Leslie Howard’s Lost Love (1934)
Leslie Howard’s Lost Love
A devastating hidden romnce through which he found himself as a man-and as an actor
by Iris Gray
Leslie lounged against the fireplace of his Beverly Hills home, owned by Elsie Janis and leased by Leslie and his wife. He said, “We didn’t know whether we could bear to take this house again this year—without the children being here with us. They always used to talk and study in that little room over there—” He waved his habitual pipe in that direction and his blue, near-sighted eyes were seeing a long, long way. . .
He said: “I’m tired—I’m homesick and children-sick and being tired emphasizes this nostalgia. It is a bit wearing—clumping about all day on the club foot I wear for my part in ‘Of Human Bondage’ . . . and now you ask me to dig deep into my none-too-erotic past and tell you of a lost romance of mine . . . funny, because I always wore a club foot where love and romance were concerned—always, that is, until I married. I was never any good at love. That’s why I only had one romance apart from my marriage. There were never any Elinor Glyn queens in my unfruitful youth; no scheming widows ; no music hall girls who died for love of me. It wasn’t that I didn’t fall in love. I did. I was almost painfully susceptible. But I’d no sooner get started, make a few timid and inadequate advances and think I was getting somewhere than some more dashing fellow would step in, elbow me aside and walk off with the girl. I was quite a grown lad, to put it temperately, before I ever got so far as kissing a girl. I never dared.
“Then, one summer, my people took a place at the sea-shore in Sussex and I went down to spend my vacation from the bank with them. Next door to us was a family, friends of my mother and father, though I had never met them. There was one daughter, Olivia. She was dark and had white skin and bue eyes with little flames dancing in therm—or did my chained-lightning imagination kindle those flames in her eyes? The first time I saw her I fell in love with her. Fell—fathoms deep. And I knew, with an awful sinking of the heart, that this was love—none of the passing fancies I had mooned over before. I had always been afraid of love, partly because I was never a success at it, never anything of a beau, a gallant, a ladies’ man. And I was also afraid of it because I’d had a premonition that it would mean suffering for me.
“When I first met Olivia, there by the sea, I knew that I was in for something tremendous. I didn’t realize that I was a piece of formless and very supple clay which she was destined to mould into a shape that I could not have foreseen. I didn’t at all realize that I was like a mechanical toy, going through the routine motions and that this girl was destined to make me conscious of the beating of my heart, the blood in my veins, the whole of the human comedy, tragic and divine. I am what I am because of this old love. I only knew, at the time, that I would not be able to bear it if she ever gave me the amused and kindly smile of dismissal that had been my portion with other and lesser fair charmers.
“But she didn’t seem to feel that way about me. We took a walk by the sea that first night we met. For the first time in my inhibited young life I found myself able to talk to another human being—to say what I was really thinking and really feeling. I took out all of my dreams, shabby though I felt them to be, and spread them before her there in the moonlight. Our two youths seemed to rush together and blend and I had a sensation that we were one with the sea and the wind and the mist blowing over us. A deliriously lovely sensation. And I was immeasurably grateful to her for making me feel as I did. All men should be grateful to the women who evoke love in them.
“I told her all about other girls—and my failures with them. I said that I knew I wasn’t anything very much. I’d just started to work in the bank. I hadn’t any money. I wasn’t much to look at. My eyes were bad. But, I told her, if she should love me I could do anything, dare anything, be anything—I would write—I would be a poet—I would be an—an actor. It is amusing but true that there, that night, for the first time in my life I actually voiced the idea that I might be—an actor. My first intense passion was stirred, and along with it, such creative instincts as I possess.
“Olivia told me that she loved me, too. She had never, she said, been in love before. I later discovered that that was not so. I took her in my arms—that first woman in my arms, wholly mine—and I felt all of the belated sensations of the conquering lover, the successful lover.
“To this day, whenever I am called upon to do a love scene on the screen calling for more ardor than my abilities are easily able to meet I go back in thought to that night by the sea and feel again as I felt then, holding that first woman, dark and desirable, in my arms. Some of the fatalistic feeling I had then, about her, I am trying to transfer to the character of ‘Philip’ I am playing now in Somerset Maugham’s great story.
Olivia begged me to say nothing of our love or our plans to her parents or to mine. She wanted it kept a secret. It would be, she said, more beautiful and more thrilling and more ours if it was a secret. And she managed, somehow, to fill me with a weird dread, a premonition of something tragic and unavoidable about to happen to me, to us. Even when I held her most closely in my arms I had a sense of imminent death about me.
“For weeks, in spite of my fears, I lived in a state of bliss comparable to nothing I had ever known. Or ever will
know. Other kinds of ecstasy—yes, of course. Never the
dark and magic ecstasy of those days and nights.
“Some three weeks went by in this way. I would talk about our future, hers and mine. I would work hard at the bank, rise in the world. No, I would write a book that would set all England, all of the reading world by its ears. Olivia was always silent when I made these plans for us. I took the silence for assent.
“At the end of the three weeks I noticed, one day, a very swanky car standing in front of Olivia’s cottage, I noticed that a tall, dark florid man with a red face, bold bright eyes and a black mustache got out of the car. A man, I thought, not much younger than Olivia’s father. I supposed he was a friend of the family. I remember hoping that they wouldn’t bring him over to call on us. I didn’t like his looks. He was the aggressive type that has always frightened me to death.
“Four or five times I chanced to notice this car standing in front of the cottage next door. It was not until this had happened more than half a dozen times that two and two added up together in my mind and made a nightmarish four. When this man was next door Olivia was never visible. The times he was there were the only times that she was not with me. Once, after seeing him leave the house, I thought I heard the sound of someone crying—
“I told myself that I was imagining this. It was the sort of thing I would imagine! Olivia—and a man with a big black mustache! Absurd. How could I think such foolish thoughts, I asked myself, with the memory of Olivia’s kisses still fresh on my mouth ? She loved me. She did love me. I knew it then. I know it now. In her way. That is all we may expect of anyone—that they love us in their way. We cannot regulate the features of others; the appetites, the talents. Nor can we regulate the emotional gifts they have to give.
“One hideous day I saw her get into the car with this man and drive away. They were gone for the entire afternoon and those four to five hours marked the blackest spot in my whole life. I can never forget them. They taught me what agony is as nothing else has ever done. If ever I am able to portray the keenness and the cruelty of mental anguish, of sick suspicion turning in the heart like a blunt knife—those hours taught me how. They taught me how the heart beats too rapidly; how the pulse races; how the hands and feet grow cold and a deadly nausea attacks—they taught me how sweat breaks out on the brow and how it feels to want to cry and be unable to. I have had other experiences since. The War. Separation from my children. But when I want to reproduce the deathly nausea of mental agony I refer back to that hideous afternoon.
“That night Olivia was with me again. My agony was only slightly appeased by her presence. I didn’t dare to ask her about that man. And to further illustrate the fact that no human experience, however painful, goes for nothing—that cowardice of mine taught me another lesson I use today in my work—the lesson of what cowardice feels like. Not physical cowardice. That is a simple, a kindergarten matter compared to the cowardice of the heart that shrinks from being wounded with wounds that do not show.
“She was more tender than ever that night. I didn’t mention him. She gave me, even more demonstratively than usual proofs of her love. In my sense of conquest and delight I was able to fool myself once more. I could think, with bravado, that this girl in my arms could have nothing in common with a dark, red-faced man wearing a black mustache! A man old enough to be her father.
“We came to the last day of my vacation; the last night before I was to go back to London, back to the bank, back to the sack of the city which was to be my gift to my bride. We were sitting with our backs against the sand-dune that had been, all those weeks, the couch of our love, I held her in my arms. I kissed her. I felt that I had touched the heights and the depths. Suddenly, as she drew away from me she said ‘Leslie, I am going to be married.’ Even then, even with those words I did not recover sufficiently from the anaesthetic thrill of her kisses to perceive what she meant. I only laughed triumphantly and said ‘I know you are, beloved to ME !’—or something fatuous of the sort.
“She said, drawing away from me so that I remember being conscious of a chill wind blowing in from the sea: ‘No, not to you, dear. To—to Josselyn.
“Josselyn ? And then, suddenly, she didn’t need to tell me. I remembered things I had heard my mother say—’Josselyn H.—Olivia’s mother thinks so well of him—a very big man—good business—in trade, of course—but now—’ Josselyn!
“Then I gave my Big Scene. I am afraid that I am giving away the fact that this was not my most sacred love by the fact that I am able to talk about it as I am talking, to view it as objectively as I seem able to do. I am afraid that, now, in the distance of a good many years the chief interest of this love affair is that—it taught me how to act! It put me through all of the paces of passion; it made me run, breathless and spent, the entire gamut of human experience where the emotions are concerned. I knew the beautiful triumphant thrill of faith—faith in a woman, faith in myself as the beloved. I knew the dark and ugly revulsion of faith cheaply betrayed.
The hero—the heroine—the haughty parents—the clink of gold—the black villain—all of us were there; we played our parts upon that sandy stage and vanished—
“I threw out my arms. I beat my breast. I cried, I grovelled. I reviled. I pleaded. I threatened suicide—and murder. I prayed—to her—to God—to the Devil. By turns I was scornful and abased and broken and bitter.
“The things she tried to tell me—the cheap little things—fell on my ears like stones and I tried to silence her, tried not to hear: She loved me. She would always love me. That had not been, would never be, a lie. But her mother—her father—they
demanded, insisted, commanded her to marry Josselyn. Her father had a very bad heart—he was not able to be insured, to
work any longer—when the end came, and it might come at any time, he would leave her mother and herself unprovided for. They had done everything for her, all of her life. Things they had not really been able to do but had done. They had begged of her to make a safe and substantial marriage, to ensure her own safety and protection, to ensure theirs, to make their lifelong sacrifices not in vain.
“She didn’t say anything—she could find no words to touch the raw and bleeding spot that was—me.
I went back to London the next morning. War had broken out. The world was falling to pieces around me and I didn’t know, didn’t see, didn’t care. My world had broken into pieces and I was buried, tons deep, beneath the debris. I had grown, in one short month, old and tired and done for.
“The odd part of this is that it was true—for days and weeks and months and even years I was old and tired and done for. I went to war, after a desperately hard time getting in because of my eyes—hoping that I would be killed. I would like to say that this was all a vapor of youth, didn’t really exist, wasn’t so. But it was not a vapor. It did really exist. And it exists today still living, in anything I am able to portray of emotion, of the suffering of emotion, of disillusionment and mad ‘illusionment’ and despair.
After the war I was again in Sussex. I was married. I was happy. Walking on the beach one twilight I met Olivia. No, no, I didn’t meet Olivia. I met a stranger. A woman who had grown thick and coarse, with clothes expensive but frumpy, with hands that were ringed and pudgy. She stopped me, who would have passed her by, and spoke to me. She called me ‘Leslie.’ She told me about her children, her house, the fun they were having on their holiday. She had the deplorable bad taste of trying to reminisce ‘D’you remember, Leslie ? Wasn’t it right over there…?’ I muttered a few banalities and forged on. I didn’t know who she was. My near-sighted eyes unhappily recognized her. My heart did not. You cannot raise the dead even when the dead call you by name. I learned that, too.”
(Movie Mirror, 1934)