My Charming Tenant, Mr. Leslie Howard (1933)
Gay Elsie Janis reveals herself as a gay landlady
My charming tenant, Mr. Leslie Howard
One of those intimate, I-knew-him-when articles that only our Elsie knows how to write
Most of the producers are after him.
Most of the feminine stars think he would be ideal as the male love interest in their next pictures.
New York is calling him for a stage production.
London wants him to come home again.
The critics proclaim him as the most brilliant of the new screen raves.
Women are fascinated by that certain different something he has; even the men who are prone to snarl at the sighs of the girl friend, wife or sister who is suffering from “Gableitis,” admit that, “This guy Howard is a darned smooth actor!”
And, I, if you don’t mind, or even if you do, I am his landlady!
When Mother and I moved to California we had a rush of real estate to the head and bought two houses, one “swell” one and one small one, for no good reason except that, not unlike a bride, we usually had two of everything.
Needless to say, it is the swell one which Leslie Howard and family are honoring. He has four good reasons for having a large house, namely : Mrs. Leslie Howard, two small Howards and visitors.
I have only one reason for wanting a small house. He is tall, blond, young, and has been married to me for just one year and ten days to date. So far we don’t crave many visitors.
This time next year we will probably want to live in Grand Central Station.
Marriage, however, is not my theme, though it might well be with Leslie Howard as my chief character, for he is one of the most married men I know.
Married, consistently, successfully, and I would say, happily. He has been running in double harness with the same team mate for over fifteen years.
If he has had any time out for browsings in strange pastures he must have found them far from the highway of public criticism. Of course, with that disarming, shy, ultra-modest and utterly intangible quality which stamps him as “an unusual,” if you found him lying in a bed of asphodel and he said he was trying to find a dandelion, you would not only believe him, but would start in trying to help him find one.
Mrs. Howard (Ruth, from now on) speaks of the stage and screen’s foremost actor as if he were a little boy, a very clever little boy of whom she is justifiably proud, but one who, she unconsciously warns you, will, if asked to tell the story of “Snow White.” be very apt to narrate “Black Beauty.”
Ruth is a gladsome, glowing person with one of those lovely English complexions that make the much-advertised schoolgirl hide her favorite soap.
She carries on an unending campaign against weight. When you see her in action it is puzzling that pounds can ever catch up with her, but when they do she battles gaily, dieting, tap dancing, etc. When she has them licked a bit she laughs them back on again, for she has a colossal sense of humor and much as I like Leslie, I’ll bet she has needed it many times during the fifteen years.
The goose hangs high now for the Leslie Howards (as they are always referred to), but there were times not so very long ago when Leslie thought that the noose was made for his own neck and was all for sticking his nice wavy blond head into it.
Many film fans to whom the legitimate theater is as unknown as the real meaning of Technocracy are saying today, “Who is that fellow Leslie Howard? Where did he come from?”
I saw him before he came, quietly, unobstrusively, but with unfailing precision knocking off one outstanding performance after another. As if in contrived contrast to many barriers which blocked his way to the coveted electric lights over the legitimate theater, the ball of picture fame started rolling after one or two rather dubious pushes.
Leslie did not think he would be good in films and up to date he is still being difficult to convince.
“I could have done a better job!” he says (gazing at some unseen object of interest on the toe of his shoe) when one starts waving superlatives over his performance in “The Animal Kingdom” or “Smilin’ Through.”
Perhaps he is skeptical of praise on account of past experience. No one ever made so many personal hits in so many short-lived plays. Five years in and out, from rehearsals to the play, back to more rehearsals for another play. All the time critics and audiences saying that young Howard gave a splendid, amusing, touching (choose your own adjective) portrayal of this and that role, and should be given a play worthy of — and so on, through months of mediocrity, the potential star’s purgatory.
ALL this was doubly hard to take because Leslie had not said to himself or Ruth, who was already
listening, “I’ll go out to America and make a fortune!” On the contrary he was quite comfortable in London. Having sort of drifted into the theater, he was doing nicely. He and Ruth were still in the newlywed class.
Leslie had a part in a play, a small one to be sure, but he had already started that certain outstanding-performance habit of his and an American manager caught him at it. So he didn’t come to America, he was brought, along with two other unsuspecting Britishers who have since given American audiences much joy on the stage and screen, that grand old “scene-stealer,” Frederick Kerr, and his son Geoffrey. The play was called “Just Suppose,” but the public refused to suppose, they definitely thought not. The three visiting sons of Britain all made personal hits.
Ruth, meanwhile, had remained in England.
The play was a failure. Leslie, despite many invitations to remain, returned to England with the idea of picking up life where he had left it. No sooner did he get well dug in than another offer from America upset the continuity. Again he left Ruth, again he made a great impression against the background of a fairly successful play, and again he sailed back to Ruth. But, this time, he had a faraway look when he told her about America. Not such a bad place! In fact, he thought she would like it. Yes! he was sure she would.
Poor Ruth jolly well had to, because the next offer from New York brought the Leslie Howards, baby, bags and Leslie was receiving what would be considered big money in London, and good money in America — but how could the young Howards know that in the land of the free you have to pay as much rent for a four-room apartment as you do for a house complete with garden on the fringe of London? They soon found out, and then began the five years of struggle.
I don’t see how they could have loved America then. I couldn’t love anything I couldn’t get away from; and that was the situation. Leslie, Ruth, Winkie (the man child) and his nurse, not poverty stricken, fairly comfortable but nevertheless “sunk” because when Leslie would get enough money to transport his “production” back to the Motherland, the Dollarland would offer him an inducement to remain. Rehearsals, and the transportation money going out, the play opens and perhaps doesn’t last as long as the rehearsals did, but Mr. Howard had scored another success.
I wish you might hear Leslie talk about all this with an amused twinkle playing hide-and-seek in his very blue eyes. I have known him a long time but have never delved into his past, being quite satisfied to get in on his present now and then.
When I knew I was going to write about him, I asked him to lunch. He said he would love to come, but knowing how vague he is about most things and certainly not hoping to prove any exception, I called Ruth in the morning of the day we had set and said, “Leslie hasn’t forgotten he is lunching with me, has he?”
“No, my dear, but he doesn’t seem sure about where he is to meet you!” Ruth’s tone was anxious.
“Right here in my own house,” I said.
“Oh! Right you are, my dear. I’ll see that he gets there.” He did.
If I have given you the impression that Leslie is really like a little boy, let me grab it back, or, better still, let me add a few more impressions, beginning with a one word description — Charm!
When Leslie says, “Hello, my dear, how are you?” his inflection makes you think that you are a dear, and that he really is greatly interested in how you feel.
It’s a terrible temptation. I always want to hang on to his hand and make up troubles, just to hear him say, “I’m so sorry!”
Luck was with me this time because I was just getting over the flu, so I received my quota of beautifully modulated sympathy before lunch and then proceeded to try and get Leslie to talk about himself. Believe me, Mary Pickford picked the right man when she chose him for the lead in “Secrets.”
Not that he doesn’t talk and talk well, but he dodges the first person singular as most people do a subpoena!
I finally caught him by saying, “What a great night the opening of ‘The Cardboard Lover’ was in New York!”
I really didn’t realize what a turning point it had been in his life. I knew that the audience had cheered him and that though Jeanne Eagels very sweetly brought him out for call after call with her, the public demanded that he come out alone. But I didn’t know that Leslie had decided that he was never going to “arrive” and was so discouraged that he didn’t much care whether he did or not. He had played the same part in London with Tallulah Bankhead but here Jeanne Eagels was the star and of course it would be her great night. That’s what he thought and I’ve told you what happened. Next day Leslie was the talk of New York.
This is the way he sums up his reactions: “Wasn’t it amazing, Elsie? You know I couldn’t realize what was happening. At first I thought they were sort of being sorry for me and wanted to show me they were glad I had landed in a success. Then when they kept on calling for me, even after I’d gone to my dressing-room, I thought, ‘Well, maybe they really like me,’ and then, Elsie, I suddenly had a feeling that I was moving into a new cycle. By the time the show was over I was sure of it! The funny thing is that I was right. I’ve had the most marvelous luck ever since!”
Luck, he calls it! He doesn’t know t that he is destined to be different, but there is just another proof of it. When this country was starting into its “tail spin” Leslie was “taking off” for great heights. He and the depression passed one another.
He entered into the business of producing plays when most managers were putting them back in the desk drawer, waiting until things got better. He produced “The Animal Kingdom” in New York when more than half of the theaters there were closed. And it was a great success.
It was subsequently bought for the talking pictures and when Radio Pictures were ready to make the film, who should be out here in Hollywood already established as a film personality but the young man who first saw the play’s possibilities?
Perhaps he’s right, and it is luck, because most stage stars see the roles which they have created played on the screen by someone as utterly the opposite to them as the Movie Moguls can find.
Now he is in for another bit of luck. He is to play “Berkeley Square” in the films. This is a play that he produced and acted both in England and America.
Decidedly he is in another cycle and he’s riding it well ! He is torn between the stage and screen, between the sunshine of California, the fog and fidelity of dear old London, the rush and risk of New York production. In fact, the lad is sort of stuck in a good old-fashioned quandary. I tried to sell him California and films (with a little plug for my house on the side) by reminding him of how many more people got to see him and like him in pictures than in the theater.
“My dear,” he said, “I like pictures enormously, but one must think ahead a bit. I’m doing well now, but it may be just a transient thing. In the theater one can get old and have all the lines one likes and if one can still act, there is a public. Whereas, in pictures, age is an important factor and– ”
“And you,” I interrupted, “apparently aren’t ever going to show a sign of any. After all, you can’t have been married fifteen years without at least starting to show some evidence; don’t mention children — I mean in your face.”
He was very apologetic. “I’ve got a funny face. I was playing school boys after Winkie was born.”
“And you’ll probably still be playing them when he is in college,” I said.
“No, I don’t think so,” he said softly. “I’m looking forward to writing, later on. You know, that’s what I wanted to do before I went on the stage, but I got married and I had to make money, and writers, you know —— ”
“Are you telling me?” I said.
“May I use the phone?” he said. I told him where it was and then I heard him call the studio. Yes! I always listen to all telephone conversations. Bad manners, but as I usually do most of the talking in my house it’s a nice change for me.
“Look here,” I heard him saying. “There’s a chap out on one of the sound stages. I’m not sure which one and I don’t remember his name. I’m supposed to have a photograph taken with him. Will you tell him I’m on my way to the studio? Thanks so much!”
He came back and sat down again. We talked another ten minutes about everything but Leslie Howard. When he was leaving he said, “I’m afraid I haven’t been much help. I’m awfully bad about this interview business.”
I tee-ed up my dignity and said, “I do not do interviews, old dear. I merely write a few facts about my friends.”
“Oh, well, that’s splendid. But if there is anything you want to know, just ask me.”
I wanted to say, “Well, tell me which are you really, Peter Pan or the Old Man of the Mountains?” but I said, “Thanks, you’re a dear!” And if he isn’t, marriage has dulled my perspective !
(The New Movie Magazine, April 1933)