lee Shubert, managers and owners of a vast theater chain and countless original plays, musical comedies and other theatrical properties.
I was kept happily, gainfully and steadily employed with them for almost three years. First in the New York production of Boom Boom starring Jeanette MacDonald, at the Casino Theater, which was then almost opposite the old Metropolitan Opera House, and next in the traditional male role of Die Fledermaus at the Majestic Theater in New York. Followed by a summer season of operettas at the delightful open-air St. Louis Municipal Opera in Forest Park.
In those years of 1928, ‘29 and ‘30, I earned from $300 to $450 weekly, with seasonal raises; more than many featured stage players earn today, and was treated with consistent thoughtfulness and courtesy by Mr. J.J. and Mr. Lee. Yet I often overheard actors of dubious ability, who had been given good employment year after year, grumble about the so-called Shubert control of the theater and theatrical employment.
In 1928 I bought an automobile. Bought it before I could drive it. A Packard. At that time the finest of American-made cars. There was almost no chromium in those days, and all shiny parts had to be polished with metal polish. An arduous task, but for me a work of love. I washed, polished, scrubbed, waxed, patted, doted upon, and finally even learned to drive, that car. It was a phaeton, called a touring car; a model no longer made. It had a 143-inch wheelbase, which made it difficult to lumber around corners. On my first day out for a spin in the country, having only just called for two young ladies, who sat demurely in the back, I began to make a nice wide turn, but couldn’t properly manage to alternate my foot between the gas and brake pedals, and plowed slowly and steadily into a bright new car that a surprised middle-aged gentleman had just finished parking. Well, he got out. And I got out. The girls remained in the car.
I told him how sorry I was and explained that I was unaccustomed to driving such a long car and indeed, in lower tones, unaccustomed to driving any kind of car, and only trying to impress those two young ladies who sat over there in the back seat. He looked at me for a long, silent moment, then bade me good-day with a smile of forgiveness and a raise of the hat. I’ve often wondered about that man. Rare. Probably French. Only the French have that sense of the romantic. Personally I would have blown my top.
Well, there you are. That was my trouble. Always trying to impress someone. Now wouldn’t you think that with a new, shiny, expensive open car, and an open-neck shirt, with a pipe in my mouth to create a carefully composed study of nonchalance, sportiveness, savoir-faire and sophistication, I would cut quite a swath amongst ladies? Wouldn’t you? Wouldn’t you? Nothing of the sort.
There’s no question about aesthetics being only surface deep. In all those years in the theater, on the road and in New York, surrounded by all sorts of attractive girls, I never seemed able to fully communicate with them.
Most of the young women with whom I formed attachments eventually made it evident that I was, from their point of view, impossible. And I was. I’m not too possible even now. But enough deserved kicks in the rear over the years finally caught my attention and, looking back upon the bruises — quite a contortion in itself — I’ve finally learned to appreciate the lessons they ought to have taught me at the times they were so painfully received. The trouble about my formative years is that the forming, or rather reforming, has been a slower process than it might have been had I paid attention.
And if I had paid attention I might have found contentment in marriage.
Looking back, it doesn’t seem possible that I was married and, alas, divorced, three times.
My first wife was Virginia Cherrill, the beautiful girl who made such an impression as the blind heroine in Charlie Chaplin’s City Lights. We were married in 1934, at Caxton Hall, a London Registry Office, amidst a flurry of photographers, newsmen and serio-comic adventures; and separated seven months later. I doubt if either of us was capable of relaxing sufficiently to trust the happiness we might have had. My possessiveness and fear of losing her brought about the very condition it feared; the loss of her.
My second wife was Barbara Hutton, grand-daughter of F. W. Woolworth and heiress to his fortune. We were married in 1942, at the LakeArrowhead home of my manager, Frank Vincent, who, until he died, was one of the happiest influences on my life. It was a quiet ceremony attended only by those closest to Barbara and me; we separated two years later.
Our marriage had little foundation for a promising future. Our backgrounds — family, educational and cultural — were completely unalike. Perhaps that in itself was the initial attraction; but during war years and my absences from home on Army-camp, USO-entertainment and hospital tours, we had little opportunity to discuss, or to learn from and adjust to, each other’s divergent points of view; and, by that means, to close the wide gap between our individual beliefs and upbringings. It could have benefited us both.
I doubt if anyone ever understood Barbara. But then I doubt if Barbara ever understood herself. But I remain deeply obliged to her for a welcome education in the beauties of the arts and other evidences of man’s capability for gracious expression and graceful living.
My third wife was Betsy Drake. We were married in 1949, on Christmas Day, in a small, charming ranch house near Scottsdale, Arizona, to which we were flown by Howard Hughes, the best man: a man who may never know the fullness of my gratitude for his trouble and unquestioning expression of friendship. It was an extraordinary day. A day that would take chapters to relate; thoughtfully planned by an extraordinary mind.
Betsy and I separated 10 years later. Besty was good for me. Without imposition or demand, she patiently led me toward an appreciation for better books, better literature. Her cautious but steadily penetrative seeking in the labyrinths of the subconscious gradually provoked my interest. Just as she no doubt intended. The seeking is, of course, endless, but, I thankfully acknowledge of constantly growing benefit.
For more than 30 years of my life I had smoked with increasing habit. I was finally separated from the addiction by Betsy, who, after carefully studying hypnosis, practiced it, with my full permission and trust, as I was going off to sleep one night. She sat in a chair near the bed and, in a quiet, calm voice, rhythmically repeated what I inwardly knew to be true, the fact that smoking was not good for me; and, as my conscious mind relaxed and no longer cared to offer a negative thought, her words sank into my subconscious; and the following day, to my surprise I had no need or wish to smoke. Nor have I smoked since. Nor have I, as far as I know, replaced it with any other harmful habit.
Soon after that night, in proof of the adage that those who help others help themselves, which should especially apply in a marriage, my wife also found herself no longer attracted to smoking, and gave it up. The drone of her voice at that late hour, just as prayers said at such times, had evidently impressed itself upon her own subconscious as well.
I’ve never clearly resolved why Betsy and I parted. We lived together, not as easily and contentedly as some, perhaps; yet, it seemed to me, as far as one marriage can be compared with any other, compatibly happier than most. I owe a lot to Betsy.
But only recently have I learned that love demands nothing and understands all without reproach. I could write a long book about any of my marriages. For that matter, I suppose a long book could be written about just one short moment of life. Or an apple. Or a pair of shoes.
Why do I write even this much? Is it in order to tell the truth as it seemed to be; because truth itself shifts in perspective and may be colored by the need to impress and affect; or is it with a wish to believe that circumstances were as I write rather than what they actually were?
No, I think I wrote this much because so many journalists have made it their profitable business to mind my business by writing what they think I believe, and how, according to them, I feel. Most interviewers are stimulating; I enjoy talking with them, though frequently wonder why they care to sit listening to my chatter. I’m a garrulous fellow. Yet, with the exception of Joe Hyams, of the New York Herald Tribune Syndicate, who arranged for this story to be printed, and Roderick Mann, of the London Sunday Express, a valued friend, I’ve shared no really intimate thoughts with any other interviewers.
I am not proud of my marriage record. It was not the fault of Hollywood, but my own inadequacies. Of my own inconstancy. My mistrust of constancy. I doubt if Hollywood lists any more divorces than most other tows of equal population in the English-speaking materialistic world. Nor do I know whether the right to divorce is right or wrong. It is probably both. Like everything else.
Since our separation and Betsy’s subsequent divorce from me, I’ve read about myself being “out with” all sorts of ladies: some I’ve never met, some whose names are unknown to me, and some who don’t even exist.
One eager reporter from a London rag, and believe me that have two or three ”beauts” over there, had merely seen me lunching with Mrs. Tom Montaque Meyer, a mature happily married woman whose face and talents as writer and painter under the name Fleur Cowles are recognized in most international circles, yet he chidingly began to question me about the different young girls with whom, according to his own unreliable paper mind you, I was “always,” that was his word, being seen; exactly, of course, what he himself would have loved to be doing; although how he was ever able to reconcile my friend Fleur and that word “always,” in him mind, was beyond me. Anyway, later, in the car, as I was letting off steam, my amused chauffeur, an adjusted home-loving man with three children, said, “Never mind, Mr. Grant. Just think. It would be much worse if they printed you were out with a different young boy every night.”
Last year a local party gossip sweetly snorted that I received letters from 15- and 16-year-old girls … tsk, tsk … as if, with some telepathically immoral intent, I’d induced them to write me. Certainly I receive letters from 15- and 16-year-old girls; and 10-year-old girls, and 20-, 30-, 40-, 50-, 60-, and 70-year-old girls, and what is wrong with that? Perhaps I should have a clairvoyant secretary divine which mail comes from 15- and 16-year-old girls and return all of it unopened to the puzzled young senders, just to please that honey-mouthed harridan.
I get hundreds and hundreds of letters; and I’m delighted to get them all. You can write too, fellows, if you wish. If it makes you feel better to pen a few thoughts to another human, then by all means direct them at me. It’s unlikely I’ll be able to write back. I haven’t enough time to acknowledge even all my present mail; but any reasoning person will understand and excuse my inability to answer. But write, if you care to write; all you wish. I welcome the thoughts of others. How else can I learn?
After that glorious summer season in the St. Louis open-air opera, I returned to New York to begin rehearsals, with a blessing and temporary contractual release from J. J. Shubert, for producer William Friedlander; and opened in Nikki on September 29, 1931, at the Longacre Theatre. Nikki was written by John Monk Saunders and starred his wife, a movie star of those days, Fay Wray; and still another well-known film player, Kent Douglas, with myself as the leading man. It was a story set to music, of flyers left to their own weary amusement and destruction, in Paris, after the First World War Prior to the play’s production, it had been made into an excellent film called The Last Flight, staring Richard Barthelmess playing my role of Cary Lockwood.
The show was clearly not a success and, although it was moved to the George M. Cohan Theatre in the hope of bolstering attendance, it closed within a few weeks.
After having worked steadily for more than three years I decided to take a vacation and, with a promise of employment from J. J. Shubert whenever I returned, a set of golf clubs, and a quiet, amusing companion, Phil Charig, a composer of music, I set out for California, the land of clear sunshine and palm trees I remembered so nostalgically.
Thanks to Billy “Square Deal” Grady of the William Morris New York office, and a good man if I ever knew one, who patted me encouragingly on the shoulder as I sat in the car, that same Packard, outside the Palace Theater on Broadway before starting the cross-country drive, and gave me the office address of his friend Walter Herzbrun in Hollywood at which I could receive mail; and thanks to Walter Herzbrun, who kindly took me in tow when I got there, and introduced me to Mr. Marion Gering, former Broadway stage director, who had successfully turned to films and was about to make a screen test of his actress wife; and thanks to Marion Gering, who took me to a small dinner party at the home of Mr. B. P. Shulberg, then head of Paramount studios; and thanks to Mr. B. P. Shulberg, who suggested that I make the test with Mrs. Gering. I was offered, after the test’s showing, a long-term contract. Which I accepted with alacrity. And a new name.
Y’see the Paramount hierarchy seemed quite unimpressed by my impressive real name, Archibald Alexander Leach, and asked me to consider changing it and coming up with a new one; as soon as possible. That night at dinner Fay Wray and John Monk Saunders said it might be nice to use the name by which I’d been known in their play, Cary Lockwood. Next morning at the studio I asked to be called Cary Lockwood, but one of the executives pointed out that there was already a Harold Lockwood in films which might cause confusion, and would I please pick another last name. A short one. I asked for suggestions and within a few minutes we were all craning over a quickly typed list of short names. It was the era of short-name popularity — Gable, Cooper, Tracy, Cagney, Bogart, Brent, Stewart — a pin went down the list and stopped at Grant. One man said, “Grant?” and turned to the next man. Next man repeated, “Grant!” and so did the next one. Next man turned to me and said “Grant?” I said, “Grant. Cary Grant! Hm!”
The following day the lawyers began preparing the contract. From my younger man’s viewpoint it promised fame and fulfillment, stardom and serenity. I couldn’t know then that, although I would gain the contemporary fame of an actor and the stardom, such as it is, I would still be seeking fulfillment and serenity 30 years later.
Regardless of a professed rationalization that I became an actor in order to travel, I probably chose my profession because I was seeking approval, adulation, admiration and affection: each a degree of love. Perhaps no child ever feels the recipient of enough love to satisfy him or her. Oh, how we secretly yearn for it, yet openly defend against it.
Without the ability to fully love or be fully loved, so many of us think that the acquisition of money can bring self-esteem and happiness. I’ve enjoyed friendship with some exceedingly wealthy people. If money brought happiness, then each of them should be ecstatically happy. But I doubt whether any of them is any happier than any of my less well-to-do friends. Money, it seems, attracts more envy than empathy. More lust than love.
In 1932 the practice of psychiatry was little known or respected. The public seemed to regard it, just as I probably did, with skepticism. For years I absurdly treated subjects with which I was unfamiliar, or sports in which I was not proficient, or books which I should have read but didn’t, with disdain. But by 1956, lacking the foundation of early spiritual training and suspecting that there was more happiness available than I seemed able to grasp, I had grown much more tolerant of, and receptive to, the knowledge of others. Other searchers, other sharers. Humanitarians in all fields of endeavor. At the age of 53, after three unsuccessful marriages, either something was wrong with me or, obviously, with the whole sociological and moralistic concepts of our civilization.
Now, I believe in caring for my health; and I trust you do too. Physical health is a product of, and dependent upon, mental health — one nurtures and nourishes the other. And so, together with a group of other interested Californians — doctors, writers, scientists and artists — and the encouragement of Betsy, who was interested herself, I underwent a series of controlled experiments with Lysergic Acid, a hallucinogenic chemical or drug known as LSD 25. Experiment is perhaps a misleading word; to most people it signifies patronization and objectivity. For my part I anxiously awaited their personal benefits that could be derived from the experiences, and was quite willing to be less than objective. Any man who experiments with something that cannot benefit himself, or add to his happiness, and that of his fellow man in turn, is a fool and a menace to society. I’ve heard that a man here and there died during LSD25 sessions; but then I’ve heard that men died during poker games and while watching horse racing; but that didn’t seem to stop such occupations. Those men might have died anywhere while doing anything. Men have also died testing airplanes and parachutes, vaccines and common cold cures. In attempting to traverse the next step into progress and knowledge, men have always died. But there is a difference between the man who knows what he’s about with a high-powered airplane, and an idiot who puts wings on a bicycle and takes off from the edge of Niagara Falls.
LSD 25 is a psychic energizer and the exact opposite in reaction to the addictive drugs and opiates. Indeed, Seconal, or similar sedative, is usually given as an antidote, to quell and offset the effects of LSD 25, if necessary. The action of the chemical releases the subconscious so that it becomes apparent to yourself. So that you can see what transpires in the depth of you mind — and what goes on there you wouldn’t believe, ladies and gentlemen — and learn which misconceptions, guilts and fears, with their resultant repressions, inhibitions and insecurities, have formed the pattern for your past behavior. A successively recurring pattern since childhood.
The feeling is that of an unmarshaling of the thoughts as you’ve customarily associated them. The lessening of conscious control, similar to the mental process which takes place when we dream. For example, when you’re asleep and your mind no longer concerned with matters and activities of the day, your subconscious often brings itself to your attention by dreaming. With conscious controls relaxed, those thoughts buried deep inside begin to come to the surface in the form of dreams. These dreams, since they appear to us in symbolic guise, are fantasies and, if you will accept the reasoning, could be classified as hallucinations. Such fantasies, or hallucinations, are inside every one of us, waiting to be released, aired and understood. Dreams are really the emotions that we find ourselves reluctant to examine, think about, or meditate upon, while conscious.
Under the effect of LSD 25, these dreams or hallucinations, if you wish, are speeded up, and interpreted, when properly conducted by a psychiatrically orientated doctor who sits quietly by, awaiting whatever communication one cares to make — the revealing of a hidden memory seen again from an older, more mature viewpoint, or the dawning of new enlightenment. Then, if the doctor is as skilled as mine was, he carefully proffers a word or key, that can lead to the next release, the next step toward fuller understanding.
The shock of each revelation brings with it an anguish of sadness for what was not known before in the wasted years of ignorance and, at the same time, an ecstasy of joy at being freed from the shackles of such ignorance.
One becomes a battleground of old and new beliefs. Of nightmares beyond description. I passed through changing seas of horrifying and happy sights, through a montage of intense hate and love, a mosaic of past impressions assembling and reassembling; through terrifying depths of dark despair replaced by glorious heavenlike religious symbolisms. Session after session. Week after week.
I learned may things in the quiet of that small room. I learned to accept the responsibility for my own actions, and to blame myself and no one else for circumstances of my own creating. I learned that no one else was keeping me unhappy but me; that I could whip myself better than any other guy in the joint.
I learned that all clichés prove true; which is, of course, the reason for their repetition, even when the meaning has been forgotten by the constant usage.
I learned that everything is, or becomes, its own opposite. A theory I can sometimes apply, but would find difficult to convey.
I learned that my dear parents, products of their parents, could know no better than they knew, and began to remember them only for the most useful, the best, the wisest of their teachings. They gave me my life and body, the promising combination of the two, and my initial strength; they endowed me with an inquisitive mind. They taught me to feed myself, to walk, to bathe myself and to clothe myself; and I shall think of them always with love now, not only for what the did know but, even, for what the didn’t know.
For a slow learner, I learned a great deal — and the result of it all was rebirth. A new assessment of life and myself in it. An immeasurably beneficial cleansing of so many needless fears and guilts, and a release of the tensions that had been the result of them. Not a cleansing and release of them all, certainly, for that would be the absolute — the innocence of the newly born baby with an unformed ego still close to God — and I cannot experience the absolute until I have unreservedly returned to the comfort of God.
In life there is no end to getting well. Perhaps death itself is the end to getting well. Or, if you prefer to think as I do, the beginning of being well.
I have heard and now believe it to be so, that drowning men in the last seconds of life relive the whole of it again; probably in order to cleanse themselves before meeting the great Maker, just as our religions instruct; and everyone is accustomed to the phenomenon of elderly people remembering their childhood with extraordinary clarity, yet forgetting what went on only yesterday. We call it second childhood, but it is undoubtedly the same process, undergone at a slower pace, as that experienced by the drowning man.
LSD 25 is no longer obtainable in America. Orthodox psychiatrists using the slower customary methods resisted its usage, and it’s unlikely that it will be reintroduced unless some brave, venturesome and respected psychiatrist publicly speaks out in its favor. Meanwhile, the authorities have banned its use; at least for therapeutic purpose. Although how men can be authorities on something they’ve never tried mystifies me. However, in the hands o f thrill-seekers it could, like whiskey and the automobile, be exceedingly dangerous. I suppose all new methods, new theories, new inventions go through the filter of trial and error, acceptance and rejection. Past the inevitable parade of scoffers and stone-throwers.
Yes, it takes a long time for happiness to break through either to the individual or nations. It will take just as long as people themselves continue to confound it. You’ll find that nowadays they put you away for singing and dancing in the street. “Here now, let’s have none of that happiness, my boy. You cut that out; waking up the neighbors!” “Those darn neighbors need waking up, I can tell you, constable!”
I suppose if a healthy youngster walked along a street in a bathing suit to allow his or her youthful pores a little more oxygen from the meager amount obtainable in our smog-infested cities, he or she would be arrested. “Here now, none of that trying to keep a healthy body in this city. Go to the beach!” “In which direction , officer? This is Kansas City.” Even bare feet and a rare acquaintance with the earth beneath them would be sufficient to disassociate you from the association of your embarrassed associates. Civilization! Oh, brother! And you, too, sister!
I have made over 60 pictures and lived in Hollywood for more than 30 years. Thirty years spent in the stimulating company of hard-working, excitable, dedicated, loving, serious, honest, good people. Casts and crews. I recognize and respect them. I know their faults and their insecurities. I hope they know and forgive mine. Thirty years ago my hair was black and wavy. Today it’s gray and bristly. But today people in cars, stopped alongside me at a traffic light, smile at me!
I feel fine. Alone. But fine. My mother is quite elderly. My wives have divorced me, and I await a woman with the best qualities of each. I will endow her with those qualities because they will be in my own point of view.
As a philosopher once said, “You cannot judge the day until the night.” Since it is for me evening, or at least teatime, I can now look back and assess the day. It’s been a glorious adventure up to here — even the saddest parts — and I look forward to seeing the rest of the film. Just as I did in 1932 when I sat in that Paramount Studio office. I took up the pen and wrote for the first time “Cary Grant.” And that’s who, it seems, I am. Well, as some profound fellow said, “I’d be a nut to go through all that again, but I wouldn’t have missed it for anything.” And that goes for this autobiography.