Cary Grant was a hoax so sublime his creator struggled to escape him. He was a metaphor, too, for the transformative magic of cinema, for its lies; and for the artifice and social mobility of the 20th century itself.
His real name was Archie Leach, and he could, the critic David Thomson wrote, ‘be attractive and unattractive simultaneously; there is a light and dark side to him, but whichever is dominant, the other creeps into view’. Thomson thinks Grant the greatest film actor — I did not notice him in his first scene in The Philadelphia Story until he wanted me to notice him — but he was terrified of self-exposure and rejected Lolita, A Star is Born and The Third Man for schlock such as Night and Day, a life of Cole Porter that omitted Porter’s homosexuality. Orson Welles quipped: ‘What will they use for a climax? The only suspense is — will he or won’t he accumulate ten million dollars?’
Two new biographies tell the story — Cary Grant: The Making of a Hollywood Legend by Mark Glancy and Cary Grant: A Brilliant Disguise by Scott Eyman. Glancy is studious, respectful and unwieldy (who needs to know the plot of Operation Petticoat?). Eyman is more lyrical and insightful.
Both understand that Cary Grant existed for two contradictory reasons: for Archie to be loved by his mother Elsie and, also, to escape her, because she was not capable of love. Grant was the ever-receding man, and more desirable for his elusiveness, for the viewer can project what he or she desires. In his famous roles — The Philadelphia Story, Bringing Up Baby, Arsenic and Old Lace — he is tender, sorry, emollient; the one who likes women (probably the only one; even James Stewart made Donna Reed cry in It’s a Wonderful Life); the one who says, ‘What do you want me to be?’ — and to her. It doesn’t matter that it was a lie; it was a pleasing lie. Cinema is a lie; and no one was a leading man in cinema for as long as Cary Grant.
Archie Leach, though, was a Bristol-born abandoned child. His older brother died as a baby and, as Elsie bullied her husband and younger son — she hated being poor and Elias was only a suit-presser — she developed what was probably paranoid schizophrenia. ‘I think she thought of me as her doll,’ Grant said later: ‘She wanted control of me because she couldn’t control what had happened to her first son.’
When Archie was 11 Elias had Elsie committed to a mental hospital and told Archie she was dead. Archie haunted the Bristol Hippodrome, was expelled from school, and ran away to join the circus, where he collected the Brixton accent that is half his voice (the rest is Noël Coward). Eyman has Archie’s childhood diary. The last entry is: ‘Good dog, do a good TRICK.’
That he did. By 16 he was playing vaudeville in 5,000-seat theatres in New York City; by 23 he was an awkward Broadway star (he could not sing, but who cares?); by 28 he was Cary Grant, playing opposite Mae West and Marlene Dietrich, who told her husband Grant sold shirts on the side. I could fill this page with jokes about Grant’s thriftiness, of his handing house guests itemised bills and charging Douglas Fairbanks Jnr 20 cents for two rolls of loo paper. But that would be unfair: lack of money destroyed his childhood.
He became more skilful and better shod; but when Elias was dying of alcoholism, he summoned Archie to Bristol to tell him Elsie was alive. He went to see her. ‘Mother,’ he said, ‘It’s me, your son, Archie.’ ‘You’re no son of mine,’ she screamed. ‘You don’t look like my Archie. You don’t even sound like my Archie.’ He freed her from the mental hospital, and supported her, but she never trusted him: ‘She always kept me at arm’s length, as if there was a part of her mind that was convinced I was an impostor. And, I suppose, in a way, she was right.’ Their letters are affectionate, but they read like scripts that never made it out of rehearsal. His fourth wife, Dyan Cannon, relates this conversation:
“‘Do you love your mother, Cary?’‘Of course.’‘Do you believe she loves you?’ A long pause.‘I think she loved Archie.’
What was left? Great wealth — he struck a great deal — stardom and five wives. He rejected most of them, or made them reject him, but finally settled with Barbara Harris. And he had a child, Jennifer, with Cannon, whose every development he chronicled on film and paper as if he couldn’t believe she was real. There was also crippling anxiety, which he tried to treat with LSD and then, more successfully, by retiring from cinema — by removing the mask that ate the face.
I was struck by Eyman relating that Grant lived for many years in an unfinished house. What a metaphor! The best interview is Eyman’s too, with Orry-Kelly, a fashion designer who knew Grant during his earliest days in America: ‘In Cary’s case, his faith ended with himself. He had no faith. I realised his torture.’ Glancy’s life is good; Eyman’s is superb. Neither definitively answer what some — but not I — believe is the most pressing question: did he sleep with Randolph Scott? Having read two desolate books on the mother of impostor syndromes, I can only say — I hope so!