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Fifty Plus - October 1984

The Cary Grant That Nobody Knows

by Geoffrey Wansell
(submitted by Barry Martin - Thanks Barry!)

As the handsome Hollywood star, he seemed to have it all: money fame and the adoration of fans. But in this best-selling book we meet a haunted idol.

His birth certificate reads Archibald Alec Leach, born January 18, 1904. He was raised in Bristol, England, where his father, Elias Leach, worked as a tailor’s presser. Archie’s mother Elsie, whose first son had died in infancy, was overprotective and mentally unstable. Indeed, in the spring of 1914 Elias had Elsie committed to an institution. Archie was never told where his mother was taken, and he was no to see her again for 20 years.

When he was 14, Archie was expelled from school and joined a vaudeville troupe, which eventually brought him to New York. In 1931, after an undistinguished stint on the Broadway stage, he was offered a contract with Paramount on the condition that he adopt a stage name. The studio chose “Cary.” He chose “Grant” at random from a secretary’s list of last names.

In the decades that followed, Cary Grant appeared in some 72 movies, including “She Done Him Wrong” with Mae West, “His Girl Friday” with Rosalind Russell, “The Philadelphia Story” with Katharine Hepburn, and Alfred Hitchcock’s “Notorious” with Ingrid Hepburn.

Many of us 50-plussers have grown through adolescence and young adulthood enjoying his performances. Even today, at 80, Grant’s handsome face and twinkling eyes connote the self-assurance and dashing way with women that made him a top box-office attraction.

But despite all his professional success, “Grant’s personal life has been turbulent. In “Haunted Idol – the Story of the Real Cary Grant,” author Geoffrey Wansell contends that Grant spent much of his time suffering from the emotional pain and guilt of his mother’s disappearance.

This suffering took many forms. Grant never trusted success: he feared that each new movie would be a flop. He fretted over insignificant details and thus alienated studio executives. He went through four filed marriages – to actresses Virginia Cherill and Betsy Drake, Woolworth heiress Barbara Hutton and actress Dyan Cannon, with whom he had a daughter, Jennifer, in 1966. Further, he tried psychotherapy, yoga, fad diets and experimented with LSD, all to reconcile the super-cool screen image he’d adapted, with the frightened boy he’s never fully outgrown.

In researching his book, Wansell found himself on the trail of an elusive, intensely private man. The following excerpt from “Haunted Idol” presents some of the surprising paradoxes that exist within one of our most cherished and enduring screen idols.

By Geoffrey Wansell
Cary Grant once remarked, “Everyone tells me I’ve had such an interesting life, but sometimes I think it’s been nothing but stomach disturbances and self-concern.” As Archibald Leach, he’d wanted to become a star. He wanted to forget the past, to win the affection is mother had seldom given him and to gain the sense of identity that applause alone could bring. But the price stardom exacted was a subtle and prolonged torture.

Because Archie Leach realized that he was loved only as Cary Grant, he found it all the more difficult to retain a hold on his own personality. To reveal who he really was might threaten his reputation, weaken his grasp on fame.

One screenwriter who worked with Grant at the end of his career described him as “like a house on the backlot of a Hollywood studio, enormously impressive from the front, but when you open the door, you realize there is nothing behind it.” Actor David Niven painted a different picture. He called Cary Grant “the truly most mysterious friend I have. He has great depression and great heights where he seems about to take off for outer space.”

The self-discipline and constant worry he brought to his screen career led him to remain aloof and remote, to protect the separation between Cary Grant and Archie Leach by a reticence that fueled constant rumors. Of course, much that was said about him was at least partly true.

The actor has never found personal relationships easy, especially with women. He has usually tried to manipulate the women he’s known. May of them speak of his habit of dictating to them, choosing their clothes, telling them not to wear makeup, to act demurely and never talk about him to others. Dyan Cannon used to call him The Master, so determined was he that she would obey his commands yet he is also frightened of women. The Hollywood columnist Sheilah Graham remarked, “He is always embarrassed when I tell him every woman I know swoons for him.”

The stories that Cary Grant is extremely cautious with money are also true. He dislikes buying meals for other people and prefers to “go dutch.” He habitually examines restaurant bills to see that he has not been cheated and keeps his own hospitality very noticeable within bounds. Director Billy Wilder once remarked, “I don’t know anyone who’s been inside his house in the last 10 years.”

Above all, Cary Grant hates being taken for a ride. His friend Robert Arthur, who worked with him in his last year at Universal, said, “Cary’s anger becomes almost a phobia when he thinks he’s being taken advantage of because he’s Cary Grant.”

A curious and comic instance of this occurred at the Plaza Hotel in New York. He had ordered coffee and English muffins (plural) to be sent up to his room for breakfast. When they arrived, there were only three half slices, or one-half slice less than two.

“I asked the waiter why, and he didn’t know,” Grant said. “I called the head of room service, who also didn’t know. I went up the line. No one could explain.” So he telephoned the hotel’s owner, Conrad Hilton, in Beverly Hills, “but his office told me he was in Istanbul.”

Undeterred, he then telephoned Hilton in Istanbul to ask why he had been brought only three half slices of muffin at the Plaza in New York when the menu clearly stated, “muffins.”

“Conrad knew the answer,” he recalled later. “It seems a hotel efficiency expert had decreed that all guests left the fourth slice of muffin on their plate. As a plate cleaner-upper, I was appalled.” And he proceeded to tell Hilton that he should immediately alter his menu to read “muffin and a half.”

“It cost me several hundred dollars in phone calls,” Grant added, “but ever since, I have always gotten four slices of muffin at the Plaza.”

It would be a big mistake, though, to write Cary Grant off as a penny-pinching crackpot. His shrewdness and bargaining ability have made him one of Hollywood’s richest actors, probably worth more than $40 million if he were to realize all his assets. He was earning $300,000 a picture in 1946 and at the end of his career his income was estimated to exceed $800,000 in royalty payments alone. “I like money,” he once wrote. “Anybody you know who doesn’t? He’s a liar.”

There are also times when he can be extremely generous, buying his friends sudden and unexpected gifts. He bought Dyan Cannon a sable coat after their acrimonious divorce, and there are other instances of this trait. He maintains that his reputation for meanness is undeserved. I’m sure I have that reputation because I don’t gamble or go to nightclubs or give huge parties,” he explained, “and because I don’t believe in giving gifts at Christmas. I give presents when I feel like it.” He refused to tell his daughter, Jennifer, about Santa Claus, saying, “I don’t see any reason to perpetuate unrealities.”

Whatever Archie Leach’s personal peccadilloes, Cary Grant’s reputation as one of the screen’s most brilliant and seductive comedians is undiminished. He is proud of the fact that 28 of his films opened at Radio City Music Hall, where they grossed more than $12 million, making him the most popular performed in that theater’s history, his nearest competitors being Katharine Hepburn and Fred Astaire.

The legendary director Frank Capra dubbed Grant “Hollywood’s greatest farceur.” And Doris Day explained his enduring appeal this way: “He looks into your eyes, not your forehead or your hair, as some people do. He can make love to me when I’m 90.”

But it is his daughter Jennifer, and not his phenomenal movie stardom, that has brought the greatest joy to Cary Grant, and he often calls her “my greatest production.” Shortly, after her birth, the proud 62-year-old papa told Look magazine, “She’s the most winsome, captivating girl I’ve ever known, and I’ve known quite a few girls.”

When Dyan Cannon filed for divorce, he struggled to retain visitation rights and was delighted to win them. He would devote his life to Jennifer, he decided. He wanted to be for her what he had always hoped his own parents would be for him, affectionate, supportive and loving. And because of this resolution, he would never make another film. (Among the movies he turned down were “A Touch of Class,” “Heaven Can Wait” and “Sleuth.”)

In 1971, fearful that Dyan Cannon would take Jennifer with her to New York and Europe, Grant filed for joint custody. When the judge ruled that Jennifer should remain in California with her father, taking time out to visit her mother, he was jubilant. He could plan to spend every evening waiting for her to come back from school and every weekend teaching her to ride a horse. Within eight week he had sold the rights to his last films with Universal for more than $2 million. “Operation Petticoat,” “That Touch of Mink,” “Charade” and “The Grass Is Greener” were all included, as was “Penny Serenade,” the only one of his earlier films to which he still retained the rights. He had no more connection to the movie business. He invested in a property development in Malaga in southern Spain and another near Shannon in Ireland. He thought that Jennifer might like to stay in one or another of these places when she grew older.

Grant had also become active on the board of the perfume company Rayette-Fabergé. On a business trip to London, he met one more woman who would be important in his life. She was a young public-relations officer named Barbara Harris and, in 1978, after years of long-distance courtship, Grant convinced her to live with him in California.

On the fact that she was 47 years younger, Barbara said, “I was absolutely terrified of the age difference. Before I moved to California, I thought, at great length, about the possibility of being without him. But I decided to go through with it, because otherwise you don’t enjoy the time you do have, which is precious.”

Barbara and Cary lived together for three years before he decided he wanted to make her wife number five. First, he asked his daughter’s permission: “Look,” he said. How would you feel if I asked Barbara to marry me? I’m getting on. I need her.” Fifteen-year-old Jennifer’s eyes clouded with tears, and for a moment he wondered if she thought he was doing the wrong thing. But the tears came only because she was happy. “For goodness sake,” he then told her. “Don’t say anything to Barbara. I might not have the courage to ask her.”

But ask he did, and on April 15, 1981, the wedding took place. Barbara Harris, happy and composed, stood beside him before a judge on the terrace of their house looking out across Beverly Hills. She had no bridesmaids ad wore a simple cream silk dress. The only witnesses were her new step-daughter, Jennifer Grant, Stanley Fox and his wife, and Grant’s butler and his wife. As soon as the brief ceremony was over, the newly married couple led the small group inside for a wedding lunch which the bride herself had prepared that morning.

These days, Cary Grant is a picture of domesticity. The actor who told Ginger Rogers in “Monkey Business,” “You’re only old when you forget you’re young,” has seldom had a day’s illness. He swims a little, reads a little, and rests regularly. He and Barbara play a card game called Spite and Malice. Grant maintains, “It is a great way for getting rid of your hostilities.” They watch television. He avoids meeting strangers, saying, “I prefer to stay at home with my wife.”

Unlike some other Hollywood stars of his generation, Grant has never been tempted to return to Broadway and the stage. He has persistently turned down offers and maintains that he hardly goes to the theater, just as he seldom sees movies. What he values above all else, he tells people, is his time. He told Roderick Mann in 1978, “I doubt if I have more than 70,000 hours left and I’m not about to waste any of them.”

When “Soupy Sales,” a children’s program in which celebrities often appear for the sole purpose of having a custard pie thrown at them, heard he was one of its fans, the producers called to ask him if he would appear. Grant told them, “Gee, I’d love to, fellas, I watch the show all the time, but you know I never do television, so ..”

These days, Grant seems more at peace than ever before, and yet some of Archie Leach’s most troubling characteristics remain: a fear of disorder, for example, and a determination to remain in control. But the decades of fretting over scripts, arguing over contracts and billings, worrying about performances are long gone. As the actor himself puts it, “Archie Leach the dropout/runaway from Bristol studied men like Noel Coward and became Cary Grant.”

Archie Leach may whisper occasionally in the silence of the night, but Cary Grant no longer needs to pay attention. Archie Leach could be allowed to wither and die, but whether he has or not, only he and Cary Grant know.

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