Star-Studded Home Where a Film Idol Pined for His Dead Mistress (2007)

Star-Studded Home Where a Film Idol Pined for His Dead Mistress; the Actor Leslie Howard’s Dalliances Are Still the Talk of His Tudor House in the Surrey Hills

Byline: FRED REDWOOD

When John and Ann Wickham bought their beautiful Tudor home in Westcott, Surrey, in 1980, they knew it was once the home of Thirties film star Leslie Howard. But they didn’t imagine that their acquisition would lead to Ann keeping alive the flame of his legend. Yet that’s what has happened.

Although the romantic star of blockbusters such as The Scarlet Pimpernel (1934) and Gone With The Wind (1939) died in 1943 – shot down by the Luftwaffe over the Bay of Biscay, aged 50 – fans still visit his old home and it has been up to Ann to welcome them.

‘We had only been here a few months when this first happened,’ says Ann, 69.

‘I answered the door to find a group of fans from Houston, Texas, on the doorstep. Of course, I showed them around. Nowadays we go through the same thing with different groups at least three times a year.’ Born Leslie Howard Stainer in Forest Hill, South London, the actor was educated at Dulwich College after early years in Vienna, where his Hungarian/ Jewish father worked in a bank.

After also working in a bank, Howard joined up at the outbreak of the First World War but was invalided out of the Army with shellshock and began an acting career.

He already had a home in Hollywood when he bought Stowe Maries, an imposing Grade II country house, at the height of his fame in 1930, when women were swooning over his blond good looks and sophisticated English charm.

He paid [pounds sterling]3,000 for the house but, according to Ann, was unhappy at first.

‘There were three pokey downstairs reception rooms, which would not have been any good for entertaining,’ she says. ‘He left it to his wife, Ruth, to supervise having the three rooms knocked into one.’ The drawing room typifies the Howard image. With its grand piano, Tudor oak beams and latticed windows you half-expect the suave actor to appear, lighting a long cigarette. ‘Many of the great Thirties stars were entertained in this room, including Clark Gable, Anna Neagle, Noel Coward, Douglas Fairbanks Jnr and David Niven,’ says John, 79, a retired surgeon who pioneered keyhole surgery.

‘My aunts lived in the area at the time and they’d get excited when word got around that Howard and his Hollywood friends were at home. They’d drive to the local pub to catch sight of them.’ Howard’s reasons for buying in the Surrey Hills – a glorious patch of woodland and heath near Dorking – seemed straightforward. Then, as now, it was one of the most desirable areas in southern England. A lot of polo was played – just as today – and Howard was an enthusiast. The wooded lanes and long drives give privacy from prying lenses.

‘We still get many high-profile buyers and at present there’s a great shortage of houses,’ says Serena Brown of Brown’s estate agents, Cranleigh.

Behind the high hedges there are much sought-after country houses – Howard’s former home is a prime example – and their prices begin at about the [pounds sterling]1.25million mark.

‘For successful City types, it’s a rite of passage to live as twenty- or thirtysomethings in London and then move out to the country when they have children approaching their teens,’ says Rupert Connell of The Buying Solution – agents working for buyers.

He adds: ‘They want access to good schools and a better quality of life for their children: and somewhere to keep the horses is another big attraction.’

Alan Knight at Jackson-Stops & Staff estimates that prices are rising by about six per cent a year. ‘Wealthy buyers moving out of London also like the fact that it’s impossible for developers to build near them here because it’s a conservation area,’ he says.

But there was another reason for Howard’s move to Surrey. Although he seemed the perfect gentleman, he was a formidable ladies’ man. He is said to have had affairs with many of his co-stars and installed his favourite mistress, actress Violete Cunnington, in nearby Denham.

‘His marriage to Ruth was strong,’ says Ann Wickham, ‘but she certainly knew of his girlfriends. The maid, who still lived in the village in the Eighties, told me that Ruth insisted that Bette Davis and Ingrid Bergman stay at the local hotel instead of at the house on party weekends.’ The little sitting room, Ann discovered, was Howard’s domain. He held seances there when, heartbroken, he wanted to contact Violete after her tragic death from septicaemia in 1942, aged only 32.

Upstairs, Ann has made an exhibition of memorabilia in Ruth’s old bedroom.

Theatre posters, cuttings and signed pictures of Howard with the likes of Walt Disney, Anna Neagle and Noel Coward at the house make a fascinating display.

The only signs of Hollywood-style ostentation are the bathrooms adjoining the couple’s separate bedrooms.

Both are Art Deco creations that the actor had imported from America.

His, in sage green, with its theatre mirror surrounded by lights, is very much the ‘star’s’ dressing room.

Another room built for Howard has fallen into disrepair – the private cinema next to the swimming pool. This is used for storage but it’s still poignant to stand at the dusty Art Deco bar – where Walt Disney is pictured in the sepia picture in Ruth’s bedroom – and imagine when the giant projectors, still in working order, whirred into life and the latest film played on the big screen.

Ann Wickham fell in love with the house, which dates from 1571, the moment she set eyes on it. ‘The hall, with its warm, welcoming staircase, immediately appealed to me,’ she says. ‘And outside, the rose walk, the tennis courts and the swimming pool made it the perfect house to bring up our three daughters.’ Now the girls have left home, the couple rattle around in the house, with its ten bedrooms. With many friends in the village, the couple intend to move locally. However, when they leave they’ll lose touch with the Howard legend.

No more will Ann Wickham have to answer visitors’ questions on the biggest mystery attached to the star – the story behind his death.

Howard, who had starred in a number of anti-Nazi films, was returning from Spain and Portugal in 1943 when his unarmed civilian aircraft was shot down.

Ronald Howard, Leslie’s son, claimed that the order to shoot down the plane came from Goebbels, and it is widely believed that the actor was involved in intelligence gathering.

‘I wouldn’t be surprised if he was a spy, as suggested,’ says Ann. ‘He was a man of contradictions, with two lives – private and public – very much an enigma. But I think he was a good man.

‘In 2027 the papers about Howard’s involvement with the secret service will be made public. I’m determined to live until then to find out the truth.’

Invited to a private screening by the pool …

HOME MOVIE:

The projectors still work at the private cinema where Howard, right, son Ronald and wife Ruth enjoyed the Art Deco bar, seen today, far right

Other Tudor houses for sale in Surrey

BLETCHINGLEY, [pounds sterling]1.5M Four-bedroom, four-bathroom detached house, dating from 1500, in 23 acres.

Agent: Howard Cundey, 01883 743400.

SHAMLEY GREEN, [pounds sterling]4.65M Seven-bedroom Tudor house and two four-bedroom cottages, in 47 acres.

Agent: Coverwood Living,0845 838 0530.

Key Facts

Price: [pounds sterling]2.95million. Bedrooms: Ten.

Bathrooms: Four, two en suite.

Receptions: Oak-beamed reception hall, drawing room. Outside space: Pool, pavilion, cinema, 2.2 acres including Japanese water garden, garage. Agent: Jackson-Stops & Staff, 01306 887560.

(The Mail on Sunday, February 25, 2007)

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