Leslie Howard–By His Mother (1938)
Leslie Howard–By His Mother
Howard hated being a bank-clerk, so he wrote one-act plays and acted in them himself. He might have been a best-selling novelist, as his mother tells you in this intimate, exclusive interview with
“Leslie got side-tracked into acting,” said Leslie Howard’s mother. “Writing was what he really wanted to do.”
Plenty has been written about the famous actor he is now, but few people know much about him as he was before he reached stardom. That was why I went to see his mother at her house in Onslow Square– the first place Leslie Howard visits when he comes to London from Hollywood.
Here I was told many surprising secrets about his career before he became an actor. With maternal pride his mother began to tell me of Leslie’s early days. There was no mention of the usual struggle against starvation and dire need. Perhaps he had influence.
“How did he first begin acting?” I asked.
“With me as his leading lady!” his mother said, smiling. She had a knack of coming out with the most surprising answers. “But we’d better begin at the right place.
Wrote Magazine Stories
“After he left school we put him in a bank–Cox’s, of Haymarket–and he hated it. For a hobby he helped found an amateur theatrical club in the district and used to write one-act plays for it. Somehow he was usually the hero of his own plays and I was his feminine lead. But it was not the acting but the writing of the plays in which he was most keenly interested.”
I was beginning to get a new idea of Leslie Howard; a young playwright whose ambitions had somehow led him off the track he wanted to follow.
“Did he try to sell his plays?” I asked.
“He tried at first and then realized the best way to attract attention to them was to produce them himself. He was keen on fiction writing, too, and used to sell his stories to magazines like Cassell’s. All that meant a good deal of staying up until the early hours, especially when he took to illustrating his own stories.”
Here was the beginning of an entirely new conception of Leslie Howard. Perhaps I looked a trifle incredulous.
“Yes, he’s a good artist, too,” I was told. “They’ve got one of his landscapes at Pinewood, where he’s making ‘Pygmalion,’ hung in a place of honour.”
It is easy enough to detect the true artist and dreamer in Leslie Howard’s personality, and somehow I could not imagine him as a good bank clerk. His mother said as much.
“He seemed good at everything else he took up. His stories sold, his illustrations sold and his amateur production of his own one-act plays took on so well that he had professional offers for them.
“But what attracted most attention was his acting.
“Well-meaning people got him roles in the West End and he took them. It wasn’t really what he wanted but like most people he needed money and took this opportunity of earning it.
“Then the war came and Leslie joined on the second day. He saw service in France and after the war his luck was better than ever.”
“Luck?” I interrupted.
“Yes. Leslie is the first to admit that he’s lucky in his talents, his personality, his opportunities–in everything except the fate that makes him an actor when he wants to be a writer.”
When the war was over there was a great demand for young actors of recognized abitity, especially in England. Quite a number of famous stars owe their initial success to that scarcity. Leslie Howard is one of them.
“He was soon acting with big names like Irene Vanbrugh and Gerald du Maurier and being kept so busy that there was no time for his writing.”
Refused a Film Contract
I had heard that one of Howard’s early difficulties was an innate shyness and his mother confirmed that.
“Before he began acting he was the shyest person imaginable,” she said. “When anyone came to visit us in his boyhood days, he’d fly out of the back-door and even later on the stage he’d get stuck now and again when he became over-conscious of the audience. The war knocked most of the nervousness out of him and by the time he went on tour after the war he’d lost the last trace of stage fright.
“When films became popular he was offered a contract in America. He was on the stage over there then and was making time for his writing and painting. He turned down the contract and threatened to give up stage work altogether; he was so satisfied with his progress in writing and painting.
“His acting was attracting attention. Contract offers increased; enormous salaries were offered. The boom was in and the film industry began to look the billion-dollar proposition they made of it. Leslie was married by that time and at last he was persuaded to take a particularly tempting offer.”
“And his writing?” I asked.
“Of course in Hollywood it was difficult to give much time to his hobbies, but he didn’t neglect them. He used to sell short stories back here in England. He once received a commission from a story syndicate to write a batch on a certain theme. Imagine their surprise when their offer was turned down ‘owing to pressure of other work.'”
We went on to talk of his latest hobby–collecting films. I had already seen the wonderful house he has bought in Surrey. It has a perfectly-equipped talkie theatre and a library of films, including a copy of each of his own. He takes his own travel films in colour, and they are far from being amateur efforts.
This was another item to be credited to the versatile Mr. Howard. He has a natural flair for photography.
He was once asked to take up film photography seriously by his own studio, but they could not think up a method of using Howard the actor and Howard the cameraman as well without stretching the day to double length.
He’s Never Idle
His prowess on the polo-field is almost as well known. He has 16 ponies in training over here and, in keeping with the large-minded way they do things in the States, has enough to mount a small cavalry regiment at his California home.
Filming in England leaves little time except at week-end for his hobbies. Some months ago he began an autobiography, a work he has been postponing for a long time.
Knowing Leslie Howard as I do now, it was not surprising subsequently when I saw him on the set prepared, it seemed, for anything but acting–criticizing a make-up here, advising a young player there, being consulted about the set, the lights, the camera.
At home or at the studio you never catch him idling. His energy is amazing and, despite the shy nature which has clung to him, he is more than merely a good mixer.
Once I saw him helping a gang of shifters to move a piano. He was enjoying himself immensely, smiling widely like a schoolboy on a spree.
It is only when you catch him during one of those spells–rare nowadays–when he is writing that a new Leslie Howard suddenly emerges.
Remember the thwarted wanderer of The Petrified Forest? Remember his serious scraps of philosophy? Perhaps not the words, but the actor and the man become one in real life.
Is it regret, Mr. Howard?
Do you sometimes yearn hopelessly for those days when you were writing short stories and plays, had the beginning of a book in your schedule? Do you sometimes think you might have been one of our best-selling authors, might have realized your greatest ambition if you hadn’t been side-tracked?
Perhaps you’ll one day leave the acting business and settle down to what you’ve been wanting to do all your life. We’ll miss you if you do.
(Film Pictorial, April 30, 1938)