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The Ultimate Cary Grant Pages - www.carygrant.net


AUTOBIOGRAPHY

ARCHIE LEACH
by 
Cary Grant


Chapter Two

Chapters
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14

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, now 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.

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