Leslie Howard Didn’t Want to Come Back (1934)

Leslie Howard Didn’t Want to Come Back

Leslie Howard bought a home when he visited England recently. He admits he spent far too much money having it remodelled. And–when will he be able to enjoy it?

By Martha Kerr

Leslie Howard

No–Leslie Howard didn’t want to leave England. That is, his heart didn’t want to leave. His head told him that he must return to the United States and Hollywood. And, as a matter of fact, his head wanted to come back. Because–well, I’m getting muddled. Let me tell the whole story properly.
One of the most important news items flashed across the cinema wires lately is the fact that Leslie Howard is on his way to Hollywood for the purpose of acting the chief role in Somerset Maugham’s “Of Human Bondage.” The perfect star for one of he great classics of modern years! Why it hasn’t been grabbed up as a vehicle for some good male actors years ago, is one of the many film mysteries that will remain unsolved. When the officials of RKO had approached him with the reminder that he still had one picture to do for them under contract, Leslie felt that something drastic in the way of action on his part should be performed. He was smarting from the recent failure of the play he did in London–“This Side Idolatry.” The piece had drawn from the London press unstinted praise for Leslie’s artistry–but unfortunately, the play flopped.
“You know really,” he said in telling the story, “I simply cannot understand what has happened to the theatre over there lately. They absolutely refuse to patronize anything that is serious. Revues, musical comedies, thrillers, and, above all, farces, seem to flourish like nothing you have ever seen. But when it comes to a drama of genuine merit–they just don’t want to see it.”
And you–readers–knowing Leslie Howard’s work on the screen as you do, can understand how he’d feel about that.
“When they told me I had to come back to America to do a picture, I felt pretty badly. I put it off, saying that they hadn’t found anything suitable–any story I felt I wanted to do. They showed me script after script and finally in desperation, they asked me what–if any particular story did I have in mind. As a matter of fact–it was more because I thought it would be impossible for them to get around the idea than anything else that I suggested ‘Of Human Bondage.’ Well, they got hold of the book, read it, became quite enthusiastic, decided I had shown excellent judgement and proceeded with negotiations to buy it.”
He stopped. I had the feeling that he had memorized that little speech–prepared it in advance for me, the fan magazine interviewer, to note down neatly for my story. Not that it wasn’t, every bit, quite true. Not that he isn’t vitally keen about playing the role of the sensitive hero of Maugham’s story. But–I had the feeling that there was something else he had much rather be talking about. Then–just as if Hollywood and contracts and pictures didn’t exist–he began to talk excitedly.

Leslie Howard's House in Surrey

I want to tell you about my new home,” he blurted out. “I have always wanted a home of my own in England. And this time when I went over I looked around for one. After quite a search I found an old workman’s cottage–that is, it had been one originally, nearly four hundred years ago–but it had been added to and remodelled through the centuries, until now it is most picturesque. It’s in Surrey. In the Surrey hills.”
He radiated enthusiasm. One could see that his whole heart and soul lies in the land of his birth. He might just as well have been singing “England–My England” at the top of his voice from the expression on his face as he went on to describe his home.
“Of course, I spent much more money than I should have in fixing it up. I put in bathrooms. I added a wing for the children. I enlarged the stables and bought a few horses. There’s about thirty acres of ground around it and I had to landscape them. One of the great thrills of my life came to me when I discovered the magnificent old wooden beams under the stucco. They must have been on the house when Queen Elizabeth reigned, so I had all the outside taken off in order that they might be seen. It’s really a very nice house,” he smiled shyly–just a little embarrassed at his own emotions–so un-British–about the place. “I had a perfectly grand time doing it over–and the children just adore it.”
“I like to hunt very much,” he continued, “and I hunted right up until the day I sailed for America. My little daughter, Leslie, hunts with me. She’s nine and has turned out to be a great little horseback rider. We spend days out on our horses riding through the country-side. The boy doesn’t seem to care so much for riding. He’s more the studious type. But Leslie is a great companion and I miss her,” he added.

Leslie Howard and his daughter

With his daughter–called Leslie, after her father. Outside the former Elizabethan relic which Howard has turned into a beautiful country home. Even the plummy role he’ll play in “Of Human Bondage”–which he has yearned to play for many years–cannot entirely still his homesick longings for the land across the sea.
Leslie Howard and his horses

“I talked to them both yesterday over long distance. They have their governess, a Miss Gospel (don’t you love the name?) and she has been with them ever since they were born. We thought because they love the place so and the fact that they’re both in school, they should be left behind.”
There! Wouldn’t you think it was any average father-away-from-home talking about his kids and how smart and cute they are? But Leslie Howard isn’t any average father. He is–Leslie Howard. And Leslie Howard must work. He knows it.
“I’ve no idea how long I shall stay over this time,” he went on. “I’m anxious to do a play besides the picture work. But I must confess I want to get back to England just as quickly as possible. While I know this is the best place for me to work, I keep feeling the house and the kids and the thousand and one things I love doing over there pulling at me all the time.
“When I’m in London, of course, I have the felling of being home. That’s another side of the question. I think I can truthfully say I like New York best because of my work. London next because I’m an Englishman and London is home. And Hollywood–well, I suppose I like Hollywood because it gives me a sensation of space.
“You know,” he continued, “that tiny little spot of Hollywood set in a vast, geographical background is fascinating. You have the feeling that humanity–individuals really don’t exist. That all those great high mountains–that wide silent desert, the huge trees and the enormous Pacific Ocean–those are things that actually count.
“I never think of Hollywood itself as a place of any importance. My work goes on under ideal climatic conditions and material comfort. I enjoy polo and every day after studio hours I am off to a little club I belong to–‘The Riviera Club.’ We have a team captained by Walt Disney and we call it the Mickey Mouse Polo Team. Will Rogers and his son, Will, Jr., play on it. Bob Montgomery and a couple of other fellows belong. A man by the name of Perkins is captain of he rival team. He has nothing to do with the movies, but loves polo. He calls his team the Perkins Cats and we have some grand games. There’s a cup that sometimes the Mickey Mouse team wins–and again the Perkins Cats take it away from us. And the way we play you would think the cup was worth at least a million dollars.”
He’s a strange mixture, this Howard man. A half artist, half-domestic soul. There is a sensuous streak in his character which is in direct contrast to the stark, austere ambition that dominates his soul. A certain brilliancy that is almost poetic envelops him at these times, and again at your next meeting with him, he is the most matter-of-fact, commonplace of men. A devoted father, a home-lover with genuine deep domestic roots embedded in his heart and soul. A lover of horses, a good swimmer and a keen enthusiast of the outdoors, he might be any ordinary young Englishman until you see him in one of his superb performances on either the stage or screen–and then you realize that above all things else he is wholly an artist.
That artist must work–here, in our land. It was Leslie Howard, the man who “didn’t want to come back.”

(Modern Screen, March 1934)