Stage • Screen • Radio • Print Media

LH Header

"Those eyes, those eyes [could] make me do most anything they
want me to do" ~ Conway Twitty

Featured Post

BBC Report About Leslie Howard's Death

[BBC Report of Leslie Howard's Death] On Saturday, July 30, I posted on Facebook the 2014 BBC report on Leslie Howard's Death ...

Leslie Howard's Biography
[Work In Progress - More to Follow]

Leslie Howard (3 April 1893 - 1 June 1943) was an English stage and film producer, director, actor and playwright. He also wrote for magazines and newspapers and appeared on numerous radio shows as guest and producer. Howard even had his own 30-minute radio show on CBS in the early months of 1936, Leslie Howard's Matinée. Unfortunately, no recordings of that show survive. (To see a list of Leslie Howard's radio appearances, and the recordings that have survived, visit the Radio Appearance Log Page.)

The Early Years - 1893 to 1914

Howard was born Leslie Howard Steiner in Forest Hill, London, to Ferdinand and Lilian Steiner (née Blumberg). Lilian's first ancestor in England was Leslie's great grandfather, Ludwig Alexander Blumberg. Ludwig had migrated from Courland in Russia in 1834, originally from East Prussia. Brewers and distillers, the family's language and culture was Germanic and their religion, Jewish.

Ludwig (later anglicized to Louis) set up shop selling luxury goods imported from Germany and France. He married a gentleman's daughter, Jane Wetherill, of Brockham in Surrey in 1835 and together they had six children. Ludwig's business was so successful that not only was he able to bring his brothers and sisters to England, he was to be the first resident of a newly built mansion at 20 Kensington Palace Gardens, now owned by the Sultan of Brunei.(2)

Sultan of Brunei, 20 Kensington Palace Gardens, Kensington, London W8 4QQ, UK

[Sultan of Brunei residence, formerly owned
by Leslie Howard's great grandfather]

[Interior of 20 Kensington Palace Gardens]

Of Ludwig's six children Leslie's grandfather, Charles, attended Trinity College where it was necessary to take an oath as a member of the Church of England. According to Estel Eforgan in her book, Leslie Howard: The Lost Actor, this was not a problem as Charles' father, Ludwig, married Leslie's grandmother in the Church and had assimilated into "respectable" English society. Ludwig "Louis" Blumberg had left his Jewish religion behind.

Charles Blumberg studied law and was admitted at the Inner Temple as a barrister in 1860. He had inherited quite a sum from his father which made it unnecessary for him to work at all and he did not practice much. He died in 1911 when Leslie was 18 years old. Leslie's great uncle, Frederick, was a captain in the regiment of the 17th Lancers. He contracted syphilis in 1865 while stationed in Secundarabad and died a very unprestigious death in 1882. One of Frederick's sons, Herbert, rose to the rank of General Sir Herbert Blumberg of the Royal Marines. His obituary in The Times called him "one of the ablest Marine Officers of his generation" and added that "his work during the [First World War] and after was invaluable."(2)

Charles Blumberg married Mary Elizabeth Roworth in 1868. Her father had been in the printing business and his name is mentioned in Jane Austen's letters. By 1890, the Blumbergs were living in Upper Norwood. The area was known for its associations to the arts and the Blumbergs had frequent presentations at their home. This is how their daughter, Lilian, met her future husband, Ferdinand Steiner (Leslie's parents). Ferdinand worked in an office in London for little money but supplemented his small salary by playing accompaniment on the piano for young ladies in the homes of clients. Ferdinand was only 28 and Lilian's parents didn't approve of him. To Lilian's parents, Ferdinand had no money and no future, but even worse, he was a foreigner.(6) Even though the Blumbergs had only arrived in England two generations before, Ferdinand was of the new wave of Hungarian Jewish immigrants and was not looked on as favorably as the previous generations had been. But Lilian won out and the two were married in the West London Synagogue in 1891, thus cutting herself off from her family.

[West London Synagogue Interior]

Because the Blumberg family had ceased being Jewish back in 1835 (possibly even earlier) when Ludwig married Jane, and because Jewish descent is through the maternal line, Lilian could not properly be married in any synagogue. The marriage was valid under English law but Lilian's children could not be counted as Jewish. As a matter of fact, Ferdinand's membership in the synagogue lapsed immediately.(2)

On 3 April 1893 Ferdinand and Lilian had their first child. Born at 31 Westbourne Road, Forest Hill, London, Leslie Howard Steiner was reported to be a beautiful child with deep blue eyes (although short- or near-sighted) and curly blond hair, although Leslie himself always claimed to have been born bald.

[Leslie Howard Steiner, 1895, at the age of 2]

When Leslie was 5 years old, his father took the family to Vienna, Austria, in an attempt to give them the experience of the cultural and intellectual brilliance happening there. It was at this time that Leslie learned to speak German. The city had seen a large influx of Jews and Leslie lived amongst such notable geniuses as Freud, Schoenberg and Mahler. Jews ran the banks and had an enormous influence in literature, arts, medicine, philosophy, politics and journalism. But because Jews still needed the protection and support of other Jews, and the Steiners were not part of that group (they were not practicing that faith), they did not have a proper place in any society and the family was forced back to England in 1903 when Leslie was 10 years old.

[The Vienna Hofoper (now Staatsoper),
pictured in 1898 during Mahler's conductorship]

The Steiners were no longer looked upon with as much disfavor by Lilian's family as they had been initially and they were helped to buy the house next door on Jasper Road, Upper Norwood. However, the Blumbergs expected the family to fit in with their society so Ferdinand changed his name to Frank Stainer and all Germanic influences had to be eradicated. (Leslie Howard's military records show him as Leslie Steiner and the Public Notice of Leslie Howard's surname change from Steiner to Howard posted in The London Gazette on 5 March 1920 confirms that. Either Ferdinand's name change was only cosmetic or the name change did not include that of his son.) Leslie was no longer allowed to speak German and any lapse would result in the cancellation of treats. His uncle, Wilfred, even went so far as to make him eat mustard on toast if he forgot and let a German word escape. Leslie remembered later that he became shy and withdrawn at that time.(2)

[View of The Crystal Palace, London, 1903]

[The Crystal Palace and surrounding neighborhood]

The Steiner's house was large and comfortable and looked out over London and was just around the corner from The Crystal Palace, which must have provided hours of amusement for Leslie and his siblings. Ronald Howard, Leslie Howard's son, states in Trivial Fond Records, a book containing the writings of Leslie Howard with explanatory passages added by Ronald, that Leslie started school at Mr. Bolland's prep school in Upper Norwood [Eforgan refers to it as Belvedere House(2)] in 1904 and seemed to have a talent for writing. Leslie dreamed of someday making his living at it, writing later: "As a boy the possibility of being an actor never even occurred to me. Nor could it have occurred to anybody who knew the shy and inarticulate youth that I was. I wanted to write. I felt I could express myself on paper; alone in a room I felt articulate and creative."(6)

With his mother's encouragement, Leslie made a small study in the box room of their attic on Jasper Road, naming it "Allandale." Leslie spent hours working on his plays, one of which was performed at his school for Christmas when he was just 13, in Latin mind you.(2)(5) His stories, which included The Impersonation of Lord Dalton: A Story of the Diplomatic Service, The Story of the Green Pearls, The Lost Stiletto and The Magician's Mask, appeared in The Penny Weekly and various other magazines, and although his son Ronald Howard believed they also appeared in The Strand Magazine(5), according to Estel Eforgan(2), none can be found. His parents argued for hours over this activity, with his mother as supporter and his father seeing it as a waste of his time. One thing is certain, however. All those stories Howard spent hours imagining would be cherished by his children years later as they listened intently before falling asleep at night.

[The Impersonation of Lord Dalton by Leslie Howard]

Although Leslie had not considered being an actor, his writing was not limited to short stories. He wrote plays as well. It was natural that Leslie would want to stage these for his friends and family. Leslie, his friends Fred Buser and Fred Mitchell, and Leslie's mother, Lilian, began presenting musical comedies in the living room of their home. Leslie could play the piano well and loved to fill the house with ragtime. When he wasn't staging a play, Leslie and his friends would perform concerts in the backyard with improvised musical instruments.(6)

Leslie had two uncles who were appearing on the stage as well, Wilfred Noy (who had earlier shoved mustard laden toast into Leslie's mouth) and Arthur Howard (not to be confused with Leslie's brother). Both had dropped their surname, Blumberg, to form their stage names. Leslie's mother, a frustrated would-be actress, appeared in several stage productions and before long, Leslie and his mother, along with his friends, "the two Freds," had formed their own production company, the Upper Norwood Dramatic Club, based out of their house. The troupe produced musical comedies and performed publicly in the years leading up to the war, with Leslie writing and starring along with his mother and even his sister, Dorice. By 1912, the company had become too big for their living room and so moved to Stanley Hall, South Norwood. Their first production of The True Artist, written by Leslie Howard Steiner, and Ours, by T. W. Robertson, appeared there on December 26th, and starred Lilian and Leslie H. Steiner. Leslie's next known productions, Deception, another original Leslie Howard Steiner play, and The Perplexed Husband, by Alfred Sutro, followed on 20 December 1913.

[Stanley Hall, South Norwood]

In Eforgan's book(2), she states Leslie's next school was Alleyn's. This school is not mentioned in either of his children's books, however. Eforgan reports Leslie was not so comfortable as he had been previously and didn't seem to fit in. Eforgan goes on to state that one of his reports called him "a shuffler, little power, little energy, no morals."(2) She surmises that this view of Howard may have stemmed from his German name and accent because Germans were not in favor at the time. His experience here may have led to his life-long dislike and distrust of public education.

[Alleyn's School, Dulwich, South London, England]

Leslie's father, a somewhat stern man, decided that his son's "hobby" had gone far enough. But at nineteen, Leslie did not seem suited to the future his father envisioned. Leslie would have been happy to continue acting and writing and allowing his father to support him, but to his father this was unthinkable. Howard either decided to leave school or his father withdrew him, but either way, Leslie left Dulwich College sometime between the ages of 17 and 19 and took a job as a junior clerk in the purser's office of a steamboat running on the Thames River.(2) Apparently, he wasn't there long, if at all, because within a short time he is listed as a clerk at the Whitehall branch of Cox and Co.'s bank, a job his father arranged for him.(6) 

People who remember Leslie at this time report that he was reserved with strangers but very confident and companionable amongst friends, which may have been a result of his elegant good looks. An actress he worked with remembered him as a "fresh-faced boy with a charming smile."(2)

The First War Years - 1914 to 1916

When war finally arrived Leslie was 21 and still working at the bank. Leslie was definitely not suited for banking. Although Leslie claimed he was a good clerk the job was so boring that Leslie was eager to leave his job to join the military. Like many young men of his time, Howard was also caught up by the romance and glamour of war.

Leslie and his friend, Fred Mitchell, proceeded to the recruiting office where they found two lines: Infantry and Calvary. For Fred Mitchell the choice was obvious as neither of them had ever ridden a horse. Mitchell headed to the line marked infantry, but Howard stopped him. "What? And walk?" Howard asked his friend. "When you could ride?" "But I can't," Mitchell replied. "Well, nor can I. But I'm jolly well not going to walk," said Leslie, and he proceeded to queue up at the end of the line marked calvary.(5)

In the words of his son, Ronald Howard, in Trivial Fond Records"The next day, mounting an enormous charger, he was swiftly deposited in a sprawling heap on the ground and heard for the first time the classic calvary sergeant's question: 'Who told you to dismount?'" After his initial training of five months, Howard was accepted as a second lieutenant in the Northamptonshire Imperial Yeomanry (NIY), a mounted territorial regiment. Little did he know then that war was neither romantic nor glamorous.

[Leslie Howard Steiner in uniform, c. 1915]

[Leslie Howard Steiner,
2nd Lieutenant, c. 1915]

It seems that the army didn't really know what to do with a calvary regiment in a war being fought in the trenches, so Leslie's unit continued training for an additional ten months in an idyllic little town called Colchester in the English countryside. It was here that he met Ruth Evelyn Martin, aged 21. Mrs. Howard later recalled for Motion Picture magazine that Howard was "eating sponge cake and drinking milk" in a tea room when her attention was drawn to him. Three weeks later they were married.(4)

[Ruth Evelyn Martin, c. 1935]

Leslie was actually "engaged" at the time he met Ruth to a young woman, the eighteen year old daughter of a diamond mine owner(4), approved of by his father, Frank. When Leslie would write to "Buzz," as she was called, Ruth made sure to include little notes describing the care she was taking of Leslie. Apparently, Buzz relayed her concerns about Leslie's "caregiver" to his father and when Leslie failed to show up at home for a scheduled visit with the family, and more importantly with Buzz, in March, 1916, Frank made a trip to Colchester to find out what was going on. When Frank voiced his disapproval to Leslie and told him to end his relationship with Ruth, Leslie announced that it was too late, Leslie and Ruth had been married that morning at St. Mary at the Walls Church. Ruth had not consulted her parents either. But there was nothing any of them could do. Leslie and Ruth had chosen their path and it was one they would travel together for the next 27 years, until his death.

[St. Mary at the Walls Church, Colchester]

[St. Mary at the Walls Church interior]

Leslie Ruth Howard, Leslie Howard's daughter, recounts in her book, A Quite Remarkable Father, that Leslie and Ruth then spent some time together at Mayfield, in Sussex. Leslie's regiment had moved there in preparation to deploy to France for the buildup prior to the Battle of the Somme which commenced on July 1st. Ms Howard states that her father shipped out to France and was there for a time, returning at least once on leave after the Battle of the Somme had begun—after July 1. She remembers in detail a story told to her of how her grandmother, while walking down Jasper Road in London with her mother and not expecting her father back from the Front, heard a voice call out to Ruth. Turning to look, her grandmother saw a khaki figure covered in mud and told her daughter-in-law, "I think that soldier called to you, Ruth dear." Ruth recognized Leslie and ran to him (much like Melanie runs to Ashley in Gone With The Wind) and embraced him while crying out, "Oh darling! Never mind my suit—thank God you're home!"(6)

[Leslie Howard Steiner in uniform, c. 1915]

Ms Howard goes on to state(6) that after returning to France, and after the Battle of Passchendaele had begun at the beginning of July, Leslie's nerves gave out and Leslie was sent home with "a case of severe shell shock." Ronald Howard, in Trivial Fond Records, states that his father returned to France in the summer of 1916 and while "crossing some open land between the reserve battalions and the front line, Leslie and his detachment came under fire from distant German guns. As a result of this haphazard strafing, Leslie suffered shell-shock and was invalided home by the regimental medical officer as 'unfit for field service.'" According to Estel Eforgan in her book(2), Leslie relinquished his commission on 18 May 1916, having no record of ever seeing action in France. She states that "from the few records that are left, April and May 1916 were relatively quiet times." Eforgan bases her statement on "the remaining papers of the NIY" consisting of "various diaries, articles and despatches [sic] from the men of the regiment" and "Inns of Court Regiment's post-war collection of records for all the officer candidates who passed through their hands at this time."

As an aside—

I find at least four problems with Eforgan's conclusions regarding Leslie Howard's war service:

(1) Eforgan does not produce a separation document. She uses a "record of rank and file" dated 3 September 1915, making note that it does not designate service in France. But Eforgan does not give the date that record was produced. Since we know Howard left the military sometime after May 1916, all details of his service between 3 September 1915 and his date of separation are missing.

(2) Eforgan uses the notation made on 18 May 1916 "2nd Lieutenant Steiner to relinquish his commission" which seems to infer that he will be separating from the service at some time after that date but she doesn't produce an actual document showing the date of separation. Couldn't it be that after his marriage in March 1916 and Howard's brief time with his wife in Mayfield he requested to be released from duty and it was noted in his file?

(3) Eforgan states "April and May 1916 were relatively quiet times" but one of the largest and longest battles, the Battle of Verdun, was being waged in northeastern France. Since Ms Eforgan can produce no record at all of Howard's service after September 1915 it is more likely the records are incomplete and that Mr. Howard saw action just as he claimed.

(4) After Eforgan calls into question Howard's service during WWI, she backtracks and concedes that Howard did serve in France, or at a minimum may have served in France, using Leslie Ruth Howard's statements(6) (shown above and below) as reasons to believe Howard's claims. Eforgan also uses a "letter from Leslie to the New York Times [sic: The New York Times] in [4 June] 1922, explaining in detail the traffic laws of France" as proof that Howard had been in France. Unless Eforgan viewed the entire letter, the above description of the following extraction to prove that Howard had been in France is a leap too big for me to take. If Eforgan did not view the entire letter, then, in my opinion, her description of what actually appears in the paper is an exaggeration. If that is the case, in how many more instances does she exaggerate in her book? How many more times does she formulate conclusions based on too little information?

[Extracts from Letters to The New York Times, 4 June 1922]

My comments are not meant to totally discount Eforgan's book(2). It is obvious that she has put a great deal of effort into researching Mr. Howard's life and I have drawn heavily on her research, but I do verify her facts against another source when she has no reference for a statement she makes. She is definitely free to state her opinions, which do seem to always take the negative view of Mr. Howard. I just don't happen to agree with them. It seems almost as though she does not like Leslie Howard personally. I am puzzled as to who she thinks will be drawn to her book if not the people who are already his fans. It is my opinion that her book would be improved without the negative commentary and postulations. My comments are meant as a caution to anyone researching into Leslie Howard that every statement and conclusion should be scrutinized for its veracity and its logic and not merely taken at face value.


Leslie Ruth must have remembered her father's service in WWI based on stories she heard from her family since she had not been born at the time. It is hard for me to imagine that her parents and her grandmother fabricated a story of Leslie's war service for the benefit of a child. Ms Howard later recounted that her father suffered from night terrors especially when traveling in sleeping compartments on trains because of his experience during the war.(6) We will never know all the facts of Mr. Howard's war service. However, because his life was eventually cut short by the German Luftwaffe during WWII, what does it matter? Why did Eforgan stain Mr. Howard's reputation when he cannot defend himself? Leslie Howard fought in the war, even if as a civilian, and he died because of it.

Leslie's daughter states(6) that her parents were living with his family during his recovery from shell shock. However, Leslie recalled later in an interview with Photoplay, March 1934, that he and Ruth were living in a "cheap little flat [with] no telephone."(9) As noted in the next section, Leslie was most likely either confusing his dates or taking poetic license. Either way, Leslie knew that he must find a way to support himself and his wife if he wanted to be independent of his father. Ruth was working for the War Office but her pay would not feed, house and clothe the two of them. Frank wanted him to return to clerking for Cox, but that suggestion fell on deaf ears. Lilian suggested Leslie try the theatre; she was convinced his future lay there. And so Leslie knocked on the doors of agent after agent after agent day after day after day until finally he knocked on the door of Mr. Ackerman May.

[Leslie Howard]

The London Theatre Years - 1916 to 1920

Based on Leslie Howard's later success in managing his career, he would have made a fine businessman. Howard had the foresight to give up lucrative salaries as actor and instead take minimum wage to become co-producer in many of the plays in which he appeared—co-producer with half the profits and movie rights for any play that sold, and in those days, most of the talking pictures were just transplanted plays from Broadway.(3) But the idea of life as a businessman stuck at a desk in a dreary office seemed tedious and dull to Howard, and he still held firm to his dream of becoming a writer.

Weeks passed, with the job at Cox's still being held open(3), when Howard finally visited the office of Ackerman May, Theatrical Agent. May, who liked the sound of Howard's voice, referred Howard to the fifth touring company of Peg O' My Heart. Howard managed to secure an audition but he wasn't taking any chances on his performance. While waiting for the day of his audition to arrive he and Ruth saw the show every night until he had every word, every move, every inflection memorized. The producer was amazed and convinced he had found a star. But in the words of Leslie Ruth Howard(6), all he really had was a "well-trained monkey." Howard was offered the part of "Jerry" at a salary of £4.4.0 per week. Fortunately, his wife, Ruth, was also hired as understudy to the ladies of the company which meant that she could also go on tour and be paid as well.(3)

[Lyceum Theatre, Ipswich, one of the locations where
Leslie Howard appeared in Peg O' My Heart]

Leslie Ruth states(6) that when her mother and father joined the cast of Peg O' My Heart it was in the off season and that they toured into 1917. She either remembers her father telling her how empty the venues were—with only the remnants of the summer vacation crowds remaining—or she gleaned the information from his writings. From A Quite Remarkable Father: "The company left London to open in a staid seaside resort, out of season. The depressing effect of empty piers and wet beach huts, torn awnings blowing in a biting east wind and dreary digs with actors from other touring companies removed some of the excitement and most of the romance."

Based on Howard's service and subsequent release from the military, Leslie and Ruth most likely joined a fall/winter tour. Ginevra Di Verduno's well-researched site, Inafferrabile [Elusive] Leslie Howard, shows the tour as October/November and the reviews Di Verduno includes on her page for Peg are dated October/November. I must note, however, that Leslie himself recalled in an interview with Photoplay, March 1934, that "It was summertime and England was lovely."(9) He goes on to state that he "found this tour an amazing training school, I was learning to be a good trouper, to take disappointment with a grain of philosophy, to look up and out and never back." It seems that Leslie was either remembering another tour, possibly that of Under Cover, which occurred the following summer, or was exercising some artistic freedom in the re-telling of "his story" to the interviewer.

[†To see my in-depth analysis of the story of "Leslie Howard's Lucky Coin" and its timeline as told by Photoplay, click here.]

Either way, Leslie and Ruth toured the beach towns of Devonshire and Wales playing in "stable theaters and gas-lighted back rooms"(9) and the tour was dreary and depressing. But in spite of it, Leslie got good notices: "Mr. Leslie Howard's work as Jerry is excellent."(8) They were poor, and the locales may have been desolate, but they were young and in love and doing what they wanted to do.

[Lyceum TheatreIpswich, one of the locations where
Leslie Howard appeared in Peg O' My Heart]

Following Peg, Howard appeared in the 1916-1917 winter/spring tour of Charley's Aunt, which had been touring for over twenty years. Howard later recalled: "My second engagement on the stage was in an ancient farce, Charley's Aunt, which had been touring the provinces regularly for over twenty years. One member of this company had played the same part for nine years. Another for fourteen years! They were horrors, poor fellows, they were terrifying. They seemed to be not quite human any more. They existed in dismal rooms, from one dismal town to the next, and lived only for beer, roast beef, and that ghastly rigmarole they went through at every performance."(6) Howard became deeply depressed even though he received good reviews: Howard did "splendidly" and did "justice to the part."(8) Leslie began wondering if he had traded in the boring and monotonous world of banking for the boring and monotonous world of the theatre.

[The Gaiety Theatre Hastings, from a 1926 Program, another location where
Leslie Howard appeared, this time in Charley's Aunt
during the 1916-1917 winter/spring tour]

After Charley's Aunt closed, Howard returned to bookkeeping.(6) He did manage to get a small part as "Rollo," probably with the help of Uncle Wilfred, in the film, The Happy Warrior (1917). While Leslie was waiting for something promising to come along, Ruth managed to secure a bit part in a play that closed rather quickly and speaking parts in two other plays, The Bells and Hamlet. Estel Eforgan shows(2) Howard as "the Apprentice" in the experimental play, The Tidings Brought to Mary, on 10 June 1917this one at the Strand Theatre, London—but this play is not listed in Ronald Howard's book or mentioned in Leslie Ruth's book. However, Ginevra Di Verduno's site, Inafferrabile [Elusive] Leslie Howard, shows a news clipping of the cast. Eforgan states(2) that Howard was already working as secretary for Matheson Lang, actor-manager of the Strand, by this time and that this was the first and single performance of the play by a group who had leased the theatre. Matheson Lang was producing Under Cover at the Strand where Howard was working as his secretary and also understudy to the juvenile lead. When Lang took the show on the 1917 summer/fall tour and the existing juvenile lead did not follow, Howard got the part. Ruth did not follow, however. She had become pregnant with their first child and stayed home with Leslie's grandmother, Mary Blumberg.

[Leslie Howard as "the Apprentice" in
The Tidings Brought to Mary, 10 June 1917]

Howard could have stayed on the tour circuit playing bigger and more important roles but he didn't want to end up like one of those cast members who had toured so long that they were just going through the motions. So Howard decided the smarter career move would be to return to London where he could make a name for himself, even if it meant accepting smaller and less important parts. Not only that, but Ruth was soon to bare their first child.

When Leslie returned to London, he rented a house for himself, Ruth and the new baby they were expecting. The war was still being waged and the outlook was grim. Howard accepted a part in the Pinero play The Freaks as Ronald Herrick. The play appeared at Dion Boucicault's New Theatre, London, in February, 1918, and despite the fact that it was rehearsed by the author himself, it lasted through only fifty-one performances.(2) Pinero's play may have flopped, but Leslie Howard got noticed—when it came time to cast Mr. Pim Passes By in 1920, Boucicault called on Howard. In the meantime, however, work was still scarce and Leslie wondered if he would have to give up his new house and return to the family home. Howard had parts in a few short-run plays up until and just after the birth of his son: Romanticismo ("Mr. Leslie Howard, a very English Italian as the mercurial young Marquis, [was] excellent."
(2)), The Morals of Vanda ("A most refreshing young man was Mr. Leslie Howard as Leonard Mortimer...It is understood that Mr. Howard took up the part at short notice, and it must be said for him that he did wonderfully well."(8)), Box B ("Leslie Howard plays agreeably as the airman" and "Leslie Howard, as the young captain, is excellent"(8)) and Sinners ("excellent"(8)).

[Artwork for The Freaks, 1918]

The Germans began the Spring Offensive of 1918 and gained much ground. Fortunately, they had neither the tanks nor the artillery to hold their positions and the Americans were just entering the war and would soon push them back. A son was born to Leslie and Ruth on 7 April 1918. He was named Ronald Cecil Martin Howard(2), after Leslie's part in The Freaks, but to the family he was always "Winkie." The Germans mounted the last and largest airplane attack of the war on England on the night of 19 May 1918. Of this, Leslie Howard wrote: "When the bombardment started, my wife shoved my very new son and heir, cradle and all under the dining room table upon which she piled a number of mattresses. I remember gazing with fury upon this spectacle. It seemed to me so undignified and so utterly ridiculous. This was no way for the offspring of a great and powerful people to be ushered into the world."(6)

[Leslie Howard and his son, Ronald]

In July, Howard landed an important part as the opinionated seventeen year old son of a senior government minister in Arnold Bennett's play, The Title, starring C. Aubrey Smith, Eva Moore and Nigel Playfair. It was a hit and ran for 285 performances through the spring of 1919.(2) Leslie received very good reviews. He was said to "represent [the] youth of today with convincing naturalness."(6) And: "The son—one of the most delightfully and admirably acted schoolboys that we remember...Mr. Leslie Howard's schoolboy is a creation of which he can be justly proud."(2) However, Howard was to demonstrate his life-long tendency for tardiness when, during a performance, "Aubrey Smith had to go to the window and say, 'I see him coming now,' meaning Leslie, who at that moment was reclining in his dressing room."(6)

[Leslie Howard, Joyce Carey and Martin Lewis in The Title, 1918]

And the Allies won the war. Howard wrote years later:
"At eleven o'clock of the eleventh day of the eleventh month we all went mad with joy—the bells of victory were rung in London and New York and Montreal and Paris and in every other home of freedom—and the world was saved for democracy. 
"Our generation will never forget that day, will it? For we were the youngsters of that time—it was we who fought through those four grim years—it was our generation which was decimated in its prime—which lost many of its choicest spirits—its Wilfred Owens and Rupert Brookes and emerged from the conflict a skeleton of a generation, haunted by the ghosts of its brothers.
"So those of us who were amongst that remnant will not easily forget the day of victory. We were young and the bitterness was soon drowned in the triumph. We had a righteous cause and believed in it. We were determined to build a better world—a world which should be the inheritance of the weak and the meek as well as the strong and the ruthless. The American President himself had propounded the noblest structure of international security to which the political mind of man had ever dared to aspire. We, who were on the threshold of life when the mess was over commenced our civil careers with a feeling of wonderful security; we were sure at least that never again in our times would our peace be shattered. After we had nursed our wounds all we wanted to do was to live and work and create."(6)
[Armistice Celebration in London, 11 November 1918]

After the war, Leslie's parents and siblings moved to a house in West Kensington, nearer the center of London. The house was large and Leslie and Ruth thought it wise to move to the top floor, giving up their "small unfashionable house"(6) along with the rent.

A. E. Matthews, who was part owner in Alliance Films, thought Leslie would be a good fit for the lead part of Tony Dunciman in his next movie, The Lackey and The Lady (1919). Kinematograph Weekly reported that "something out of the common is promised in the performance of Leslie Howard who has gained many laurels in The Title," but unfortunately the film became embroiled in controversy and ultimately in a lawsuit a year later.(2) Afterward, the film was destroyed.

Leslie's next role commenced on 3 April 1919, this time in Our Mr. Hepplewhite by Gladys Unger at the Criterion Theatre. The play was enjoyed by audiences and ran until autumn. Leslie was again praised as being "very natural"(6) and "languidly droll."(2)

Leslie then had an important lead role as Victor Hamilton in Just a Wife or Two by Christopher St. John which opened at the West Pier in Brighton on 24 November 1919. The New York Clipper said in their December 24th issue that "London is rather delighted over the French farce" and The Stage said of Leslie's performance that it was "a difficult part [played] with much skill."(8)

[Brighton's West Pier, c. 1920]

Next came A. A. Milne's Mr. Pim Passes By at the New Theatre in London, 5 January 1920. The next day's reviews must have thrilled Leslie: "he played with a fine flow of natural high spirits and with the absolute self-confidence that only the young possesses" (London Daily Mail); "delightful" (The Times); "Leslie Howard made a hit as the young lover" (Variety).(8) And the play's "faults are easily pardoned, especially as there is a refreshing boy impersonated by Mr. Leslie Howard..."(6) The play was so successful that it transferred to the Garrick Theatre in February and went on to a long run in New York, although not with Leslie. Leslie brought home £12.12 per week and got a taste of what popularity and his natural, yet technical, style of acting could provide for himself and his family. He could now relax a bit and focus on other things, one of them being the new, emerging entertainment medium—motion pictures.(6)

On 10 February 1920, Leslie took part in another experimental play, this time at The Prince of Wales Theatre, London. He played Lord Stevenage in The Young Person in Pink which was a matinée-only production. Leslie was a hit along with the play and it soon moved to the West End. Unfortunately, Leslie was already appearing in Mr. Pim, which was still playing to full houses, and could not be released for the production. Leslie also appeared at The Duke of York's Theatre, London, in Kitty Breaks Loose on 16 February 1920, another matinée-only play. The Era reviewed the play: "Mr. Leslie Howard struck out a new line with much success. Dropping his usual gay, insouciant air (it cropped up occasionally) he displayed an earnestness which proves that his scope is wider than he has shown hitherto."(2) And from the London Daily Mail: "Mr. Leslie Howard was amusingly true to life."

Leslie's uncle, Wilfred Noy, who had managed to get Leslie into his first film as a crowd participant in The Heroine of Mons (1914), was directing films at a studio at Bushey. While Leslie was rehearsing for Mr. Pim at the end of 1919 he became a frequent visitor there, watching everything and getting to know the people who made the movies happen.(6) One of them was Adrian Brunel who had served in the Ministry of Information during the war and was now working as a scenario editor at Bushey. Brunel had already formed his own production company, Mirror Films. The company only produced one film but Brunel did have experience in the business of forming and running a company. Leslie formed a bond with Brunel right away—the two of them had very similar personalities, both sensitive and thoughtful. Leslie used Brunel as his sounding board, running ideas past him continually until finally one day he proposed the two of them form a film company—with Leslie the managing director and Adrian the producer.(6) He had already decided on the name: British Comedy Films Ltd.

Leslie was just twenty-six but he already had ideas on how to move from acting to directing. It was probably at this time, when Leslie was thinking about forming his own film company, that he legally changed his surname from Steiner to Howard.

[Public Notice of Leslie Howard's surname change from
Steiner to Howard, The London Gazette, 5 March 1920]

[Public Notice of Leslie Howard's surname change from
Steiner to Howard, The London Gazette, 5 March 1920]

Brunel was intrigued by Leslie's plan to "uplift" movie audiences by giving them real comedies and not just the typical "mud-pie slapstick." Brunel told Leslie that he would need at least a million pounds to get started. Not having a "million handy just then," Leslie decided what he needed was investors, and for investors he needed a corporation, and for a corporation he needed a Board of Directors.

Leslie proceeded to recruit as his BoardC. Aubrey Smith, already a distinguished and well-known actor, Nigel Playfair, also an established and well-known actor-manager, and A. A. Milne, a successful playwright, along with Adrian Brunel. Together, the five of them formed Minerva Films Ltd of 110 Victoria Street. Shareholders included Leslie's father, Frank Stainer, and H. G. Wells. (Conspicuously absent from the group was Uncle Wilfred. Could it be that Leslie still held a grudge over the mustard on toast?) The group's talent and experience combined with Leslie's contagious enthusiasm seemed to be everything necessary for Leslie to make his vision a reality.

The group proceeded to create a pamphlet which explained their plans, acquire some capital—about half of what they needed, the Board guaranteed the rest—and once they got started, create their first five films—all silents—in what seemed to Leslie a very long time. However in less than a year the company had produced their first five films(6)Twice Two, The Temporary Lady, Bookworms, Five Pounds Reward and The Bump. (Too Many Crooks, the company's last film, was produced the following year.)

The movies were well received at the West End Cinema trade show and Leslie received positive reviews for his performances in Bookworms and Five Pounds Reward. Exhibitors, however, were not so impressed. Movie houses to them were only a sideline and they were not willing to pay more than £200 apiece for the films which had cost Minerva over £1,000 each to produce. Also, English movie houses had to book American films far in advance making it nearly impossible for local start-ups to get a foothold. The company folded by 1922. But Leslie always held the opinion that the public had more intelligence than producers gave them credit for, and given the option of a more sophisticated film, audiences would flock to it.

[To read a more in-depth and amusing look into Leslie's experience on "How to Promote a Moving Picture Corporation," click here.]

[Leslie Howard, Billy Rose Theatre Collection,
New York Public Library, c. 1920]

Leslie Ruth Howard, in her book A Quite Remarkable Father: The Biography of Leslie Howard, says that it was at this time that her mother, Ruth Evelyn Martin Howard, began to feel self-conscious. The Howards were meeting people whose lifestyles were totally foreign to them. They began attending upscale parties where booze and cocaine and sex were being traded freely. Women were feeling more empowered after the war, and because they now held jobs outside the home, were in direct competition to men. They were "hard-boiled and un-shockable." Ruth told her daughter that she became infuriated watching Leslie being flattered and fawned over by this well-dressed and sophisticated new breed of woman. For the first time, Ruth experienced the loneliness of being "the wife of that charming young actor."

[The Beach at Rottingdean, c. 1908]

In the summer of 1920, Ruth took Winkie and headed for the beach at Rottingdean to stay with Leslie's family, leaving Leslie behind. He was then rehearsing for East Is West which opened on June 9th at the Lyric Theatre, London. Leslie also appeared at the Shaftesbury in another matinée play in July, Rosalind of the Farmyard, a rural comedy in which Leslie was called "refreshingly boyish." However, it was Howard's appearance in East Is West that was to prove to be one of the pivotal moments in his career. The play received terrible reviews, but Sydney Carroll, a critic for The Sunday Times, noted in his review of the play that Leslie was "continuing to improve as an actor" and that he "prevented very skillfully the sentiment from becoming mawkish and handled several difficult situations with nervous dash and sure charm."(5) This may have been noticed by Gilbert Miller for Leslie soon received an invitation to come to New York to appear in Miller's production of Just Suppose.

[On the Beach at Rottingdean, c. 1910]

Howard rushed to Rottingdean to give Ruth the exciting news. But after spending hours of spelling out all the reasons why he should go to New York, neither Leslie nor Ruth were convinced. There wasn't enough money for them both to go, let alone Winkie. Leslie didn't want to go alone. Besides, he was becoming an established and well-respected actor in London and had his own emerging film company. Why start all over again in New York? On the other hand, this would give him international recognition leading to more money and opportunity. But Ruth was most likely terrified thinking about the women Howard would probably meet. And, they finally had a good steady income. Why risk it?

Leslie hurried back to London for his evening performance without having made a decision. He had to give his answer the next day and Ruth's family apparently did not have a telephone installed. Howard's daughter conveyed her father's feelings about making this decision alone in her book: "For him it was rather like being asked to take out his own appendix—it almost could not be done."(6) Howard paced up and down St. James's Street. Should he or shouldn't he? Howard wrote of that momentous decision: "I walked up St James's Street thinking. I stood on the corner of Piccadilly thinking. I walked down St James's Street thinking. Then, the result of my thinking being exactly what it would have been if I hadn't thought at all, I thought no more."(5) After hours of weighing the pros and cons, he did a mental toss of the coin and proceeded to march into his manager's office to pronounce that he would take the job. He was to sail for America on Wednesday aboard the Majestic.

The New York Theatre Years - 1920 to 1930

Upon his first sight of the Majestic, Leslie thought it rather small. It was the largest ship afloat at the time but to Leslie, all he could see was his impending confinement.

[SS Majestic]

[SS Majestic, 1914]

That first sea voyage would be very different from the many crossings Howard made after he became a successful and well-known actor. For one thing, he had to share a cabin with a total stranger.(6) For an introvert like Howard, this was somewhat distressing. He had to escape to the writing room for long periods of time in order to repair his psyche. Also, it seems that Leslie's fellow travelers, having discovered this was his first journey across the Atlantic, were obliged to instruct him on everything oceanic. Howard recalled later:
"The voyage was rather hard work—for me—as I was undergoing my Transatlantic Graduation which everyone must go through on their first trip. This consists of instruction in ocean travel by everybody else on board. I appeared to be the only passenger making a first trip. I gather that nobody ever makes a second trip across the Atlantic. They make their first trip and then are never heard of again until they are suddenly seen on their twenty-third voyage."(5)
[Majestic's Spacious Reading and Writing Room]

Leslie's trip across the Atlantic was also his first experience of Americans:
"The majority of the passengers were American, a large number of them coming on board at Cherbourg. I had met solitary Americans in London, but this was my first encounter with them en masse. I became friendly with a number of them and found them nearly all charming, hospitable and cultured. I was delighted. It must indeed be a great country if these people were just haphazard samples of its population. Later I was to learn that these were American-Americans and that in the big cities they were a little hard to find among masses of hybrid Americans of European extraction.
"The commercial—or business—element seemed to foregather mostly in the smoking room. The bar was there. After the briefest acquaintance in this place everyone was soon familiar with everyone else's intimate life-history and background. It was impossible to conceal anything from them. The fact that I was able to conceal my connection with the stage for forty-eight hours was miraculous."(5)
[Smoking Room]

[New York City Skyline, c. 1920s]

After waiting six days to catch sight of the Statue of Liberty and the New York skyline, the views of which had been extolled to him all the way across the Atlantic, Leslie was disappointed to learn that was the very moment all passengers were required to line up in order to be examined by a United States Army doctor for all the diseases "they don't like in America." If one passed the exam, they were then ushered into the saloon. As Leslie explains it:
"Here a number of US Customs officials were playing a jolly game entitled 'Line Up Please'. It consisted of getting all the passengers into two lines, one very long and one very short—and then going and having breakfast the other side of the saloon. There were about thirty officials and they arranged themselves as follows: 
     Examining passports in the short line - 3
     Examining passports in the long line - 1
     Going round saying 'Line Up Please' - 1
     Having breakfast - 25 
"I was in the long line and the official dealing with it sat at a table at the head of the line and we filed up to him. He was the most junior official, and I think they gave him the long line to make the game last longer on account of the breakfast which looked rather good, or perhaps simply to give him practice. He found a little difficulty in recognising the difference between a passport and a menu card so I suppose it was his desire to be on the safe side which caused him to send about every fourth person to Ellis Island or wherever it is they deposit people they don't like much."(5)
Upon finally deboarding Leslie had his second encounter with Customs during his baggage check:
"I was much intrigued watching the beginning of a new game on the dock conducted by another set of Customs officials. In this pastime several officials would hover round a passenger waiting for his last piece of baggage to reach the dock. Nothing could be examined until all was complete, and he must stay there until it was. The fun came when the last piece of baggage arrived. This was the signal for a clever flanking movement on the part of the customs men who all vanished into a wooden hut where they lay doggo."(5)
Dressed for October weather in a "thick winter overcoat and carrying two others," Leslie instead encountered his first Indian summer. "It was one of the hottest days I have ever experienced," he later recalled. "The heat rather took the edge off the thrill I should have received on first setting foot on American soil."

And then the loneliness set in. And his taxi broke down.

[To read a more in-depth and amusing look into Leslie's Atlantic crossing experience, click here.]

The Hollywood Years - 1930 to 1939

As Director in Pygmalion A Quite Remarkable Father, pg. 6

The War Years, Again - 1939 to 1943

[Leslie Howard by Fred Daniels,
National Portrait Gallery, c. 1942]

Leslie Howard returned home from the United States for the last time on 22 August 1939 aboard the SS Aquitania with his wife, Ruth, and daughter, Leslie Ruth. Violette Cunnington followed a week later aboard the Ile de France along with Howard's "embarrassingly smart red roadster."(7) Howard and Cunnington planned to drive the roadster to the south of France for a vacation before starting production on The Man Who Lost Himself. Walter Futter, Howard's co-producer on the film, along with script-writer, George O'Neil, were to meet the two of them at the Hotel du Cap, Antibes, making their stay a working vacation.(7) But none of Howard's plans were to come to pass. Germany invaded Poland on 1st September and after having received no response to their ultimatum that the aggressor's troops be withdrawn, England declared warThat Sunday, 3rd September 1939, Howard and Violette sat together in a flat in Chelsea Manor Street at 11:00 am and listened to the radio as Neville Chamberlain explained that Hitler would "never give up his practice of using force to gain his will" and that "he can only be stopped by force." Howard, along with his nation, took to heart Chamberlain's belief "that you will all play your part with calmness and courage." Howard later remembered how he and Violette spent the first hour of the war in a Chelsea air-raid shelter, "We were reunited just in time for the first air-raid warning."(7)

In the early days of WWII, Leslie Howard didn't have much to do. Even though Great Britain had declared war on Germany in early September, 1939, no real fighting began for months. Hitler was too busy invading and vanquishing Poland. Howard had planned to begin filming The Man Who Lost Himself as soon as he and Violette returned to England from France, but due to the declaration of war, RKO backed out of the deal.(7) No military branch would accept him; he was too old. Government officials told him that he was needed to produce propaganda films, but they wouldn't approve any of his ideas. They were too preoccupied ramping up for war—citing rationing, material and manpower shortages, and problems getting petrol—to pay much attention to him. Howard was asked if he might take a liaison job akin to what Noël Coward was doing in Paris. But Howard was a filmmaker. That is what he knew and that is what he wanted to do.(7)

Howard considered making dramatized documentaries to be shown in America explaining why the United Kingdom had declared war. Great Britain would need supplies soon and after all the years Howard had spent in the United States, he knew that his American half-brothers would need some convincing that they weren't being asked to come on over. What Britain needed was tools for fighting a war. But Howard also knew that Americans didn't like backing losers and that if they had the idea that the Brits were about to be so much fodder under Hitler's boots, the U.S. wouldn't send them guns and ammunition. After all, changing industries over from making peace-time products to those of war would require a lot of work. Howard decided the best way to get Americans to see his side and agree to help was to appeal to their conscience and sense of fair play. He knew how much Americans hated a bully.

Howard wouldn't have to make anything up. In the early stages of the war he spent a lot of time with his friend Jonah Barrington, the radio correspondent of the Daily Express, listening to the short-wave radio broadcasts coming out of Poland. Howard could hear the desperation of Poles as they described the German Panzer armies advancing across the country. Howard continued to listen until the last Polish voice was silenced. But still Howard could get no agreement from government officials on any of the program ideas he suggested. So Howard did what he knew. He began work on a new film, "Pimpernel" Smith, which he produced himself.(7)

[Leslie Howard and J.B. Priestly on Britain Speaks, 1940]

It was the end of January 1941. Leslie Howard had been at home in England since August 1939. Great Britain had been at war with Germany for approximately sixteen months. Howard had been appearing on J.B. Priestly's BBC radio program Britain Speaks, or "Britain Pleads" as some called it, since July 1940 presenting his case for why America should support England and the Allies.

Within the previous week, Howard had heard what would come to be known as President Franklin D. Roosevelt's "The Four Freedoms" speech during the State of the Union Address to the 77th Congress of the United States. In it President Roosevelt advised the country that it was living in unprecedented times due to the threat posed by oppressors and aggressors against democracy and freedom. Roosevelt warned the American people, who were reticent about becoming involved once again in a war that was not threatening its shores, that they were not being realistic if they expected a dictator to offer them peace, generosity, independence, freedom of expression or freedom of religion, or even good business, when he had just conquered free democracies around the world. "Those who would give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety," Franklin admonished the people.

Franklin was telling the democracies of the world being threatened that "We Americans are vitally concerned in your defense of freedom. We are putting forth our energies, our resources, and our organizing powers to give you the strength to regain and maintain a free world. We shall send you in ever-increasing numbers, ships, planes, tanks, guns. That is our purpose and our pledge."

To Howard this was welcome news. He stated in his radio broadcast that week that having elected Roosevelt, who "expressed to the world what is in his heart as statesman, patriot and man" that "the whole American nation is dignified by it."(5) Howard went on to state that having spent many years in the United States, and becoming very familiar with its citizens, that America possessed a "strange and unique racial fusion one can thoroughly understand...not even Americans themselves, because to do so would require a comprehension of the aims and feelings of so many different communities of varying origin." To Howard, "The American people are, in the main, honest, benevolent and idealistic, with a profound belief in individualism and an even more profound desire for an antiseptic isolation from the constant upheavals and erratic behavior of the rest of the world."(5)

Howard compared the Monroe Doctrine stance of Thomas Jefferson to the Americans as the Arsenal of Democracy of Franklin Roosevelt, stating that the "Democracy of Roosevelt is just as democratic, but it is far braver and more outward looking—intolerant of domination by force, and determined to fight to the end for its principles." Howard commended the American people stating "Americans, of no matter what political creed, have found a spokesman [Roosevelt] for their innermost consciences, and because of the words and deeds of Franklin Roosevelt, they are now reaching out far beyond the parochial, Jeffersonian image of 'America for Americans.'"(5)


(1) Colvin Ian. Flight 777: The Mystery Of Leslie Howard. London: Evans Brothers, 1957. ISBN 978-171590164.
(2) Eforgan, Estel. Leslie Howard: The Lost Actor. London: Vallentine Mitchell Publishers, 2010. ISBN 978-0-85303-941-9.
(3) Fletcher, Adele Whitely. "Love In The Life Of Leslie Howard." Modern Screen, October, 1933. Dell Publishing Company, Incorporated, New Jersey.
(4) Grant, Jack. "Explaining Leslie Howard, Who Needs Explaining!" Motion Picture, July, 1933. Motion Picture Publications, Inc., Chicago.
(5) Howard, Leslie, ed. with Ronald Howard. Trivial Fond Records. London: William Kimber & Co Ltd, 1982. ISBN 978-0-7183-0418-8.
(6) Howard, Leslie Ruth. A Quite Remarkable Father: The Biography of Leslie Howard. New York: Harcourt Brace and Co., 1959.
(7) Howard, Ronald. In Search of My Father: A Portrait of Leslie Howard. St. Martin's Press, New York, 1981 ISBN 0-312-41161-8.
(8) Inafferrabile Leslie Howard, Theatre Pages.
(9) Maxwell, Virginia. "Leslie Howard's Lucky Coin." Photoplay, March, 1934. Photoplay Publishing Co., Chicago.

Subscribe to Leslie Howard by Email • And don't forget to respond to the verification email!

No comments:

Post a Comment

Thank you for taking the time to share your thoughts. All comments are moderated and it may take up to 24 hours for your remarks to appear.