Charismatic, debonair, and irresistibly handsome, Cary Grant epitomized the words “leading man” and “movie star” for three decades, more than earning his place among the American Film Institute’s greatest male stars of all time.
He was an only child, born Archibald Alexander Leach on January 18, 1904, in Horfield, Bristol, England. His father, Elias Leach, barely made ends meet by pressing suits for a living, while his mother, Elsie, was a vague, unhappy presence until she disappeared when Cary was nine years old. Elias told his son that Elsie had gone away on a long holiday—somehow he decided that being abandoned by his mother would be easier on a child than the truth that she’d been institutionalized in a mental facility for a severe, crippling depression. (In fact, Cary continued to believe the abandonment story until he was in his thirties and found his mother in the asylum, where she’d been living for all those years. It was a less than joyful reunion. His mother had no interest in her wildly successful son or in getting to know him, and he never saw her again, although he paid for her care for the rest of her life.)
Cary was expelled from school in 1918 and joined the Bob Pender Stage Troupe, a comedy circus group that traveled throughout England, where he learned stilt walking, pantomime, pratfalls, and comedic timing. The troupe toured the United States in 1920, and when they were to return to Great Britain, their young star elected to stay in America and work his way toward a stage career. After some light comedies in St. Louis and finally on Broadway, Archibald Leach traveled to Hollywood in 1931 and evolved from Cary Lockwood to Cary Grant at the preference of Paramount Pictures, who eagerly put him under contract. He was quickly cast in 1932’s Blonde Venus as Marlene Dietrich’s leading man and was already headed for stardom when a force field named Mae West selected him as her leading man in two of her most successful films: She Done Him Wrong, which was nominated for a Best Picture Academy Award in 1933, and I’m No Angel, a huge box-office hit that rescued Paramount from bankruptcy. Paramount went on to cast Cary in a string of mediocre movies, and in 1936 he left the studio for a contract with Columbia Pictures, which promptly loaned him out to Hal Roach for his first real comedy showcase, Topper.
While Cary was sharing the screen in the 1930s and 1940s with some of Hollywood’s greatest actresses, including Katharine Hepburn, Rosalind Russell, and Irene Dunne, he was devoting much of his off-screen time to the first three of his five wives. In 1934 he married actress Virginia Cherrill. She divorced him a year later, claiming that he hit her. In 1942 he married Barbara Hutton, the insanely wealthy socialite who was heiress to both the Woolworth and E. F. Hutton fortunes. Any accusations that Cary was only after her for her money (Hollywood cynics nicknamed them “Cash and Cary”) were disproved when, after their divorce in 1945, it was revealed that he’d signed a prenuptial agreement waiving any claim to a single dime of her money. Cary and Barbara Hutton remained friends for the rest of their lives, and he continued to treat her son, Lance Reventlow, like a member of his own family. His next marriage was to actress Betsy Drake, on Christmas Day, 1949. That marriage didn’t end until August 14, 1962, despite Cary’s having fallen in love with Sophia Loren while filming The Pride and the Passion with her in 1957. Sophia was already very much in love with her future husband, Carlo Ponti, at the time of the filming of The Pride and the Passion.
These marriages took place, by the way, against persistent rumors that Cary was either bisexual or homosexual, particularly in light of his unapologetically being roommates with his great friend, actor Randolph Scott, off and on for twelve years. He was well aware of the rumors and was quoted as saying, “Look at it this way. I’ve always tried to dress well. I’ve had some success in life. I’ve enjoyed my success, and I include in that success some relationships with very special women. If someone wants to say I’m gay, what can I do? I think it’s probably said about every man who’s been known to do well with women. I don’t let that sort of thing bother me. What matters to me is that I know who I am.”
In the meantime, on the professional front, Cary Grant also teamed up for several films with director Alfred Hitchcock, who called Cary “the only actor I ever loved in my whole life.” Their films together, which include Suspicion (1941), Notorious (1946), To Catch a Thief (1955), and North by Northwest (1959), are still considered classics, as are so many of the more than seventy movies Cary made in his lifetime.
He was smart enough, and rebellious enough, to be the first actor to form his own production company, Grantley Productions, in the mid-1950s. This allowed him to control all aspects of his career, and the films his company produced, distributed by Universal, included such successes as Operation Petticoat (1959), That Touch of Mink (1962), and Charade (1963; with the extraordinary Audrey Hepburn). His last movie, Walk, Don’t Run, was shot in 1965. Thanks to Grantley Productions, Cary Grant received a share of the gross profits for these films, and his estate when he died was said to be worth approximately $60 million. It’s theorized, though, that Cary’s politically unpopular decision to turn his back on the well-established “studio system” and become an independent entity cost him the two Academy Awards for which he was nominated.
Cary’s next marriage, at the end of his film career, was to actress Dyan Cannon. They eloped to Las Vegas in 1965, and to his profound joy, his only child, a daughter named Jennifer, was born on February 26, 1966. This troubled marriage ended in a bitter, widely publicized divorce in 1968 and an ongoing custody battle over Jennifer that continued well into the 1970s.
On April 11, 1981, Cary married his fifth and final wife, his longtime friend and companion Barbara Harris, a British hotel publicist who was forty-seven years younger than he. She traveled with him when, in the last years of his life, he began touring the United States in a one-man show called A Conversation with Cary Grant. On the afternoon of November 29, 1986, he was preparing for an appearance in Davenport, Iowa, when he suddenly seemed a bit confused and told his wife he needed to rest. When he headed off to his dressing room, she realized something was very wrong and called for an ambulance. He was pronounced dead at 11:22 p.m. in Davenport’s St. Luke’s Hospital of a massive stroke.
Cary’s substantial fortune was divided between his wife, Barbara, and his cherished daughter, Jennifer, who, in August 2008, gave birth to her first child, a son she named Cary Benjamin Grant.
Laughter spread through the large crowd that welcomed Cary to the Other Side, when he emerged from the tunnel and announced with his trademark droll wit, “Well, that was interesting.” Alfred Hitchcock was among the first to embrace him, along with his soul mate, a woman named Rachel, who looks a great deal like Barbara Hutton, but with long braided black hair and a very tall, ample body. Cary was enormously introspective about his trip to the Scanning Machine, interested to find out that he was angrier about his lifetime while he lived it than he was aware of at the time. “I didn’t much care what people thought or said about me, whether it was the studios or the fans. I knew exactly who I was and who I wasn’t. What I did care about was the astonishing number of purported experts on me and my life who couldn’t be bothered to take the simple truth for an answer. I had more than my share of faults, but lying wasn’t among them.” His life themes of Aesthetic Pursuits and Experiencer worked both for him and against him, he believes, making him a versatile, highly adventurous performer who had a marvelous career, but was “for the most part, an unfortunate choice for a husband.”
He couldn’t wait to return to his life on the Other Side, to which those same themes seem to apply. He changes homes frequently—at any given moment he might be living in a Greek Revival captain’s house on what corresponds to your northern Atlantic coastline, a brownstone near the Towers where he goes to meditate, a simple tent in the midst of the jungle animals he adores, or a lavish castle carved into the rocky slopes of our Mount Everest. He delights in a very busy social life, never missing an opportunity to gather with everyone from actors and musicians to physicists and astronomers to former world leaders, all of whom comment after socializing with him about his charming eagerness to listen and learn, no matter what the subject. He continues to act, particularly in a brilliant stage interpretation of None but the Lonely Heart, which he performs with such “volunteers” as Grace Kelly, Ingrid Bergman, Rock Hudson, Lee J. Cobb, Anthony Quinn, and his great friends Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy. He’s also an avid golfer and is learning to play the cello, the sound of which he’s always found soothing and “soul cleansing.”
His great passion at Home, though, is his dedicated work with our many research teams determined to reverse global warming on earth and infuse solutions to your diligent scientists, researchers, and environmentalists on earth. All of us are deeply concerned, but none more than Cary, who refuses to “stand by and do nothing while my innocent grandson grows up on an endangered planet.”
His visits to earth, by the way, are devoted entirely to his grandson, and he promises, “I’ll be watching over that precious boy all his life.”