Lives Behind the Legends: Cary Grant – Finding Happiness
If there ever was a quintessential classic Hollywood gentleman, it was Cary Grant. Sure, he was handsome, but it was his charm and sophistication that set him apart from the rest. At the same time, there seemed to be a cheerfulness and warmth about him. But underneath the surface was a side that his fans never saw: Cary was a troubled man. Having lived through a traumatic childhood, he was always in search of his identity and a sense of inner peace. When fame and success didn’t turn out to be the answer, he walked some unconventional roads to find the happiness that eluded him.
Cary was born Archie Leach, the son of Elsie and Elias, in Bristol, England. Having grown up in poverty herself, Elsie wanted more for her family and she taught little Archie manners and etiquette from the get-go. He also learned to play the piano and received good grades in school, with encouragement from his devoted mother. This laid the groundwork for the well-mannered gentleman we would come to know later on. What he didn’t know at the time, was the reason his mother was so focused on him: Elsie and Elias had already had a son and he had died at only nine months old. This caused grief so deep, that his mother never truly recovered from it. Archie did notice that his parents fought often. Usually about their lack of money and his father’s frequent boozy nights with his buddies. One day when Archie was 11, he came home from school to find his mother gone. His father informed him that she had gone on vacation for a rest. At first, Archie was simply annoyed that she had not taken him with her, but after two weeks he wondered what he had done to make her so angry. His cousins put an end to his questions by telling him that she had passed away. The truth was that Elias had put Elsie in a mental institution.
Had it been necessary to put Elsie there? Although the mental institution did see a reason to diagnose her with mania, they did not deem her a threat to herself or anyone around her. Little was known about mental health at the time, and ‘husband knows best’ was still the general way of thinking. In fact, Elsie would spend years asking why she couldn’t be released and the reason was that Elias didn’t want her to be. As soon as Elsie was gone, Elias sent Archie to live with his grandmother. From that moment on, the boy rarely saw his father. Unbeknownst to Archie, his father was busy starting a new family with a co-worker he had fallen for. Archie’s grandmother had the same taste for alcohol as her son and a grown Cary Grant would describe her as “a cold, cold woman”. So at the age of 11, Archie was left to fend for himself.
A teacher, perhaps knowing about the boy’s situation, took Archie to the theatre where he helped out with the lighting. There and then, Archie fell in love with the hustle and bustle of the theatre. He had found his people. Archie started working backstage and became familiar with a touring vaudeville group named The Bob Pender Stage Troupe. He joined the group at only 14 and started touring the country. Soon they headed for America. Life on the road was lonely and hard work for little pay. Archie realized he wanted more from life. When he was 18, he left the troupe and headed for New York. Though he initially struggled to get by, the charming Archie went from vaudeville to Broadway in only a few years’ time.
By now, Archie knew that his father had started a new family and he didn’t hold a grudge. He even went back to visit his father, stepmother, and half-brother in England when his finances finally allowed it. People who knew Archie at the time say he had only one thing on his mind: success. Something he later said was a stand-in for the love he craved. So it was no surprise to his friends when he left New York for Hollywood and secured a contract at studio Paramount. The studio changed his name to Cary Grant and he took his new Hollywood persona seriously. From now on, he introduced himself as Cary and he started hanging out with a more sophisticated crowd. Old friends complained that ‘Grant was taking over Leach’. This was not the studio’s doing: Cary desperately wanted to move up in the world and leave his struggling past behind him. The sense of style and impeccable manners his mother had taught him, helped him to easily maneuver in Hollywood’s upper class and he became friends with people like Douglas Fairbanks Jr. and Howard Hughes.
Soon, he became a popular leading man in hits like Blonde Venus (1932) and She Done Him Wrong (1933). All he needed to complete his dream life was a family. After chasing women around for years, he fell head over heels in love with Charlie Chaplin’s leading lady Virginia Cherrill. She was his type: slim, feminine, and sophisticated, just like his mother. Virginia and Cary became engaged, so he took her with him when he made his triumphant return to England after becoming a Hollywood actor.
It was 1933; he had just starred in the box-office hit I’m No Angel (1933), and it was the first time in years he would see his family again. But the real reason he made the visit wasn’t to promote his latest hit film – his father had called him weeks before and told him that he really needed to see him. Nervously, father and son went to the pub. Cary had been struck by his father’s change in appearance, later saying he suddenly looked like an old alcoholic. Then, his father told him that his mother was still alive. “I had to put her away”, he told a bewildered and increasingly upset Cary. As Cary ran out of the pub, his father yelled: “You should thank me. I did it for you!”. The news hit Cary so hard that nobody could find him for weeks. Eventually, he checked into a private hospital to dry out after a prolonged bender. His world had turned upside down. A part of him had always felt abandoned by his mother, but it turned out that she had been the one who was abandoned. He would go on to feel incredibly guilty for not looking into his mother’s sudden disappearance and the vague answers he was given. Once he sobered up, he went to visit his mother in the mental institution. He was shocked to see his mother, at only 57, with fully gray hair and missing teeth. She looked at him blankly when he told her who he was. Not comprehending that this fully grown man was her little boy.
Cary quickly left England and tried to create his own happy home: in 1934 he married Virginia. But no matter how much he tried to hide it, his past had a profound effect on his most intimate relationships. “My possessiveness and fear of losing her brought about the very condition it feared: the loss of her,” he would reflect decades later. He drank a lot, flew into jealous rages, and discouraged her from continuing her own career. The revelation of his mother’s disappearance had opened a floodgate of emotions that Cary did not know how to deal with. After only eight months, Virginia filed for divorce.
In 1935 Cary’s father passed away. His feelings towards his father were complicated, but Cary went to England for his final weeks and settled his affairs. His father’s death made him his mother’s guardian and he immediately arranged for her release from the mental institution. The facilities’ documentation noted that she hadn’t had an “attack of mental illness” for 21 years, the time she was admitted. Elsie went to live with her younger brother to acclimate and got to know her son through the many letters they sent each other. In 1937, Elsie rented an apartment with the monthly allowance Cary gave her. It was difficult for Cary to reconcile the woman who’d last taken care of him when he was 11 and who still called him Archie, with his new life as movie star Cary Grant. He never invited her to his home and kept those two worlds separate.
By now Cary had reached star status with movies like Topper (1937) and Bringing Up Baby (1938), but he wanted more. He was almost 40 and eager to start a family. He married classy Woolworth heiress Barbara Hutton in 1942, after two years of dating.
During this time World War II had begun. Cary was very worried about his mother, so he moved her into a safer area of Bristol and sent her many letters to check on her. Though England would continue to have a place in his heart, he felt a growing loyalty to his newly adopted home country. He officially became an American citizen and legally changed his name to Cary Grant. Still, Archie Leach was never far away. During this time, he made the movie Penny Serenade (1941) based on who he would have been, had he not become ‘Cary Grant’. He played a struggling Cockney with a difficult relationship with his mother. Elias Leach’s picture is even seen in his fictional mother’s apartment. He poured his all into the film, but it didn’t do well at the box office. Proving to Cary that people were not interested in seeing the real him. He would never become so emotionally involved in a movie again.
The way his past had shaped him also reared its head in his marriage to Barbara. He had worked hard for his money and never forgot what it was like to struggle. He was annoyed by the constant presence of her servants and he didn’t like spending time with her ‘old money’ friends. Cary had many friends in the upper class himself, but they all worked and he respected that. Barbara was embarrassed by him avoiding her friends and felt that he worked way too much. The pair desperately tried to make their marriage work: he took on fewer roles and Barbara agreed to a smaller house and less staff. It didn’t help. They were divorced by the end of World War II.
The end of the war meant that Cary could visit his mother for the first time in years. Still, his visits were always tied to business and he would spend only one or two days with Elsie. On the boat back from one of these trips, he met the actress Betsy Drake. Though there were almost twenty years between them, Cary was fascinated by her mind and knowledge. She practiced yoga, liked to discuss philosophy, and was open-minded.
Once they were in a relationship, it was clear that he had learned from the mistakes he made in his marriage to Virginia. Instead of being opposed to it, he was so supportive of Betsy’s career that he arranged a studio contract and a role in his new film for her. They married in 1949 and for the first time since he had started working, Cary took some time off from filming. While Cary mentored her career, Betsy taught him about poetry, philosophy, and yoga. Betsy even helped him to quit smoking by using hypnotherapy. Cary raved about the practice and started using it to relieve physical ailments as well. After a while, he realized work was still an essential part of his life and he returned to the limelight after 18 months with the spectacular To Catch a Thief (1955).
His marriage to Betsy seemed picture-perfect to everyone around them, but once again Cary became restless. While filming The Pride and the Passion (1957) in Spain, Cary fell for his co-star Sophia Loren. She was very different from his usual type, with her voluptuous figure and dark hair. But Cary fell so deeply in love with her, he even offered to divorce Betsy and marry her. Sophia, who was already involved with future husband Carlo Ponti, declined. Their affair was not just physical: they shared stories about their troubled childhood and the effect it had on them. Cary told her that his childhood was the reason his relationships never worked out. Betsy visited Cary in Spain for a few weeks and realized he was having an affair, but felt that there was nothing she could do. When heading back to America, Betsy’s boat got into a terrible accident and sank. 49 passengers drowned, but Betsy was able to get on a lifeboat.
By the time Cary came back home, their marriage had changed forever. Cary still had Sophia on his mind and Betsy was traumatized by the accident. Desperate, Betsy took a friend’s advice and went to a doctor who worked with a new method: LSD. At the time, LSD was a licensed therapeutic drug, only available to the wealthy through a specialized doctor. It was thought that its psychedelic effects led you to the core of your unresolved trauma and fears and subsequently gave you clarity and release. Betsy found it so healing that she recommended it to Cary. He would go on to take it 100 times under the care of a doctor whom he called ‘my wise Mahatma’. He later said: “When I broke through, I felt an immeasurable beneficial cleansing of so many needless fears and guilts. I lost all tension I’d been crippling myself with”. He also came to a realization about his romantic relationships: “LSD made me realize I was killing my mother through my relationships with other women. I was punishing them for what she had done to me.” Friends were a little wary of Cary’s cry of a rebirth. It certainly was the first step to a more enlightened and relaxed Cary. He admitted to the press that he had hidden behind the ‘Cary Grant’ character and he told his life story openly and without shame. He would continue to rave about LSD therapy but later admitted that “there is no end to getting well”. For Betsy, LSD therapy made her realize that their marriage wasn’t working and they separated amicably after 12 years together.
While filming That Touch of Mink (1962), Cary started dating actress Dyan Cannon. They fell in love and Cary was convinced the LSD therapy had enabled him to finally have a healthy relationship and start a family. Despite Dyan being 25 to Cary’s 58, their relationship progressed quickly. He took Dyan to meet his mother in England, something he usually saved for after the wedding. Dyan later noted that he had been excited to see his mother until the day finally arrived and he became gloomy. Things did not improve when his mother was rather cold to him and rejected the expensive mink coat he had bought her. In the following years, his mother’s letters to him would become more rambling, but she seemed to open up more as well. Whereas before she had always refused to say a bad word about her late husband, she now confided that Elias had ‘deceived’ her and that she regretted not taking a second husband. Cary appreciated her honesty. Elsie was now in her eighties and Cary convinced her to live in a nursing home of her choosing, promising her that she would never be forced to stay.
Cary and Dyan got married and a dream came true for Cary: he finally became a father. In 1966 their daughter Jennifer was born. Cary was overjoyed and told reporters outside of the hospital that she was his “greatest production”. When the new family arrived home, Cary looked at their little girl and told Dyan that this was everything he’d ever wanted. He was so devoted to fatherhood that, after 72 films, he retired completely. For the first time in his life, he didn’t need work to feel fulfilled.
But while he doted on their daughter, he became colder towards his wife. He became more and more domineering and kept persuading Dyan to take LSD therapy. The sessions were traumatizing for her. Eventually, the marriage caused Dyan too much distress and she filed for divorce after three years. After a nasty court battle, which they kept from Jennifer, they settled into a custody arrangement.
Cary still visited his mother in England and had even taken baby Jennifer to meet a glowing Elsie. He recorded Elsie talking about her life, so Jennifer could listen to it when she was older. Elsie passed away peacefully at the age of 95 in 1973. Her tape recordings were kept in a safe Cary had for Jennifer. In this, he put her childhood mementos: drawings, letters, videos he’d made of her. Cary didn’t have anything from his childhood, so he wanted things to be different for his little girl. “I was embarrassed I think, by the extent of his love and devotion to me,” Jennifer later said. As an adult, she would be very grateful for her “time machine”. Fatherhood had finally given Cary the unconditional love and warmth he had always searched for.
Cary had a life outside of fatherhood too: he joined several boards, like those of Faberge and MGM. He was still close friends with colleagues like Grace Kelly and Alfred Hitchcock. In 1981 he entered into his fifth and final marriage, to publicist Barbara Harris, who was 47 years his junior. Barbara later admitted that Cary was wary of women’s motives with him and that she had to prove she was with him for the right reasons. Once she did, she said she couldn’t have wished for “a more loving husband”. Barbara turned his house, which was in a perpetual state of renovation, into a home. Cary became a homebody for the first time in his life and Barbara lent a professional hand as his publicist and personal assistant. Jennifer adored her stepmother.
It may not have been conventional, but Cary finally had the happy life he had always wanted. As Barbara said after his death in 1986: “LSD therapy removed an awful lot of his barnacles. The birth of Jennifer brought him great love, and I think the relationship we had brought him peace. Most of the people who truly knew him commented that he was much more at ease and a much happier person in the later part of his life.”
The sources for this article are Cary Grant: The Making of a Hollywood Legend by Mark Glancy, vulture.com, abcnews.go.com, and closerweekly.com.
— Arancha van der Veen for Classic Movie Hub
Arancha has been fascinated with Classic Hollywood and its stars for years. Her main area of expertise is the behind-the-scenes stories, though she’s pretty sure she could beat you at movie trivia night too. Her website, Classic Hollywood Central, is about everything Classic Hollywood, from actors’ life stories and movie facts to Classic Hollywood myths. You can follow her on Twitter at @ClassicHC.