“Mothering” Leslie Howard (1933)
“Mothering” Leslie Howard
Every woman, it would seem, wants to “mother” Leslie, but that job is held exclusively by his wife
Says Grace Mack
Every story that I have heard about Leslie Howard has made him out to be such a very proper person. So home-loving. So domestic. The sort who would never be tempted to do any merry-go-rounding. In fact, almost too good to be true.
Well–if Leslie Howard is a thoroughly “house-broken” husband it’s because he has had a wise and understanding wife who has known how and when to snatch him from the burning before he got singed. In fact, if more wives were like Mrs. Howard, the trains probably wouldn’t be stopping at Reno.
The Howards have been married seventeen years. It was a wartime romance which began in a provincial town in England where Leslie’s regiment was temporarily in barracks. During the seventeen years of their marriage Mrs. Howard has been, to quote her, “a combination of wife, mother, manager–and protector.”
The rôle of “protector” probably has been her most difficult job. For Leslie’s appeal to women, in spite of the fact that he insists that there is nothing glamorous about him, is just as potent as Clark Gable’s has ever been. And the fair screen stars who have been demanding him for their leading man are by no means the first to discover it. Ever since he made his first appearance on the Broadway stage women have been acutely aware of the Howard charm. Some of them were a little nearsighted when it came to “no parking” signs.
I recall one in particular–the wife of a well-known director whose own matrimonial craft was about to go down for the last time–who developed a decided interest in Leslie. She was a brilliant, attractive woman, accustomed to getting what she wanted. Mrs. Howard, with wifely intuition, recognized the danger signal.
Come the night when the lady in question gave a brilliant party–to which Mrs. Howard was not invited. Leslie, of course, was invited; but how to get there became something of a problem since Mrs. Howard had called at the theatre for him, after the evening performance, to take him home. Leslie made the excuse of having to drop by the Lambs Club. A few minutes later he was climbing down the Lambs Club fire escape, and was on his way to the party.
Mrs. Howard waited patiently for about an hour and when Leslie failed to emerge from the club, with true Philo Vance deduction, she figured out what had happened. So she, too, proceeded to the party, sending in word by the doorman that she had called for her husband. But by this time the party was just getting good. Leslie was having a grand time and refused to leave. When the second message was delivered the hostess decided to go out and appeal to Mrs. Howard’s reason. Mrs. Howard’s reason, however, was not to be appealed to. She informed the hostess that if Leslie refused to leave the party she would come in and get him.
Well, the long and the short of it was that Leslie was persuaded that discretion was the better part of valor. But with the perversity of the small boy who resents being dragged home when he’s beginning to enjoy himself, he refused to get into the car. Instead, he walked across Forty-nineth street to Park avenue and sat on a bench in the parkway. Mrs. Howard’s car pulled alongside. Leslie stubbornly refused to get into the car.
And then came the comedy. A policeman strode into the scene and demanded to know what the argument was about.
“This lady is annoying me, officer,” said Leslie in that charming Oxford voice. “She’s trying to pick me up!”
“The gentleman happens to be my husband,” countered Mrs. Howard, “and I’m trying to take him home.”
Apparently the officer was a champion of women’s rights because he proceeded to escort the erring husband to the car.
Well–that was a few years ago. I mention it only to point out that Leslie hasn’t always been the perfectly domesticated husband at which Hollywood has marveled. He’s done his share of playing with fire; that he didn’t get burned is probably entirely due to the fact that he had such an efficient “protector.” And I think that Leslie is just wise enough to know that he needs a wife like that–particularly in Hollywood where the matrimonial pavements are so slippery that husbands need chains to keep them from skidding.
Not that I’m trying to make Leslie out to be a philanderer. But there seems to have been considerable surprise that this soft spoken gentleman who is not particularly good-looking, who has none of that hit-you-between-the-eyes sex appeal with which Hollywood is so familiar, should suddenly have become the man of the hour. The answer is simple. In addition to being an excellent actor, Leslie Howard is the sort of person who inspire what women call that “maternal something” which is just about the most insidious appeal of all. Also, women feel intuitively that in him they would find sympathy and understanding. Well–you know how fatal that can be. So it’s probably just as well that Mrs. Howard has remained in Hollywood instead of yielding to that homesick feeling for England which sometimes overtakes her.
The Howards have a charming old Tudor house in England which they purchased more than a year ago and have never lived in.
“I wanted to go back to England,” Mrs. Howard told me, “and get the place all fixed up so that it would be ready when Leslie arrived. But he insists that he would be lost in Hollywood without his family.”
In fact, if Leslie were left to his own devices he would probably get into all sorts of jams. Like the husband which he portrayed so delightfully in Animal Kingdom, he’s always late for appointments. He makes dates and then forgets all about them. “Unless Mrs. Howard reminds me,” he confesses. And I suspect that it is Mrs. Howard who is responsible for his always looking so very Bond Street. Leslie’s favorite costume is a pair of old corduroy trousers and some comfortable sandals which cost $3.95. He hates to wear hats and when forced to do so usually drags out a disreputable headpiece which looks as though the dogs had been chewing it.
“I think that men’s clothes are really instruments of torture,” he told me. “Why women should want to wear anything as uncomfortable as trousers I can’t imagine. But then comfort doesn’t seem to be as important to a woman as to a man. Or rather appearance seems to mean more to them than comfort.”
“For instance, when Mrs. Howard and I go to a Hollywood première, I always start out wearing my glasses. I know that they don’t add anything to my looks but I’m near-sighted, you see, so I’m more comfortable with my glasses on. But when we get within about a block of the theatre Mrs. Howard invariably jerks my glasses off and puts them in her handbag. She thinks I look better without them–which I probably do. But the result is that I stumble out of the car, blinded by the lights, not seeing a thing, and feeling much embarrassed for fear I won’t speak to somebody I should.
“You see Mrs. Howard has a sense of showmanship which I simply haven’t got. She thinks of appearances. I think more of comfort.”
To repeat what I said before, I think Leslie is fully aware that he needs just the sort of person that Mrs. Howard is–a combination wife, mother, manager and protector. And that is doubtless the very reason why their marriage has lasted seventeen years.
One of the most amusing stories I’ve ever heard about Leslie was when he was attending art school in New York with Alfred Lunt. One day they had to draw from life. The model was late. Suddenly she appeared–nude. Leslie was so embarrassed that he could not look at her. When the instructor looked over his shoulder to see how he was progressing Leslie’s drawing board contained a mass of meaningless lines.
(Screen Book, June 1933)