At the beginning of 1918, when he was 14 years old, Archie Leach began to keep a diary. It didn’t last long—diaries are work, and he gave up after about four months—but his writing from that time is fascinating and instructive. There is no mention of his mother, who had been institutionalized since he was 11 and who he believed to be dead. There are only a few passing references to his father, an alcoholic suit presser. What fills the diary is theater—the music hall in Archie’s native Bristol, England. Many days he cuts school: “Roamed … & went to the pictures. Empire [Theater] in evening.”
There are several things clear from the diary. Like most teenagers, Archie is interested only in what Archie is interested in. There is not a single mention of anything going on in the outside world. World War I, for instance.
It is also clear from the diary that the motor driving Archie was an infatuation with show business. And, from the number of times he doesn’t go to school, it is also clear that he is not interested in education, although he was, when he felt like it, a good, diligent student. Toward the end of the year, Archie got himself kicked out of school and apprenticed to a traveling troupe of acrobats. It would be an actor’s life for him.
The diary is the beginning of the transition from Archie Leach to Cary Grant, who combined assurance with exuberance to make him the most brilliant of light comedians as well as an intense, riveting dramatic actor, never more so than when he was working with Alfred Hitchcock.
Biographers believe that lives resolve into themes, and the theme of Cary Grant’s life was anxiety, because he always had difficulty assimilating Archie’s angers and fears into his prodigious creation of a predominantly suave acting alter ego: Cary Grant. He made no secret about any of this. His famous line—“Everybody wants to be Cary Grant. Even I want to be Cary Grant”—was not a joke. Rather, it was an admission.
For the slightly more than 30 years that encompassed 72 feature films, audiences were enraptured by Cary Grant, right up until 1966, when he walked away from the movie business to raise his daughter and to relax at long last. No longer would he have to worry about being found out; no longer would he have to fret about the diamond-studded carriage turning into a pumpkin that would force him back into the discarded chrysalis of Archie Leach.
Most movie stars are locked in their time, because most movie stars are like fashions—in style for a while, then not. But Cary Grant is one of the few actors of his generation who isn’t locked in his time. His verve, his energy, his elegance—and, let’s face it, his looks—make him perennially au courant.
It’s a story worth the telling.
Scott Eyman’s Cary Grant: A Brilliant Disguise will be published on October 20 by Simon & Schuster