The story of Cary Grant’s ascension to a star of the big screen is very much a tale of two parts. Before he became the charismatic and romantic leading man that he is remembered as today, Grant’s life was drastically different. He was originally born as Archibald Leach in the northern Bristol suburb of Horfield, where the opportunity and glamour of the film industry couldn’t have seemed further away. Archibald’s father was an alcoholic and his mother, Elsie, was suffering through clinical depression, reportedly tormented by the premature death of an earlier child which she couldn’t forgive herself for.
In 1913, Elsie was committed to a mental institution, and Archibald was later told that she had died. But experiencing such turbulence at home didn’t prevent him from feeling the lure of cinema at an early age. In 1909 he saw a Charlie Chaplin stage appearance and was so inspired he began to follow the performer’s career. By the time he was a teenager, Archibald had landed a job; he was in charge of operating the lights at the Bristol Hippodrome, and used any spare moment to hang out behind the scenes with the actors.
Just a few years later, Archie’s life took a slight upward turn. In 1920 the troupe that he had become part of had the chance to travel America and perform across the states, including on Broadway. Finally, Archibald was able to journey the Atlantic and enter the realm of show business that he’d only dreamed about from the peripheries. By 1922, the touring gig with the troupe had ended, but alone in New York Archie continued his endeavours to reach fame. By day he became a stilt walker on Coney Island, and by night he became an escort at prestigious nightclubs and parties in the city. It was at this point where he began an almost Gatsby-esque transformation, where, in his own words he “pretended to be somebody I wanted to be until I finally became that person. Or he became me”. In such glitzy settings Archie educated himself in art, clothes and etiquette, practising the image of a dapper gentleman in a suit with a posh English accent (which eventually contributed to the unique transatlantic cadence he became known for).
I pretended to be somebody I wanted to be until I finally became that person. Or he became me.
It could be said that it was 1932 when the second half of Archie’s life truly began. He had followed his friend, costume designer Orry Kelly, to Los Angeles and had gained increasing exposure to Hollywood film scouts. Subsequently, the year saw him land his feature film debut in comedy This is the Night, and, following the suggestion of a studio executive, change his name to the more American sounding Cary Grant. With a burgeoning acting career and a brand new name, it seemed Cary had very much left the tragic, turbulent chapter of his early life behind. He went on to star opposite cinematic legends such as Katherine Hepburn and Marlene Dietrich, and was truly revered by audiences for not only his handsome looks but his sense of genuine charm. Grant also became somewhat of a style icon, frequently sporting stylish tailored pieces that portrayed ultimate sophistication.
That’s not to say the rest of Grant’s life was absent of turmoil; he went through 5 marriages, was circled by rumours of bisexuality, and even underwent psychotherapy where he experimented with LSD as a way to work through the issues of his past. The darkness of his childhood also awfully re-surfaced when at the age of 31 it was revealed to Grant that his mother was actually still alive and still institutionalised. Yet much like before, Grant refused to be ruined by life’s chaos and continued to successfully embed himself in the cinematic canon. Forming a close working relationship with renowned director Alfred Hitchcock, Grant starred in filmic classics such as To Catch a Thief and North by Northwest, amongst other notable works such as An Affair to Remember and Notorious, which drew enormous crowds into box offices over a period of decades.
Cary Grant is one of – if not the – most defining personality of the Golden Age of Hollywood, a figure still so widely celebrated that it appears he has achieved what he always wanted, for Archibald Leach to almost completely be forgotten.