By May Mann
German bombers flew low over London, plunging thousands of tons of death down through the morning fog. It was one of the worst reprisal blitzes of the war. Leslie Howard, in helmet and gas mask, wove his way through the burning wreckage of what had been a schoolhouse filled with children.
“There, there, be brave, madame,” he said gently, firmly supporting the arm of a mother who collapsed in a faint. She had recognized the charred and pitiful little figure in the arms of a fireman as her own precious little Margaret.
Several hours later Leslie arrived at the radio station for his twice weekly B.B.C. short-wave broadcast. To tell the world what he had just seen and London had just experienced.
England considers Leslie Howard its most important short wave-broadcaster. He is not only in the thick of things, blitzes, aboard British destroyers, bombers whose destination is Berlin, but he visits army camps, naval bases, factories and munitions plants to secure the material firsthand for his broadcasts.
Listening to Leslie, whom America has theretofore regarded strictly as an actor, a portrayer of gentle philosophical souls–you can understand why to England dynamic Leslie Howard is today a hero! He has not only demonstrated surprising and unflinching courage, both in the combat zones, on the high seas and in England in building and strengthening morale, but he also directs, produces, writes and stars in features and shorts both for training and entertainment purposes for the British government. A genius, England says–and no apologies to Orson Welles.
“I have to get back and help put those bounding Germans in their place,” Leslie had said on the eve of his departure from Hollywood. Since then Leslie Howard’s life has climaxed with kaleidoscopic rapidity. In the interim, three changing years have swept by.
In his whimsical, amused way, Leslie had said then, “There must be something I can do. To look at a slight, narrow-shouldered, fragile sort of fellow like me–you might wonder what. But I’ll fit in some place–if it’s nothing more than pushing a wheelbarrow!”
Leslie was invalided out of World War I. A month later he met Ruth, a nurse. They fell in love. Six days later they were married. Their estate, Stone [sic] Maries, thirty-five miles from London, is a show place of the English countryside. A picturesque Elizabethan house with a wide range of sloping gardens, brooks, a polo field and stables.
“My heart always stays in England,” Leslie often admitted in pre-war days. “It is a desire to give my family creature comforts and advantages and to maintain Stone Maries that makes my head bring me to Hollywood. Here there is movie gold,” he laughed. “But that is of little importance now,” he said. “There is so much to be done in England that I cannot think of anything else.
“I will keep in touch, I promise,” Leslie has said in parting. “Hollywood hasn’t seen the last of me. As long as I wear this gold good luck medallion on this chain around my neck–no harm can possibly befall me. I’m rather a superstitious sort,” he confided–the twinkle in his eyes subdued. “Once I lost it playing polo. I had the field dragged for three days until it was found. I wouldn’t do without it.”
The Howards leased their little house in Beverly Hills, which they had purchased from Hedy Lamarr, and returned to England for the duration. Occasional notes, sparse and hurried, flurried across the Atlantic to Hollywood.
“All hell’s bursting loose here,” once said. “But England will never retreat.”
Then letters to the Howard’s closest friends, Bill and Mary Gargan. One letter said that Leslie’s twenty-three-year-old son had been granted leave from his dangerous post aboard a British mine-sweeper–long enough for his marriage and a short honeymoon.
The next letter revealed that Stone Maries had long been converted into a children’s country shelter. “Thirty-five children are housed under Mrs. Howard’s supervision.”
Transatlantic cable brought the news that Leslie had been injured in an automobile accident while driving from the Denham Studios in a blackout. He was badly shaken but fortunately received no more than a sprained shoulder. Due to nearsightedness, Leslie finally gave up driving the miles to Stone Maries and too a small apartment in London’s Mayfair section.
From Canada came a note. “Laurence Olivier and I were ferried over here for The Invaders,” it said. “British restrictions permitted each of us to bring along $50 and no more. I have never been so broke in my life. We actors have been practically playing a game of strip-poker with the Eskimos at the out-of-way trading posts to pick up boots and fur coats. We’ve been trading the shirts off our backs.”
And now–death has brought tragic grief to Leslie with a stunning blow close to his heart. His valued associate producer and secretary, who was Leslie’s “Girl Friday,” his “right-hand man” in every transaction and film enterprise, Vialette [sic] Cunnington, the little half-French, half-English girl, who literally worshiped her employer, was stricken with a step throat, infected during a blitz when the skies not only poured German bombs but torrents of rain as well. Vialette and Leslie were out in the seemingly endless deluge carrying dead from the debris, ministering to the wounded. In twenty-four hours, Vialette was dead.
“Vialette was my right arm,” Leslie said.
It is Ruth, “My Indispensable,” as Leslie calls his wife, who is comforting him from this overpowering blow and loss of business associate. For a week he couldn’t make pictures, or continue his war activities. “It is as though half of me is gone,” he wrote sorrowfully.
But there is work–great work–yet to be done in turbulent England. For England.
“I’m not leaving English soil until this war is won. Then, who knows, in the aftermath, what will be done? Let me say I hope to come back to Hollywood–and that I hope it will be soon.”
(Motion Picture, July 1943)