Shadows on a Legend : Cary Grant’s Image as the Perfect Hollywood Heartthrob Is Sullied in Two Competing New Books Portraying a Darker Side to the Star
Wrapped in the armor of the silver screen, Cary Grant--the movie idol who died 2 1/2 years ago--left a legacy as the perfect leading man, a smooth, sophisticated heartthrob untarnished by the vulgarities of reality.
It seemed too good to be true.
And now some are saying it was.
Grant’s image is being given a coat of human frailty by two new books. “Cary Grant: The Lonely Heart” (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich) by Charles Higham and Roy Moseley is a full-scale biography, titillating, racy and sweeping--designed to keep fans’ eyes popping as they turn the pages. Most notably, the authors assert that Grant was a bisexual who had affairs with eccentric billionaire Howard Hughes and fellow actor Randolph Scott and that he physically abused two of his five wives. “An Affair to Remember: My Life With Cary Grant” (Putnam) by Maureen Donaldson and William Royce is an intimate memoir of a tumultuous romance by Grant’s mistress of four years, now a Los Angeles photographer.
As posthumous revisionism Hollywood-style, the two books are a fattening double-dollop of what the authors say are behind-the-scenes glimpses of Grant, star of such classics as “North by Northwest,” from the boudoir to the boardroom. Together, they paint the superstar as complicated, contradictory and often in emotional turmoil--a far cry from the assured cinematic presence that defined Grant’s mystique. As added spice, the authors of the two books are at odds, with Grant’s former lover disputing some of the biography’s more startling assertions and maintaining that portions of the book dealing with her are untrue.
Was a User of LSD
In this battle of Hollywood books, Higham’s and Moseley’s entry seems likely to attract the most attention because it claims to cast light into the shadows of Grant’s life. The book portrays Grant as a user of LSD--a fact the star himself admitted--and a miser who marked milk bottles in his refrigerator. It also hints that he may have been on the grounds of the Sharon Tate house the night the actress and four others were murdered by Charles Manson’s followers.
The publishers believe it will sell. They’ve printed 100,000 copies.
In fact, “The Lonely Heart” already has drawn blood. Last week, widely syndicated New York Daily News columnist Liz Smith reported that Fred Astaire’s widow had called her to protest contents of the book as reported by Smith in a previous column. According to Smith, Mrs. Astaire (Robyn Smith) told her that Randolph Scott and her husband were friends for a quarter-century and that “reports that Scott was a homosexual was a dastardly lie.” Smith quoted Robyn Smith as saying, “Fred knew him (Scott) so well. I know it’s not true; I just know it.” The columnist also quoted Mrs. Astaire as saying, “Maybe Cary Grant was gay; after all, everybody said he was.”
Meanwhile, Nancy Nelson--the New York agent who booked Grant’s speaking appearances in the last years of his life and became the actor’s friend--said that she is “upset about what I’ve heard” regarding both books. Hoping to counter their impact, Nelson said she is working on a book of her own, “which I feel accurately shows Cary Grant to be the gracious, generous, loyal man that the public conceived him to be.” Other friends of Grant also are said to be disturbed by this wave of publicity. One, columnist Abigail Van Buren, said she is “angry” over reports of the book’s contents, adding, “I wouldn’t read the book and I wouldn’t buy it.”
Donaldson’s “An Affair to Remember,” although more intensely personal and revealing in a kiss-and-tell way, contains less inflammable material. But it too does its share to bring Grant down to earth. Among other things, Donaldson writes that Grant accused her of stealing light bulbs and toilet paper, was secretive about his family in England, wouldn’t have plants in the house because they stole oxygen and thought actress and one-time co-star Mae West--who promoted an image as an early sex goddess--suffered from a glandular disorder that made her less than totally female. “An Affair to Remember” was rushed into print about a month early to steal a march on the Higham-Moseley entry.
That’s the main plot in a nutshell. But there’s more. . . .
In a related development, the ghost of another superstar, Errol Flynn, hovers just offstage as another Hollywood writer tries to rekindle an old controversy over whether the swashbuckling Flynn was a Nazi spy, a dispute that involves Higham, who wrote a controversial biography of Flynn. “My Days With Errol Flynn” (Roundtable Publishing) by Buster Wiles with William Donati principally is a memoir of Flynn by Wiles, a stunt man and buddy of the late actor. But in the just-published book’s appendix, Donati, who has pursued the matter for much of this decade, has written a chapter charging that Higham altered World War II-era government documents to make it seem as though Flynn was working for the Nazis. Donati also says that time sheets from Warner Bros. studio show that in November, 1940, Flynn was at work on a film, “Footsteps in the Dark,” the time Higham charges in his “Errol Flynn: The Untold Story” that the actor was helping a suspected German agent cross the U.S.-Mexican border.
At the conclusion of the account of his investigation, Donati writes: “Charles Higham describes himself as a serious writer and a scholar; yet, in the academic realm the worst sin is falsifying primary-source material to prove one’s thesis. Deceitful, pseudoscholarship degrades information and distorts the truth.”
Higham stands firmly by his conclusions about Flynn. And Higham--author of a number of best-selling biographies including most recently “The Duchess of Windsor: The Secret Life,” which also contains material about the duchess’ Nazi connections--said that his most important work consists of “American Swastika” and “Trading With the Enemy.” Both depict assistance and support of--and dealings with--the Nazis by prominent people and businesses.
In an interview, Higham said he has not read Donati’s charges “and I can’t comment until I have.” Higham also said that controversy is “inevitable” due to the nature of his work.
“People say nasty things about the President,” Higham said. “They say nasty things about anyone that’s at all prominent. In my minuscule degree of prominence, I suppose there’ll be a fair share of that. And I think that I’m not upset about it and haven’t been upset about it.”
When the Flynn book was published in early 1980, Higham said he clearly remembered the storm that erupted then with “people saying he couldn’t possibly have been a Nazi, we knew him and he was a wonderful guy and he was a fool and he couldn’t have been a spy, as if it takes intelligence to be one. . . . And they were going to people like (Flynn’s friends) David Niven and Olivia de Havilland (and asking), ‘Didn’t he tell you he was a Nazi spy,’ which has to be the silliest question ever asked.”
Higham’s Grant biography also revisits some of this ground, including sketches of the bizarre cast of characters--movie actors including Grant and foreign nobility--involved in the murky depths of espionage in World War II Tinseltown.
Indeed, much of “The Lonely Heart” relies on Higham’s long presence in Southern California, a base from which the native of England and former Australian newspaperman has contributed to the New York Times in addition to writing numerous books.
Higham said he met Grant on several occasions on the social circuit but never knew him well. In those “superficial” meetings, Higham said he found Grant “to be enormously secretive, turned inward with a face that resembled a mask, with eyes so opaque--shining and intent on the screen but in person utterly opaque--so it was like the eyes of a ventriloquist’s doll. . . . The charm was extraordinary but I felt very much applied to the surface. And so I felt here was someone who above all was guarded, fearful and deeply introspective. . . . In other words the opposite of the careless elegance of the screen image where he seemed the most relaxed dapper dan of all.”
Higham and co-author Moseley, who is based in London, say that research for the Grant biography included more than 150 interviews as well as combing voluminous documents and old newspaper files. Probably the centerpiece of the book is an interview with Virginia Cherrill, Grant’s first wife, who the authors say was physically abused by Grant. In one episode, they write that Grant “threw her to the floor so that she fell on the iron fender in front of the fireplace. Her face was cut, and again blood drenched her dress. He walked out and drove to the party alone.”
Higham said that Grant’s apparent pattern of wife abuse “was a shock,” adding, “I wasn’t ready for that at all.”
On the other hand, Higham shrugged off the book’s sensational allegations of Grant’s bisexuality as a widely known fact in movie circles. He first heard of Grant’s dual sexuality in 1965 in a conversation with actress Marlene Dietrich, he said.
”. . . I became a great friend of hers, much more than an acquaintance,” Higham said. “She’s perhaps the only star that I have been a true friend of, a close friend of. . . . And she (Dietrich) said ‘there’s no way I could have had an affair with him because he was homosexual.’ ”
Had Many Affairs
Higham went on to say that for most of his life Grant “was probably predominantly heterosexual"--as indicated by the star’s many affairs and marriages--but that the actor did have a number of relationships with men.
Higham acknowledged that the book’s assertions about Grant’s sex life might distress some fans. “Perhaps the most idolatrous will be very upset,” he said. “Women perhaps who have fastened a lifetime of sexual fantasies on Cary Grant will be very distressed by this disclosure.”
As for the assertion that billionaire Hughes and Grant probably had a brief liaison, Higham said the claim was based on four sources, including late Hughes aide Noah Dietrich.
“What is hard for me to explain is that whereas Roy Moseley’s done all these interviews, I’ve known all these people for years, just socially, just as acquaintances and they love to talk,” Higham said. ". . . So in other words, it’s something I’ve been talking about with people for years, long before Cary Grant was dead, before even Howard Hughes was dead and it seemed to me that it was interesting.”
Critics of Higham’s book, including Donaldson, say that “The Lonely Heart” relies too heavily on sources now dead or unnamed.
Donaldson said she is angered by a passage in the Higham book concerning Grant’s relationship with Randolph Scott.
Unnamed Maitre d’
According to Higham’s and Moseley’s account, “In the 1970s, Cary and Scott would turn up at the Beverly Hillcrest Hotel late at night, after the other diners had gone, and in the near darkness of their table at the back of the restaurant, the maitre d’ would see the two old men surreptitiously holding hands.” In their section on sources at the back of the book, Higham and Moseley note that the maitre d’ “does not wish to be identified.”
While she says she cannot absolutely vouch that Grant was heterosexual all his life, Donaldson, whose affair with Grant was in the 1970s, says she strongly disputes Grant’s having clandestine meetings with Scott because it would have endangered his visitation rights with his daughter Jennifer, his only child, fathered when Grant was married to actress Dyan Cannon.
“I challenge that maitre d’ to come forward,” Donaldson said.
Donaldson also disputed passages of the book in which Higham and Moseley write that she unburdened herself about her relationship with Grant to a tennis coach.
“The most I said to Tim Barry (the tennis coach) is ‘How’s my backhand?’ ” Donaldson maintained.
In an apparent effort to ward off some criticism, “The Lonely Heart” is sprinkled with carefully worded sentences that demark material that has not been proved.
Gigolo Role Hinted
For instance: “According to theater historian Milton Goldman, it was widely rumored that Archie (Grant’s real first name) was a gigolo in New York, servicing a wealthy woman. However, there is no evidence to support this.” A few pages later Higham and Moseley write, “There is no record of his having any love affairs with women at this time.”
In the interview, Higham said that the episode regarding Grant and his location on the night of the Manson murders is “poorly documented” and is based on a conversation with now dead producer William Belasco. In the book, the incident is described as “the most mysterious and puzzling act of his (Grant’s) entire career, still unsolved and baffling to the biographer.”
According to Belasco’s account as reported in the book, Grant was on the grounds of actress Sharon Tate’s house on the night in 1969 that Charles Manson’s so-called family went on its infamous killing spree. Grant was there because he apparently was visiting “a young male,” the authors write. “The two men were talking in the garden when screams were heard from the main house,” they write. “Cary fled in the Rolls.”
Higham said he remembers Belasco telling him, “ ‘Well, you know that he was in or near the Manson house. He was in the garden or the house and (the young man) was with him at the time and he (Grant) was visiting when the thing took place.’ ” Citing reasons of privacy, Higham added, “And that’s as far as we can go in print, unfortunately. The reason it intrigued me was because of my own personal experience of it and I just cast it out as a poorly documented but intriguing possibility in the book.”
Not surprisingly, Higham and Moseley and Donaldson--like their subject all natives of Great Britain--stand by their books.
“I wouldn’t publish a book unless I felt confident about it,” Higham said. “It’s a good book. That’s all I’ll say about that.”
In a telephone interview from London, Moseley said he understood that the book might upset some. “Uncomplex, stupid little people who have bird brains won’t like the book,” he said. He also said that for his part the book “was essentially written with love” and that if readers “want a fairy story they must go back to Hans Andersen.”
Said Donaldson: “I’m proud of this book, I really am. . . . I don’t think the magic of Cary Grant will ever disappear. I don’t think I tarnish the image. I think I make him more human.”