Each Friday we travel back in time, one year at a time, for a look at some of the cultural goodies that may appear closer than they really are in The Rear-View Mirror. Join us on our weekly journey into the past!
On 7 December 1931, a little known stage actor, just signed to a Hollywood studio entered an office and emerged with a brand new name. Everyone in the room agreed that the one he’d been born with wasn’t quite striking and glamourous enough for movie posters and fan magazines. And so, in one short meeting, Archibald Leach became Cary Grant.
From the moment Archibald left that meeting with his new name, the erasure of his former identify was near absolute. He wasn’t just Cary Grant for the purposes of movie promotion. He would be Cary Grant to his work colleagues, his friends. Even his lovers would call him by the assumed name.
I can’t help but be fascinated by this most total of Hollywood reinventions – what was it about Archie Leach that meant he didn’t want to be Archie Leach anymore? And how much of what happened to young Archie shapes the icon that is Cary Grant. And I’m not alone on this, it’s a quest that has motivated biographers and fans for many decades, to try and dig into the man’s pre-fame past and make connections and conclusions that can explain, maybe, the mystique and charisma that kept the name “Cary Grant” on hit movie posters for over four decades.
Archibald Leach was born in 1904 to Elias and Elsie Leach, a working class couple living in a suburb of the English city of Bristol. This is perhaps the headline intrigue in the origin story. How could a poor English kid transform himself into an urbane icon of American sophistication? An obvious answer might come from his father, a suit presser, who would teach young Archie the importance of a smart look. As an aspirational working class couple, his parents would always stress the importance of upholding the correct middle class standards. Failing to live up to these could earn young Archie a beating.
But things get more interesting when you read that these sharp suits maybe weren’t the first style influence on his life. His doting mother kept the infant Archie in baby dresses and ringlets for far too long, so much so that by his own later admission, he wasn’t quite sure if he was a boy or a girl. Did this play a small part in the way Cary Grant is so effortlessly comfortable in sending up his own masculinity, even to appear in women’s clothes on camera at a time when being a Real Man was so pervasive in popular culture. I mean, you don’t get Humphrey Bogart in a tutu. It does feel like this is the point where maybe I’m going too far, reading too much into things to try and force a connection. Or alternatively this just might be the point where I’m unearthing a vital piece of the puzzle thanks to my maverick psychoanalysing genius.
Okay, I’ll admit it’s the former – but it’s the attempt to try and make these connections that is so compelling. And there’s one shocking moment that is truly impossible for any Archie investigator to ignore. When he was eleven years old, he returned home just another ordinary day at school to find his mother was gone. When he asked his father where Elsie was, he was told that she had just gone to the beach to relax. As the days wore on and she failed to return, Archie pressed his relatives for a more credible explanation for her absence. And so, likely to shut him up, he was told that his mother had died. And just months after this bombshell was dropped, his father moved in with another woman in Southampton, leaving Archie in Bristol. He was nominally in the care of a grandparent, but in reality it seems he had to fend for himself.
That’s quite some journey – to go from over-protected, to strictly governed and then abandoned while still barely over a decade old. To have your male authority figure shrug you off, and your mother effectively vanish. It’s interesting how this seems to inform his performance as a leading man. An interesting feature of many of his romantic lead roles is how little wooing Cary Grant ever does. It is frequently his female co-stars that do all the chasing, while Grant seems wary. He seems unconvinced that trusting anyone, especially a woman, could be a wise move. Why get too attached when you can come home from school one day and find them gone?
Alone and in a pretty bleak situation, Archie was to find his escape thanks to showbusiness. A teacher at his school had recently helped install the new-fangled technology of electric lighting at the Bristol Hippodrome. This led to the class being taken on an educational outing to the venue, to admire the technical achievement. This was not the aspect of the trip that caught young Archie’s eye. Instead he was taken by the sheer craziness backstage. Performers racing around in various stages of costume change, the camaraderie of the performers and the happy sounds of the punters, roaring with awe and laughter at the entertainment.
So smitten was Archie by this world that, while still in his early teens, he got himself a job at the venue. This was the age of the vaudeville show, with comedy pratfalls and slapstick an essential part of variety entertainment. Determined to make it in this world, Archie taught himself the key skills for stage comedy, becoming quite an accomplished at walking on high stilts. The adolescent Leach was to join a traveling group of performers and escape Bristol, stiltwalking his away around the UK and eventually the US. Cary Grant was to call on Archie’s many years of stage experience during his Hollywood heyday. It was an extra string to Cary’s bow – cast primarily for his good looks, it’s when directors realise that he can do physical comedy, that he makes his big breakthrough with audiences.
It was with the Pender Troupe that Archie was to travel to New York. A man who’d had to fend pretty much for himself since he was eleven, he seems to have had the fortitude to stay on in America when the rest of the Troupe returned home. And after theatrical success in New York, he decided one late Autumn to try his luck in Hollywood. He’d give it six weeks, he told friends, and if nothing happened he’d be returning to New York.
Six weeks later, and, well, we get back to where this article started. Archibald Leach, newly signed to Paramount studios, agreeing to become Cary Grant. The erasure of Archie isn’t quite total though, the name seems to crop up still in his films, and the Hollywood star was to meet one woman who refused to give up on his birth name. In a Hitchcockian twist to the tale, in the mid-nineteen thirties and already a film star, Grant was to discover that his family had lied to him about his mother’s death. She was in fact still alive, having been placed in a mental institution. This revelation seems to have caused the actor to experience some kind of short-lived breakdown. Whoever he was now as Cary Grant, he couldn’t quite prevent the emotional devastations caused by this news from Archie’s past. He was to arrange her release from the institution, and buy her a nice home in Bristol. They corresponded frequently – Elsie calling him Archie and Archie using the name when writing back. But he never arranged for his mother to come join him in his life in California. It seems this would be a step too far when it comes to the world of Archie Leach encroaching on the new glamourous life of Cary Grant.
Is it a coincidence that not long after these events, Hitchcock was to cast Cary Grant as his leading man for the first time, noticing that beneath his handsome looks and screwball comedy there lurked something darker. Something buried and hidden? Is it the darkness of his childhood, the need to bury feelings of abandonment that made Cary Grant so perfect for the role of one of Hitchcock’s leading men? That allows audiences to consider the possibility he might actually be a murderer?
Or, more likely, Cary Grant was just a very talented actor. That’s the trouble with trying to unravel the secrets of what was possibly classic Hollywood’s most successful, and most total, reinvention. You can line up theories and connections that make sense when looked at one way. But then, maybe not. Maybe they don’t explain anything at all.
It’ll never stop people trying. In 2020, fans are still going back to this fascinating story. The brilliant “Secret History of Hollywood” podcast have started another epic run of episodes chronicling the man’s life, while a new extensive biography from Scott Eyman is due to be published in October. Be warned, though, its an incredibly addictive world to plunge into.
The last word in all this, though, should be left to the man himself. Facing a mid-life crisis in the mid-fifties, he was to undergo an experimental therapy based around taking LSD. This was to try and make sense of who he was, and where he had come from. Thankfully, this did seem to help the man find some inner peace with who he might be, without ever fully answering the question.
“I have spent the greater part of my life fluctuating between Archie Leach and Cary Grant, unsure of either, suspecting each. Only recently have I begun to unify them into one person: the man and boy in me, the hate and the love and all the degrees of each in me, and the power of God in me” – Cary Grant 1963
And if he struggled to do it, what chance is there for the rest of us?
The Rear-View Mirror will return every Friday, looking further and further into the past. Fasten your seatbelts: it may just be a bumpy ride.