A Private View of Leslie Howard (1933)

by Irene Howard

Few people know Leslie Howard so well as his sister, Irene, who, in this intimate article, discusses the famous actor from a family angle. The pictures on the opposite page are reproductions of personal snapshots which have never previously been published

Leslie Howard
Leslie Howard as he is today, and (right) with Myrna Loy in “The Woman in His House”

Even as a small boy Leslie had something about him – a naïve, elusive quality – which rather perplexed his elders. I have since heard them confess that there were times when they suffered from occasional uneasy wonder as to whether the boy might really be a bit of a genius – and to English parents there is always something a trifle uncomfortable about the word genius.
He was, however, so completely normal a youngster as to reassure them. A good all-round sportsman, he play rugger, cricket and hockey, and, above all, acquired the intense love of horses which is still a ruling passion with him. But even in those days he was laying the foundations for his successful stage career.
I’m afraid his homework at times must have been sadly neglected, as most of his spare moments were studying and writing of plays.
My earliest recollections are of Leslie deep in an armchair devouring drama, comedy, farce, from Shakespeare to Sutro, or shut up in his own special “den” writing pages of MSS. Nothing pleased me better than to be allowed to sit with him (if I kept very quiet) while he scribbled away and occasionally read bits that particularly please him aloud to me. My mother still has, tucked as a souvenir, some of his earliest efforts, painstakingly copied into exercise books in his schoolboy hand, with complete stage directions neatly underlined. I was terribly thrilled by those plays of Leslie’s, especially when, at the early age of four years, I was dressed up and allowed to appear, on the “drawing-room stage”, with various friends to fill up the cast, and Leslie alternating between the leading role and stage managership.
Later, growing more ambitious, Leslie organised an amateur dramatic society and gave public performances. He really never suffered from the faults usually associated with youthful actors. He was easy and at home in almost every part he played, and, being young, he was naturally ambitious in his choice. Of course, he was not the completely polished actor he is today, but he showed all the makings of that polish, and hardly ever, to use the stage phrase, “did anything wrong.” I can remember him playing lead in Sutro’s “The Perplexed Husband,” and walking through that sophisticated piece of work with ease and naturalness at the ripe age of nineteen.
In spite of his love for acting, however, he did not make it his career to start off with. My father, realising only too well what a hard and stony road the stage could be, found him a clerkship in Cox’s Bank, and shortly before the War Leslie became an embryo banker.

Leslie Howard and his sister Irene
Leslie with his sister, Irene (author of this article), snapped together shortly after
he had enlisted in the early days of the War

When War Came

It is hard to say what might have happened if the War had not come along. Acting might have remained only a darling hobby with him, although I cannot help feeling that sooner or later he would have found his way on to the stage. However, the 4th of August, 1914, brought its violent upheaval into my brother’s life, as it did into millions of others.
Being a tremendously keen horseman, he joined the cavalry, and was attached to the 10th Hussars. He never talks very much about the War or his war experiences. soldiering was his duty, his career for the time being, and that was the end of it.
In 1917 he was sent home on sick leave, and shortly after was discharged as unfit for further service.

Leslie Howard in his uniform
Leslie Howard in his uniform as an officer of the 10th Hussars

A Turning Point

And now he had to make the decision that was to affect his whole future. He had to start life over again. He was young enough to do it with courage and determination, but the path he chose would be the one he would have to follow. So – he didn’t go back to the bank. He returned instead to his first and real love, got the part of Jerry in “Peg o’ My Heart”, and went on tour with that play.
One or two other tours followed, but it was not long before he came to London, and in 1920 he attracted a good deal of favourable notice as Brian Strange in “Mr. Pim Passe By.”
It was largely his success in this and other plays which took Leslie to America. He went out with an English company, sent by Gilbert Miller, to play in the Henry Miller Theatre which his father founded in New York.
And the States certainly gave him a warm welcome. He stayed in America for some years, steadily building up his name and following, and at the same time continuously developing and polishing his art.
I think myself that the stage production of “Her Cardboard Lover,” in which he played opposite the late Jeanne Eagels, set the final stamp on his success, and from that moment he was definitely recognised as star material.

Refusing Film Offers

He actually worked in America for about six years, only dashing home for an occasional holiday, and then, in 1926, he came over to play on the London stage in “The Way You Look At It,” but the following year found him back in New York in greater demand than ever, and with increasing offers from the film companies, who, with the advent of the “talkies,” recognised his great possibilities. However, he steadily refused film offers , and returned to England to produce, with Gilbert Miller, first his New York success, “Her Cardboard Lover,” with Tallulah Bankhead, and then “Berkeley Square,” with Jean Forbes-Robertson.

His First Talkies

After the London production we went to New York. I say “we,” as I had a small part in the play, and was lucky enough to be given a better one and taken to America, thereby realising one of my greatest ambitions. Following a tremendously successful season in New York, we went “on the road,” visiting all the important cities and finishing up in Los Angeles, where Leslie remained and started his film career.
His first outstanding success in films came with the leading part in “Outward Bound.” Then came “Devotion,” in which he played opposite Ann Hardin for the first time. After that Leslie returned to England for the Paramount production of “Service for Ladies.”
He could no doubt have played the part of Max Tracey, the head waiter, with something of the genial and amorous cynicism which Adolphe Menjou had brought to the silent version of the film. He preferred, however, not to borrow from Menjou, but to play the part with his own interpretation, and the result seems to have justified his choice.
He then went back to America where he has been hard at work, acting on the stage and making three or four pictures a year. He is a tremendously conscientious artist, and cannot be persuaded to play a role or story he does not consider good. It was entirely by his own choice that he played the elderly role of Sir John Carteret in “Smilin’ Through.”
He has now just finished “Fellow Prisoners,” with Doug. Fairbanks, Junior, and in a letter I got a few days ago he tells me he is now starting on “Berkeley Square,” which I, personally, think should make a lovely picture.
The screen rights of Somerset Maugham’s “Of Human Bondage,” which he may do when he has finished “Berkeley Square,” where purchased by Radio Picture because of Leslie’s tremendous enthusiasm for the story, and his belief that in the characterisation of the young painter hero he would have one of the finest and most interesting jobs of his career.
After that, as you may have read, there is talk of his coming to England to make a picture here under the direction of his old friend, Gilbert Miller. Whether or not it will come to anything I cannot say – I only know how much I hope that it will! You can imagine how delightful it will be for us to have Leslie and his wife and family over here with us for a while.

Leslie Howard and his daughter Doodie
With his little daughter, Doodie, in the garden of his London house. He has two children, of whom Doodie is the younger

His Two Children

He has two children, a boy and a girl, to whom he is devoted. Ronald, the boy, familiarly known to us all as Winkie, is the elder, and was duly sent to Tonbridge, so that he should receive an English education. But – it’s a long way from Tonbridge to Hollywood, and Leslie was lost without his son and heir, so Winkie has been posted as missing from school for several months.
For all his polished, mature work on the screen there is still something naïve and childlike about my brother, which makes for the most excellent understanding with his family. Maybe there is something of a sister’s partiality in this, but I always consider that Leslie makes an ideal parent! He adores an open-air life, and when he is not working is usually to be found knocking about in old clothes, or a bathing suit, since his Hollywood home boasts the inevitable swimming pool. He is still tremendously keen about horses.

His Home in Surrey

For all his affection for America, his heart is still in England, and he is the owner of a delightful place near Dorking, which he has never yet occupied, where prominent features are the stables and paddock for the horses he means to buy when he settles down. We all run down occasionally to see that the gardens are kept in order, and that the tennis courts do not get rusty; and we are looking forward to that vague some day – which never seems to come – when Leslie will be there himself. To me, you see, he isn’t so much the actor – he is my brother, and a very dear one at that.

(Film Weekly, May 5, 1933)