Love in the Life of Leslie Howard (1933)
Love in the Life of Leslie Howard
… It’s quite an unusual love– for Hollywood. Because it’s so serene. And because Ruth Martin Howard is quite content to play the role of wife and mother– and constant inspiration
by Adele Whitely Fletcher
It was about twenty years ago. In London, England. In the various brokerage houses, shops, offices and banks, that year’s crop of young Britishers were starting out in business, adjusting themselves to begin adults and earning their own living, planning how they might get on faster.
In Cox’s Bank, however, there was a young clerk none too pleased with his new estate. He had been trained in clerking and banking at Dulwich College and he was by no means a dull young man, so he did his work well. But he hated it none the less. He thought:
“This is life. This is being a man and earning your salt!” And he also thought: “This is Hell!”
His family was distressed. Not every family can place their boy in Cox’s to begin with. His father thought him ungrateful, to say the least.
This young man’s name was Leslie Howard.
It never occurred to Leslie Howard to quit his job, however. He was only nineteen. And when you’re that young, it’s no easy matter to stand up and tell your family you’re going to chuck the polite, dependable living they’ve been at such pains to arrange for you.
So every day Leslie Howard went to that bank on Charing Cross near Whitehall. And every day he hoped that it wouldn’t seem quite so dreary, that he wouldn’t hate it quite so much, that the rebellion within him would have worn down a little. But it never did.
No one, of course, could go on this way very long, giving their very youth to a thing they so completely loathed. Instinctively, all living things, be they vegetable, animal, or human, will turn to that which they need.
So Leslie Howard began to write plays. One act plays. And the amateur theatrical society of the suburb in which he lived with his parents began to produce them. This pleased him. He’d always felt he could write. And he had no desire whatever to act. In fact, he was so shy that even the thought of getting up on stage before a lot of people made him turn a little sick and cold.
He’s still self-conscious, as a matter of fact, famous as he is today.
“I’ve still difficulty,” he told me. “I’m still shy when I play a fairly straight part. I doubt really if I’ll ever get over it. I’m always happier doing the odd sort of fellow I played in ‘Animal Kingdom.’ In such a part I can lose myself.”
After Leslie Howard began writing plays, life was a little better. Endurable, anyway. When he left his desk at night, there were the amateur theatricals to look forward to. That was pretty good. But there was also the next morning… and the bank again. And that was pretty bad.
To many men, the beat of the war drums was far from a welcome sound. It called them away from sweethearts and wives and children. It called them away from jobs in which they were getting ahead.
To others, never meant to live in the ruts and grooves into which economic conditions had forced them, these drums sounded escape. Escape and maybe great adventure.
Leslie Howard numbered among the latter. And the day he walked out of Cox’s bank to join up, he was walking out for good and he knew it. He knew this was, for him, the break; that he never, no matter what happened, would go back.
One evening, while he was garrisoned in the English town of Canterbury, family friends invited him for dinner. There was another guest. A girl. Ruth was her name. Ruth Martin. She was enough of a beauty to charm any man. But it was the little, individual things about her that especially intrigued Leslie. The shape of her eyes, for instance. The proud tilt of her chin. And the sympathetic way she moved her hands.
Ruth Martin liked Leslie, too. His lean, sensitive face, that puzzled look of his, his slight weariness, and the shy, hesitating quality of his smile, she found far more thrilling and romantic than the swashbuckling of the other officers and men.
They had so much in common, these two. Even on the first evening they met they kept interrupting each other all the time. And although she was charming enough to have supported the most romantic poses, she never struck one or expected him to.
He married her. At St. Mary’s Church. In the early afternoon.
He was soon to sail for France and they both were young enough and gallant enough to take life as they found it.
The war over, after some trench work and one or two such experiences as men put in the back of their minds and never talk about, Leslie Howard took his bride back to his father’s house just outside of London.
And now his most trying, difficult experience lay before him.
They sat around the dinner table that night, the four of them, two senior and two junior Howards. Obviously, Leslie’s mother and father liked the charming, intelligent young person he had married. Undoubtedly they were relieved he had married. Marriage keeps a man’s nose down to earth. And they had a notion this was precisely what Leslie needed.
“You mustn’t plan to go back to the bank right off,” Leslie’s father said. “You and Ruth must take a fortnight for a real honeymoon. You’d better report, however. Tell them just when they can expect you.”
“I’ve been thinking,” Leslie Howard ventured, “that I wouldn’t go back to the bank.”
“You see,” he continued quickly, anxious to have it over with. “I find myself tremendously interested in the theatre. I want to be a playwright. Or even an actor.”
His mother and father exchanged glances. Then they turned, in final appeal, to their daughter-in-law. Surely this clear-thinking young English woman would see that it most decidedly was not to her advantage to encourage Leslie in any such idiotic notions.
But she didn’t appear to see anything of the kind. She, too, seemed a trifle mad.
“I quite agree with Leslie,” she told them gently, with a smile that was meant to be placating. “You see, he’s told me how he hated the bank, how because of it he used to dread every new day. The war got him out of it. If he didn’t try for the things he’s really interested in now, he’d never forgive himself. And I’d never forgive myself.”
The day following, still in his uniform, he began the rounds of the theatrical agents. He was quite honest. He didn’t pretend any experience. The agents laughed at him. Every day a hundred discharged soldiers, unwilling to go back to routine desk jobs, came to them with quite the same story.
But Leslie kept on. By the law of average the more agents he insisted put down his name, address, and telephone number, the more chance he had of landing some kind of an engagement.
He might not have relished being a business man, a clerk cooped up in a bank all day, doing the same dull things year in, year out. But I contend, nevertheless, that he would have made an excellent business man even though he would have been unspeakably bored every minute of his life. He’s proven very wise about all the business details which pertain to his work, details most actors never understand. Today, for instance, he’s increased his income many times because he had the perspicacity to become co-producer of the stage productions in which he stars, taking a minimum salary and fifty percent of all profits, including among other things, any movie rights for which the play may sell.
But, to get back to his story….
Weeks passed. At Cox’s the job was held open. That worried Leslie Howard frightfully. That kept alive the possibility that in the end he would have to go back there.
Finally, that stroke of luck Leslie had counted upon, materialized. One of the agents with whom he now was listed, on of the agents who had laughed at him, had an appointment for him with a manager. This manager was sending out on a road show to play “Peg O’ My Heart.”
Leslie was engaged to play Jerry at the comparatively inadequate salary of four pounds a week. And then– the young Howards’ luck was running strong this day–Ruth Martin Howard was engaged. As general understudy to the ladies of the company.
It was midsummer. They played the English coast towns. Cornwall. Devon. They were poor. But it isn’t hard to be poor when you’re young and it’s midsummer, and you’re at the sea, with the one being you love more than life.
Other province engagements followed. While these served Leslie Howard’s purpose, they were all very well. While they gave him a chance to serve a necessary apprenticeship, he was content with them. However, immediately the road show manager began entrusting him with more important roles in more important companies, he felt it was time to be turned his attention to smaller roles. To smaller roles in London.
So, casting his lot with the Pinero play, “Freaks,” Leslie Howard came at last to London. The production itself ran two weeks, but the serious young man, playing a serious young man in the play, had turned this time a good account.
The plays that were to make Leslie Howard famous, until Broadway and finally Hollywood would seek him out with golden promises, followed, one upon the heels of another.
Ruth Howard gave up the stage. A year or two later their first child was born, Ronald. He’s fourteen now. Six years later there was a daughter. Leslie.
With the first fruits of his success in the theatre, Leslie Howard bought a charming country house just outside of London. It is here the four Howards return eagerly whether they’ve been on a holiday at a villa in southern France, sojourning in a New York penthouse during the winter theatrical season, or spending months on end in a Beverly Hills house or a bungalow at Palm Springs or Del Monte. It’s home. It means happy days. Joyous days.
(Modern Screen, October 1933)