Leslie Howard goes to America (1920)
During the Summer of 1920, while he was playing in Samuel Shipman’s and John B. Hymer’s East Is West at the Lyric Theatre in London, Leslie Howard was offered a role in a new play, Just Suppose, Gilbert Miller was to produce in November at the Henry Miller’s Theatre in New York. Leslie hesitated to make a decision: it was a great opportunity for him, but if he accepted, he must go alone; he could not pay a passage for his wife and son.
Leslie described his hesitation in one of his writing Ronald Howard published in Trivial Fond Records, the short story The American Adventures of an English Actor:
I walked up St James’s Street thinking.
I stood on the corner of Piccadilly thinking.
I walked down St James’s Street thinking.
Then, the result of my thinking being exactly what it would have been if I hadn’t thought at all, I thought no more. I walked into the manager’s office.
‘I will go,’ I announced not without a touch of the dramatic.
‘Good,’ said the manager. ‘I will send a cable at once. You sail for New York on Wednesday in the Balearic.
The manager was also, quite unconsciously, being dramatic. The word ‘cable,’ for instance, with its suggestion of instantaneous progress through thousands of miles of ocean, was certainly theatrical. The Balearic also conjured up visions of ‘Ocean Greyhound’, ‘Leviathan of the Deep’ and so on. It was most exciting.
On October 6th, 1920, Leslie Howard embarked at Southampton on board the Adriatic, one of the four ocean liners of the White Star Line, called the Big Four.
There is an interesting document in the National Archives, in London: it is the list of “Names and Description of British Passenger Embarked at the Port of Southampton”; name of the ship: Adriatic; date of departure: Oct. 6th; Where Bound: New York. Leslie Howard is listed among the first class passengers: profession “actor”, age 27.
The Adriatic’s first class was very comfortable and offered the wealthy passengers every kind of luxury: it was the first ship in the world fitted with an indoor swimming pool and a Turkish bath. The interiors were richly furnished; you can find a beautiful series of images of the Adriatic in the online collection of the National Museums of Northern Ireland.
Leslie ironically wrote:
The voyage was rather hard work — for me — as I was undergoing my Transatlantic Graduation which everyone must go through on their first trip. This consists of instruction in ocean travel by everybody else on board. I appeared to be the only passenger making a first trip. I gather that nobody ever makes a second trip across the Atlantic. They make their first trip and then are never heard of again until they are suddenly seen on their twenty-third voyage.
Who were the other passengers? In the document at the National Archive, Leslie is listed among bankers, brokers, managers, merchants, many of them travelling with their wives, children, valets and maids. Apart from a couple of journalists, the young actor was surrounded by “the commercial – or business – element”, as he called it.
The commercial — or business — element seemed to foregather mostly in the smoking room. The bar was there. After the briefest acquaintance in this place everyone was soon familiar with everyone else’s intimate life-history and background. It was impossible to conceal anything from them. The fact that I was able to conceal my connection with the stage for forty-eight hours was miraculous.
The American-Americans, however, were as charming as ever even after they discovered I was an actor. Many of them, indeed, were quite excited, and said they knew Belasco and the Barrymores and so on — and did I?
In his short story Leslie Howard humorously describes his first contact with New York and the American way of life. Anyway, there was little time for rehearsals. Just Suppose opened on November 1st.
The play is the story of a prince who falls in love with an American girls. The Prince was Geoffrey Kerr, another young English actor, Leslie Howard was the Hon. Sir Calverton Shipley, the Prince’s pal. A few days later, The Brooklyn Daily Eagle wrote: “It is rather a peculiar thing that Geoffrey Kerr was cast for the role of the Prince. Although he was English, you know, and all that, down to the tips of his “boots,” one could not help but think that Leslie Howard, who played the part of the Hon. Sir Calverton Shipley, the best friend of the Prince, looked far more like the real Prince of Wales.”