Leslie Howard’s Lucky Coin (1934)
Leslie Howard’s Lucky Coin
Some believe Howard might still be adding figures if it weren’t for the golden charm
By Virginia Maxwell
Into a shabby, walk-up tenement up on Claremont Avenue in New York, a gaunt young man trudged his way. Each day his shoulders would become a little more hunched; each day a haunted look in his eyes spelled disappointment and discouragement. For the young man could find no work and money was terribly scarce.
That man was Leslie Howard. The time was about 1923.
Neighbors up on Claremont Avenue remember him as a transient tenant, carrying delicatessen food in small paper bags now and then, his clothes not at all Bond Street perfection of the world-famous actor today.
It sounded a little incredible – this vastly different person compared with the charming, soft-spoken Leslie Howard of romantic movie glamour. The Leslie Howard of “Smilin’ Through” and “Secrets” and “Berkeley Square.”
“How about that?” I asked him.
“It’s true,” he said frankly. “I lived up there for quite a while when I was broke, going the Broadway rounds looking for job. I lived in furnished rooms in the Fifties, too, eating marmalade and crackers for days when money was so scarce I’d almost forgotten what a dollar bill looked like.
“That was when my wife, who’d stayed in England because we couldn’t afford two boat fares, sent me the lucky guinea.”
He fingered a gold coin suspended from a chain wich he always wears around his neck.
“Ruth sent me this because she knew I needed money badly. And the day it arrived, my luck changed. Turned about so completely, that I didn’t need the money. So I had it made into this keepsake which I wouldn’t part with for the world. I wear it always – just for luck – and the only time I ever take it off is when I go swimming. Sometimes, ” he laughed, “I wonder if I shouldn’t die by drowning, because my lucky token wouldn’t be with me.”
He scrutinized the token carefully.
“I’d no business wanting to be an actor. I had had no experience when I first went on the stage in England after the war – just a tremendous desire to act, to express something. I had always wanted to do with writing but never hoped to attain in that field.
“I had worked in a bank in London before the war. I’ve often since accused myself of wanting to join the cavalry just for the thrill of getting away from the monotony of adding up figures.
“During the war I met Ruth. We were married in a little town where our troops were quartered for a while. Ruth didn’t know anything about the stage, either. But she had a great sympathy for my ambitions. We would talk for long hours about the things I wanted to do. And it was she who fired me with courage to try the stage, believing I should always feel cheated if I hadn’t at least one fling at it.
“Just as soon as I was mustered out of the army, I went to a booking agent in London. Ruth and I were very poor, living in a cheap little flat. We had no telephone. So I had to call on the agent every day to learn if he could find me a place anywhere.
“Eventually – and it may have been because he grew tired of seeing me come around so often – he offered me a very small rôle in a tour company. I grabbed at the opportunity. Ruth and I packed our one bag, got aboard the theatrical company train and started our on tour adventure, deeply thrilled that I had at least gotten a start.”
Leslie Howard stopped talking for a moment; his face softened and his keen blue eyes took on that far-away expression as if he were living over again these days.
“It was summer time and England was lovely. We toured through Devonshire and Wales, playing at stable theaters, gas-lighted back rooms, always amazed that people liked our show and forever wondering just how long this blessed luck would hold out.
“We never hoped to play London. That is the last word in England, the London stage, just as Broadway is the goal of every American actor.
“But I found this tour an amazing training school. I was learning to be a good trouper, to take disappointment with a grain of philosophy, to look up and out and never back – the creed that keeps people of the theater going along so hopefully.”
There came an opportunity for Leslie to do a play in London. It was called “The Freaks”, and it was the vehicle which gave him a chance to show whether he had something real to offer in stage talent or whether he might have to go back to counting figures over a bank ledger.
Little money, scarcely enough to live on, but opportunity.
The critic’s statement that he was splendid, although the play was not very successful, gave him the chance to come to New York, because Gilbert Miller believed what the London critics had said about Leslie Howard.
“Ruth had to remain in England,” he commented, with a naive, boyish sadness in his blue eyes. “We couldn’t scrape together enough money for two boat tickets. So I came alone, with high hopes.”
He did “The Green Hat” and made some money. He sent for Ruth and she came over, happy to be with him again. But luck turned for them a little while after she arrived with their son. And it was then they moved to the Claremont Avenue flat where neighbors remembered him as the actor out of work.
They got back to England somehow, glad to be on home ground again.
Then Fate threw another quirk and Leslie Howard was offered a part in the American production of “Her Cardboard Lover”. He couldn’t afford not to take it. And with the last money they could get together, he set out alone for New York once more.
“Laurette Taylor was to be the star and I her leading man, ” he said. “We rehearsed for a long while, then the play had its tryout in Great Neck, Long Island.
“Sadly enough, it was a failure, or shall I call it a flop, as you say in America?” His eyes twinkled merrily.
“Oh, I can laugh at the experience now, but frankly I was heartbroken. I’d taken the last money we had to make the trip, anticipating that my previous success would herald a new and greater triumph. And I admit I was a disillusioned, discouraged, very thin and very hungry young actor out of work when the thing blew up.
” I came back to New York and hid away in a shabby, little room on a side street, wondering why I’d ever come from England on so thin a chance. I was terribly lonely. I walked the streets for hours, gazing into shop windows to take my mind off the disappointment which stayed with me like a nightmare.
“I was sitting disconsolately on the side of my bed one morning trying to figure out whom I could see next about getting a job, whan the little envelope arrived, with the gold piece, from Ruth. I lipped it into my pocket and started out – really to buy some breakfast.
“At the corner of Broadway and Forty Sixth Street, I ran into an acquaintance, a fellow I’d met while doing the rounds of theatrical offices.
” ‘Haven’t you heard the news?’ he shouted at me with great enthusiasm. ‘Miller’s going to try ‘Her Cardboard Lover’ again – this time with Jeanne Eagels. Better hike up there and make a try for the part.”
I rushed over to Gilbert Miller’s office and was greeted with open arms. They’d been looking all over town for me. And there I had been, sitting in a shabby, little side-street room wondering where I’d find a job.”
The rest is theatrical history. How very much of a hit the play was; how it ran for a long time on Broadway to capacity houses; how the night the audience applauded with thundering encores, Leslie Howard went to his dressing-room fingering his lucky coin, glad that Jeanne Eagels had made such a hit.
Jeanne ran upstairs to him and fairly dragged him to the stage, while Leslie held tightly to the lucky charm which – if you believe in such things – had given him this chance in a hit play at last.
“It’s you they’re calling for, Leslie,” said Jeanne. “I’ve taken three bows, They won’t stop until you come out.”
It was all so true. The audience had found a fine, new, talented actor. And they insisted upon his receiving their acclaim.
Leslie Howard confesses now that he was stunned by the ovation.
It was Jeanne Eagel’s play. She was the star. Leslie Howard was comparatively unknown. Yet, she was glad to share her stardom with the new young man in whom Gilbert Miller had such unswerving faith. At last he was started.
And that beginning was the first of his sensational success on the stage which led to those enviable picture contracts later on.
And now, sometimes, in the middle of the night, Leslie Howard has a bad dream that he is back again in those days of struggle and despair.
Then his hand goes mechanically to the gold coin on the chain around his neck.
Once, it wasn’t there. He jumped out of the bed, turned on the lights and began a prolonged search until he found it – under the bath sponge at the side of his tub.
“It’s funny,” he laughed, “how significant the thing has become. I suppose nothing would happen to me if I lost it, though it would make me very uncomfortable, indeed. That’s why I guard that lucky coin so carefully.”