FEW CELEBRITIES from Hollywood’s Golden Age are as recognizable as Cary Grant. For a lot of movie fans, the actor can be summed up by a line from Charade (1963), when Audrey Hepburn asks, “Do you know what’s wrong with you?” — then, leaning in closer, answers her own question, “Nothing.” The pairing of these two screen legends was perfect. Grant, like Hepburn, represented a kind of elegance, class, charisma, and charm that seems impossible until you see it on the screen. In fact, Grant was such a pro at illusion that he was on the Board of Directors at the Magic Castle in Los Angeles. Yet, for all the viewers who know Grant’s films, very few know much about the man.
Grant reached a level of fame rarely achieved, let alone sustained over decades, with so many great films bearing his name. The actor often joked that he wished he was Cary Grant. He was always torn between his origins as a poor kid from Bristol and the Hollywood legend he became. A friend once wrote of Grant, “when we were out together in Beverly Hills, people usually didn’t approach him, or interfere. He was an object of awe. Being famous, visibly famous, is a terrible fate.” The truth is that Grant had a brilliantly constructed persona, better than anything a studio marketing team could have developed.
The question always looms: who was Cary Grant? Seasoned Hollywood biographer Scott Eyman is the latest to take a stab at cracking the case in his new book, Cary Grant: A Brilliant Disguise. “This is the story,” Eyman writes, “of the man born Archibald Alexander Leach, whose greatest performance was unquestionably as the matchless specimen of masculine charm known as Cary Grant.” Constantly avoiding self-exposure, Grant “was always the conspicuous object of desire; his character preferred to be left alone — passion was to be ignored, love was to be endured.” Eyman is a master at unveiling the person behind the iconic disguise, as he did in books such as Empire of Dreams: The Epic Life of Cecil B. DeMille (2010) and John Wayne: The Life and Legend (2015).
Archie Leach grew up in a consistently tense family in Bristol. His parents didn’t get along, and the boy quickly learned conflict avoidance as a means of survival. It wasn’t until he found himself on the stage that he felt a true sense of family with his peers. After getting himself kicked out of school so he could join a traveling vaudeville troupe, Leach found himself on the SS Olympic on its way to New York City. Also on board were Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford, who were returning from their honeymoon. Leach remembered playing shuffleboard with Fairbanks and snapping a photo with his idol.
Leach worked in New York from 1920 to 1922 before creating a ruse about going home as a way to back out of his contract with the troupe. After accepting money to be sent back to Bristol, Leach stayed in New York, where he met costume designer Orry George Kelly, a.k.a. Orry-Kelly. The two would be roommates in the mid-1920s, rubbing elbows with many rising stars of the day. His vaudeville work allowed Leach to develop his acrobatic talents and hone his comedic timing, features that would help to later define him as a movie star. As it turned out, it was Cary Grant who eventually came to Hollywood, while Archie Leach was left behind in New York.
The name “Cary” was taken from a recent character he had performed on stage, while “Grant” was chosen as a suitably generic surname. Under this moniker, he became one of the most likable actors ever to grace the screen. He was also terribly insecure, a lingering result of his tumultuous childhood. Most audiences know Grant as an impeccably dressed aristocrat, but Eyman explores how his working-class childhood followed him forever. Grant didn’t blame his long list of broken marriages on the pressures of Hollywood; he always admitted to his own shortcomings. The star would also spend many years hung up on Sophia Loren, perhaps the one woman he couldn’t get to fall for him.
Grant’s Hollywood years are familiar to fans of movie history. What Eyman’s book does is situate Grant as both the icon we know and the person we wish we knew more about. Grant’s life offered fodder for gossip rags, such as his friendship with Randolph Scott, which fueled rumors for decades of a homosexual relationship. The biography does not dwell on Grant’s sexuality because, after all, it doesn’t matter. Some friendships were far more important, such as his connection with Harold Lloyd, a relationship that would have a major impact on Grant’s comedy. Grant also enjoyed a long friendship with the elusive Howard Hughes.
Eyman’s coverage of Grant’s career both unravels and upholds his iconic legacy. Grant’s insecurities certainly ruined some of his early relationships, including his first marriages, but this is the story of a man who lived and learned (or at least tried to). “What you saw in Cary Grant depended on which team you were rooting for,” Eyman writes. Grant rarely paid attention to the rumor mills because he was too self-centered to worry about what others thought. His battles were not with the press, audiences, directors, or studio heads; his conflict was internal. When Greta Garbo visited the Grant/Randolph residence, Grant showed his true colors when he told her, “Oh, I’m so happy that you met me.”
During World War II, Grant tried to join the British Navy. Time and again, he was told he would better serve his country by promoting England’s war effort on the big screen. Like many European immigrants in Hollywood, Grant had family back home who were living in increasingly dangerous circumstances. Several of Grant’s family members, including an aunt and uncle, were killed in an air raid in January 1941, and his mother narrowly escaped death during another raid.
“There was an edginess about him,” Eyman observes, “the fretful tone in his voice, the strange accent, and the abiding sense that beneath his calm surface well-oiled gears were whirling faster and faster.” In fact, Grant may have been involved with MI6, the British intelligence service that was running an operation in New York City in the 1930s. The main connection was through British filmmaker Alexander Korda, who was charged to investigate the isolationist movement in the United States. The Brits wanted to know what was going on in the movie studios, and Grant was Korda’s connection. Once America entered the war, Grant joined the Hollywood Victory Committee, an organization of stage, screen, and radio performers that championed bond drives and worked to raise morale among servicemen.
Korda’s influence can be found in one of Grant’s films of the war era, the Alfred Hitchcock thriller Notorious (1946), which features an espionage plot about a woman who marries a prominent Nazi in order to extract valuable secrets. (Hitchcock knew two people — screenwriter Charles Bennett and actor Reginald Gardiner — who were encouraged by MI6 to seduce female fascist sympathizers.) Eyman explores the deep connection between Grant and Hitchcock: the pair “had a lot in common: working-class English upbringing, ambivalence about women, an outwardly cheerful personality concealing a bleakness that could, in Hitchcock’s case, ascend toward malice, and in Grant’s case, downward towards depression.” As in so much of his excellent work on Hollywood history, Eyman gives readers a real sense of who Cary Grant was. Few celebrities were as successful at avoiding disclosure of personal details; indeed, Grant gave the “no-information” interview better than anyone. Yet Eyman continually finds ways to locate the person behind the self-styled mask.
While often seen as an amiable soul, Grant also had the ability to speak stern words to the public when necessary. For example, he staunchly defended Ingrid Bergman after she was denounced by many as immoral for having an affair with Italian director Roberto Rossellini and giving birth to twins out of wedlock. Grant’s public response to her castigation could not have been more direct: “Ingrid Bergman is a fascinating, full-blooded yet temperate woman who has the courage to live in accord with her needs, and strength enough to accept and benefit by the consequences of her beliefs in an inhibited, critical and frightened society.” Eyman rightly notes that it would be tough to find a “public pronouncement of equal weight from [anyone] as eminent as Grant.” When Bergman won an Oscar for Anastasia (1956), Grant accepted on her behalf.
As Eyman shows, when people saw Cary Grant, on screen and off, what they were actually seeing was Archie Leach trying very hard to be Cary Grant. The man and his persona were in a constant tug-of-war, creating a persistent internal conflict. Toward the latter part of his life, Grant began to successfully confront his past with the help of a professional therapist. Beginning in 1958, Grant used LSD under a doctor’s supervision in order to explore and confront his deepest insecurities. His interest in new approaches to psychotherapy stemmed from his third wife, Betsy Drake. Eyman covers these years with a frank tenderness, as Grant desperately sought a means to fully accept himself, including his failed relationships.
Aided by extensive research into Grant’s interviews and correspondence, Eyman has constructed a definitive biography of the Hollywood legend. As Grant himself admitted:
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 the boy in me, the mother and the father and all people in me, the hate and love, and all the degrees of each in me, and the power of God in me.
Eyman gives us insight into aspects of Grant’s world that were previously inaccessible. Of course, we get glimpses into the production of great films like His Girl Friday (1940) and North by Northwest (1959), but those are secondary to Eyman’s purpose of exposing the man behind the mask. He tells Grant’s story with the scholarly precision evident in his previous work and the kind of care only possessed by a dedicated fan.
Grant died in 1986, in the midst of a cross-country tour called “A Conversation with Cary Grant.” He had been hosting a series of Q-and-A sessions with fans in smaller cities, places that would not usually see visits from such a Hollywood legend. At the time, Grant was finally opening up and accepting himself, little by little. The journey of self-discovery took his entire life. Whether he ultimately found solace, we will never truly know, but this fine biography gets us as close as we have ever been to seeing Grant whole.
Chris Yogerst is assistant professor of communication in the department of arts and humanities at the University of Wisconsin – Milwaukee. His new book is Hollywood Hates Hitler! Jew-Baiting, Anti-Nazism, and the Senate Investigation into War Mongering in Motion Pictures (University Press of Mississippi, 2020).