Still Performing at 82, He Died on Tour : Cary Grant: A Self-Made Man of Wit and Charm
Cary Grant was the personification of the self-made man: a one-time child acrobat who had transformed himself into the sophisticated and urbane ideal of men and women throughout the world.
He was 82 and had not made a film for two decades.
But the word that he had suffered a fatal stroke Saturday night in Davenport, Iowa, while touring with his audience-participation show, “A Conversation With Cary Grant,” was flashed around the world within moments and brought expressions of grief from admirers high and low . . . many of whom knew him only as a shadow on a screen.
His body was returned to Los Angeles by air Sunday, but his attorney and longtime spokesman, Stanley Fox, said the remains will be cremated and no public or private memorial services are planned.
“It’s what he wanted,” Fox said.
But it was not the choice of his fans and friends, many of whom seemed to hope that he would go on living--and performing--forever.
Witty and charming in semi-retirement as he had been throughout his film career, Grant carried with him always a kind of radiant allure, burnished by time. His face had broadened, his thick shock of black hair turned gray and then white.
But he was still the tanned and refined leading man, always dapperly attired, who with a crook of his elegant hand or a line of seductive patter could charm men and women with equal ease.
He had turned down every lure that came his way since 1966, when he filmed “Walk, Don’t Run” and had run away from the demands of films, settling instead for an easy retirement of occasional travel and light duty as a director of several corporations.
“I’m a pretty ancient fellow, after all,” he said demurely about 10 years after his last film. “If I were to make a movie, the audience would spend the first 20 minutes saying to themselves, ‘My God, doesn’t he look awful?’ ”
That seemed doubtful. Virtually from the beginning, when he proved a straight foil for Mae West and then caught his stride in the light comedies of the late 1930s, turning roles for Cary Grant into Cary Grant roles, he magically plied his craft, entertaining his public with interwoven reserve, humor and lightly smoldering charm.
Variety of Roles
From nasty con man in “Sylvia Scarlett” to absent-minded scientist in “Bringing Up Baby,” from rough-hewn city editor in “His Girl Friday” to charming fortune hunter in “Suspicion,” from cool counterspy in “Notorious” to reformed cat burglar in “To Catch a Thief,” he was the enticing, civilized gentleman women dreamed of for five decades.
“Cary Grant must be the most publicly seduced male the world has known,” noted critic Pauline Kael, in an expansive New Yorker profile published in 1975.
“He may not be able to do much, but what he can do no one else has ever done so well. . . . We see ourselves idealized in him. He appeared before us in his radiantly shallow perfection, and that was all we wanted of him. We didn’t want depth from him; we asked only that he be handsome and silky and make us laugh.”
But there was more to Cary Grant than that, a thoughtful side that expressed itself in “None But the Lonely Heart,” a somber 1944 film reminiscent of his English childhood. But Grant, too, saw the limits of what his audience wanted, and with few exceptions he gave them just that.
“I enjoyed making “None But the Lonely Heart,” but it was accepted by the critics, not the public,” he later said. “They wanted me to make them laugh.
“I remember this absolutely marvelous feeling when a great laugh went up at something I had done or, even better, at something I had added myself. I felt so good. All the people at that moment had forgotten all their troubles. . . . Perhaps just a twist of my head sets them off.”
But he rankled at criticism that he actually played only one role--Cary Grant.
“I’ve often been accused by the critics of being myself on the screen,” he said. “But being one’s self is more difficult than you’d suppose. Anyway, who else would I be? Marlon Brando?”
The career that brought him two Oscar nominations (“Penny Serenade,” 1941, “None But the Lonely Heart,” 1944) and finally a special Oscar in 1970 for “sheer brilliance” began with one desperately simple desire: to get out of Bristol, England.
He had been born Archibald Alexander Leach on Jan. 18, 1904, son of pants-presser Elias James Leach and Elsie Kingdom Leach, a common woman who aspired to greater things for her son: that he become a piano player and a gentleman.
He would become both, although there was little to foretell that. When he was 12, his parents split up, his father getting custody of young Archie and his mother entering a mental hospital, where she would stay for 20 years.
Archie was, one boyhood friend recalled, “rather small for his age and somewhat untidy and disheveled in appearance,” but within the grim frame was grit--and trouble. He tried to run away once, on a motor scooter. That proving unsuccessful, he buried his fantasies until a local science teacher who wired stages at the Bristol Hippodrome introduced a starry-eyed Archie to the theater.
“I suddenly found my inarticulate self in a dazzling land of smiling, jostling people wearing and not wearing all sorts of costumes and doing all sorts of clever things. And that’s when I knew! What other life could there be but that of an actor?”
But he still had to get out of Bristol--"I didn’t like it where I was, and I wanted to travel,” he explained later--and he seized upon a troupe of acrobats as his route.
Boldly, he forged his father’s name on an application for admittance into the troupe, and when troupe leader Bob Pender wired him rail fare he set off across England to Norwich. The adventure did not last long. Elias Leach dragged his wandering son home, but a short time later, when 14-year-old Archie was expelled from school for exploring the girls’ bathroom, Elias packed Archie off.
Tumbling, walking on stilts and carousing, the Pender acrobats played their way through Britain’s vaudeville houses and, that done, set off in 1920 for the United States. When the tour ended two years later, Archie Leach stayed in New York. He walked stilts on Coney Island, traveled the vaudeville road through “practically every small town in America” and hawked ties on New York street corners.
And along the way, he invented the speech that was to make him Cary Grant, that vaguely cosmopolitan accent that began as a cover for ignorance and became instinctive.
“It started because I was very conscious of my lack of education and didn’t want it to show, so I affected a sort of Oxford accent--and now, of course, it’s completely natural to me,” he said years later. “I was an utter fake, a know-all who knew very little.”
Shortly, a friend introduced him to Reggie Hammerstein, who in turn took him to see his theater-producer uncle, Arthur. Archie Leach had begun his transformation. In late 1927, he turned up on Broadway as the second male lead in “Golden Dawn.” Gaining popularity, he worked operettas and took a screen test.
Neck too thick, legs too bowed, came the verdict. So Archie went back to Broadway in the John Monk Saunders play “Nikki,” opposite Fay Wray (soon to be the object of King Kong’s affections) and stayed with it until it closed in late 1931. He traveled to Los Angeles in what he billed as a vacation--but which was actually another run at the movies.
This time, Paramount Studios bit, offering the tall and lanky, 27-year-old Leach a five-year contract at $450 a week. He took it. It was the last contract he would ever need.
But first, there was the name to change. He took “Cary” from his character in “Nikki” and “Grant” from a list offered by a studio executive. He set up housekeeping in Santa Monica with actor Randolph Scott, with whom he would live, off and on, for years.
In 1932, the first year of his contract, he rushed through seven films. He was the small-town ladies’ man in “Hot Saturday,” a javelin thrower in “This Is the Night,” rotten Ridgeway in “Sinners in the Sun” and Lt. Pinkerton in “Madame Butterfly” opposite Sylvia Sidney.
Mae West, then casting “She Done Him Wrong,” was told of the latter role and took a look. As the story goes, she grabbed her producer, went to the sound stage where Grant was working and pointed at him.
“If he can talk, I’ll take him,” she blurted. He could, she did, and out came the movie, West as a lady saloon keeper and Grant as an undercover cop, to whom she uttered the oft-misquoted line: “Why don’t you come up sometime and see me? Come on up. I’ll tell your fortune.”
The pair reprised their flirtatious chemistry the next year in “I’m No Angel,” with Grant as the playboy lawyer who tries to pull Mae away from a friend only to fall into her clutches himself.
“When I’m good, I’m very good, but when I’m bad, I’m better,” she clucked to him.
By all accounts, his breakthrough, his transformation into “Cary Grant” began with 1935’s “Sylvia Scarlett.” He was loudmouth con man Jimmy Monkley who meets Katharine Hepburn on a boat crossing the English Channel to London. With a touch of the dark side in his portrayal, Grant the actor at last “felt the ground under his feet,” said the film’s director George Cukor.
Buoyed by good reviews, he let his contract with Paramount run out, becoming one of the first stars to work independently. His decision coincided with the rise of the screwball comedy, and rather than lose momentum, Grant moved into the finest period of his career.
“Topper,” with Grant as the ghostly George Kerby to Constance Bennett’s Marion, was followed quickly by “The Toast of New York” opposite Frances Farmer. Then came “The Awful Truth,” wherein Grant’s Jerry Warriner and Irene Dunne’s Lucy Warriner, a battling divorcing couple, share custody of their dog and comically plot to regain each other’s company. The reviews were raves. Archie Leach had arrived as Cary Grant.
“His performances in screwball comedies, particularly “The Awful Truth” . . . turned him into the comedian-hero that people think of as Cary Grant,” said critic Kael. “He became Cary Grant when he learned to project his feelings of absurdity through his characters and to make a style out of their feeling silly.”
The string continued with “Bringing Up Baby,” wherein a bespectacled, daffy paleontologist David Huxley (Grant) spars with socialite Katharine Hepburn in the second of their four pairings, and their next film, “Holiday,” again with Hepburn as a rich, socially prominent woman who sides with Grant in his desire to marry her sister.
But the biggest of their joint roles was to come in 1941, after Grant completed “Gunga Din” and “His Girl Friday.” It was “The Philadelphia Story.” Hepburn, playing to type, was heiress Tracy Lord, torn between first husband C.K. Dexter Haven (Grant), a stuffy fiance, and an amorous newspaper reporter played by Jimmy Stewart. Grant won Hepburn but Stewart won an Oscar for the bright comedy. Grant followed three months later with “Penny Serenade,” a mawkishly sad and sentimental film for which he nevertheless won an Oscar nomination for best actor, only to lose out to Gary Cooper’s portrayal of “Sergeant York.”
But with the onset of war, America’s taste for screwball comedies soured. Grant’s career slowed--and he took perhaps his most striking professional chance, playing against the Cary Grant image in 1944’s “None But the Lonely Heart,” which he brought to the screen with the aid of writer-director Clifford Odets.
His Ernie Mott, a down-and-out Cockney restlessly living in poverty but aspiring for something better, cut closer than any other role to Grant’s own beginnings. His scenes with Ethel Barrymore, who portrayed his mother, were stunning and the film received critical praise, but Grant himself seemed ironically miscast. He received another Oscar nomination, lost out to Bing Crosby for “Going My Way” and never again strayed so far from what he and his public deemed to be his domain.
His career stalled, Grant was rescued in 1946 by Alfred Hitchcock, in whose gripping “Suspicion” he had starred five years earlier. This time around, the film was the superb and suspenseful “Notorious.” Grant was Devlin the counterspy and Ingrid Bergman his amateur accomplice, Alicia, who tries to seduce him and later falls into the clutches of spy Claude Rains.
Several less prominent movies followed before Grant tired of the business and set off with his third wife, Betsy Drake, intent on tramping around the world by freighter.
But he was lured back by Hitchcock, who provided a tempting script: “To Catch a Thief,” and a tempting co-star, Grace Kelly, whom he later would call his favorite leading lady.
His fourth film with Hitchcock, 1959’s “North By Northwest,” merged comedy and thrills. Grant, playing businessman Roger Thornhill, who is mistaken for a spy and then hunted because he knows too much, is caught in the chase, hunted down in an empty field by a biplane and clambering across Mt. Rushmore in the film’s final scenes.
Grant found in his roles a similarity.
Formula for Stories
“It was a routine. There was a formula to most of the pictures--you take a fellow who looked fairly well and behaved fairly well and put him in a series of untenable situations. And that was the plot, you see,” he said later.
Grant’s later performances seemed refined, his movements and manners reserved. His portrayals were “seamless,” critic Kael said. His actions, director Alan J. Pakula added, were “genius.” But while he had come together on-screen, it was another matter off-screen.
The man who was born Archie Leach had become, off-screen, Cary Grant, a man silky and slick and problem-free. “I pretended to be a certain kind of man on screen, and I became that man in life. I became me,” he said.
But there was something amiss. By the early 1960s, his 13-year marriage to Miss Drake was foundering and the seemingly blithe character was bitterly unhappy. When Drake suggested that he join her in controlled psychiatric experiments using the then-experimental drug LSD, Grant agreed. He felt reborn.
“For the first time in my life I was ready to meet people realistically,” he said. “Each of us is dying for affection and we don’t know how to go about getting it. Everything we do is affected by this longing. That’s why I became an actor--I wanted people to like me. But I went about it the wrong way. Almost all of us do.
“I was hiding behind all kinds of defenses, hypocrisies and vanities. I had to get rid of them layer by layer.
“It was an absolute release (the LSD experiment). You are still able to feed yourself, of course, drive your car, that kind of thing, but you’ve lost a lot of the tension. It releases inhibition.”
Off-screen, he reconciled his twin personas, Archie and Cary. On-screen, he remained the same Cary Grant. A classic, debonair gentleman in 1964’s “Charade,” he rescued and charmed a needy Audrey Hepburn, caught in a web of conspiracy.
“Won’t you come in for a minute? I don’t bite, you know, unless it’s called for,” she implored, adding “you know what’s wrong with you? Nothing.”
And nothing was.
And, in 1966, came “Walk, Don’t Run"--and for the first time, of his own conniving, he didn’t get the girl. A seemingly uncupidlike British tycoon visiting Japan, he conspired to pull together his house mates, Samantha Eggar and Jim Hutton, and got caught on the streets in his pajamas as well.
“American teen-agers don’t want to see me in the bedroom scenes with a young leading lady,” he said, explaining his role. “I am out of the romantic age now.”
He was 62. That same year, his daughter, Jennifer, was born from his fourth marriage, to actress Dyan Cannon. The marriage later dissolved, but Jennifer remained his delight. He quit, he said, in large part because he wanted to spend time with her.
“She’s the most winsome, captivating girl I’ve ever known, and I’ve known quite a few girls,” he said. “We level with each other. I know when she’s looking at me she’s not thinking, ‘I wonder if I can get this old goat for a BMW.’ ”
And he had grown away from the movies. Always concerned with the bottom line, he had strayed from his earlier interest in acting. Having accumulated a fortune, he had little reason to work.
“I don’t wish to sound ungrateful, but the truth is I have very little to do with movies anymore,” he said. “I seldom go to the movies. I realized that they fill an enormous gap for many people, but not for me. I am more attracted to the world of reality.
“I won’t say that I’ll never make another picture, because I can’t look into the future. I guess you can say that I’m retired from the movies until some writer comes up with a character who is deaf and dumb and sitting in a wheelchair. At my age. . . .”
Tenacious in Retirement
There were many attempts, all unsuccessful, to pull him out of retirement. In the late 1960s, he was offered the role of Prof. Henry Higgins, Eliza Doolittle’s linguistics teacher, in the film “My Fair Lady.” He turned it down, he said, because Rex Harrison was perfect for the part. And besides: “The way I talk now is the way Eliza talked at the beginning.”
Hollywood did get Grant back once, in April, 1970, when the silver-haired actor was presented a special Academy Award, given for “sheer brilliance.”
“I shall cherish it until I die,” he said.
He spent his retirement years as he wished, living on his four-acre Beverly Hills estate, looking after his daughter--whose custody he shared with Cannon--and visiting friends and his mother in England. Elsie Kingdom Leach had left the mental hospital in the mid-1930s, about 20 years after she entered. Son and mother repaired their relationship, frequently talking and laughing together “until tears come into our eyes,” he said.
Like him, she lived a long life, dying in 1974 at the age of 95, her wit intact.
He faithfully followed the Los Angeles Dodgers from his center box, accompanied by his daughter or friends. He also traveled around the country attending meetings of the several corporations on whose boards he sat, including Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer and Faberge. On rare occasions, he spoke to small audiences about his lengthy career--appearances he called “ego fodder.”
Dies of Stroke
His last was to have been Saturday night in Davenport. Instead he was rushed to St. Luke’s Hospital where he died of a stroke.
He was asked once why he didn’t just pack up his belongings and wander off to a tropical isle.
“This is my Tahiti,” he said. “I get up in the morning, go to bed at night and occupy myself as best I can in between. I do what I want when I want. Once, in St. Louis, I knew a fellow who ran a whorehouse, simply because it made him happy. Well, I do what makes me happy.”
He had no recipe for longevity, he said. “I just breathe in--and out. . . . I don’t smoke. . . . Do everything in moderation. Except making love.”
In 1981, he married British publicist Barbara Harris, whom he had been dating for several years. She was his fifth wife, after actress Virginia Cherrill, whom he married in 1934 and divorced a short time later; Woolworth heiress Barbara Hutton, whose 1942 marriage to Grant lasted only a few years; Miss Drake, who divorced him in 1962, and Miss Cannon, who divorced him in 1967.
He seemed to have regained that which had eluded him earlier. Freed of his screen role as Cary Grant--although he remained instantly recognizable--he fit comfortably into his off-screen self, and in the end seemed a happy man.
“I’m filled with things I want to do and new things are coming along every day,” he said at his retirement. “Why, I’ve got to live to be 400 to do all the things I’ve got to do! But even if I don’t live that long--even if I die soon--it’s been a wonderful life.”
Times Arts Editor Charles Champlin remembers Cary Grant as something unique, a man for all classes. Part VI, Page 1.