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).
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.
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.
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).
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.
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 Suppose. During 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
- Doris Steiner (1896-1979) later changed her name to Dorice Stainer.
- 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)