On a ski holiday in the French Alps, Audrey Hepburn’s ex-pat American character meets a charming man played by Cary Grant, who isn’t who he claims to be. People tell lies “because they want something,” he explains in Charade. “They are afraid the truth won’t get it for them.”
Moviegoers who made this 1963 romantic-thriller a box-office success probably didn’t realize how much of Cary’s polished image was also a clever charade. “He created a completely different personality, a completely different alter ego, as a professional performer,” Cary Grant: A Brilliant Disguise author Scott Eyman exclusively reveals in the latest issue of Closer Weekly, on newsstands now.
This new biography draws on sources, including the actor’s teenage diary, to chart his transformation from Archibald Leach of gritty Bristol, England, to Cary Grant the movie star. “Archie Leach creating Cary Grant was a means of solving Archie Leach’s problems with the world,” Eyman explains.
The future star learned the value of self-reliance very early in life. Archie, the second son of Elias Leach, a tailor’s presser, and his wife, Elsie, a seamstress, never knew his older brother John, who died in early childhood — and his loss cast a pall over their family. “His mother was afraid to let Archie out of her sight. She was clingy and very neurotic — and she imparted a lot of her neurosis to ￼￼her son,” says Eyman.
Archie was 11 when his mother abruptly vanished. His father, a chronic alcoholic, eventually told him she was dead. “He became a street kid,” Eyman explains to Closer. Archie escaped by cutting class and going to the movies and the music hall. “His grades were very good, but at 14 he got himself kicked out of school,” says Eyman. “He just didn’t see a future there and he wanted out of Bristol. He had a street kid’s sense of expedience.”
With his father’s permission, Archie joined a troupe of acrobats, which began touring England. He studied dance, pantomime and acting and arrived in New York in 1920 at just 16. “He became a vaudeville performer and eventually got a contract to work in musicals,” says Eyman. On the stage, the actor’s handsome appearance stood out. A critic writing for the New York Daily News predicted “a big future in the movies.”
Archie got there in 1931, changing his name to Cary Grant when he signed with Paramount Pictures — but he couldn’t put his old life behind him so easily. On his deathbed, Cary’s father confessed that his mother, Elsie, was still alive and in a mental institution. “It rocked his world,” explains Eyman. “He got her released and set her up in an apartment in Bristol.”
Cary supported his mother until her death in 1973. He called her every Sunday, sent gifts and visited, but Elsie’s affection and attention remained elusive. “She never responded to anything [Cary] said,” says Eyman, referring to a visit witnessed by a friend of the star. “It was like she was profoundly autistic. He could never get what he needed from her as a son.”
Cary’s career blossomed with his first big commercial success, Topper, a 1937 comedy in which he plays a dapper ghost. Along the way, the actor learned to project an image that lived up to his new name, but he often felt like an imposter. “The difference between who he was and what he played was the cause of a lot of anxiety,” says Eyman. “He could act suave, but at his core he was still Archie Leach. He was always afraid of what could go wrong and tended to emphasize the negative.”
Superficially charming in his work relationships, Cary maintained only a very small circle of real friends, like playwright Clifford Odets. “He liked writers,” says the author. “He liked people who he thought could teach him something.”
His relationships with women also suffered. A serial monogamist, Cary married five times — including his 1942 union with Barbara Hutton, one of the wealthiest women in the world. Derisively nicknamed “Cash and Cary” in the press, they split after just three years.
It would take decades for Cary to become comfortable in his own skin. Along the way, he became one of Hollywood’s most legendary leading men, starring in classics such as The Philadelphia Story, Notorious and His Gal Friday. “He had an ability to alternate between wild slapstick to sophisticated comedy to dramatic work in some very serious movies,” says Eyman of the star, who was given a lifetime achievement award by the Academy of Motion Pictures in 1970.
Upon the birth of his only child, Jennifer, in 1966, Cary retired from films to devote himself to fatherhood. “He really liked kids and always wanted them,” says Eyman. It took a little longer for him to find romantic happiness, but his marriage to his final wife, Barbara Harris, was his happiest. She was “devoted completely” to Cary, “she became mother, wife, mistress and lover to him, all in one.”
Cary didn’t wear his heart on his sleeve, but the star, who died in 1986 at the age of 82, was justifiably proud of how far he’d come in life. “He worked the name ‘Archie Leach’ into several of his movies,” notes Eyman. “It’s a funny name. Archie Leach sounds like a working-class guy who changes your tires. Cary knew that and got a big kick out of it.”
For more on your favorite celebs, pick up the latest issue of Closer Weekly, on newsstands now — and be sure to sign up for our newsletter for more exclusive news!