The Life and Loves of Leslie Howard (1935)
The Life and Loves of Leslie Howard
by Clara Berenger
Is a New Romance Around the Corner for the Most-Adored Man on Stage and Screen?–Here Are Facts and a Forecast from One Who Knows Him Well
Who would have supposed that Leslie Howard would ever become the target for women’s admiration? He isn’t handsome, he isn’t husky, he isn’t an ardent lover; he looks much like an Oxford professor than an actor; he is indifferent almost to the point of rudeness. Yet from the beginning of his stage career he was beset by acquisitive women.
Scared out of his wits, he ran for protection to the ample and steady affection of his wife, Ruth. Fortunately, she understood the problem and was wise and sympathetic in her desire to help him.
She would go to Leslie’s dressing room after a matinee and when gushing girls surrounded Leslie, she would stroll up to him. “What are you going to do about baby’s cold?” she would say. Or “Don’t forget you have an appointment with the chiropodist,” or something equally commonplace and unromantic, so that the girls would flee in disgust.
After he went to Hollywood Ruth still acted as his buffer.
Several years ago a woman I knew very well said to me: “I am so utterly gone about Leslie Howard that I would go to the ends of the world with him if he were willing. He likes me, too. But then, there’s Ruth. She’s definitely right for him that no other woman will ever seriously tempt him.”
Yet, recently a story was published to the effect that Mrs. Leslie Howard had gone to Reno. The more yellow of the journals added that as soon as Leslie is free he will marry a beautiful English actress.
Before I go into that report I want to give you a little of Leslie’s personal history. Born in London of well educated, well bred parents whose real name is Stainer, He was given the conventional English public-school education. After he was graduated from Dulwich he was taken into a bank.
What he really wanted was to be a writer, but his father wouldn’t hear of it. So he was put to work counting pennies, and being bored to death, at a counter behind a grilled window.
Then came the war and he enlisted. He was on leave in London when he met a young girl, Ruth Martin. She was slender, blonde, and beautiful. It was wartime, it was spring. After three weeks of a frenzied courtship Leslie Stainer and Ruth Martin traveled to Colchester, and with two charwomen as witnesses were married in St. Mary’s-on-the-Wall, a little old church built on the ivory-covered ruins of a Roman fortress.
An hour after the ceremony the groom was called to rejoin his regiment, and the bride went back to her family. She was afraid to read the papers lest some casualty list contains the name of her adored soldier-husband. But the fortunes of war were kind to her and Leslie came back uninjured, ready to pick up the business of earning a livelihood for two. The war, however, had broken him loose from business servitude. Clerking in a bank now would be unbearable.
“I was a bit of quandary,” Leslie once told me. “I couldn’t sit around and just try to write. But I had an inner conviction that I must and would find a place in one of the arts.
“I went to a theatrical agent and sat there for weeks before I finally got a part on the stage–a ‘bit’ in Peg o’ My Heart. Salary, twenty dollars a week. I had no assurance that I would ever make an actor, but even that I would like it. Once in the theater, however, you stay for life. Acting is like a bad attack of flu–you can’t shake it off.
“After a year on the road I went back to London, determined to get out of the twenty-dollar-a-week class. Finally I landed a job as secretary to a theatrical producer, and the wire pulling started. Every time I’d see a producer I’d beg him for a part in a London play. There was one man I bothered so much that just to get rid of me he gave me a part.
“I never studied acting,” said Leslie. “I’m afraid I don’t act at all. I always play myself.”
His rise on the London stage was so rapid that New York theatrical producers began to take notice, and inevitably movie producers tried to entice him to Hollywood. But at first Leslie would not be enticed. Eventually he agreed to do Outward Bound in pictures, but would sign only for that one story.
From his first screen work, Leslie has been indifferent about pictures and has consistently refused to bind himself on an all-year-round contract. He likes the screen but he likes the stage better. His genuine reluctance to sell himself body and soul to the movies worked to his advantage. Picture magnates thought he was trading, and admired him for it. The more indifferent he seemed, the more they wanted him and the higher became their bids.
After his first successful Hollywood picture he turned down an offer of fifteen hundred dollars a week because he felt he could not meet. He had hardly set sail for England when radiograms began to pursue him. Cables followed to his London hotel. Oversea phones began to buzz. He paid no attention to any of the messages.
But then he saw an English country estate in Surrey, which captivated his heart. His two lovely children were growing up, and like most Englishmen he wanted a homestead of his own on English soil. When he and Ruth and the children laid eyes on that house in Surrey they felt they must live in it. But they couldn’t afford it. “I have it!” Leslie exclaimed. “I’ll go back to Hollywood and make a few pictures and then we can buy the house.”
And he did just that.
“The next summer I bought the place,” Leslie told me, “and I set about planning the future of my family. That home in Surrey gave me the feeling that at last I had dug down deep into the ground and planted roots.”
Does this sound to you like a man who is planning to throw over family loyalty for a love affair?
I want to repeat to you a conversation I had with Leslie at a dinner party not more than a month ago. The whole table was astir with discussion of another English actor who had become so infatuated with a movie star that he was neglecting home, wife, children.
“How do you feel about it?” I asked Leslie.
“I hardly know,” he said; “but it does seem adolescent of him to give way to an infatuation like a schoolboy. After all, it’s easy enough for a man to say, ‘I’m entitled to my freedom, and to hell with children! They’ll grow up and live their own lives and leave you alone in the end.’ But how about the period while they are growing up? How about their longing to be a part of a complete home which has both a mother and a father? I know the psychology of children,” he added. “I’m very close to my own two.”
“What I can’t understand,” I put in, “is how your friend could have fallen a prey to the other woman if he was really in love with his wife.”
Leslie smiled. “That isn’t so difficult to understand. He does love his wife, and I’m sure he didn’t want to fall in love with any one else–no man likes the serenity of his routine disturbed. But–”
He paused a moment and seemed lost in deep thoughts.
“You were going to add that the wife may be an old story–that when another woman, young and beautiful and new, comes along, he might be tempted?”
“That’s what often happens,” he said, seriously.
“If such temptation were placed in your way do you think you could resist it?” I questioned.
“Oh, I’ve had plenty of temptations,” he answered. “What actor hasn’t? But I’d hesitate a long time before I would upset the pattern of my life.”
Altogether, I feel certain that he is not planning a divorce. I had tea with him last week and asked him if it was true that Ruth was in Reno.
“Certainly not! She’s in Hollywood.”
“And the children?”
“In school. My daughter Leslie is here in New York. I spend every Sunday with her and we have our usual walks and talks. We’re going to do a play together over the radio–a condensed version of Dear Brutus.” His face was aglow with pride in her accomplishments.
A man who adores his children as intensely as Leslie does would not be likely to destroy what he had so carefully created–a pattern of family life.
(Liberty, August 3, 1935)