More Matinee Idols than Realities: the Secret Swinging Life of Cary Grant

A reporter once asked him, “Who is Cary Grant?” He replied: “When you find out, tell me.

One hundred and fifteen years before today, Archibald Alec Leach was born in the West Country of England, on 18 January 1904. The location, to be precise, a suburb called Horfield in the distinctly unglamorous milieu of provincial, post-Victorian Bristol.

In part, this is a story of a marvellous construction: how he overcame the difficulties of a dysfunctional and unprivileged background to built a spectacular career that’s still celebrated over a century later.

Archie at five: already dazzling

With his acrobatic talents coupled with classically tall, dark and handsome good looks, Archie became a popular figure at high school among both girls and boys. Then, at the age of nine, Leach returned from school to be told that his mother was holidaying in Weston-Super-Mare. In fact, she had been committed by her husband to a nearby mental institution. Archie was not to learn of her whereabouts until his father’s death in 1935.

Incidentally, Archie Leach is the name adopted by John Cleese’s character in A Fish Called Wanda, written by Cleese, who hails from Weston-Super-Mare.

At 15 Hughenden Road, Horfield in 2004: Leach’s birthplace in his centenary year

And what else happened when he was aged nine? The West Country boy himself takes up the story:

“Remember, this was the year 1913. The year I first fell in love. She was the local butcher’s daughter, plump, pretty, and frankly flirtatious.

“Once while taking a message to my grandmother, my mother’s mother, but going far out of my way in order to pass this siren’s front garden where she played, I was looking back to see if she was looking back to see me, and smacked into the lamppost, dome first, saw great stars and staggered rubber-legged to the curb, where I sat stunned into sheepish, but only semi, recovery.

“The lasting of my shame kept me from going past her house from that day on, and never again did I see the provocative light of my poignant childhood’s first love.”

His evenings were spent working backstage in Bristol theatres, and before he’d reached his teens the ambitious athletic adolescent trained as a stilt walker and began touring wth a group of acrobatic dancers, the Bob Pender Stage Troupe. In 1963, the future Cary Grant remembered those early dancehall days:

“While playing the great Gulliver circuit of vaudeville theatres in London, most of us boys lived with Mr. and Mrs. Pender in their big suburban home in Brixton. It had a long garden walk at the front and a smaller garden at back, and was quite near (as we always brightly informed every other vaudevillian) to the house of Lady de Frece, better known as Vesta Tilley, the greatest music-hall star of that day.

Aged 16, Leach travelled with the group on the RMS Olympic to conduct a tour of the United States, where he made the decision to stay in the USA with several of the other members, forming their own splinter company, The Walking Stanleys. Leach was usually seen juggling, performing acrobatics and comic sketches and having a short spell as a unicycle rider known as Rubber Legs. The experience was a particularly demanding one, but gave the impressionable Archie the opportunity to improve his comic technique and develop skills which would benefit him later in Hollywood.

The Horfield One appeared in various shows, comedies and musicals, appearing on Broadway under the stage name of Archie Leach, before travelling to Hollywood to start a film career. In 1931, the 27 year-old was signed up by Paramount Pictures, and instructed to change his name. He initially chose Cary Lockwood, which was the name of a character he’d played on Broadway in the show Nikki, but this was rejected by the studio and he was instead given a list of suitable names to choose from. He finally settled on the surname Grant, thinking that the initials CG had proved lucky for other actors such as Clark Gable.

Cary Grant was to prove Archie Leach’s greatest production. Perma-tanned in tailored suits, he was the sort of dreamy paragon of poise, wit and glamour that only a poor kid from the wrong side of the tracks could come up with.

In his book A Class Apart, Grant biographer Graham McCann likens his subject to F Scott Fitzgerald’s Gatsby, another lowly lad with a surfeit of charm who changed his name and his diction and reinvented himself as a new American aristocrat. “If personality is a series of successful gestures, then there was something gorgeous about him,” wrote Fitzgerald of his hero, “some heightened sensitivity to the promises of life.” Fitzgerald’s words would later find an echo in Katharine Hepburn’s more loaded description of Grant as “a personality functioning”.

Grant was a fiction, but he was a brilliant fiction. He wasn’t real but he looked it. Even away from the camera, he lived the life, with his beach-front homes, glitzy parties and succession of glamorous wives (spouse number two was Woolworth heiress Barbara Hutton). The most expert observers could have been forgiven for forgetting his origins.

In later years, Grant befriended millionaire businessman Peter Cadbury (of chocolate fame). Cadbury was a native of Bristol himself, albeit from the more posh end of town. For him, however, Grant never rang remotely false:

“I never associated him with being a working-class kid, I must say. I don’t want to sound snobbish about it, but he never had any sort of Bristol accent. From the first time I met him, he always impressed me as the model gentleman. I thought he was Cary Grant offscreen, in real life. But that’s what made him such a good actor.”

Cadbury doesn’t say it, but the implication is plain. Even when he wasn’t working, Grant was playing a role.

This tightly concealed, secretive construction has strong parallels with the future legend who mutated in distinctly wilder form from David Jones to David Bowie four decades later. The young Jones/Bowie was no stranger to using his carefully manufactured charm and ambiguous sexuality to get what he wanted, as had Leach/Grant. For notorious bread-heads such as the boys from Bristol and Brixton, even prostitution wasn’t off-limits.

Ninety two years ago, Cary Grant was holed up in a Greenwich Village love nest with an Australian man who went on to win three Oscars. That’s the provocative claim in Women He’s Undressed, a recent documentary about celebrated costume designer Orry-Kelly that adds a tantalising new chapter to decades of speculation about Grant’s sexuality.

Between the film and Kelly’s recently published, long-long-suppressed memoir Women I’ve Undressed, a vivid portrait emerges of Grant as an ambitious and calculating young immigrant vaudevillian who reinvented himself so thoroughly, he ended up denying his true self in a notoriously homophobic industry.

“There was such a pressure to conform to what was considered an ordinary, normal life,’’ the documentary’s noted Australian director, Gillian Armstrong, told Out magazine, referring to Grant’s four failed marriages to women. “Orry refused to hide his sexuality with a fake marriage. He had such a great sense of personal integrity, and we wanted to capture that sense of bravery in the film.’’

Orry-Kelly was born as Orry George Kelly in the New South Wales coastal town of Kiama, about 80 miles south of Sydney, in 1897, later stating, “Anyone who knows anything about the Aussies, knows we have spunk and spine. True bloody right we have.’’

Having set sail for America aged 21, he writes in his memoir that he met the struggling performer Archibald Leach, seven years his junior, just before the Bristolian’s own 21st birthday in January 1925. Leach had been evicted from a boarding house for non-payment, and had turned up at Kelly’s artist’s studio at 21 Commerce St. in New York’s West Village with a tin box containing all his worldly possessions. He promptly moved in with Kelly.

“It was a city of bachelors,’’ film historian William J. Mann says in the documentary, arguing that Kelly and Leach were most certainly a couple. “You were surrounded by men who were openly living in ways you couldn’t imagine back home.’’

Kelly says in his book that Leach was suffering from an unspecified illness during their first few months of cohabitation, and he paid the younger man’s doctor bills. The “devastatingly handsome” Englishman was barely scraping by, working occasionally as a carnival barker in Coney Island and donning a threadbare suit as a paid escort for women while seeking work in vaudeville.

Kelly, who was painting murals for speakeasies and trying to break into show business as a set designer, had developed a lucrative sideline of hand-made ties — and Leach volunteered to stencil on designs and sell them backstage at vaudeville houses for a cut of the action.

Branching out a couple of years later, the two men briefly ran their own speakeasy in Manhattan — and had an even more short-lived casino in Nevada before they were shut down by gangsters who demanded money to spare their lives.

Kelly’s memoirs, and the documentary, chronicle his volatile, on-and-off relationship with the actor over three decades. While Kelly stops short of claiming that Leach was his boyfriend — something the documentary states outright — Kelly leaves a clear impression of someone whose heart was broken many times.

He was clearly annoyed with Leach’s obsession with blond women, “though he always comes home to me.’’ And Kelly describes being knocked out cold by Archie “for three hours’’ when he criticised his roommate for ignoring his vaudeville guests (including Jack Benny, George Burns and Gracie Allen) at a party while trying to persuade Charlie Chaplin’s sister-in-law to help him arrange a screen test. Katherine Thompson, the documentary’s writer, told The New York Post:

“The physical violence between the men was not uncommon between homosexual men of the period. A combination of self-loathing and confusion was manifested in a punch-up or, on another occasion, Grant throwing Kelly out of a moving vehicle.’’

By 1931, both men were pursuing their destiny in Hollywood — the newly renamed Cary Grant had been signed to that $350-a-week contract by Paramount, while Kelly had begun a 12-year tenure as the head of the Warner Bros. costume department, eventually designing Ingrid Bergman’s celebrated wardrobe for Casablanca. They shared quarters again for a few weeks in Tinseltown, enjoying 65-cent drugstore dinners every night.

But there were an increasing number of arguments over the newly christened Grant’s women — and the actor’s demand that Kelly reimburse him $365 for meals and boxing-match tickets that he kept track of in a little red book. Kelly paid off the bills and suggested that Grant move in with another handsome young Paramount contractee, Randolph Scott.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_uQXVAfVyvU

The debate over whether the former Archie Leach was gay, bisexual or even straight has centred for decades around his on-and-off cohabitation with Scott in a beach house in Malibu, which was documented in an infamous series of still photographs of them in domestic poses. They even had a poodle.

When Grant married actress Virginia Cherrill in 1934, Mann says in the documentary, Scott attempted suicide. They were living together again after the end of Grant’s marriage in 1935, and re-reunited once more after Scott’s first marriage (1936-1939) to a duPont heiress ended. (Grant’s 1942 application for US citizenship, the year after he legally became Cary Grant by deed poll, lists him and Scott — who signs as a witness — as living at the same address.) 

Around this time, Grant threatened to sue gossip columnist Hedda Hopper for implying he wasn’t “normal.’’ To contextualise that, in the 1930s, gay characters were largely overblown sissies, based on popular stereotypes, often played by the same actors: Edward Everett Horton, Franklin Pangborn, Eric Blore. The word gay still had its original connotation in the Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers comedy The Gay Divorcee (1934), but that had changed by 1939, when the incontrovertibly masculine Grant used the word in its shiny and new sense in Bringing up Baby, for the very first time in a movie.

Forced to answer the door wearing a woman’s pink marabou-trimmed négligée, an exasperated Grant offers the only explanation for his unusual attire he can think of: “Because I just went gay all of a sudden!” If you believe he and Randolph Scott were a bona fide couple, it wasn’t so sudden.

As the term gay did not become familiar to the general public until the Stonewall riots, the tumultuous week in 1969 when I was born, it’s still hotly debated whether the word was used here in its original sense (meaning “happy”) or is an intentional, joking reference to homosexuality.

The line was an ad-lib by Grant and not in any version of the original script. According to Vito Russo in 1981’s The Celluloid Closet, the script originally had Grant’s character say “I…I suppose you think it’s odd, my wearing this. I realize it looks odd…I don’t usually…I mean, I don’t own one of these”. Russo suggests that this indicates that people in Hollywood (at least in Grant’s intimate circles) were more than familiar with the slang connotations of the word.

Grant and Kelly, meanwhile, had drifted apart. “He was adjusting to the mask of Cary Grant,’’ Kelly writes. “A mask that became his career, a career that became Grant.’’

The two crossed paths in 1941, when Grant made Arsenic and Old Lace at Warner Bros. “There was quite a bit of tension between the two,’’ Mann says in the documentary. “One day, the radio show Queen for a Day had sent a limousine to the studio lot with its title emblazoned on its side. Cary turned to Orry and said, ‘Orry, your limo has arrived.’ This was a real low blow from Grant, with whom he had an intimate personal relationship.’’

Kelly had a drinking problem that eventually cost him his job at Warner and landed him in rehab — but he made a remarkable comeback that netted him Oscars for An American in Paris (1951), Les Girls (1957) and the fabulous Some Like it Hot (1959), for which he designed unforgettable dresses for Marilyn Monroe just three years before her tragic death.

Grant re-entered Kelly’s life in the late 1950s, when he asked if he could visit Kelly’s studio to purchase some paintings as gifts.

Kelly’s book implies that Grant (who Kelly says visited on multiple occasions) was more interested in discouraging Kelly from writing about their relationship — and the film says Grant may have used his influence to block the publication of Kelly’s memoir.

The manuscript was discovered in a pillow case at an Australian relative’s home in 2014 while the documentary was in production; it is available only as an audio book in the US.

Orry-Kelly with Marilyn Monroe during a fitting for Some Like It Hot

“Cary always told me, ‘Tell them nothing*,’ ” Kelly writes. “I don’t know why. There was never really anything to hide.’’

But the cheeky Aussie ends his book with a devastating anecdote about the notoriously tightwad Grant, who famously charged fans for autographs. At the time of their final reunion, Kelly was designing costumes for Auntie Mame (1957) starring Rosalind Russell, Grant’s co-star in the brilliantly quickfire screwball cracker His Girl Friday (1940) and a close friend.

After he and Grant lunched together, they drove over to Russell’s dressing room on the Warner Bros. lot: “I mentioned his beautiful Rolls Royce outside, and Cary remarked that he had another, just like it, in London. ‘By the way, aren’t you going to London?’ he asked Russell.

“Roz said, ‘Yes, I’m going over in ten days.’ ‘Why don’t you use my Rolls,’ Cary said.”

Russell was thrilled until Grant added: “I tell you what to do Roz, when you arrive in London, call … my agents. They will give you the rental fee and the cost of the chauffeur.’’

Kelly says there are “too many instances where Cary Grant’s old friends had been disappointed by him.’’ He quotes Russell as saying, “He flits around, hiding from his own shadow, hoping nobody will notice, or worries that his shadow may expose the image he has created for himself.’’

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WHkMZfmxDB8

The former Archie Leach never publicly acknowledged his relationship with Kelly — but when his old friend died of liver cancer in 1964, Grant was one of the pallbearers.

One of his biographers, Charles Higham, claims that it was only in 1965 that he first heard Grant’s sexuality discussed, by Marlene Dietrich, who told him: “There’s no way I could have had an affair with [Grant] because he was homosexual.”

Alfred Hitchcock, notorious for disliking actors, cast Grant in the classic thrillers Suspicion (1941), Notorious (1946), To Catch a Thief (1955) and North By Northwest (1959), and went on to state that Grant was “the only actor I ever loved in my whole life”.

Alfie and Archie on the set of Notorious (1946)

Another biographer Patrick McGilligan wrote that Hitchcock asked Grant to star in Torn Curtain, only to learn that Grant was about to shoot his final film (1966’s Walk, Don’t Run). He’d decided to retire at 62 upon the arrival of his only child, Jennifer Grant, from his fourth marriage to actress Dyan Cannon.

Although Jennifer Grant said her father “somewhat enjoyed being called gay. He said it made women want to prove the assertion wrong”, although it didn’t stop him from bringing a defamation suit against Chevy Chase for $10 million for slander in 1980 after the emergent comedy star said of him: “I understand he was a homo.” Grant responded: “True or untrue, I’m old enough not to care”. Chase was forced to issue a retraction of his ‘joking’ reference. Jennifer Grant’s memoir, Good Stuff, A Reminiscence Of My Father, Cary Grant, was published in 2011:

“Was Dad gay? My gut instinct was he was straight. Perhaps his maverick nature coupled with his grace made him difficult to categorise. Perhaps he had what Virginia Woolf described as “an androgynous mind”. I’m sure he was sometimes a bit flirty with men. People can be so black and white. I’d like to think Dad greyed the line a bit. Not long ago, someone asked if I’d heard George Clooney might be gay. It made me laugh out loud. It seemed so ridiculous but then, of course, he’s not my father. I happen to know George a little and I’d never in the world think that man was gay.”

Cary and Jennifer Grant plus Rubik’s cube in the 1970s

Throughout his life, Grant was married five times and according to his wives, never could quite shake off his feelings of detachment. Aged 53, he was first given the drug LSD, as a means of therapy for what was diagnosed as his “prolonged emotional detachment” issues. He famously once told of a trip that made him feel like a “giant penis launching off the Earth like a spaceship”.

After all, Grant was nothing if not complicated. His appeal always seemed more layered than that of a conventional matinee idol. Certain aspects of his life – the pendulum sexuality, the experiments with drugs – never quite squared with the accepted version. The more you pick at that seamless image, the more shaded and ambiguous it becomes. “Cary is a will-o’-the-wisp,” fellow Brit David Niven once remarked. “The most truly mysterious friend I have. A spooky Celt really, not an Englishman at all.”

Rather than a disowning of Archie Leach, Grant was just Leach’s immaculate conception of himself, honed through a bizarre combination of circus training and a rigorous study of the upper classes. He was a mutt impersonating a prince while retaining all his muttish speed and cunning; a mongrel idol that was part Horfield backstreet, part Hollywood Boulevard.

“I have spent the greater part of my life fluctuating between Archie Leach and Cary Grant,” he would once remark. “Unsure of each, suspecting each.” It is this tension that made him so fascinating. It’s also what makes him such a devil to get hold of.

Grant re-traced some of his Bristol roots while on honeymoon with his fourth wife Dyan Cannon in 1965

The enigmatic screen legend was five years into his fifth and final marriage when he succumbed to a heart attack on 29 November 1986, aged 82**. Interestingly, Randolph Scott, whose second marriage endured 43 years and produced two children, died just two months later.

Cary Grant departed quietly, with a minimum of fuss. On his wishes, the body was cremated and there was no funeral service. What became of the ashes has never been made public. They are believed to have been scattered in the hills above California, thrown to the winds in the land where he cast off his impoverished past to become the American Dream in a spotless tuxedo. Cary Grant remains one of the most adored actors in film history—whose greatest role was probably himself. Long may he vacillate.

Steve Pafford

*When I co-authored the BowieStyle book back in 2000, one of the Dame’s staff emailed David to tell him he’d seen some of the early proofs and asked if it was OK to correct anything he knew to be wrong. Within seconds the reply from the master myth maker came back, “Correct nothing!

**As a postscript, I thought it would be interesting to post the clip from the Frank Sinatra-hosted 1970 Oscars ceremony, where Cary Grant, now retired but still a man with an effortless poise and suave sophistication, received an honorary Academy Award, something inexplicably denied to him in competition during his working life. A class apart until the end, Grant died of a heart attack aged 82. My paternal grandfather, who was an avid admirer of Grant’s, died of a heart attack six years later, also aged 82. Frank Sinatra died six years after that, also of a heart attack, again aged 82. It’s a funny old world. 

Cary Grant in Hitchcock’s North By Northwest: that’s the James Bond films invented then is here

Liked it? Take a second to support Steve Pafford on Patreon!
Author avatar
Steve Pafford
We use cookies to give you the best experience.