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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Emma Brockes

The trauma of Cary Grant: how he thrived after a terrible childhood - as told by his daughter

Cary Grant and baby Jennifer
‘Dad transformed himself in a very American can-do way’ … Cary Grant. Photograph: New York Daily News Archive/NY Daily News/Getty Images

During the casting process for Archie – a forthcoming series for ITVX – about the life of Cary Grant, the late actor’s daughter, Jennifer, had several, unbreakable criteria. The actor playing her dad needed to be suave, of course, per Cary’s public persona. He had to be cerebral – her dad was an avid self-improver. And he had to wow her in a way that reflected the intensity of her relationship with a man who, at the age of 62, gave up a huge career to devote himself exclusively to raising her. Even by the standards of Hollywood, this last detail was eccentric.

It is more than 35 years since Cary died and to talk to his daughter, the sadness is still, sometimes, immediate. Jennifer Grant was a baby when her parents divorced – her mother is the actor, Dyan Cannon – and it was her father with whom she primarily lived until his death, when she was 20. “When will I stop missing him?” wrote Grant in her 2011 memoir and although, of course, the answer is never, working on the TV show has helped her close the circuit between the father she knew and the incongruity of his concealed origins – a hardscrabble upbringing in England. “I think it’s a story that deserves to be told,” says Jennifer, 57, from her house in Los Angeles, where she lives with her two children and works as an actor – most recently in the Brad Pitt film, Babylon. “It makes one appreciate Dad so much more. He had repressed so much – it was somewhat of a secret and it didn’t have to be. It was nothing shameful that he did, as a six-year-old boy.”

No aspect of his background showed up in his persona as the star of such classics as The Philadelphia Story and An Affair to Remember. It is hard to conceive now just how famous Cary was and what he represented: an idea of the sophisticated Englishman that made him Hollywood’s biggest male movie star of the prewar period, up there with Clark Gable and James Stewart. The question is how precisely he pulled this off and in the show, which has been written by Jeff Pope, who also co-wrote the Oscar-nominated movie, Philomena, the story flips between the childhood of Archibald Alexander Leach, as he was then known, and the mature Cary, who with his daughter’s approval, is played by Jason Isaacs. It was “clear from the outset,” she says, that he was the right actor for the role.

Jennifer Grant.
‘All the neglect he suffered meant he made sure that that was not my life’ … Jennifer Grant. Photograph: Andrzej Lawnik/The Guardian

Reinvention stories are so common as to be banal in Hollywood, but Cary’s is particularly wild: born into extreme poverty in Bristol, where his father, Elias, worked in a clothing factory and his mother, Elsie, was a seamstress, he had an older brother who died of an illness before Archibald was born. In response to his wife’s grief, Elias had Elsie committed to an institution, and told his surviving son – this is where things get very dark – that she had died. He then gave the young Archie to his own mother to raise and started another family. Cary would be an adult before he fully understood what had happened and that his mother was still alive. “These kinds of secrets manifest in ways later on,” says Jennifer, and her desire to collaborate with Pope on the show was motivated in part by a need to look squarely at the things her father never told her and in so doing exorcise the last of his demons. “Honestly, I felt as if I regained a limb.”

It was an extraordinary transformation: from penniless boy with a West Country accent to one of the highest paid movie stars of the 1930s and 40s (and 50s, for that matter; Cary’s seminal performance in North By Northwest in 1959 represented something of a comeback). Jennifer’s childhood was populated with legends: Frank Sinatra and Gregory Peck and their wives would stop by for Christmas dinner. The house in which she was raised was “atop a hill in Benedict Canyon, where if you went out of the house, there were probably fans waiting to get autographs.” Her father, as any fan of his movies knows, was the Hollywood ideal of an English gentleman: elegant, sophisticated, lightly ironic in outlook, and with an accent you could never quite place. You can hear the echo of her dad’s idiom when Jennifer describes something as “quite lovely”, the “quite,” here, in the English style, used as a matter of emphasis not qualification.

Cary didn’t talk to his daughter – or, as far as she knows, to anyone – about the dislocation of his background. After leaving school, he joined a vaudeville group that toured the US and from there, clawed his way up through the theatre to Hollywood, changing his name, on the advice of a producer, when he was in his late 20s and started appearing in films. To pull this off, says Jennifer, her father had to repress his origins. “He rarely spoke to me of his mum and dad, particularly his father. Occasionally, he would say something kind about the way he taught him to dress. And he spoke of Elsie, my grandma, once in a while. Given the pain of his upbringing, which forced him to push down a lot of it, he could have self-immolated, right? But it motivated him. And I think he wanted to be sure not to repeat the pattern. So the pendulum swung the other way. All the neglect he suffered meant he made sure that that was not my life.”

‘He had repressed so much’ … Cary Grant with baby Jennifer and Dyan Cannon in 1966.
‘He had repressed so much’ … Cary Grant with baby Jennifer and Dyan Cannon in 1966. Photograph: Bettmann Archive

It is significant, says Jennifer, that in spite of the fact her father was married five times, she is his only child and he had her when he was in his 60s. When her parents divorced, her mother, who was more than 30 years her father’s junior and was nominated for an Oscar in 1969 for her role in the comedy Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice, and again in 1978 for her role in Heaven Can Wait, was away working most of the year. Cary in effect retired to raise his daughter, something she believes is connected to his background. He took parenting very seriously and she thinks he resisted having a family for most of his life “out of fear that it would all go to hell. That he couldn’t sustain a relationship. That he wouldn’t be a good parent. I think if my mom hadn’t come along and pressed the issue he might never have done it.”

In the second half of his life, there were persistent rumours about Cary’s sexuality, which the show addresses and which his daughter is adamant are wrong. When she pushed back against the gossip in her memoir, she says, “I received hate mail saying that I was anti-gay, which couldn’t be further from the truth.” She thinks her father’s style, which she characterises as “elegant masculinity”, threw people off. “If you’re around your parents a lot, you see them in ways that almost no one else does. And I never saw a hint of that. I think I would have picked up on it – not that I would’ve cared. But I have to speak the truth of the matter: Dad was charming, and he had great friendships, but he wasn’t flirtatious with men. A friend of mine sent me a picture the other day of Gregory Peck, my father and Mervyn LeRoy and they’re good buddies. But I never got that hint. Perhaps earlier in his life he had an affair [with a man]. I’ll never know, but if he did, fantastic. I hope he enjoyed it.”

The irony of all this is that Cary’s style was self-created. For most of his adult life, he played the role of a suave English gentleman that bore no resemblance to his background – a piece of reinvention which is, of course, a quintessentially American gesture. “Dad transformed himself in a very American can-do way,” says Jennifer. “The self-made man and all that. But he was a Brit at heart, very refined and polished. Even in the way he ate. He loved his corned beef and cabbage. And crumpets. Cornflakes!”

Cary Grant with Jennifer and a goat in 1975.
‘I think he wanted to be sure not to repeat the pattern. So the pendulum swung the other way’ … Cary Grant with Jennifer and a goat in 1975. Photograph: Maureen Donaldson/Getty Images

Where did he put the trauma of those early years? As a child, Jennifer was taken by her father to Bristol a few times and met his mother Elsie – who is played in the show by Harriet Walter. She never noticed anything amiss in those visits, she says. “It was always a happy affair. Elsie was thrilled to see me.” Now she wonders how the experience was for her father; what those encounters represented to him. She believes that after moving to the US he made a decades-long effort to fix himself. “He did a lot of work on himself. First he read. He was self-taught and that had a huge effect on him. And LSD! He used to say to me you know how old ships or whales get barnacles on their belly? He said taking LSD ‘helped me remove the barnacles.’”

Still, these days she looks back on her childhood with a curiosity she didn’t have at the time. Her father was very loving, but also, perhaps, over-involved in her life, and committed to order in a way that, seen through the lens of his background, now strikes her as a rebuke to his early experience of chaos. She sees his influence on her. The other day, says Jennifer, “I went upstairs and on the way up found myself picking flecks off the stairs; I laughed and thought this is Dad! There couldn’t be a speck of anything. It wasn’t OCD but he was meticulous. With everything.” In her memoir, Jennifer relates how her father would cut articles out of the newspaper for her including lots of feminist pieces about women getting ahead in the world. He wrote her endless funny notes. These small, thoughtful acts of love are even more touching given he had no model on which to base them.

Jennifer with her father in 1986.
‘He was meticulous with everything’ … Jennifer with her father in 1986. Photograph: Pictorial Press Ltd/Alamy

Jennifer’s own children, a 14-year-old son she called Cary, and her daughter, Davian, who is 11, were born long after Cary’s death; he would have been thrilled by them, she says. “I wish he could have met them.” Do her children have any real sense of how famous their grandfather was? Jennifer laughs. “Occasionally a teacher will say to my son: ‘Oh, Cary Grant, your mother must’ve loved that actor!’ And he’ll say that was my grandfather.” They would see him in old movies on TV, but the scale of his fame didn’t hit home until earlier this year, she says, “when I was invited to introduce Bringing Up Baby at the Academy. It’s such a lovely, fun film, and afterwards, I think Cary had a new sense of oh that’s my grandfather! Seeing him up on that huge screen.”

Participating in the TV series was a strange experience, says Jennifer, who was nervous of spilling secrets her father had guarded his entire life. But being in Bristol on a reconnaissance trip changed that. One day, Grant and Pope knocked on the door of the two-up two-down where her father was raised and which bears a blue plaque with his name on the wall. An elderly woman answered and allowed them in. “It was the first moment on the trip when I really had to hold back my emotions,” says Jennifer. “I stood and touched the wall and looked out of the window that would have been his view as a boy.” She understood then that telling her father’s hidden story didn’t diminish him at all. Quite the opposite. “Telling Archie’s story only adds to Cary’s story.” It adds to her story, too. “It is somewhat of a full circle. I don’t have the words for it yet, but it has changed me, this process. It was a lovely one – quite challenging, but” – and almost 40 years after his death, her father’s voice echoes, “lovely.”

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