Biography

Leslie Howard Steiner was born in Forest Hill, London on the 3rd of April 1893. His father, Ferdinand, was a Hungarian Jewish immigrant. His mother, Lillian (née Blumberg),  came from an upper middle class family who initially opposed her marriage. Soon after Leslie’s birth, the Steiner family moved to Vienna, where a second child, Doris1, was born. After a reconciliation between the Steiners and Blumbergs, Leslie’s family moved back to London, where three other children were born: Alfred Charles (1899-1931), Irene Mary (1903-1981) and Arthur John (1910-1995).

The Steiner Family

Leslie Howard with his mother Lilian, his father Ferdinand Steiner, and his sister Doris. Vienna, 1895 ca.

Leslie Howard with his mother Lilian, his brother Alfred and sister Doris. London, ca. 1903

Leslie Howard with his mother Lilian, his brother Alfred and sister Doris. London, ca. 1903

Leslie was educated first privately and then at Alleyn’s School, Dulwich, where he didn’t distinguish himself as a brilliant student. During his studies, however, he became interested in writing and theatre, and developed his interests with his mother’s support and encouragement.

Alleyn's School at Dulwich

Alleyn’s School at Dulwich

His father, however, didn’t share this love for theatre and insisted that his son take a regular job. After leaving school, Leslie  started work  at Cox & Co. as a clerk, but left his job at the outbreak of the First World War to enlist in the Northamptonshire Yeomanry. After serving as  a second lieutenant in Colchester, he relinquished his commission in 1916. The same year he met and married Ruth Martin.

Lieutenant Leslie Howard Steiner

Lieutenant Leslie Howard Steiner

Ruth Evelyn Martin

Ruth Evelyn Martin

Leslie began acting in touring theatre companies, playing minor roles in popular plays such as Peg O’ My Heart and Charley’s Aunt. In 1918 he made his début on the London stage in The Freaks by Arthur Wing Pinero. On the 7th of April, 1918, his first child was born, named Ronald after Ronald Herrick, the character Leslie was then playing in The Freaks. More success followed in productions including The Title by Arnold Bennett, Our Mr. Hepplewhite by Gladys Unger and  Milne’s Mr. Pim Passes By. Leslie also played small parts in at least three silent films: The Heroine of Mons (1914), The Happy Warrior (1917) and The Lackey and the Lady (1919).

The Happy Warrior

Advertisement from The Sheffield
Evening Telegraph, January 31, 1918

The Title, 1918

Leslie Howard in The Title, 1918

In 1919, together with his friend Adrian Brunel, Leslie founded a film production company called Minerva Films1. Minerva produced several short films, using screenwriters like A.A. Milne and actors including C. Aubrey Smith and Nigel Playfair. Leslie himself took the lead part in two Minerva shorts: Five Pounds Reward and Bookworms.

Leslie Howard in Bookworms

Leslie Howard in Bookworms

Leslie Howard in Five Pounds Reward

A scene from Five Pounds Reward

In 1920 Leslie officially dropped his surname and became Leslie Howard. Soon after his success in East is West, Gilbert Miller cast him as Sir Calverton Shipley in his new Broadway production of A.E. Thomas’s Just SupposeDuring the years that followed, on the  stages of Broadway, Leslie collected favourable reviews and personal recognition in plays including The Truth About Blayds and  The Romantic Age both by A.A. Milne (both 1922), Frederick Lonsdale’s Aren’t We All? (1923), Sutton Vane’s Outward Bound (1924) and Gladys Unger’s The Werewolf  (1924). Eventually, thanks to further success in plays like Arlen’s  The Green Hat (1925), Galsworthy’s Escape (1927) and Her Cardboard Lover (1927, with Jeanne Eagels in New York and 1928, with Tallulah Bankhead in London), Leslie became a matinée idol.

During the Twenties, Leslie Howard lived with his family in Great Neck, Long Island, which is where, in 1924,  his daughter Leslie Ruth was born.  Still keen on writing, Leslie had several short stories published in The New Yorker, Vanity Fair and other important magazines. In 1927 he staged, directed and acted in his own play Murray Hill. In 1929 he enjoyed enormous success as  time-traveller Peter Standish in John L. Balderston’s Berkeley Square.

Leslie Howard in Outward Bound

Leslie Howard and Margalo Gillmore in Outward Bound, 1924

Leslie Howard in Escape

Leslie Howard and Frieda Inescort in Escape (1927)

Murray Hill

Cover of the Samuel French edition of Murray Hill

Leslie Howard in Berkeley Square

Leslie Howard and Jean Forbes-Robertson in Berkeley Square, 1929

The following year, Leslie began his Hollywood career with the film version of Outward Bound. He soon became a very sought-after leading man playing opposite famous actresses such as Ann Harding (Devotion, 1931), Marion Davies (Five and Ten, 1931) and Norma Shearer (A Free Soul, 1931 and Smilin’ Through, 1932). Also in 1932 he co-starred with Myrna Loy and Ann Harding in The Animal Kingdom, the film version of the play he had brought to success on stage.

In 1933 Mary Pickford chose him as her leading man in Secrets. The same year, he reprised the Peter Standish role in the film version of Berkeley Square, a performance that gained him his first Best Actor Academy Award nomination.

Though the Hollywood studios were very interested in him, Leslie refused to sign the type of long contract they preferred because he wanted to  be free to go back to the stage and to make films in England if he chose. He had bought an old house called Stowe Maries in Westcott, Surrey, and regarded it as his home. In 1933 he went back on the London stage playing the role of William Shakespeare in  Talbot Jennings’ play This Side Idolatry.

Marion Davies and Leslie Howard

Marion Davies and Leslie Howard in Five and Ten, 1931

Leslie Howard in Devotion

Leslie Howard and Ann Harding in Devotion, 1931

Leslie Howard in Smilin' Through

Leslie Howard and Norma Shearer in Smilin’ Through, 1932

Leslie Howard in Secrets

Leslie Howard and Mary Pickford in Secrets, 1933

Leslie Howard and Valerie Taylor in Berkeley Square

Leslie Howard and Valerie Taylor in Berkeley Square, 1933

In 1934 Leslie Howard played Philip Carey in the film version of W. Somerset Maugham’s Of Human Bondage, his first of three films with Bette Davis. The same year, he gained huge popularity as Sir Percy Blakeney in the British production of Baroness Orczy’s The Scarlet Pimpernel.

Leslie Howard Bette Davis in Of Human Bondage 1934

Leslie Howard and Bette Davis in Of Human Bondage, 1934

Film Pictorial, December 15, 1934

Leslie Howard and Merle Oberon in The Scarlet Pimpernel, 1934

In 1935  he enjoyed another great Broadway success in The Petrified Forest. When the play was filmed, Leslie insisted that fellow cast member Humphrey Bogart should be retained in the Duke Mantee role, and threatened to leave the production if any other actor was chosen. Thereafter, the two men became lifelong friends.

Leslie Howard and Peggy Conklin in the stage version of the Petrified Forest

Leslie Howard and Peggy Conklin in the stage version of the Petrified Forest

Bette Davis and Leslie Howard in the film version of The Petrified Forest

Bette Davis and Leslie Howard in the film version of The Petrified Forest

In 1936 Leslie financed, produced, directed and starred in his own version of Shakespeare’s Hamlet. It was to be his last stage role. He also co-starred with Norma Shearer in Irving Thalberg’s production of Romeo and Juliet, directed by George Cukor.

Leslie Howard and Norma Shearer in Romeo and Juliet

Leslie Howard and Norma Shearer in Romeo and Juliet, 1936

Leslie Howard as Hamlet

Leslie Howard as Hamlet, 1936

After a couple of film comedies, It’s Love I’m After and Stand-in, in 1938 Leslie co-directed with Anthony Asquith and starred in a film adaptation of Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion. His performance as  Professor Higgins earned him a second Best Actor Oscar nomination and won the Volpi Cup at the Venice Exhibition.

When the troublesome casting for Gone With the Wind began, Leslie was reluctant to accept the Ashley Wilkes role, and only agreed to do so after David O. Selznick promised that he could co-produce as well as lead in Intermezzo, starring a young Ingrid Bergman.

Leslie Howard in Pygmalion, 1938

Leslie Howard in Pygmalion, 1938

Leslie Howard in Gone With the Wind, 1939

Leslie Howard in Gone With the Wind, 1939

In August 1939, on the eve of the outbreak of the Second World War, Leslie went back to England and became engaged in war propaganda. He broadcast for the BBC, and produced and directed two films: a contemporary version of The Scarlet Pimpernel, “Pimpernel” Smith, in which he played Horatio Smith, an apparently dull professor who bravely fights the Nazis and  The First of the Few, based on the life of Spitfire designer R.J. Mitchell. He also produced, directed and narrated The Gentle Sex, a film focusing on the involvement of women in the war effort,  and started the production of another film, The Lamp Still Burns, a screen adaptation of Monica Dickens’ novel One Pair of Feet.

Leslie Howard broadcasting Britain Speaks, 1940

Leslie Howard broadcasting for Britain Speaks, 1940

Mary Morris and Leslie Howard in Pimpernel Smith, 1941

Mary Morris and Leslie Howard in Pimpernel Smith, 1941

Leslie Howard The First of the Few

Leslie Howard in The First of the Few, 1942

Leslie Howard on the set of The Gentle Sex

Leslie Howard on the set of The Gentle Sex

On the 1st of June 1943, while flying back to Whitchurch Airport, Bristol, after a lecture tour in Portugal and Spain, Leslie’s plane was attacked and shot down by the German Luftwaffe over the Bay of Biscay. 17 people were on board. There were no survivors. Several theories were put forward to try and explain this tragic incident: some regarded the aircraft as a mere “casualty of war”, others suggested the intended target was Winston Churchill, whom the Germans thought was on the plane. Yet others believed that Leslie Howard was the target, because of his active engagement in the production and dissemination of Allied propaganda and his supposed involvement with the British Intelligence Service.  Leslie Howard’s death remains a mystery.

Leslie Howard signing autographs

Leslie Howard signing autographs during his last journey in Spain, 1943


 Notes

  1. Doris Steiner (1896-1979) later changed her name to Dorice Stainer.
  2. Leslie Howard and Adrian Brunel intended to name their company “British Comedy Films, Ltd.” When the Company was formed the name was changed to “Minerva Films” “for some reason” (Adrian Brunel, Nice Work: The Story of Thirty Years in British Film Production, London, Forbes Robertson Ltd., 1949, p. 57)