Leslie Howard (1943)

Leslie Howard

Men are queer creatures. Up to about the age of twenty-five, the road before them seems to have a golden glow. After twenty-five they are apt to become disillusioned. By the time they reach fifty, only a hobby may save them from complete disintegration. For that reason Leslie Howard deserves from us middle-aged a testimony to the inspiration and new hope that he brought into our dreary, woebegone lives. For he himself was fifty, and, so far as I know, never disguised the fact. In a recent Brains Trust session he spoke of his service in the last war, and so, there again, he became one of us, the men of the fifties.

Still, all the same, it is with neither a shock that we hear what real family man Leslie Howard was. He was married, of course, and had a grown-up son in the Navy, and a daughter, the film actress Joan Leslie [?!?] who was in his last film, “The Gentle Sex.”
Nevertheless for me, I must confess, Leslie Howard was ageless. I don’t care a hang if he was seventy. Perhaps he was. Some years ago I saw a play called “Evergreen,” in which one of the ladies never, at any rate, in the “Tatler,” lost her appearance of perpetual youth.
Leslie Howard was rather like that. Of course he owed a great deal to the skill of the technicians who made him up for his films. Nevertheless, there was something about him, about the way he moved and spoke and looked which proceeded not from the press agent but from the eternal spring of youth to which he certainly had access.
He may have been fifty of sixty or seventy. It didn’t matter. He was always young.


Well, now, there is a heading on a brief tribute to Leslie Howard by Mr. Campbell Dixon in the Daily Telegraph which moved me very much. The heading was “The actor who died for England.”
We men of the fifties have a personal pride in words of such grandeur, applied to one of our own generation. I have never heard of any other actor of whom those words were written. It was under the despairing and self-sacrificing tutelage of the aforesaid F.W. Rogers, that the writer investigated the charm of the Latin poet Horace, and in his Odes came across the much quoted sentence: “Dulce et decorum est, pro patria mori”–it is a fine a honourable thing to die for one’s country. From Horace to Leslie Howard is a far cry in time, but both had the same impulse. Though, of course, one must qualify that statement by admitting on behalf of Leslie Howard that he would deny any such sentiment. For he was a master of understatement.
Mr. Campbell Dixon says that “Leslie Howard’s mastery of the very English art of understatement made him the perfect interpreter of the ordinary decent fellow that most men would like to be and women see in dreams.”

I can’t speak for the women, but I can for the men–for the men in the fifties who had known Leslie Howard so long by his pictures that he had become to us a brother and a friend. He certainly was what most men would like to be, and he set a model of an Englishman at fifty that made us fellows envied among younger men. I believe it dates from the rise of Leslie Howard to fame that the man of fifty began to acquire for the women a romantic interest which was altogether different from the artificial attractions of the old “sugar daddy.”

So farewell to Leslie Howard. I don’t care a hang whether he was a great actor or not, whether he was a success in Shakespeare or whether he wasn’t. All I care about is that wherever I saw Leslie Howard I knew that here was the authentic Englishman.

R.J. Thomson

(Essex Chronicle, June 11, 1943)