My father loved the movies. His father, my grandfather, had loved the movies. I do not know if my great-grandfather had loved the movies, but I feel sure he would have done so if there had been movies back then! I grew up hearing tales of how my father and his elder brother , the two eldest of my grandfather's six children, were often taken to the cinema by their father. Of how, while growing up in Madras, they had once gone out to see one film, found that the show was sold out, and were promptly taken to the theatre nearby and shown another new release. Of how, when they came out of that screening, my grandfather had turned to the boys and asked, 'Do you want to see --- film (that they originally came for)?' And upon my father and uncle nodding in excited agreement, had promptly taken them both to watch that film as well.
It was a feat that my father would repeat, many, many years later, with me. We went to watch Zanjeer on its re-release, found out that the matinee was actually Caravan and that Zanjeer was the evening show, watched Caravan, came out, had a snack at a nearby hotel and went right back in to watch Zanjeer. (My mother was, well, not pleased, to put it mildly.)
I have other tales as well, of my tryst with the movies - of my father taking me to watch My Fair Lady on the eve of my Maths board exams, brushing off my mother's protests by saying that if I hadn't studied the whole year, I wasn't going to do much studying the night before. Of my father coming home from office, in the pouring rain, with tickets to Laawaris. Of taking me to watch three Amitabh Bachchan films in one week. Of introducing me not only to Raj Kapoor and Dev Anand, but Gregory Peck and Humphrey Bogart and Marilyn Monroe and Cary Grant...
So it was, when I was going through a particularly bad time a month or so ago, my husband came back from the library, grinning as if he had found a treasure. Indeed he had. In the library's non-fiction section, he had stumbled upon a book on Cary Grant. It was not a biography, though it did trace the growth of the man called Archibald Leach and the artiste known as Cary Grant. I really wasn't in the mood to read (or write or work or do anything at all), but this was Cary Grant!
While the blurbs at the back is most often used to hype a book, I was struck by what Gregory Peck had to say about Grant: 'The first book about the real Cary - lively, warm, always entertaining, totally honest - like the man himself.' So I flipped to where Nancy Nelson, the author (and Grant's agent on the lecture circuit during the last years of his life), had written about the background of the book.
Nancy's first interaction with Cary Grant was over the telephone. Ginger Rogers was represented by the lecture bureau of which Nancy was vice-president, and for one of her appearances, she had provided a photograph of herself with Cary Grant instead of the usual (and more obvious) choice - Fred Astaire. But they needed Grant's approval as well. Grant was by this time, long retired from the arc lights, and had steadfastly maintained his privacy. So Nancy wrote asking for his approval. Within days, she got a call back from Cary Grant. He wanted to know how Ginger was, where he could find her, and did Nancy have a number where he could reach her? So casual and easy was the conversation that Nancy almost forgot to ask him about the photograph.
|Cary Grant with Ginger Rogers|
By this time, I was smiling. And my husband looked like a cat who had eaten all the cream. ('You smiled for three and a half seconds!)
That first lecture went exceedingly well, with Grant holding an audience of 2600 people captive for two and a half hours. But he was not very keen to do any more. But almost a year after that initial lecture, Cary Grant persuaded Nancy to start her own agency, and promised he would be her first client. So began a professional relationship that would only end with Grant's death.
Cary Grant had steadfastly refused to pen his autobiography. But Nancy Nelson kept detailed notes of the 36 public appearances he made between late 1983 and late 1986, when he died, intending to write a memoir based on her notes. But meetings with two of Grant's closest friends after his death, which ended in laughter and in tears, made her expand her original premise.
Grant's widow, Barbara, helped Nancy to get interviews with Grant's friends and colleagues, both famous and not so famous. Cary Grant had filed all his correspondence. Barbara Grant provided that immense collection to Nancy, along with photographs, early contracts, scripts, jokes, notebooks, speeches, etc. Grant's friends, introduced by Barbara and by Katherine Hepburn, were more than happy to part with Grant's letters to them.
The book begins with the birth of Archibald Alexander Leach on 18th January 1904 in Bristol, England. He was thirteen when he discovered the theatre; by the next year, Grant was bunking school to attend the matinee at the theatre. Later that same year, he ran away to join Bob Fender's troop of knockabout comedians, writing a letter to Pender posing as his own father.
We learn about his early days - how he came to the US, how he sold ties out of a suitcase on Broadway, or became a walking advertisement for the race track on stilts, how he took part in vaudeville acts whenever he got a chance... It was the memory of these days of hardship, and the unexpected kindness of Lucrezia Bori, the lyric soprano of the Metropolitan Opera, that made Grant generous to other strugglers throughout his life.
Finally, from vaudeville, where he got his first speaking part in The Woman Pays, he moved rather quickly to Broadway where his friendship with Arthur Hammerstein's nephew got him the role of the understudy for Golden Dawn. Though he had quite a few successes on Broadway, Grant flunked Fox Film Corporation's talent hunt. '...bowlegged, and his neck is too thick' was how he was summarily dismissed.
In a bid to legitimise his stage appearances, he began appearing in musicals, and was successful enough to buy himself a new car. But Grant wanted more - he had his eyes on the motion picture and begged to be released from his contract. A screen test with Paramount gave him his first break, and a new name. The studio didn't want a hero named Archibald Leach. And so emerged Cary Grant. (That would lead to one of Grant's famous quotes, when told by an admirer that he would love to be Cary Grant: 'So would I!')
In a later conversation with Roderick Mann, Grant admitted that there were so many advantages to the new name - every Christmas he telephoned Clark Gable to enquire if Gable had got any monogrammed stuff that he didn't want. 'If he said yes, I'd hurry around, and we'd exchange initialed presents.'
Grant's first feature film was This is the Night, and by the end of the year, he had six more films opposite some of the biggest names in Hollywood. Mae West often claimed to have 'discovered Grant'. (If that man can talk, I want him for my costar.) And despite his reluctance to talk ill of anyone, Grant made the exception in the case of West: 'She was intent upon what she wanted to do, and did it. Everyone else suffered the consequences...'.
Grant had already done eight films before acting with West. But his professional life wasn't all that great. So he made excursions into Radio, working with some of the best talent in town. Paramount had also begun loaning him out to other studios. In 1934, one such loan to RKO had him starring with Katherine Hepburn in Sylvia Scarlett, the first of four movies he would do with her. This would be his breakthrough film, and the beginning of a lifelong friendship with Hepburn. According to Katherine Hepburn, Grant '...was the only reason to see Sylvia Scarlett. It was a terrible picture, but he was wonderful in it.'
|With Katherine Hepburn in Holiday (1938)|
Finally in 1937 came a film that advanced Grant's career - The Awful Truth with Irene Dunne. Grant hated working in the film, however, since director Leo McCarey didn't have a script. Two successes at Paramount and one at MGM propelled Grant to end his contract with Paramount and freelance, something that was unheard of at that time. Paramount offered him a stupendous sum of money - $3500 per week - to stay, but Grant wanted not only the liberty to choose his roles, but also his co-stars. It is interesting to learn that Grant, now on his way up as a saleable star, was not without his own idols. He remembers being so nervous at meeting Greta Garbo that he struck out his hand and said, 'Oh, I'm so happy you met me.'
Nancy does not shy away from tackling the oft-repeated canard about Grant's sexuality either. Grant was amused by the rumour that he was gay. According to him, it just made women want to prove them wrong. As one of his co-stars put it, Grant was admired by the men and loved by the women; and the more well-liked you are, the more the envy that surrounds you.
The book also chronicles his loving relationship with both his parents, and how he took care of both at different times, despite the distance between them. It faithfully records his romances with Phyllis Brooks and Sophia Loren, his five marriages (with Virginia Cherrill, the already twice married Barbara Hutton, Betsy Drake, Dyan Cannon, and Barbara Grant), and his absolute love for his daughter, Jennifer, whom he called his 'best production'.
With fourth wife, Dylan Cannon, and daughter, Jennifer
Photo credit: Daily Mail, UK
It chronicles his dislike of Arsenic and Old Lace ('I'd have been better as one of the old aunts!'), and how his attention to detail infuriated the set designers of Walk, Don't Run. (He made them rebuild a set because they had forgotten continuity.) And how, while shooting An Affair to Remember, he pushed the costume designers into a tizzy because he pointed out that the buttons on the ship's stewards' uniforms were different from those that stewards wore on the real Queen Mary. The filmmakers dismissed his concerns, noting that audience wouldn't know the difference. Grant was adamant. 'Yes, but I'll know it.' The buttons were changed.
Reminiscences from his friends pepper the pages - Katherine Hepburn, Ingrid Bergman, Grace Kelly, James Stewart Gregory Peck... he seems to have been not just liked but loved by both contemporaries and newcomers. Co-stars, both male and female go on record to talk of his generosity as an actor, of his need to ensure the picture was good, not just himself. Ralph Bellamy, his co-star on The Awful Truth said, 'There was no upstaging. Quite the opposite. He would give you your moment. He was always laughing and great to work with - friendly and receptive.'
|With Douglas Fairbanks Jr. in Gunga Din (1939)|
Douglas Fairbanks Jr. credits Grant with giving him one of his best remembered roles in Gunga Din, telling him that he would play whichever part Fairbanks refused. 'He was wonderful,' reminisces Fairbanks, 'and the most generous player I 've ever worked with.' Rosalind Russell called Grant her black-eyed cupid - he had introduced her to his friend, Frederick Brisson. Ingrid Bergman was grateful for his public support of her during her time of trial. Alfred Hitchcock told George Barrie, 'Knowing Cary is the greatest association I've had with any film actor. Cary's the only actor I ever loved my whole life.'
The only peeve that Grant had - with David Niven, one of his closest friends - is also faithfully narrated. Niven had a habit of appropriating others' stories, and Grant was irritated to find his stories in Niven's autobiography The Moon is a Balloon.
Grant always wrote long, hand-written letters to his friends (the foundation of this book), and he kept binders full of notes, including his collection of jokes. Grant was also fond of practical jokes. While staying at William Randolph Hearst's mansion, he took a ride in a plane flown by Hearst Jr. They filled paper bags with flour and buzzed around the hangar throwing the bags at the asphalt roof. It destroyed the roof and frightened the guests. Hearst Sr. was not amused.
His accountant, a friend of long standing, records how Grant steadfastly refused to take advantage of tax loopholes (at one point, he was paying a whopping 93% in taxes), and of how he hated to waste money, even when he was on an expense account. But Grant, unable to take part in the war (he applied, and was rejected) donated a lot of his time and money to the war effort. He also gave generously to charity, and friends and even complete strangers (to him at the time) vouch for his personal generosity.
A number of scriptwriters (Richard Brooks, Sidney Sheldon) owe their start as directors to his generosity of spirit. Leading actors (Richard Anderson, Ramon Navarro, Gilbert Roland, Antonio Moreno) have owed roles in the beginning days of their careers to Grant's recommendations.
Thus is drawn the picture of a man, who was truly beloved of all who knew him; not an autobiography, not a salacious peek into a celebrity's private life, not rumours or conjecture, not even a personal look at Nancy Nelson's relationship with Cary Grant. Instead, Nelson retreats to the background, acceding centre stage to the voices of the many people who were close to Cary Grant, as colleague or friend, or to those whose paths crossed that of a gentleman's and could not forget him.
importantly, we get to hear Cary Grant's voice, full of the charm and the
dignity that he exhibited onscreen, coupled with some naughty jokes that were
part of his vaudeville background, his honesty about his experiments with LSD
and hypnotism, and to see some extremely rare photographs that capture the
almost impish delight in his eyes - 'The most memorable thing about Cary was
his sense of joy.'
With Hitchcock on the sets of North by North West (1959)
Photo credit: tcm.com
I like biographies, a peek into the life of people I admire, and to know a little bit more of what shaped their choices and their life experiences. This must be the first book in ages that I have devoured in one sitting, putting aside even work so I could finish reading it cover to cover. I laughed outright at some of the episodes, and was touched at some of the others. Each episode, narrated by someone else, gave me a clearer, and more endearing picture of Grant, the man.
It is not the most perfectly written book - it is not chronological, so you are weaving back and forth as to timelines, and it could have done with tighter editing, but reading it is like being introduced to Cary Grant, and coming back each time knowing you had spent a delightful evening with a delightful human being. As James Forsyth remarked, 'In this book you will discover the real Cary Grant, and you will love him even more.' I did. And I do.