He was born Archibald Alexander Leach on 18 January 1904, in the industrial port of Bristol on the west coast of England, to Elias James Leach, a garment worker, and Elsie Maria (Kingdon) Leach.
It is difficult today to know how many other children were born to the Leaches. What is clear is that Archie was the only child of Elias and Elise to survive infancy. What is also clear is that the depression Elsie suffered as a result of her losses affected her son for the rest of his life.
When Archie was nine years old, his mother disappeared one day while he was at school. Elias first told Archie that his mother had gone on a “long holiday” to the seaside. Some time later, Elias told his son that that Elsie had died.
(Only on his deathbed 22 years later did Elias confess that he had had Elsie committed to a mental institution.)
When Archie was ten, his father remarried. Details of Archie’s life with his father’s new family are sketchy. By all accounts, young Archie felt excluded and lonely.
After his expulsion from school at age 14, Archie moved to Brixton in southwest London to join the Bob Pender Stage Troupe, with whom he trained as an acrobat, mime, juggler, and stilt-walker. The troupe sailed to the United States in 1920 when Archie was 16. He never returned to Great Britain to stay.
Archie fell in love with the United States during his two-year tour with the Pender Troupe. When the troupe returned to England in 1922, Archie remained behind, supporting himself with odd jobs as a vaudeville mind-reader, a necktie hawker, and a Coney Island stilt-walker. He landed his first Broadway role in 1927, after a brief stint on the English musical stage, and never looked back.
In the autumn of 1931, 27-year-old Archie Leach drove his second-hand Packard across the United States in order to sign his first Hollywood contract with Paramount. When pressed by the studio to rename himself, Archie suggested “Cary Lockwood,” the name of his most recent stage character. ‘No,’ said the studio boss, ‘There’s another actor named Lockwood. Pick one of these.’
From the proffered list of surnames, Archie chose, “Grant,” in part because Clark Gable had enjoyed so much success with the initials “CG.” Thus was born the internationally beloved and unforgettable Hollywood personality we know as “Cary Grant.”
Over the course of 74 films from 1932 through 1966, Cary Grant cultivated an indelible and fabulously successful public persona. The boy who began life in poverty and unhappiness became famous as an adult for his grace, beauty, wit, and glamour,
his perfect posture, broad shoulders, and trim physique,
and his breezy and apparently unshakeable confidence.
Cary Grant defined the term “debonair.” He always looked magnificent in his clothes. People flocked by the millions to see his films. Women swooned over him; men envied him. Ian Fleming is said to have modeled his .007 agent James Bond after him. As Grant himself said, “Everybody wants to be Cary Grant. Even I want to be Cary Grant.”
Archie Leach applied himself to the development his film career (and to his concomitant transformation into Cary Grant) with conscious study, careful planning, and discipline. He observed Hollywood’s most urbane celebrities, such as Noel Coward, and adopted some of their mannerisms and stylistic idiosyncrasies. Possessed of a fine intelligence, he read voraciously. He cultivated a public love for baseball, the era’s National Pastime, supporting first the New York Yankees and later the Los Angeles Dodgers. In June of 1942, he became a U.S. citizen, in the process changing his name legally to “Cary Grant.”
A highly professional practitioner of his craft, Cary Grant became a master verbal comedy (demonstrated here as he forces his acquaintanceship upon the fiancé of his ex-wife in His Girl Friday);
physical comedy (shown here in a famous scene with Katharine Hepburn in Bringing Up Baby);
character comedy (here in one of the funniest scenes of Alfred Hitchcock‘s funniest thriller, North by Northwest);
and drama (here again in North by Northwest, as he and Eva Marie Saint engage in mutual seduction over dinner on a speeding train).
Grant was capable of portraying darkness, such as in the arguably homicidal gold digger in Suspicion, but Hollywood refused to permit him to play a villain.
In some of his films, such as Holiday, Grant displayed his acrobatic skills.
Although never formally recognized during his career for his acting skill, Grant was a wonderfully subtle actor. Because of his perfected persona, Cary Grant never disappears into his roles. One is always aware that one is watching Cary Grant, but each of his characters – from the unworldly paleontologist in Bringing Up Baby, to the wartime cargo pilot in Only Angels Have Wings, to the hard-driving newspaper editor in His Girl Friday, to the charismatic jewel thief in To Catch a Thief – is different from each of the others. In the uproariously funny Monkey Business, Grant successfully plays characters aged 35, 20, and seven.
Grant retired from films in 1966 at the age of 62, citing his belief that audiences would not want to see “Cary Grant” grow old. In retirement, he shifted his professional attention to the business world, serving on the boards of several corporations, and devoted his personal time to his only child, daughter Jennifer, who was born to his fourth wife, Dyan Cannon, in February of 1966.
Grant was a philanthropist throughout his adult life. He donated his $137,000 salary for The Philadelphia Story (1940) to British War Relief and his $100,000 salary for Arsenic and Old Lace (1944) to U.S. War Relief. During the War, he traveled to entertain the troops.
Publically, Cary Grant was one of the most successful American figures of the 20th century. Privately, he was haunted for his entire life by the central trauma of his childhood: the mysterious disappearance of his mother.
When he learned, at the age of 31, that his mother was alive and in an institution, he traveled immediately to England to secure her release. He then moved her to California and supported her for the rest of her life.
The adult Grant was plagued by insecurity and was always fearful of losing the women in his life. He resorted to using LSD in the early 1960s – at a time when it was legal – hoping that, as he said, “it would make me feel better about myself. I wanted to rid myself of all my hypocrisies.”
It is possible to see in the histories of Cary Grant’s five marriages the long, sad shadow cast on his life by the loss of his mother. Of his first wife, Virginia Cherrill, he said, “My possessiveness and fear of losing her brought about the very condition I feared: the loss of her.” Of the four wives who divorced him, he said, “They all left me. I didn’t leave any of them. They all walked out on me.” For explanation, one might consult the revealing memoir penned by his fourth wife, Dyan Cannon, about her life with Grant. She describes scenes of Grant’s explosions of temper and hyper-controlling behavior which, I think, can be explained – though not excused – as desperate attempts to control his personal life and thereby avoid pain.
Grant’s incompleteness did not elude frequent co-star Katharine Hepburn, who offered this insightful comment on the lacunae in his private persona: “Cary Grant, I think, is a personality functioning, a delicious personality who has learnt to do certain things marvelously well.”
Cary Grant died of a stroke on November 29, 1986, while on a speaking tour in Davenport, Iowa. He was survived by his devoted daughter, Jennifer, and his fifth wife, Barbara Harris.
He died with a $60 million estate, a testament to his financial acumen, his determination to succeed, and decades of focused hard work. Pretty good for a boy who started as a motherless Cockney acrobat.
Cary Grant’s cinematic legacy is a veritable treasure trove. Many of his films are available in their entirety on YouTube.
One can hardly go wrong in selecting a Grant film to watch on a cold winter evening. Here are ten of my favorites, listed in no particular order.
- The Awful Truth
- My Favorite Wife
- His Girl Friday
- North by Northwest
- Gunga Din
- The Philadelphia Story
- Penny Serenade
- The Bishop’s Wife
Quotes for Today
“My screen persona is a combination of Jack Buchanan, Noel Coward and Rex Harrison. I pretended to be somebody I wanted to be, and, finally, I became that person. Or he became me.” – Cary Grant
“I have spent the greater part of my life fluctuating between Archie Leach and Cary Grant, unsure of each, suspecting each.” – Cary Grant