Smooth Operator - The Life of Cary Grant

Smooth Operator – The Life of Cary Grant

Cary Grant was the biggest Hollywood star for nearly three decades, but kids today haven’t heard of him (I just asked my 18-year-old movie-mad son if he had heard of Cary Grant, and he replied, “I’ve never heard of her”). He made over 70 movies, with some real classics amongst them. Like Matt Damon, he could turn his hand to comedy or drama with the suave and debonair manner of a velvety George Clooney. So who the hell was Cary Grant?

His name was Cary Grant, actually no, it wasn’t; his birth name was Archie Leach; he was born nearly 120 years ago on the 18th of January 1904, in a slum up in the north end of Bristol. The long journey to the top began with a cattle-class trek to New York in the summer of 1920 as a song ‘n’ dance man with Bob Pender’s Nippy Nine Revue. 

Stilt walking was his speciality. Low-budget vaudeville and a spot of just-a-gigolo hustling – even then, he was catnip to the ladies – were the gist of the story until 1927, when Arthur Hammerstein offered him a bit part on Broadway. This may have been the crucial moment for Archie, but there were others too – such as getting a leg over with Marlene Dietrich, who cast him in her movie Blonde Venus. 

Six months later, he scored two films with screen-idol Mae West. As a bonus, Archie/Cary became permanently identified with West’s gag in She Done Him Wrong that became her trademark: “Come up and see me some time.” By then, the studio had changed his name and got him into those million-dollar-looking suits. 

The star was born. According to Grant, who seemed to view his former self with a weary amusement, “I don’t know who Archie Leach was. If you find out, tell me.”

Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn in The Philadelphia Story (1940)
Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn in The Philadelphia Story (1940)

Maybe it was the overnight fame or all the monogrammed joints and champagne. But as Grant’s movies got better, his home life got stranger. In December 1933, he was back in England, taking a nostalgic tour of his old haunts in the company of his fiancée and a paid male friend. On Christmas Eve, Grant wound up in a London nursing home.

Depending on which version you believe, he was suffering from either; toothache, concussion or alcohol-induced DTs. After meeting Grant in Toronto, Mae West would say, “If Cary had kept boozing, he would have drunk Canada dry.” As it was, he came close.

Completing a stellar performance as the David Bowie of his day, Grant was also bedding a chorus line of starlets while cohabiting with the rugged cowboy star Randolph Scott.

Even in 1933, the implications of two hunky actors sharing a flat together were all too clear. The studio released a press release insisting Cary and Randolph were ‘simply cutting expenses. Grant was earning $500 a week at the time, which already put him on Hollywood’s Best Paid list. In hindsight, publicity photos of Cary and Randolph wearing aprons while they washed dishes together was probably only a so-so idea.

Amid all this, Grant would marry the actress Virginia Cherrill, widely known as one of Charlie Chaplin’s harem. It was a mismatch from the start. Eighteen months later, Cherill sued for divorce on the grounds of cruelty.

“He was very solemn and disagreeable,” she told the court. “He refused to pay my bills… He was sullen, morose and quarrelsome in front of guests. He falsely accused me of not appreciating him of his efforts. He was inclined to drink quite a bit all during our marriage.”

Meanwhile, Grant was busy honing his classic screen persona, at once cool and calm, with a certain screw-you nonchalance around the edges, a style which Roger Moore took on after Cary retired.

Movies like Topper and The Talk Of The Town remain some of Hollywood’s most dazzling crown jewels. Not for the last time with Grant, a miserable life made for great art.

Cary Grant in The Awful Truth 1937
Cary Grant in The Awful Truth 1937

Around 1937, Grant began a 40-year relationship with producer-director, and later legendary nutter, Howard Hughes. The two men used to disappear for long weekends together in one of Hughes’ planes, and it was common gossip in Hollywood that both had an eye trained on Noel Coward.

You could say one thing for Cary when the scandal-mongers came knocking; unlike most stars, the man didn’t mess about. One morning, the columnist Hedda Hopper drove up in her Rolls at Cary’s hotel in search of dirt about the set of The Philadelphia Story. Grant threw her into the hotel’s tropical fish pond.

One was moved by his charm and his long and touching pursuit of the quiet life. In July 1942, Grant married for the second time to Countess Haugwitz Hardenberg Reventlow – AKA Barbara Hutton.

She was the daughter of Franklyn Laws Hutton and the former Edna Woolworths (as in the former high-street chain Woolworths); the countess was reportedly worth $60 million, a Bill Gates-sized fortune back in the 1930s.

Hutton was also widely reviled as ‘America’s most hated woman’ at the time, thanks to habits like throwing lavish $50,000 parties during the depths of the Depression. At the same time, scores of destitute masses queued up for free bread and gruel at a Red Cross kitchen just around the corner.

Once married, Cash ‘n’ Cary – as they were cutely called – soon hit low points in their new relationship. He was bored by her society friends, making a nostalgic entrance at one dinner party by lurching in on a pair of stilts before falling asleep in a bowl of caviar.

“Mr Grant and I did not have the same tastes,” Hutton told the divorce court. “He never took me out. At night, he liked to listen to the radio or paste clipping in his scrapbook.”

However, the story got weird during the later stages of World War II when Grant started doing freelance spy work on behalf of MI6 and the FBI. There had been some pot-addled talk early on of his flying photo-recon missions over the pacific with Howard Hughes, but it wasn’t to be.

Cary’s chief contribution to the Allied cause would revolve around snooping on those even faintly suspected (Errol Flynn, for one) of being Nazi sympathisers.

But, people who knew and loved Cary still marvelled at his paranoia. It consumed him. After Grant had enjoyed a stay at the Beverly Hills Hotel, a report found its way to J Edgar Hoover’s desk at the FBI, insisting that the place was “liberally staffed with german maids”. All were promptly deported.

Cary Grant In The Pride and the Passion (1957)
Cary Grant In The Pride and the Passion (1957)

Back in London, after the war was over, Grant accepted the King’s Medal for Service in the Cause of freedom, a gong traditionally awarded for covert intelligence services. No word of it ever appeared in the press.

In late 1945, Alfred Hitchcock began shooting Notorious, with Cary playing the lead role as a suave FBI agent who admits to being terrified of women. It turned out to be the best (currently has an 8.3 on IMDb) of their four-film collaboration.

After Notorious wrapped, Grant returned to England for the first time in seven years and spent a day with his widowed mother, Elsie, now 68 and still living in her terraced house.

The spectacle of Cary playing himself in Notorious might have been, as he later said, “the year’s main treat”, but his arrival in Hughenden Road, Bristol, to see his mum could have been number one, as Archie and his mum spent that evening parked at the end of her road, in his black Rolls Royce, license plate CG1, happily munching fish and chips as locals stared on awestruck.

The late forties and early Fifties were the tops for Grant’s patent screwball comedies. In just over three years, we got the likes of The Bishop’s Wife, Mr Blandings Builds His Dream House, Monkey Busines, and of course, Cary in Danny LaRue-style drag in I Was a Male War Bride.

Cary Grant and Grace Kelly in To Catch a Thief (1955)
Cary Grant and Grace Kelly in To Catch a Thief (1955)

Okay, so not everything was a knee-slapper. But what other ‘light’ actor has had such a terrific range, even when struggling with the duffest of scripts?

Grant approached a screenplay as nothing but a pointer, a treasure map where he had to find the character.

He managed to make silly, pratfall comedy seem sexy. Even the farces wound up with Cary in a clinch with Myrna Loy or Sophia Loren, and although it was all tastefully soft-focus, you just knew he ended up in bed with the lot of them.

You can still see the spawn of Mr Blandings and the rest over seventy years after the originals.

On Christmas Day 1949, Cary married the third Mrs Grant, the actress Betsy Drake. The newlyweds moved into Howard Hughes’ old house in Beverly Hills. 

Drake would indulge her twin favourite habits of Buddhism and LSD (then legally available and widely reputed to recover lost memories, helping to ‘heal the shattered self’!). Soon the now 46-year-old Cary was flying on acid and babbling about “being reborn.”

The happy part of the marriage lasted about eighteen months. Then all the fights and affairs began again, culminating in Cary’s flaming affair with Sophia Loren on the set of The Pride And The Passion.

In July 1956, Drake flew to location in Madrid to see Cary and left shortly after arriving in tears. A week later, she set sail back for the States on the Italian cruise liner Andrea Doria.

About fifty miles off the coast of Massachusetts, it collided with another ship in heavy fog and sank with the loss of 52 lives. Drake was saved, although the manuscript of her autobiography and a quarter of a million dollars worth of Grant’s jewellery went to the bottom of the ocean. 

Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman in Notorious (1946)
Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman in Notorious (1946)

“I left Cary,” Drake would tell reporters a year or two later. “But physically, he left me long ago.”

Meanwhile, Grant enjoyed a long and dapper Late Period in movies like North by Northwest. He told friends he’d never been happier. But life for the new acid-loving Cary wouldn’t be all fat cheques and mellow LSD trips.

In May 1959, he had the rare distinction of being sued by a Hollywood Journalist for slander, thus reversing the traditional roles of an actor suing newspapers. At issue was a long interview revealing more about Grant (his penchant for women’s underwear, for one thing) than he and his fans cared to hear.

Cary insisted the whole thing was made up and that he hadn’t met the journalist in question (Joe Hyams) in over two years. Hyams then produced a photograph of them chatting together on the set of Operation Petticoat three months earlier. The parties reached an out-of-court settlement.

That was nothing compared to the fallout from Grant’s fourth marriage. The siren that lured him onto the rocks was the starlet Dyan Cannon, 25, with whom he had his only child. Eighteen months later, Cannon, too, filed for divorce.

According to her court testimony, life with Cary Grant was less of a light romantic romp and more of a gothic nightmare of bad LSD trips and violence. She described his spanking her, smashing their furniture and, memorably, “freaking out” while they were watching the Oscars on TV. “

He jumped up and down on the bed and became deranged, he yelled that everyone there had their faces lifted, and he was spilling wine over the TV.” Over the next year or two, there were ugly rows about their daughter’s welfare and a few choice insults traded on the courtroom steps.

“Once the female has used the male for procreation,” remarked Cary, “She turns on him and literally devours him.”

Cary Grant in North by Northwest (1959)
Cary Grant in North by Northwest (1959)

Behind the scenes, Grant had always been a savvy career-mover and a notorious perfectionist. (Hitchcock, after wrapping North by Northwest, sighed, “My God, and they say I’m a shit.”)

Figuring he had nowhere to go but down, Cary chose to take a well-earned retirement. Unlike some of today’s acting gods, he wouldn’t stoop to parodying himself or scraping a living doing voiceovers.

His 72nd and final film, aptly called, Walk, Don’t Run, allowed him to stroll off into the sunset with his legend intact. Over thirty years, there had been a dozen all-time classic performances and twenty or so great ones. It was just his personal life which seemed to stink.

Even though Grant retired and stayed somewhat out of the limelight, he was still a sexual gladiator, and trouble seemed to follow him.

There was some unpleasantness in April 1970, when Cary finally won an honourary Oscar in the same week as a part-time prostitute named Cynthia Bouron announced that she was suing Cary as the father of her baby (Although blood tests later ruled that he wasn’t the father). Another partner tried to commit suicide with an overdose in his bedroom.

Nineteen-year-old Vicki Morgan had a fling with Grant before returning to her steady boyfriend, who bludgeoned her to death.

Cary Grant on-set with Alfred Hitchcock
Cary Grant on-set with Alfred Hitchcock

In 1981, Cary married a 29-year-old English PR girl called Barbara Harris. Harris had looks and brains, and a heroic determination to live a “normal, down-to-earth” life as the fifth Mrs Grant. (An old FBI friend who attended the wedding, was asked by security if he was with the bride or the groom, he replied, ‘I have a season ticket’.)

Cary’s last five years shuttling between London and Hollywood were probably the most contented period of his life. He was now in his late 70s, with snowy hair and thick Michael Caine specs, and still fascinated by the movies.

In 1984, he devised a 90-minute one-man show called A Conversation With Cary Grant, which was essentially a greatest hits collection of clips from his films, followed by a gentle Q&A session with the audience. Just before a date in Davenport, Iowa, on the 28th of November 1986, Grant suffered a massive stroke and sadly died that night in hospital. He was 82.

Davenport, Iowa! A few years later, someone went to the trouble of studying the itinerary of the dusty Midwestern pitstops Cary had selected for his final tour.

They were the very same towns and often the same theatres he’d performed in as a stilt-walker 60 years earlier. Grant was always adamant that he’d left his former self behind him, but on that last night, when they were folding his clothes after he’d passed, one of the nurses pointed to a set of tiny letters on his cufflinks, which, when held up to the light, clearly read, ‘Archie’.

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