Tea-Timing With The Horsy Mr. Howard (1935)

Tea-Timing With The Horsy Mr. Howard

“Polo is living, much more than acting is,” says the star of “Of Human Bondage.”

By Dena Reed

“Acting isn’t a profession for men. It’s much better for women. It’s an outlet for emotion, good for vicarious living. But a man doesn’t want to live vicariously. That’s why, when we grow up, we’re more interested in life than in art.”
It was rather an inflammatory speech for the usually reticent Leslie Howard and it caused considerable agitation among my tea, toast and marmalade. Perhaps you wouldn’t mind your jam diving into your teacup but I imagine that you’d prefer to leave it quietly on your toast, especially if you were tea-timing with a very English gentleman in a very English club.
“By inference you are saying, of course, that it is no man’s job?”
“Naturally,” he agreed. “It isn’t!”
How did we ever get to this I began wondering? Then I recalled it had all started when I met, with quite natural trepidation, the popular Mr. Howard of London, Hollywood, and sometimes Broadway, at the theatre where he had just concluded rehearsals.
After a very charming greeting he had slung on a roomy raglan coat and pulled down a soft English hat over his eyes, and off we were across town to a club he frequents on Wst 45th Street. No one recognized the slender, rapid-striding actor, and presently we were carefully admitted to surroundings which produced the eerie sensation that we had been whisked to London, quite as if we were characters in the ever memorable “Berkeley Square”.
But here we were and he was saying the most incredible things… “Acting is a profession primarily for women!” “A man doesn’t want to live vicariously…” Amazing possibilities…
Looking straight into that well-known sensitive face I asked. “Then just why are you acting? You can do pretty much as you like, can’t you?”
“Pretty much,” he conceded. “And soon I hope to do completely as I wish. But one makes certain commitments.” He paused and looked over at me, and, as I smiled he seemed quite pleased that he should be understood. He laughed quietly, adding. “And those obligations must be worked off. So now I am doing a play and then I shall act in more pictures and finally I hope to direct pictures, which will be precisely what I wish to to do!
“It began, you see, when I was attending college. I wrote plays for intracollegiate theatricals. Then I found myself combining writing and directing, and finally I even played some of the parts. When I began to discover acting was a means of making money, and very easy money it seemed to me, I naturally gravitated to the stage and so to motion pictures.
“Now, directing for the stage, telling people what to do, doesn’t interest me in the least. I want to direct motion pictures, for to be a successful cinema director one should either write the story or collaborate on it. Then one has to plot the picture according to scenic effects and camera angles and, finally, production starts. That is my idea of something worthy, a real accomplishment.”
My marmalade was now so well behaved it would have done me proud at Buckingham Palace and indeed I began to feel as cozy and at home as if I wore one of Queen Mary’s own sombreros. I did hope Mr. Howard wasn’t going to put any more upsetting ideas into my little head.
“Until my Warner contract is satisfied I shall have to content myself with directing in my free time and indeed I am to have an opportunity with Korda at Elstree during the next year.” It made me feel very disconsolate. But his eyes shone brightly and on his lips was one of the elusive smiles which have endeared him to countless thousand of women. Yet, way off there in England…
“I am genuinely fond of Hollywood,” he said simply, as he beat me to my next question. “It’s home. There one has a house and horses and dogs and family and friends – not many, but a few old ones – in the British colony which has been established in the last few years. One does not want many friends. But horses…”
You have no idea of the tremendous meaning he can put into the little six letter word “horses”. He says it as one would be apt to say “love” and “sweetheart” and “dearest.” Perhaps that is because all his good times, and therefore his best memories, are involved. He likes “horsy” people – literally, I mean – those who keep horses, ride them, exhibit them, and especially polo players, for polo is his chief delight. “Polo is living, much more than acting is,” he remarked.
“…Which brings me to a realization, ” he thoughtfully, throwing his head back, narrowing his eyes and joining his fingertips as you have characteristically seen him do in his films,”a realization that everyone in Hollywood today is interested in vital living, believing in life itself rather than in the make-believe of the stage and screen. Everyone, from Jack Barrymore down.” And a very nice way for a Howard to put it, too.
“When we are young, very young, we believe in sacrificing everything for art, ‘art for art’s sake,’ but when one gets my age – and my age is a ripe Pitkin adolescence – one wishes to become involved in life itself. In California there is country home life, the sun and the whole out-of-doors, which takes care of the two things I most abhor – a big city in the dead of winter! I’m afraid I find most of New York very depressing with its Sixth Avenue, its noises and its great indoors. Frankly, I don’t understand that sort of life: but I do understand horses.
“Funny experience I had not so long ago with Betty.”
Now don’t get into a dither child – do I need to tell you that Betty is a mare, a good-looking lady-horse that seems to have caught the fancy of the fastidious Mr. Howard? Well, I’m sorry to report she is! Betty, as you may have known, is a thoroughbred, and during a game of polo she slipped and broke her hip. It was a real crisis in Betty’s life, for horses can’t go about breaking their hips and then hope to go into their dance, or their polo. As far as Betty was concerned it was just too bad, or might  have been if Leslie Howard didn’t up and buy a field for her in merrie old England and now she’s over there, kicking up her hoofs, and, of course, if it isn’t too much to ask, Mr Howard is hoping she will have a romance and that there will be other Betties to play polo with one of these days!
But to get back to the experience.
“At the time that Berry was being shipped away to pastures new, there was a big dock strike and scabs were working to load the boat and great crowds had gathered, about two thousand strong, at the pier to watch things generally.” A friend of mine who is very good with horses promised to look after Betty and as soon as I had finished a picture, or something, I promised to get down.
“They had tried for two hours, with this enormous gallery, to get her into the cradle – that coop-like contraption for carrying live stock from the dock to the boat, but no none could get her near the thing and it got to be pretty embarrassing.  Just as soon as they worked her close she’s shy  off and that was that.
“Finally I came along and found the situation fairly desperate, from their point of view. I could see the horse was simply frightened and needed some intimate conversation to take her mind off her troubles. So I walked her up and down the pier a bit and spoke soothingly to her all the time, and then I’d edge her nearer and nearer the cradle, always making sure that my body obstructed her view. She calmed down and in no time – just two minutes, to be exact – I had her backed into the thing, the gate was quickly clamped down and she was on her way.”
You’ve never seen the real Leslie Howard until you’ve watched his animated face as he talks about horses. All that casualness which marks his general attitude is entirely gone. He is interested in, well, call it life if he wishes, but in things and you understand why he wants to write, particularly to write thematic plays which tell a real story and say something. You know what he stands for and you find it admirable.
Suddenly this revelation made me feel very old and wise, practically Oriental, like and offshot from the Ming dynasty, say Ming Toy, toying with her tea. I began actually to understand why he likes polo, a game that offers a great battle, for you see he’s “the top” in the truest Cole Porter  sense! He doesn’t have to take orders from a director; I’m sure he wouldn’t, because he’s mastered acting. He doesn’t have to struggle and strive to succeed, it’s all too easy, and so he doesn’t give a shuck for anything save a chukker. Natural, isn’t it?
It was getting late and it had been delightful. I knew I was the envy of every American girl who was sitting at a drugstore counter drinking her “one coke please,” but I said I guess I’d better be running along.
“I’ll go with you,” he answered quickly. “I’ve got to get back to the hotel, for I’m going to the armory tonight – it’s the beginning of the indoor polo season.”
We walked across town again and presently we caught sight of a store displaying in its windows all sorts of games – badminton, backgammon, deck hockey and any number I couldn’t name, and some he’d never seen.
“Aren’t they immense?” he asked with more enthusiasm than any Englishman has a right to have. “I must buy some for the hotel. Let’s go in!”
He turned me around and we were on our way – except for a locked door. The place had closed for the day. It didn’t daunt him though.
“I’ll come back tomorrow,” he determined.
As we walked along he itemized all the things he was going to buy and send to the children.
“I thought you were going to buy them for the hotel,” I reminded him.
“That’s the way it is with everything,” he chuckled, “one usually starts out with one idea, only to end up with another.
“After I came from Europe I flew to the Coast and had to come East in a dreadful hurry, so I took a plane despite the fact that I usually become violently airsick. Against such a possibility I asked a friend to accompany me. ‘I’m such a wretched traveller,’ I explained, ‘will you come along, like a good fellow, just in case?’ Of course he agreed, and of course he became ill, which kept me so busy attending him I didn’t have time to feel wretched myself, which served admirably,” he laughed.
Again he looked at me, shyly, almost, but with that delightful twinkle in his eye which shows he’s pleased, you understand.
Yet I felt there was some subtle change in  him. Perhaps it’s this business of living vitally; or the fact that he is no longer to continue to do things he doesn’t like.
We shook hands. And I didn’t add anything but “good-bye.” I simply couldn’t wish him “good luck,” for, if anything, he has had too much of that already, and I find it has made him something of an unhappy man. Actually I hope he’ll have to work and fight and stumble before he finally gets what he wants, which of course he will. I imagine he would then find it “sporting.” And that’s what I found him!

Leslie Howard and Snip

Leslie Howard with Snip, one of his polo ponies

(Silver Screen, March 1935)