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What If Cary Grant’s Most Famous Character Was Cary Grant, the Famous Actor?
In his new biography A Brilliant Disguise, author Scott Eyman examines Hollywood idol Cary Grant’s enduring allure and reveals his public persona was all an act / BY Nathalie Atkinson / October 29th, 2020
The legendary mystique of Cary Grant is felt as keenly today as any major living celebrity, and if we’re being honest, probably more.
In just a few quick keystrokes, you can read articles praising the Hollywood star’s style, watch dozens of his films not to mention documentaries about him, learn how to copy his style (Grant’s himself wrote a 1962 essay about his sartorial philosophy,) and even buy Cary Grant sunglasses from Oliver Peoples, inspired by the ones he donned in North by Northwest.
Charade, The Philadelphia Story, His Girl Friday, Bringing Up Baby, and The Awful Truth are just a few of the memorably glamorous, witty and often goofy classic movies the debonair gent made during the Golden Age of Hollywood, after he was expelled from school in Bristol, England at 16 and apprenticed with a music hall troupe, determined to become a comedian. In 1920, he made his way to New York.
After a little more than a decade on East Coast vaudeville circuit, the actor formerly known as Archie Leach signed with Paramount in 1931 and was announced, in the New York Herald Tribune that December, as Cary Grant. Cary was name of his character in the play Nikki, the short-lived but praised lead romantic role opposite Fay Wray that led to his first screen test, and Grant chosen from a list of generic surnames.
In spite of the many biographies, few have satisfactorily solved the mystery of his enduring allure. This season brings two more attempts that fare better because they explore Grant’s personal papers that have been in the Motion Picture Arts and Science’s Margaret Herrick Library since 2002: Cary Grant: The Making of a Hollywood Legend, a drier account from academic Mark Glancy that focuses on his filmmaking life, and the more engaging, in depth Cary Grant: A Brilliant Disguise, by Hollywood historian Scott Eyman.
In a recent telephone interview from his home in Palm Beach, Fla., Eyman says he wasn’t sure he wanted to write about Grant, but during preliminary research, he read the diary Leach kept at 14 “for about five months, until he got bored with it.” That convinced the New York Times-bestselling author of biographies about Louis B. Mayer, John Ford, John Wayne and Ernst Lubitsch, because it was clear Grant “was absolutely on his own psychologically and emotionally. And I thought that was interesting, for a kid that young to be so self-contained.” It intrigued him enough to investigate the reasons why Grant invented such a highly stylized public persona. “I did also think that he’s been grossly misrepresented, and almost certainly oversimplified,” says Eyman.
Grant died from a stroke in November 1986, in Davenport, Iowa while on tour as a raconteur with his cozy live “A Conversation with Cary Grant” evenings. Eyman’s take rewinds to Grant’s childhood before eventually coming full circle to show just how far Grant had journeyed and what he had overcome to get there.
The disguise of the book’s subtitle refers to the persona slowly assumed by the man born in 1904 in Bristol as Archibald Alexander Leach, the son of Elias, a suit presser, and his wife Elsie.
Throughout Grant’s childhood his parents argued about money, because there was never enough of it. Elias became an alcoholic and philanderer, and was often absent for work. Elsie was prone to bouts of depression, emotionally erratic, and her mental health deteriorated. At 11, his father effectively told him she had died, but at 29, Grant learned the truth: Elias had attested to Elsie’s mania in order to have her committed to an institution so he could more easily remarry.
Grant’s childhood abandonment issues and guilt would plague him with dark moods as well as lifelong insecurity and anxiety. “He didn’t know where he was going,” Eyman says, “but he knew what he was gonna leave — and what he was gonna leave was Bristol.”
Refreshingly, the biography sidesteps psychoanalysis and sticks to uncovering facts that illuminate more of Grant’s life. The due diligence is extensive: he sifts through Hollywood gossip columnist Hedda Hopper’s interview transcripts, dozens of oral histories and archives and interviews contemporaries and friends such as Douglas Fairbanks Jr., Robert Wagner, and Peter Bogdanovich, as well as Grant’s only child, Jennifer Grant.
Although he was a master of the “no-information” interview, the author unearths a rare one where Grant vents at length. “We just satiate the morbid curiosity of people…but alas, I must take it because that is my business,” he told Barbara Hutton biographer Dean Jennings in the 1960s, describing his resentment and ambivalent feelings about stardom.
“Which I think is so full of bile and contempt and projection of dislike of the audience,” Eyman says, “in that he felt somehow imprisoned by their expectations and obviously by his own need to meet the audience’s expectation.”
As Eyman puts it: “His greatest performance was Cary Grant.”
It was informed by complicated and often contradictory layers, and the resulting biography is empathetic, but neither reverential nor particularly flattering. It also brims with insight by incorporating the greater financial, social, and cultural context of Grant’s Hollywood heyday. In addition to being notoriously cheap with all but a few close friends, the avatar of all that is suave and urbane (so much so that he was one of Ian Fleming’s inspirations for James Bond) was paradoxically full of charm and charmless – in real life prickly and often downright unpleasant.
But Grant always said, Eyman reminds us, the grumpy characters of Walter in Father Goose and Ernie in None but the Lonely Heart were closest to who he really was: self-absorbed and indifferent to many things society pretended to value.
“I just went gay all of a sudden!” Grant famously exclaims while wearing a negligée in Bringing Up Baby. It’s from one of his several playful roles in drag. Sue Lloyd, the granddaughter of Grant’s friend, the comedian Harold Lloyd, tells Eyman she once observed him casually “swishing around” a party while wearing a caftan.
“What you saw in Cary Grant depended on which team you were rooting for. There is plausible evidence to place him inside any sexual box you want—gay, bi, straight, or any combination,” Eyman writes.
To its credit, and without seeming prurient, the book addresses the enduring question marks about Grant’s sexual identity. Rumours have persisted for decades – in spite of five marriages and many female conquests attesting otherwise – that Grant was anything but heterosexual. Eyman dutifully and systematically unpacks and investigates – inasmuch as it’s possible, nearly a century later – the more credible rumours of a secret life.
Take the time in the mid-late 1920s, when Grant was living on and off with Australian-born costume designer Orry-Kelly in New York. “If he’d been rooming with George Burns – or any one of 40 other vaudevillians – nobody would have thought anything of it. But it was because he was rooming with Orry-Kelly, who was as out as a gay man could be.” Grant’s coy 1960s memoir Women I’ve Undressed, which was locked away for decades until it was published in 2015, drops hints but never actually answers the question of whether they were sleeping together.
Later, fan magazines like Modern Screen and Screenland featured Grant and fellow actor Randolph Scott in ruffled aprons, frolicking on the beach, cozily entertaining or raiding the icebox at the Santa Monica beach house they shared for years in the 1930s. Whether they were subtext or secrets hiding in plain sight, the wink-wink photos were set up by the studio as part of a publicity push to position the duo as Hollywood’s most eligible fun-loving bachelors.
Those staged spreads resurface often as “gotcha” evidence, with Chevy Chase casually calling him a “homo” on a late-night talk show in 1980 (Grant sued for defamation, and the case was settled out of court) to the 2012 memoir by Scotty Bowers, a Hollywood procurer of sexual partners who claimed to have slept with both Grant and Scott.
“I don’t do presumption,” Eyman says. “I never make a case for him being straight or gay or any individual thing in between – I just don’t. I lay everything out there and the reader can make up their mind.”
His even read the personal correspondence and diaries of Jerome Zerbe, the society photographer who took the infamous beach house pictures and claimed to have been paid to sleep with both Randy Scott and Cary Grant on several occasions. Eyman pores over dates and reconstructs timelines and situations, but finds no smoking gun. For a classic Hollywood biography, there is no greater holy grail. “Writing these books this far away from the events is three yards and a cloud of dust,” Eyman says.
“I’m simply trying to ascertain. I’m not going to go into dirty sheets, I’m not going to say here’s definitive proof,” Eyman continues. “But I’m also trying to figure out how much of this is just blatant hearsay and can easily be discounted. And I think a fair amount of it can be discounted. But not everything.”
“I mentioned that he was a street kid, that’s a phrase I return to,” Eyman explains. “And a street kid with a street kid’s sense of expedience.” Archie Leach formed his alter ego – Cary Grant’s performer persona – incrementally, over a long period of time, he reasons. “It’s entirely possible his sexuality went through the same process.”
“I pretended to be somebody I wanted to be and I finally became that person,” Grant once said. “Or he became me. Or we met at some point.” The legend seemed to intuitively grasp the idea that a persona was inherent to stardom in the studio system. The Faustian pact that accompanied success in the golden age of Hollywood – fame and fortune in return for the actor’s bared soul – was arguably the birth of modern celebrity.
“The gap between Archie Leach and Cary Grant was enormous and he knew full well it was enormous,” Eyman says; “he didn’t have any illusions about that.” Today, we would call it impostor syndrome. The book unflinchingly chronicles the actor’s intense anxiety about playing Grant. A prepared speech would give him weeks of angst, according to his friends. He would sign on for a movie like North by Northwest, then worry the role was all wrong, have “low-level panic about the script,” convince himself it would bomb, and attempt to get out of it. At the same time, Eyman says the actor was “ frankly signalling to anybody who would ask him that in fact he wasn’t Cary Grant – that’s one of the reasons he works ‘Archie Leach’ as ad lib into three or four different movies.” Eyman laughs. “He’s letting us know he’s in on his own joke.”
“Grant was to romantic comedy what Fred Astaire was to dance – he made something that is extremely difficult look easy,” Eyman writes. Where some biographies allow Grant’s dashing icon status to obscure his performances, this one analyses the evolution of his unique acting style, including the particular way Grant had of being in the movie and slightly outside that movie at the same time, as Eyman explains it. “He seemed to have a slightly raised eyebrow about his own persona in the movie the other characters in the movie.
“Nobody really approaches him as an actor,” Eyman adds. “Or they approach him as this god-given blithe spirit who sort of sashayed through Hollywood for 40 years and then disappeared like a chimera.” What’s more, he continued to watch his performances with a critical eye and work on the finer points of his comic timing, gestures, and skills well into the 1950s, like a comedian always refining a routine. Like Grant seeing the rushes on To Catch a Thief and asking Alfred Hitchcock for additional takes, “he was always checking his swing, like a batter,” Eyman says.
Never the Villain
As Grant became more successful he became risk-averse and eschewed roles that deviated from his expected urbanity (notably, he never played the villain). The more successful he got, the more cautious Grant became, Eyman says (wistful of roles in Lolita and The Third Man he turned down), right up until he withdrew from film acting in 1966 after Dyan Cannon – wife no. 4 – gave birth to Jennifer. By all accounts, including Jennifer’s, Grant was a devoted and doting parent. He wanted children, but his early marriages endured miscarriages, and he was a devoted stepfather to Lance, wife Barbara Hutton’s son. Lance’s childhood friend Tarquin Olivier (son of actor Laurence) fondly remembers how great Grant was around children. (“He was a marvelous kid and he helped me realize what I was missing by not having children,” Grant would say years later.)
Being bankable and earning money enabled Grant to withdraw from show business, so the finer details around his financial acumen, negotiated deals and profit percentages are essential to get a clear idea of the man. For all the acrobatic comedy and boundary-pushing screwball moments, he had an astute business sense and cravenly commercial instincts. According to Eyman, Grant’s refusal to go on television “indicates how smart he was about the nature of his appeal, which was upscale and upmarket. And he wouldn’t do anything to even possibly derail that.”
Since the early 1940s, Grant negotiated a percentage of profits on top of his salary (in some cases, like To Catch a Thief, in perpetuity). As a result of his canny deals, in 1963 Variety magazine proclaimed him the wealthiest actor in the business. As Eyman parses it, for example, just one of the additional payouts on That Touch of Mink with Doris Day, one of several pictures he produced as well as starred in, was $3 million (more than $25 million today). He also owned the picture. And the hit Charade would pay even better dividends.
In spite of this success, he never stopped worrying about money. He was the “equivalent of the finest dividend-bearing stocks, but his status didn’t seem to give him much consolation—he still fretted constantly,” Eyman writes. This in part explains the live, in-person show circuit he was doing at the time of his death, which he told a friend he did “for jam money.”
By the end of Eyman’s biography, a nuanced portrait of the man emerges, as full a picture as we’ll likely ever get. In spite of how often it comes up, there will never be a definitive answer about his sexuality, the trauma of childhood loss, or anything else he didn’t choose to share.
“The public knows what it needs to know about Cary Grant,” Eyman says. “And part of not knowing everything is what makes people interesting.”
Cary Grant: A Brilliant Disguise was published by Simon & Schuster on Oct. 20.