IN CARY GRANT: A Brilliant Disguise, author Scott Eyman argues that the persona we know as “Cary Grant” was an entirely fictitious invention of Archibald Leach. An ambitious lad from working-class Bristol, England, Archie fled his humble origins and by sheer grit remade himself into a debonair romantic lead and silver screen icon. Stunningly handsome, beautifully appointed in bespoke suits, always in fighting shape, and slyly charming, Grant was the object of desire for Hollywood’s leading ladies from the early talkies to the era of John F. Kennedy’s “Camelot” White House. His masquerade was so believable that even he had difficulty distinguishing his two identities.
Eyman also uses the word “disguise” to address more recent speculation about Grant’s sexuality. Was he, or wasn’t he? Eyman doesn’t come down firmly on either side but always remains open to the unlikely prospect that a man married five times could be counted as a “friend of Dorothy.” As if settling his own argument, Eyman wonders: “why would a theoretically gay actor in a tightly closeted time go out of his way to appear in hilarious drag—a fetching peignoir in Bringing Up Baby, while hopping up and down proclaiming, ‘I just went gay all of a sudden!’”
If the question of his sexuality is a frequent touchstone for Eyman, that of Grant’s childhood and family traumas plays an even greater role in the quest to understand his later career and private life. His parents were unhappily married, his father a drinker and his mother Elsie mentally unstable. She was sent off to a mental institution at her husband Elias Leach’s instigation. Archie, away at the time, returned home to the mystery of his mother’s disappearance. Elias would only reveal her whereabouts to his son more than a decade later when Grant, now an up-and-coming American actor, returned home to Bristol for a visit. Even so, she would not be released for many more years, by which time Elias was dead. Grant assumed responsibility for the care of his mother, with whom he maintained civil but strained relations.
Eyman portrays the adult Grant as a man who was conflicted, ashamed of his early status as a British music hall comic acrobat who followed England’s Pender troupe for an American tour and remained stateside to enter the vaudeville circuit. Having given up formal education in his teens and lacking any serious stage training, he managed to get undistinguished work on Broadway and eventually made it to Hollywood. There, his darkly handsome allure tipped the scales in his favor. Soon enough he was called upon to play opposite the blond and buxom Mae West, who was preparing to shoot She Done Him Wrong. Desperate to find a leading man, the brazen West saw Grant walking on the studio lot and declared him “the best-looking thing in Hollywood. … If he can talk, I’ll take him.” The film’s commercial success prompted another pairing of Grant and West in I’m No Angel. While he didn’t especially “impress the critics, the public, or his coworkers,” Paramount kept him around. The studio saw something in Grant “beyond good looks—a sense of something held in reserve.”
Among the English acting community on the Pacific Coast, Grant was aware that he lacked the classical training common to their set, so he plumped up his background to appear middle-class, turning his father Elias from a tailor to a clothing manufacturer and claiming a prep school education. But he was still beset with insecurities, with a “tetchy temperament on set,” and watched every dollar he spent, establishing his well-earned reputation of a tightwad, despite his taste for nice cars and clothes. Curiously, despite his good looks, he did not display an obvious narcissism, preferring to trade on his comic abilities to win over friends and audiences. On the other hand, he had a controlling disposition, both during movie shoots and in his many marriages.
His first marriage, to the actress Virginia Cherrill, moved forward despite the bride’s concerns about Grant’s “volatility, his jealousy and a temper that could easily ascend to rage.” Years later, she described him as “obsessive.” After she suffered a miscarriage, Grant unaccountably became jealous of any man who conversed with his wife. He didn’t want her to work and insisted that they stay home in the evenings, preferring to drink. “And when he’d had a drink or two and got angry,” Cherrill said, “he used to kick and hit me.” When she finally sued for divorce, there followed a contentious battle over alimony, and she added to the charge of physical abuse that he had “threatened to kill her.” While Grant privately complained that Cherrill accused him of being homosexual, she later denied ever saying this and, despite the passage of time, admitted to “carrying a torch for Cary for years after we parted.”
Grant’s hungry bachelor years as Archie Leach on the vaudeville circuit in New York included periods of seeking work through the National Vaudeville Artists clubhouse near Times Square. He lived on and off with an Australian named Orry George “Jack” Kelly in the heart of bohemian Greenwich Village. Kelly was friendly with such top vaudevillians as George Burns, Gracie Allen, and Jack Benny. The struggling Archie Leach met Burns when the latter was courting Allen. Burns taught Leach about timing and “ingratiating” himself with the audience since “it makes getting laughs easier.”
“Jack” Kelly developed a side business designing men’s painted neckties, which Archie Leach would sell on Broadway out of a suitcase, earning commissions. For Kelly, this was a prelude to his later success as Orry-Kelly, an esteemed costume designer for the movies. Kelly was decidedly gay, but when he later wrote about these early years, he made a point of mentioning Leach’s girlfriends, prompting Eyman to wonder “what besides financial desperation impelled Archie to room with a gay man.” Cary Grant’s friendship with Orry-Kelly soured over time, and he instructed his former roommate “to tell them nothing” if questions were raised about those early days in Greenwich Village. Still, Orry-Kelly insisted that there “was really never anything to hide.”
Orry-Kelly’s insistence that there was nothing to the rumors of Grant’s homosexuality, along with similar denials by some of Grant’s wives, sometimes has the tenor of “protesting too much.” Evidence offered for Grant’s homosexuality includes the early publicity stills of Grant and Randolph Scott from their years-long cohabitation in Hollywood, pictures that have since been widely disseminated on social media. Grant’s shared living quarters with Randy Scott near Paramount had been Orry-Kelly’s suggestion when he decided he’d had enough of Grant’s self-absorption and condescension. Neither Grant nor Scott was at the top of the Paramount food chain, but Grant was the more ambitious of the two. They’d met in 1932 as costars on the set of Hot Saturday, both cast as suitors to the same woman. They hit it off and began appearing “everywhere, social butterflies on a mad whirl.” When they roomed together, photos of the handsome pair in their sunny West Coast arrangement began to appear in movie magazines. Theirs was described as a “Damon and Pythias friendship,” though it wasn’t clear which man would be willing to die for the other.