The Life Story of Leslie Howard (1935) – 1
The Life Story of Leslie Howard – 1
Complete & Fully Illustrated Souvenir Film Pictorial Gift Book
By John K. Newnham
Here is a vivid study of one of the greatest enigmas the film world —and Hollywood especially — has had to deal with. Leslie Howard has repeatedly scorned Hollywood; still the film makers have come grovelling at his feet, with offers that were astounding in their generosity. You will learn everything you want to know about this unusual man in this story — told fully and completely for the first time.
The scene was New York harbour. There was all that clamorous excitement which precedes the departure of a giant liner. Crowds jostled each other. Passengers wiped steaming foreheads as they struggled to get past customs’ officials. Friends were shouting farewells to their European-visiting acquaintances. The babble of foreign tongues mingled with English and American accents, with bellowed instructions to harassed porters, with the wailing sirens on the river.
Above this human throng, the Berengaria towered like an unperturbed giant.
Equally unperturbed, a slim, bronzed, curly-haired Englishman made his way towards the gang plank. Some didn’t recognize him because of his glasses. Others did, and pointed excitably: “Look, there’s Leslie Howard!” On board, his wife and family were waiting for him. They were in despair.
There was excitement outside, but it was nothing to the excitement in the stateroom reserved for the famous star. Hordes of enthusiastic young American girls were swarming into the luxurious apartment. Nothing, no one, could stop them. The scene was amazing.
Sirens screamed above. Stewards made desperate efforts to clear the ship of visitors. Leslie Howard’s cabin slowly emptied. Mrs. Howard sighed with relief. A steward tidied up. And Leslie Howard slipped quietly into the state-room.
That is the sort of hysterical effect that Leslie Howard has on his most fervid followers. No star in recent years has made such an amazing appeal to women as this unassuming, good-looking Englishman. He is the talkies’ greatest lover. Yet primarily he is an actor. He has never tried to be a Lothario. He is a sincere and sensitive artiste, an idealist.
That is the most strikingly paradoxical thing about him. He is a paradox in many, many other ways as well. Meeting him, you find him to be a quiet and gentle, utterly charming, speaking in low tones. Yet he is the most trenchant of Hollywood’s warriors; he has fought the studios tooth and nail, given the movie moguls some of their most splitting headaches, turned down some of the most dazzling offers imaginable. Yet he has done more for Hollywood than any other British talkie star. Has done more for Elstree, too.
So with his private life. You will see him at one of his rare appearances at public function. He will be immaculately dressed –has even been accused of foppishness. There will be a perfect crease in his marvellously cut trousers and his tie will be just so. The most carping critic from Savile Row could find no fault. But catch him unawares at home and you will find him dressed in the oldest, most comfortable clothes you could possibly find. His grey flannels probably don’t have the slightest semblance of a crease in them. His old jacket will be quite shiny at the elbows, and the pockets will be bulged out in the most appalling manner. He is completely happy in them.
This paradoxical personality was born in the south London suburb of Norwood on April 24, 1893. Which was forty-two years ago, though few people would guess it by looking at the slender, upright figure with aristocratic, youthful face. His real name was not Howard, but Stainer – Leslie Stainer. He took his mother’s maiden name for professional purpose. His father was a London stockbroker. Leslie spent his youthful days in the Norwood district, being educated privately at first, then at the nearby Dulwich College, where so many other famous people have had their schooling. An actor founded the college; it is appropriate that so many of its pupils should have found fame on the stage.
But Leslie Howard didn’t think about the stage as a profession then. He had two ambitions as a youngster. One was to be a cricketer; the other was to be a writer. He played cricket quite a lot, but it was soon quite obvious to him that, so far as he was concerned anyway, cricket was a fine sport. But it was not a profession.
Became a Bank Clerk
In a way, it was this writing ambition that first turned his attention towards the stage. For, while he was at school, he wrote quite a number of plays, and he and his fellow-students acted in them. Nevertheless, he confesses, he never thought very seriously of the stage as a career. The writing plans failed to materialize. It was not really his fault, however, that he didn’t become an author. When the time approached for him to leave school, he thought very seriously about this writing business.
Authorship, though, is not one of those things you can take up as a career. No influence in the world can help a writer to success. Leslie knew this, and so did his father. He was always something of a dreamer, and writing had always figured very prominently in his dreams of the future. But the dreams had to be abandoned. Writing, perhaps, could come later. Meanwhile, he had to have a job.
Most prosaically, he went straight from school into a bank. He really doesn’t know why, except that it was a job, and a quiet, safe one at that. He hated the work. It was tedious, and it bored him. He didn’t remain in the bank for long, though. War clouds were gathering over Europe. That fateful August in 1914 arrived. War was declared.
Leslie Howard joined up. He was youthful, healthy and yearning for adventure. The war came to him, not as a tragedy, but as an exciting opportunity to break away from his dull, conventional life. It uprooted him from his uncomfortable seat in the bank as nothing else could have done. So he went to the front, and fought for his country . . . and for his freedom.
And it is entirely due to the war that Leslie is now an actor, for it was out in blood-spattered France that he became deeply interested in theatricals. He was one of the leading lights of those amateur theatrical shows which the soldiers got up amongst themselves.
It was during the war, too, that romance came into his life. It was love at first sight, a hectic romance as unlike anything one would associate with Leslie Howard as most of the other things he does. He was home on leave in London, just as trees were gaining their green mantles and flowers were beginning to bloom. He met Ruth Evelyn Martin. She was young, too, and very pretty. She fell as madly in love with him as he did with her. He courted her for three weeks. They laughed and had fun together. The war was forgotten. They were utterly happy in each other’s company. He proposed to her, and she said “Yes”. They were married right away, and few people knew anything about it. It was a romantic wedding. They were married in a quaint, old-world church in Colchester, and, according to reports, two smiling, buxom charwoman were the witnesses.
Leslie is still married to the same wife, and they have two children, a boy and a girl.
It was a courageous marriage. They both knew he would have to go back to the front soon; both knew that terrible risk of his never returning . . . . They both knew, too, that they would have an even bigger fight to wage when, and if, he did return – the fight to make a living.
Early Days on the Stage
He didn’t want to go back to the bank, so when he was invalidated out of the army in 1917, he set his heart on winning stage fame. He knew little about the business apart from those theatricals over in France; but with the confidence of youth he set out to break into the world of acting, without experience, without the help of influential friends – but with an engaging personality, and a grim determination to succeed.
He had to succeed. He was a married man now. There was someone depending on him. They were difficult days, though. The man who was afterwards to command fantastic figures from the film studios knew what it was like to be anxious about every penny, to lay awake at nights worrying about the future.
How to set about the business? The best thing, Leslie decided, was to hang around the agents’ offices until some-thing turned up. Better still, hang around one particular agent until, in sheer self defence, he found some-thing for the young man. This was what he did. He found an agent who seemed to be quite promising. He planked himself in his office. And he at last a job put in an appearance. He was there early in the morning, and he didn’t leave until night. This went on for several weeks. Then one day the agent smiled cheerfully. “I think I’ve got something for you. In the provinces, of course, and it’s not much money. But it’s a start for you.”
It was a very humble start. Leslie played a small rôle in Peg o’ My Heart. He had no idea how he would shape as an actor on the professional stage. Didn’t even know whether he would like or not. He needn’t have worried. He shaped pretty well, and he loved the work. Acting got into his blood almost at once. As he himself has said: “Once you’re in the theatre, you stay for life.”
His salary to start with was something in the neighbourhood of £5 a week. The tour was quite a short one. The show visited a number of English provincial towns, then Leslie found himself once again hunting for a job. He was fairly fortunate. He landed the part of Charley in Charley’s Aunt. It was still only a provincial touring show, though. After a spell of touring in the provinces, he came to the conclusion that one could go on tour-ing in second and third rate companies for years, and get nowhere. If you didn’t try London, London wouldn’t come after you. So it was London. He returned to the metropolis. He refused to take touring offers and stuck out for a chance in the West End. But it was not easy to get a footing in town. He was unknown, and he still knew no one who could help him.
His savings were dwindling. They had never been much, and now they were getting depressingly low. Still no jobs; still no money coming in; still his savings getting smaller and smaller. One morning, he stood in the small bedroom of his humble lodging house and held a coin in his hand. It gleamed brightly in the rays of the morning sun, and he stared at it. It was a sovereign. His last one. The end of the savings. He shrugged his shoulders, slipped the coin into his pocket, and left the house. And that morning, he found a job.
People have often wondered why he always wears a sovereign on the end of thin golden chain round his neck. That is the explanation. it is the very same coin that he held in his hand on the morning of the day he set off and found a job which turned the tide in his fortunes.
Leslie is one of the screenland’s most enthusiastic polo players. A little while ago, he went out for a game. The coin was hanging to that chain round his neck when he went on to the field. The match was fast and furious. At the end of it, Leslie went into the dressing-room to change, and his hand went to that spot where the coin usually dangled. His face turned pale. The coin was missing. A desperate search was made for it, but it couldn’t be found. Leslie immediately announced that he would pay a very liberal reward for its return – and the next day it turned up. It had been found on the field after all.
|Leslie Howard’s Views on HollywoodWhen Leslie Howard was once asked what he thought of Hollywood as an intellectual centre, he replied: “I haven’t tried it really as an intellectual centre. I’ve tried it as a play ground and as a sports centre and I’ve found it excellent. I really love California, quite aside from making pictures. After all, when you’ve been shut up with bricks and mortar for so long– as we have been in England– it’s an escape which certainly has a lure.”|
Mounting Ladder of Success
His London stage career was quite meteoric. One of the jobs he found was as secretary to a noted producer, and this helped him somewhat, for he came into contact with a number of influential theatrical people. And when he got going, he mounted the ladder of success with long, rapid strides. Within a couple of years, he had established himself as a thoroughly reliable actor, and he was appearing opposite some of the most famous of London’s actress stars.
His first actual London appearance was at the New Theatre, in February, 1918, in The Freaks, and then followed several successes that made the name of Howard talked about in the theatre world. There was Mr. Pim Passes By and The Young Person in Pink. Leslie’s quietness has always given the appearance of his not having enterprise. But this is anything but the truth. Behind his easy-going demeanour Leslie has always been keenly alive to his opportunities.
His reputation spread to America. The New York stage has always been a magic magnet to every actor. It was to Leslie. He made up his mind to go out there. So towards the end of 1920 he bade temporary farewell to London and set sail for the States. There on November 1, his initial performance was as Sir Calverton Shipley in Just Suppose at the Gaiety Theatre, New York. At one, you see, you was cast as a British aristocrat.
There is obviously a very great strain of superstition in the Howard make-up. He still had with him, of course, that golden sovereign, and the first thing he did in America was to buy another good-luck talisman. It took the form of a dressing-gown. It didn’t cost a fortune, but it was quite an outstanding affair–a very bright huntsman red, with huge white buttons adorning it. That dressing-gown, he avers, brought him good luck, and he has never parted with it since. He still wears it in his dressing-room at the theatre and in the studios. It is a landmark. When anyone wants to find him among a crowd between-scenes, he merely has to look out for that brilliant red garment. It’s very easily picked out!
Perhaps the dressing-gown did bring him luck. But ability and personality were, of course, really responsible for his success. He did not, however, make a tremendous hit at once in New York, as has often been supposed. He started quietly and steadily. Just Suppose was followed by a number of other plays, some good, some not-so-good, before he eventually zoomed to the topmost heights of Broadway fame. The play in which he made his first really smashing hit was in The Green Hat, and he appeared opposite Katherine Cornell, who is one of America’s most distinguished actresses, though he had also appeared in several other quite outstanding productions, both in England and in America–such plays as Outward Bound, Her Cardboard Lover and Berkeley Square.
Of Berkeley Square (in which he afterwards made another great film hit), there is a delicious story told. It was he who did much to persuade John L. Balderston, the author, to write the play. Balderston had the plot in mind, but he was not too sure about it. Leslie was enthusiastic. He was confident theat it would turn out to be a masterpiece. Balderston eventually did write the play, in collaboration with J.C. Squire. Before Balderston penned it, however, he was unknown; just an ordinary newspaper reporter. It made his name for him.
|Refused a £20,000 Offer
If the records could be secured, it would be probably found that Leslie Howard had turned down film offers from more important actresses who wanted him for their leading man than anybody else on the screen. One of his most famous “refusals” was when Marion Davies sought him as her leading man in “Peg o’My Heart.” She offered him no less than £17,500 if he would play the part. Howard said no, because the rôle didn’t appeal to him. Nothing daunted, Marion increased the offer to £20,00. And still Mr. Howard’s answer was “No!”
A Long Taxi Ride
Leslie was not in New York when the play was finished and hawked round to the producers. When he did arrive back, he found that it had already been sold. It was an overwhelming disappointment to him. He had wanted so badly to appear in it himself, and it didn’t look as if he would be able to do so now. The manuscript had been taken to London. By coincidence, Leslie was returning to London as well, and when he reached the capital, he set out to try to read the play and to get the leading part in it.
The producer turned him down flat.
“I’m sorry–but you’re not the part in any case. You’re fine in light comedies. Stick to your own rôles.”
The allegation was both true and untrue. Certainly, Leslie was fine in light comedy, and most of his stage work had been in this direction. But he had also proved that he was equally brilliant in drama, and at this time he really was feeling the urge to play more sensitive rôles.
He was determined to read the script of Berkeley Square. And he staged one of the most daring and amazing acts in all his life. He walked into the producer’s office one day, and found that the man was not there. The Berkeley Square story was, however. It was on his desk. Leslie picked it up, and glanced at it quickly. He looked round. There was no one there to see him. A couple of seconds later, the manuscript was under his coat, and he strolled nonchalantly out of the office.
In the street, he hailed a taxi.
“Drive anywhere, and don’t stop till I tell you,” he instructed.
The taxi driver shrugged his shoulders. He was used to this sort of crazy things. He did as he was bid. Leslie sat in that taxi for two and a half hours (how much the meter rang up has never been revealed). He was completely engrossed in the story. By the time he had reached the last page, his mind was made up. He knew he could take the part of Peter Standish. It was simply made for him.
He didn’t rest then until he had found someone to put up a tremendous amount of money for the play. He succeeded in his aim. The play was bought from the producer who had owned it, and it eventually passed into the hands of a new company headed by Gilbert Miller and himself–a friendship and partnership which had lasted ever since.
That was the story of how Leslie Howard came to appear in Berkeley Square.
Adoration of Women
While he was making these stage successes, his amazing influence over feminine hearts first become apparent. It was strange. He had never imagined himself as a great lover in any way and he was not the sort of man you’d expect to cause palpitation of the heart among millions of members of the feminine sex. Yet that is what happened. Girls would flock to see him, and would wait in struggling masses outside the stage door to catch a glimpse of him, to obtain his signature. This adoration of the man was not confined to the members of the public who never actually met him. It included girls he met in the profession.
Leslie Howard was too happily married to have his head turned by seemingly mad infatuation. He had a couple of children now, too, a girl and a boy. The girl, he had named after himself, Leslie. Was it that he had hoped for a boy and masked his disappointment by giving the name he would have given a boy? I don’t know; Leslie would never reveal a secret like this. But, although he already had a son named Ronald, it is quite possible, for Leslie is very much a man’s man in real life.
Anyway, with a family and a charming wife, Leslie never succumbed to the wiles of the many women who would have won him away from his home circle had it been humanly possible.
His appearance in the stage play of Outward Bound was responsible for attracting Hollywood’s attention to him. Warners purchased the film right in the play, and approached him with the idea of playing in the movie version.
“No,” said Leslie, briefly. He was not interested in the screen. His heart and soul lay in the theatre and he simply couldn’t see himself as a celluloid puppet.
Jack Warner was insistent. He dangled every possible bait before the actor–and Leslie wavered. He liked the part tremendously and it was for this reason alone that he finally agreed to make the picture.
He signed a contract for the one film only. He had no intention of making any other picture.
Thus Leslie Howard made his first screen appearance as a dead man! As you may have heard, the story was about a man who was bound for the beyond. It was not allowed to be shown generally in this country because of its subject, but it was a terrific artistic success, and revealed Leslie as a perfect film actor.
He Even Surprised His Studio
His splendid performance even surprised the very studio that had engaged him. When he went along to make his screen test, he went through the usual rigmarole of make-up experiments, arrangements of lights, and so on. Incidentally, it has been since realized that his face screens best without any make-up. His natural complexion is perfect for the camera.
When he presented himself for his test, the make-up man at the studio looked at him critically. He gazed at him, first from one side, then the other. He pulled his head underneath the light, and peered closely a it. Then he shrugged his shoulders.
“You’ll never get anywhere in pictures,” he commented shortly.
Even the most talented of experts sometimes slip up! There certainly wasn’t the slightest doubt about Leslie’s success in Outward Bound. He was perfect in every way.
Almost every studio in Hollywood immediately tried to sign him up. At first, he refused flatly to have anything further to do with films. The movie magnates were quick to realize that they could offer him all the money in the world without interesting him in the slightest degree. They were astute enough, however, to realize at the same time that their only chance of obtaining his services was to offer him parts of such outstanding merit that the actor in him would be attracted.
Offers Begin to Pour In
From the very beginning, Leslie Howard was the hope and also the despair of Hollywood.
He looked so gentle. But he was the toughest proposition the Hollywood studios had ever come up against. He made no secret of the fact that film-making didn’t appeal to him at all. Yet he was shrewd enough to allow a slight note of hope in his attitude, which became: “Well, I don’t want to make your movies. You want me to make them. Well, come along and offer me something which will win me over.”
The studios took up the challenge, and some wonderfully attractive parts were found for him. He appeared opposite Norma Shearer in A Free Soul. It gave him a delicate rôle worth of his great histrionic ability. Daughter of Luxury gave him another delightful part, this time opposite Marion Davies.
Never the Twain Shall Meet was offered him as a “vehicle”. It was an unusual part for him. He was a beachcomber. One saw him wandering about the studio with a stubble of beard on his chin, and wearing torn and tattered clothes.
Scared of the Hollywood Machine
He was asked to appear with Ann Harding in Devotion. Here was another great artiste. Leslie had a tremendous admiration for her ability. He consented to take the part. But he was not satisfied with Hollywood. Leslie, to be perfectly frank, has always been of a somewhat lazy nature. He is not indolent, but he is easy going, and hates to be rushed. Hollywood is one long gigantic rush and Leslie found himself caught up in its mad, whirlwind atmosphere. It didn’t suit him at all. He was not happy.
“I’m tired of the place,” he told his wife one day. She understood. She knew the man she had married and knew that nothing in the world could alter his nature. If he didn’t like Hollywood, it was no good trying to persuade him to stay.
So Leslie told the movie magnates that he was through, that he wasn’t interested in their films any longer, that his experiences there hadn’t won him over from the stage.
He told the world so, too.
“I can’t stand the pace of picture-making,” he declared. “I refuse to be caught up in the machine.”
There was consternation, but Leslie refused to budge an inch from his decision. He had made A Free Soul, and that what his soul wanted–freedom. He wanted to go back to the stage and he wanted to see England again.
Hollywood was concerned not only with losing a fine actor and a big box-office proposition, but also with losing a man who, in the comparatively short time he had been in the movie mecca, had swept all before him and brought new esteem to the picture. When he went out there, tough guys were the craze. Love-making was accompanied by a sock in the jaw. Jimmy Cagney and Clark Gable were the cave-men heroes of romantic pictures. Leslie Howard was different. He was a gentleman. He brought a refined atmosphere to the films. When he made love to a glamorous screen star, he did so in a gentle, sensitive manner which the filmgoing public loved.
He raised the status of Hollywood pictures in the eyes of intelligent men and women. His acting was not sensational. It was quiet and sincere and it gained the respect of hundreds of thousands of people who before had regarded the screen as a very inferior, mechanical imitation of the stage.
He was of the new school, and Hollywood can never repay him for the influence he had in bringing culture into the cinema.
Curiously enough, his appeal was equally as great to the millions of romantic girls and women who worshipped at the feet of the screen’s greatest lovers. They hailed him as a romantic hero of a new type. Yet Hollywood at first didn’t think of him in a romantic light at all. He was regarded (just as he regarded himself) as a straightforward actor–and everyone considered him a fine one, too. But a new Valentino? If you had suggested it to the magnates, they would have laughed uproariously. In their eyes, a romantic lover was either a tough he-man or a sleek, dark-haired Latin–not a blonde, dreamy-eyed, easy-going Englishman.