Leslie Howard Had A Hunch of Death By Nazi Blow (1943)
Leslie Howard Had A Hunch of Death By Nazi Blow
From Our London Correspondent
There several queer points about the luckless death of Leslie Howard, one of the world’s most popular film stars and one of England’s most effective propaganda agents. The Nazis had reason to hate him, and there is a growing belief that he was victim of German revenge.
Just whether his plane was singled out for destruction because he was on board will probably never be known.
But it is a fact that there were abundant opportunities for any Axis agent in Lisbon to learn that he would be travelling in that particular plane.
Apart from the excellent work he was able to do for the United Nations in Spain and Portugal–work which must have annoyed the Nazis not a little–there was a background to his life that had certainly put him on the Nazis’ blacklist.
There is now no doubt that several times this year Howard told his close friends that he firmly expected to die soon, victim of enemy action. That is probably why he took the greatest care, before leaving for his Iberian peninsular tour, to see that all his personal affairs were in order.
But perhaps the strangest feature of his premonition of death came when he decided to have a bust sculptured. After the most careful thought, he decided to go to Oscar Nemon, the well-known Yugoslav artist.
According to his custom, Nemon first made a plaster mould, or cast, of the face, which was to be turned into a bust, and later into a full-length statue. It was when this cast was finished that Howard said in the sunlit Kensington studio:
“MY DEATH MASK”
“Well, it looks fine, but somehow or other, I feel that the bust will be a memorial rather than an ornament. In fact, there steals across my mind the feeling that even this cast may turn out to be a death mask.”
And so it did, for before the sculptor could do any more to the work of art, Howard was reported dead.
Mr. Nemon later said: “There can be no doubt that Leslie Howard had a deep presentiment that something was going to happen. It is some years since I came to know Howard. In fat, it must have been about 10 years ago that, at some Continental cinema, I saw him for the first time in his film, ‘Romeo and Juliet.’
“I was entranced by his face and restrained gestures; and I made up my mind that here was a man who should be perpetuated in more than words or celluloid. His character literally demanded memorialising in marble. And I vowed that one day I should undertake that task.
“Then, in the late automn of 1939, Sir Max Beerbohm introduced me to a quiet, modest, self-effacing man, hiding his keen but sad eyes under the down brim of his soft hat.
“The man suddenly spoke to me, and when he took off his hat, I recognised the man who had, so many years before, made me vow to memorialise him in stone.
“About six months ago, Howard had a great bereavement, which upset him terribly. He disappeared from public life. It was in his distress that Howard came to me and asked me to prepare for him a symbolic memorial.
“He made it very clear that he believed that life itself was very transient, and that we should have a physical, tangible presentment of our loved ones to console us. At that time, too, he was clearly manifesting and interest in spiritualism, and in addition to the first memorial he urged that I should make a figure of himself.
“So I went ahead and started my work. He kept urging speed. And as the plans matured for his ill-fated journey to Spain, he became more and more anxious to have the task finished.
“When he finally learned that he would have to leave England before anything more than the cast was completed, he showed that he regarded that cast as a death mask.
“I firmly believe, as I review those last few hours with me, that Leslie Howard foresaw his coming end.”
THREATS BY HAW-HAW
Many people in Britain persist in the belief that Leslie Howard was an object of Nazi vengeance.
In 1940 and 1941 he was actively engaged in giving personal propaganda talks against the Germans on the BBC service to Europe.
In those talks he manifested that same sincerity which had made him so famous in the films and in private life. His talks, indeed, agered the Germans as few others have done throughout the whole war.
Night after night the German broadcasting stations thundered against him. Day after day lord Haw-Haw uttered lurid threats.
“We will make this pompous British actor repent his words,” said Haw-Haw one night. “We will see to it that, after eating his own words, he will have the breath choked out his body so that he will never be able to defame the Germans again.”
Again, another German spokesman roared out: “We will see to it that Howard lives–or dies–to regret what he has done to the Germans.”
It is probable, of course, that Leslie Howard himself knew that he was a marked man, and that any premonition of death was the direct, or indirect, result of that knowledge.
In film circles, it was known that Leslie Howard was returning to England to make a film he had long dreamed about. His latest film before he left England for Spain, “The Gentle Sex,” was his tribute to the women of Britain.
The next film, “The Lamp Still Burns,” was to be a tribute to freedom and the sacrifices that men will make to regain and retain it.
He has not been able to complete that film. But surely its title, “The Lamp Still Burns,” will live as the best epitaph that could be composed about Leslie Howard.
(The World’s News, Sydney, October 30, 1943)