Cary Grant

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Cary Grant (18 January 1904 - 29 November 1986) was a Hollywood screen legend who appeared in 72 films from the 1930s to the 1960s. He excelled as the debonair leading man with a sensitive side. His personal style—timeless natural elegance, slick masculine charm, urbane sophistication—would have no peer in Hollywood past or present. In the OED of public opinion, “Cary Grant” became the dictionary definition of “Perfect Gentleman.” Fit, handsome, and always impeccably well-tailored, Grant was irresistible to women, even when gray-haired and well into his seventies. He was a star’s star in the time when stars were larger than life. In the midst of it all he famously said, “I’m too busy living my life to write about it.” [1]

Early years

Superstar Cary Grant came from unspectacular beginnings and he never forgot it. He was born Archibald Alexander Leach in the seaside town of Bristol in southwest England. The atmosphere in the seaport—old haunt of eighteenth century slave ships—was chilly, damp, quotidian. Archie’s father Elias pressed men’s suits at a clothing store for a living. The Leach family was lower class and frequently wanted for money. Elias, obviously a man unhappy with his undistinguished fate, drank himself to death, expiring from alcohol poisoning in 1935. Grant’s mother Elsie was another haunted soul. Mentally unstable, she suffered bouts of paranoia, depression, and obsessive behavior such as compulsive hand washing. Elias and Elsie fought continually during Archie’s early years, a circumstance which must have been traumatic to the youngster.

During the time they spent together mother and son shared an intense relationship. An only child, he was overawed by a dominating Elsie who doted all too strongly on him. Late in life Grant would recall his mother’s “will to control.” [2] The adolescent Archie was somewhat of a momma’s boy, as the mature Grant recalled, not without amusement: “It seemed to me that I was kept in long baby clothes much longer than any other child. And perhaps, for a while, I wasn’t sure whether I was a boy or a girl. Then, later, I was kept far too long, I swear to you, in short pants. I wore curls too long, too, and like most little boys I ached for the day they’d be cut off.” [3]

The young Archie Leach spoke with the lower-class accent of the region. Withdrawn in temperament, he was shy and undemonstrative in school, but by no means without brains; when he applied himself he won distinguished marks. In school photographs he is pictured with a frown on his face.

When Archie was nine years old he returned home from school one day to discover that his mother had vanished. The vulnerable boy was told his mother had died suddenly of a heart attack.[4] But his father was lying. In fact, Elsie had been put into a mental asylum called Fishponds. The mother had stifled the son with neurotic attention only to suddenly abandon him without even a goodbye. From then on Archie would be left mostly to himself. For the next twenty-three years he wouldn’t know that his mother was alive.[5]

Archie was suddenly abandoned by his overbearing mother without warning. Inside the mature Grant there would always be an unresolved trauma, a legacy from his unpleasant childhood. Grant later said: “My mother had a serious negative influence on my life. I made the mistake of thinking that each of my wives was my mother, that there would never be a replacement once she left.” Another time he said, “I made the mistake of thinking that each of my first four wives was a replacement for my mother, which is a burden no woman can maintain for long. I even found myself attracted to women who looked like my mother.” [6]

Archie Leach, left to himself when still only a boy, was remembered by others as an unhappy, scruffy urchin in wretched clothing who sometimes had to scrounge for food. Entering into his early teens Archie was somewhat saturnine and set apart from the rest. He was a loner, with a dark cloud seemingly over him.

Escape into the theater

One day Archie discovered a way out from his miserable childhood. When he was fourteen years old he was introduced to the world of the vaudeville theatre (by a schoolteacher of his) and it was love at first sight. Archie discovered that the theatrical world was a close-knit family that might be able to supplement the one he had lost. Show business was the escape Archie had been waiting for. “What other life could there be but that of an actor?” Grant later recalled. “They happily traveled and toured. They were classless, cheerful and carefree. They gaily laughed, lived, and loved.” [7]

Without much ado Archie ran off to Norwich to join Bob Pender’s acrobatic troupe. Happily, Archie won a job as a tumbler. His father Elias caught up with his son a week later but eventually had to give way and allow Archie to follow his dream. In July 1920, two years into his new profession, Archie, aged sixteen, traveled with Pender’s troupe on an ocean liner to New York City, where the troupe found steady work in vaudeville houses. The summer of 1922 was a turning-point in Archie’s life: he made the decision to stay behind in America and try to make a go of it on his own when the Pender troupe returned home. Out in the wide world entirely on his own for the first time, Archie eked out a living taking odd jobs, all the while trying to get a foothold in the theatre. In 1927 Archie Leach was visible in a minor role in an off-Broadway play.

Enter “Cary Grant”

His first film appearance came in 1931, in a short called Singapore Sue, shot at Paramount’s east coast studio in Astoria, New York. Subsequently Archie won a contract with Paramount and promptly relocated to Hollywood, where his name was just as promptly changed by the studio. At the outset of 1932 Archie had a new identity. He was Cary Grant. Cary Grant’s accent meshed Britain with America to create an unlocatable, classless accent. He could as easily play Americans as Englishmen. Cary Grant made no less than seven films for Paramount in 1932.

Cary Grant was a new persona on the public stage but the Archie Leach underneath had already been performing professionally for thirteen years. Like so many of the stars of Hollywood’s Golden Age, success had come to Cary Grant not overnight but as a result of many years of blood, sweat and tears.

In Hollywood

Grant’s breakthrough came in 1933 when he starred (as “Captain Cummings”) opposite outrageous screen vamp Mae West in the popular She Done Him Wrong. Once he was caught up in the Hollywood system Grant would never want for work; he made twenty-one films for Paramount up to 1935. The Awful Truth, a screwball comedy in which he starred opposite Irene Dunne for Columbia Pictures in 1937, would be his most sigificant to date, elevating Grant into the top tier of Hollywood’s performers. Before the end of the 1930s Grant had already become one of Hollywood’s highest paid actors. Eventually he starred in such cinema classics as Bringing Up Baby (1938), Only Angels Have Wings (1939), His Girl Friday (1940), The Philadelphia Story (1941); and a sizable number of other box-office hits; including four films for Alfred Hitchcock: Suspicion (1941), Notorious (1946), To Catch a Thief (1955), and North by Northwest (1959). Lucky man, Archie Leach made it in Hollywood, “a town that promised so much and came through for so few.” [8]

Cary and friends

Cary Grant shone very brightly in the Hollywood of the 1930s, the time when he and multimillionaire filmmaker-aviator Howard Hughes became good buddies. Throughout the years 1935 to 1949, Hughes and Grant will be purposefully crossing paths, sometimes for extended periods of time. First they will chase girls together. Then, Grant will marry rich socialite Barbara Hutton, an earlier Hughes conquest, on July 8, 1942. Later still, Hughes will be Grant’s best man at Grant’s marriage (his third) to actress Betsy Drake, on December 25, 1949. [9] Through it all, Hughes and Grant found each other’s presence restful. In 1957, an increasingly troubled Hughes will tell Jean Peters that “the only person who made any sense was Cary Grant.” [10]

The most flamboyant attribute of Cary Grant in Hollywood was his love of many, many women. Devastatingly handsome, six feet one and a half inches in height, he was irresistible to women. The 1930s especially was the time of hyperbolic womanizing, and Grant was an inveterate party-goer. Hal Roach, a producer-director-screenwriter, recalled, “I never knew a man that was in love with so many gals as Cary was.” [11]

Grant’s relationships with women could be stormy. He was married five times. His first wife, actress Virginia Cherrill, divorced him in 1934 after only one year of marriage; his second marriage to Hutton lasted only three years. His marriage to Drake lasted 13 years, however; but then his fourth marriage to actress Dyan Cannon lasted only a year and a half; and his fifth marriage, to Barbara Harris, lasted from 1981 until his death.

The private man

Grant had a sharp, nimble mind. He was no vacuous Hollywood actor, he enjoyed a keen business mind of his own. He would always be comfortable in the business world. One of the canniest of all screen stars, the mature Grant consistently engineered for himself salaries and profit percentages that eventually made him a millionaire many times over. Moreover, ownership of the negative even reverted to Grant in the case of ten of his late films. As a negotiator he was adamant as steel. Recalled Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., Grant’s co-star in Gunga Din (1939), “Cary used to do a lot of arbitrage. He’d buy Japanese yen and sell English pounds and buy Italian lire or German marks. He did that every morning before work on Gunga Din. He’d look over the paper and buy and sell things and send messages to buy so many pounds and so many yen, and so forth. I was fascinated.” [12]

Grant was a man who played it straight and appreciated others who spoke plainly. He didn’t have a high school diploma. Grant, deep down, was a simple man—that is to say, a man without airs or shallow pretentions—who had to live inside the shell of his public renown. (Many times in later years Grant was heard to muse, “I wish I was Cary Grant.”) Grant was no snob. He never stood on ceremony. Grant regarded fish and chips as “the greatest meal in the world”, with English pub lunches a close second. He didn’t drink to excess, and was sensitive about his health. Gregory Peck recalled: “Underneath that suave manner and sophisticated style, Grant was dyed-in-the-wool, grass-roots, down-to-earth show business. . . . He might have been a vaudevillian.” [13]

Grant was often undemonstrative in private. While there are those who remember Grant laughing hysterically until the tears flowed freely, telling jokes, performing impromptu comedic acts, and being the life of the party, others remember him as quiet and reserved. As he got older Grant would learn to appreciate the relaxation and calm that came with being more and more reclusive. Grant did not open his heart much to acquaintances. He could be a cipher even to those who got close to them. To friend David Niven, Grant was a “will-o’-the-wisp . . . as mysterious as the dark side of the moon.” [14]

Later years

In the 1960s Grant, having retired from movie acting when his popularity with cinema audiences worldwide was at its peak, served on the board of various companies, including Fabergé, MGM, and Western Airlines; later, the Hollywood Park race track. Cary Grant would consider himself, humorously, “Cary Grant, Incorporated.”

Grant passed away in Davenport, Iowa on November 29, 1986. His last words were “Don’t worry . . .” [15]


  • Walk Don't Run (1966)
  • Father Goose (1964)
  • Charade (1963)
  • That Touch of Mink (1962)
  • The Grass Is Greener (1960)
  • Operation Petticoat (1959)
  • North by Northwest (1959)
  • Houseboat (1958)
  • Indiscreet (1958)
  • Kiss Them for Me (1957)
  • The Pride and the Passion (1957)
  • An Affair to Remember (1957)
  • To Catch a Thief (1955)
  • Dream Wife (1953)
  • Monkey Business (1952)
  • Room for One More (1952)
  • People Will Talk (1951)
  • Crisis (1950)
  • I Was a Male War Bride (1949)
  • Every Girl Should Be Married (1948)
  • Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House (1948)
  • The Bishop's Wife (1947)
  • The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer (1947)
  • Notorious (1946)
  • Night and Day (1946)
  • None But the Lonely Heart (1944)
  • Arsenic and Old Lace (1944)
  • Once Upon a Time (1944)
  • Destination Tokyo (1943)
  • Mr. Lucky (1943)
  • Once Upon a Honeymoon (1942)
  • The Talk of the Town (1942)
  • Suspicion (1941)
  • Penny Serenade (1941)
  • The Philadelphia Story (1940)
  • The Howards of Virginia (1940)
  • My Favorite Wife (1940)
  • His Girl Friday (1940)
  • In Name Only (1939)
  • Only Angels Have Wings (1939)
  • Gunga Din (1939)
  • Holiday (1938)
  • Bringing Up Baby (1938)
  • The Awful Truth (1937)
  • The Toast of New York (1937)
  • Topper (1937)
  • When You're in Love (1937)
  • Wedding Present (1936)
  • The Amazing Quest of Ernest Bliss (1936)
  • Suzy (1936)
  • Big Brown Eyes (1936)
  • Sylvia Scarlett (1935)
  • The Last Outpost (1935)
  • Wings in the Dark (1935)
  • Enter Madame (1935)
  • Ladies Should Listen (1934)
  • Kiss and Make-Up (1934)
  • Born to Be Bad (1934)
  • Thirty Day Princess (1934)
  • Alice in Wonderland (1933)
  • I'm No Angel (1933)
  • Gambling Ship (1933)
  • The Eagle and the Hawk (1933)
  • The Woman Accused (1933)
  • She Done Him Wrong (1933)
  • Madame Butterfly (1932)
  • Hot Saturday (1932)
  • Blonde Venus (1932)
  • Devil and the Deep (1932)
  • Merrily We Go to Hell (1932)
  • Sinners in the Sun (1932)
  • This Is the Night (1932)
  • Singapore Sue (1931)


  1. Nelson, Nancy, Evenings with Cary Grant (New York: Citidel Press, 2003), p. 312.
  2. Nelson, Evenings, p. 29.
  3. Morecambe, Eric and Martin Sterling, Cary Grant: In Name Only (London: Robson Books, 2001), p.10-11.
  4. According to Morecambe. According to Nelson, Archie was told, at least at first, a less dramatic explanation: his mother was convalescing at a health resort.
  5. In November 1933, in the time that Grant was on his way to screen stardom, he found out that his mother was alive. He visited her three months later, and bought a house for her in Bristol. He would remain in polite contact with her for the next forty years. Elsie would live up to the age of 96, dying in Bristol in 1973.
  6. Morecambe, Cary Grant, p. 64
  7. Nelson, Evenings, p. 37.
  8. Hamsher, Jane, Killer Instinct (London: Orion Books Ltd, 1997), p. 186
  9. Nelson, Evenings, p. 168.
  10. Finstad, Suzanne, Heir Not Apparent (Austin: Texas Monthly Press, 1984), p. 40.
  11. Nelson, Evenings, p. 310.
  12. Morecambe, Grant, p. 98.
  13. Nelson, Evenings, p. 380.
  14. Morecambe, Grant, p. 123.
  15. Morecambe, Grant, p. 324.