Today is the 130th birthday of the actor Leslie Howard, best known for playing Ashley Wilkes in Gone with the Wind or the controversy of surrounding his death in World War II. The world is a better place because he was in it and still feels the loss that he has left.
NAME: Leslie Howard
AKA: Leslie Howard Stainer
DATE OF BIRTH: 3-Apr-1893
PLACE OF BIRTH: London, England
DATE OF DEATH: 1-Jun-1943
PLACE OF DEATH: Bay of Biscay
CAUSE OF DEATH: War
REMAINS: Missing (body never recovered)
HOLLYWOOD WALK OF FAME 6550 Hollywood Blvd.
BROTHER: Arthur Howard (b. 18-Jan-1910, d. 18-Jun-1955)
WIFE: Ruth Evelyn Martin (m. 1916, until his death, one son, one daughter)
SON: Ronald Howard (actor, b. 7-Apr-1918, d. 19-Dec-1996)
DAUGHTER: Leslie Ruth Howard
BEST KNOWN FOR: Leslie Howard Steiner was an English actor and film maker. He also wrote many stories and articles for The New York Times, The New Yorker, and Vanity Fair and was one of the biggest box-office draws and movie idols of the 1930s.
Howard was born Leslie Howard Steiner to a British mother, Lilian (née Blumberg), and a Hungarian-Jewish father, Ferdinand Steiner, in Upper Norwood, London. Lilian had been brought up as a Christian, but she was of partial Jewish ancestry—her paternal grandfather Ludwig Blumberg, a Jewish merchant originally from East Prussia, had married into the English upper-middle classes.
He received his formal education at Alleyn’s School, London. Like many others around the time of the First World War, the family anglicised its name, in this case to “Stainer”, although Howard’s name remained Steiner in official documents, such as his military records.
He was a 21-year-old bank clerk in Dulwich when the First World War broke out; in September 1914 he voluntarily enlisted (under the name Leslie Howard Steiner) as a Private with the British Army’s Inns of Court Officer Training Corps in London. In February 1915 he received a commission as a subaltern with the 3/1st Northamptonshire Yeomanry Regiment, with which he trained in England until 19 May 1916, when he resigned his commission and was medically discharged from the British Army with neurasthenia.
In March 1920, Howard gave public notice in The London Gazette that by deed poll he had abandoned the use of the name Steiner and thereafter would be known by the name of Howard instead.
In 1920 Howard suggested forming a film production company, British Comedy Films Ltd., to his friend Adrian Brunel. The two eventually settled on the name Minerva Films Ltd. The company’s board of directors consisted of Howard, Brunel, C. Aubrey Smith, Nigel Playfair and A. A. Milne. One of the company’s investors was H. G. Wells. Although the films produced by Minerva—which were written by A. A. Milne—were well received by critics, the company was only offered £200 apiece for films it cost them £1,000 to produce and Minerva Films Ltd. was short-lived. Early films include four written by A. A. Milne, including The Bump, starring C. Aubrey Smith; Twice Two; Five Pounds Reward; and Bookworms, the latter two starring Howard. Some of these films survive in the archives of the British Film Institute.
In British and Hollywood productions, Howard often played stiff upper lipped Englishmen. He appeared in the film version of Outward Bound (1930), though in a different role from the one he portrayed on Broadway. He had second billing under Norma Shearer in A Free Soul (1931), which also featured Lionel Barrymore and future Gone With the Wind rival Clark Gable six years prior to their Civil War masterpiece. He starred in the film version of Berkeley Square (1933), for which he was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actor. He played the title character in The Scarlet Pimpernel (1934).
When Howard co-starred with Bette Davis in The Petrified Forest (1936) – having earlier co-starred with her in the film adaptation of W. Somerset Maugham’s book Of Human Bondage (1934) – he reportedly insisted that Humphrey Bogart play gangster Duke Mantee, repeating his role from the stage production. This re-launched Bogart’s screen career, and the two men became lifelong friends; Bogart and Lauren Bacall later named their daughter “Leslie Howard Bogart” after him. In the same year Howard starred with Norma Shearer in a film version of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet (1936)
Davis was again Howard’s co-star in the romantic comedy It’s Love I’m After (1937) (also co-starring Olivia de Havilland). He played Professor Henry Higgins in the film version of George Bernard Shaw’s play Pygmalion (1938), with Wendy Hiller as Eliza, which earned Howard another Academy Award nomination for Best Actor. In 1939, as war approached, he played opposite Ingrid Bergman in Intermezzo; that August, Howard was determined to return to the country of his birth. He was eager to help the war effort, but lost any support for a new film, instead being obliged to relinquish £20,000 of holdings in the US before he could leave the country.
Howard is perhaps best remembered for his role as Ashley Wilkes in Gone with the Wind (1939), his last American film, but he was uncomfortable with Hollywood, and returned to Britain to help with the Second World War effort. He starred in a number of Second World War films including 49th Parallel (1941), “Pimpernel” Smith (1941) and The First of the Few (1942, known in the U.S. as Spitfire), the latter two of which he also directed and co-produced. His friend and The First of the Few co-star David Niven said Howard was “…not what he seemed. He had the kind of distraught air that would make people want to mother him. Actually, he was about as naïve as General Motors. Busy little brain, always going.”
In 1944, after his death, British exhibitors voted him the second-most popular local star at the box office. His daughter said he was a “remarkable man”.
Howard married Ruth Evelyn Martin (1895–1980) in March, 1916, and their children Ronald “Winkie” and Leslie Ruth “Doodie” who appeared with her father and David Niven in the film The First of the Few, playing the role of nurse to David Niven’s character, and as a major contributor in the filmed biography of her father, “Leslie Howard: The Man Who Gave a Damn”. His son became an actor and played the title role in the television series Sherlock Holmes (1954). His younger brother Arthur was also an actor, primarily in British comedies. His sister Irene was a costume designer and a casting director for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. His sister Doris Stainer founded the Hurst Lodge School in Sunningdale, Berkshire in 1945 and remained its headmistress until the 1970s.
Howard was widely known as a “ladies’ man”, and he once said that he “didn’t chase women but … couldn’t always be bothered to run away”. He reportedly had affairs with Tallulah Bankhead when they appeared on stage in the UK in Her Cardboard Lover (1927), with Merle Oberon while filming The Scarlet Pimpernel (1934), and with Conchita Montenegro, with whom he had appeared in the film Never the Twain Shall Meet (1931). There were also rumours of affairs with Norma Shearer and Myrna Loy during filming of The Animal Kingdom.
Howard fell in love with Violette Cunnington in 1938 while working on Pygmalion. She was secretary to Gabriel Pascal who was producing the film; she became Howard’s secretary and lover, and they travelled to the United States and lived together while he was filming Gone with the Wind and Intermezzo (both 1939). His wife and daughter joined him in Hollywood before production ended on the two films, making his arrangement with Cunnington somewhat uncomfortable for everyone. He left the United States for the last time with his wife and daughter in August, 1939, and Cunnington soon followed. She appeared in “Pimpernel” Smith (1941) and The First of the Few (1942) in minor roles under the stage name of Suzanne Clair. She died of pneumonia in her early thirties in 1942, just six months before Howard’s death. Howard left her his Beverly Hills house in his will.
The Howards’ family home in Britain was Stowe Maries, a 16th-century, six-bedroom farmhouse on the edge of Westcott, Surrey. His will revealed an estate of £62,761, the equivalent of £3 million as of 2019. An English Heritage blue plaque was placed at 45 Farquhar Road, Upper Norwood, London in 2013.
In May 1943, Howard travelled to Portugal to promote the British cause. He stayed in Monte Estoril, at the Hotel Atlântico, between 1 May and 4 May, then again between 8 May and 10 May and again between 25 May and 31 May 1943. The following day, 1 June 1943, he was aboard KLM Royal Dutch Airlines/BOAC Flight 777, “G-AGBB” a Douglas DC-3 flying to Bristol from Lisbon, when it was shot down by Luftwaffe Junkers Ju 88C6 maritime fighter aircraft over the Atlantic (off Cedeira, A Coruña). He was among the 17 fatalities, including four KLM flight crew.
The BOAC DC-3 Ibis had been operating on a scheduled Lisbon–Whitchurch route throughout 1942–43 that did not pass over what would commonly be referred to as a war zone. By 1942, however, the Germans considered the region an “extremely sensitive war zone”. On two occasions, 15 November 1942 and 19 April 1943, the camouflaged airliner had been attacked by Messerschmitt Bf 110 fighters (a single aircraft and six Bf 110s, respectively) whilst en route; each time, the pilots escaped via evasive tactics. On 1 June 1943, “G-AGBB” again came under attack by a swarm of eight V/KG40 Ju 88C6 maritime fighters. The DC-3’s last radio message indicated it was being fired upon at longitude 09.37 West, latitude 46.54 North.
According to German documents, the DC-3 was shot down at 46°07′N 10°15′W, some 500 miles (800 km) from Bordeaux, France, and 200 miles (320 km) northwest of La Coruña, Spain. Luftwaffe records indicate that the Ju 88 maritime fighters were operating beyond their normal patrol area to intercept and shoot down the aircraft. First Oberleutnant Herbert Hintze, Staffelkapitän of 14 Staffel, V./Kampfgeschwader 40, and based in Bordeaux, stated that his Staffel shot down the DC-3 because it was recognized as an enemy aircraft.
Hintze further stated that his pilots were angry that the Luftwaffe leaders had not informed them of a scheduled flight between Lisbon and the UK, and that had they known, they could easily have escorted the DC-3 to Bordeaux and captured it and all aboard. The German pilots photographed the wreckage floating in the Bay of Biscay, and after the war copies of these captured photographs were sent to Howard’s family.
The following day, a search of the waters on the route was undertaken by “N/461”, a Short Sunderland flying boat from No. 461 Squadron RAAF. Near the same coordinates where the DC-3 was shot down, the Sunderland was attacked by eight Ju 88s and, after a furious battle, it managed to shoot down three of the attackers, with an additional three “possibles”, before crash-landing at Praa Sands near Penzance. In the aftermath of these two actions, all BOAC flights from Lisbon were re-routed and operated only under the cover of darkness.
The news of Howard’s death was published in the same issue of The Times that reported the “death” of Major William Martin, the “ Man who never was“ created for the ruse involved in Operation Mincemeat.
FILMOGRAPHY AS DIRECTOR
The Gentle Sex (15-Apr-1943)
The First of the Few (14-Sep-1942)
“Pimpernel” Smith (26-Jul-1941)
FILMOGRAPHY AS ACTOR
The Gentle Sex (15-Apr-1943) as Narrator [VOICE]
The First of the Few (14-Sep-1942) as R. J. Mitchell
Forty-Ninth Parallel (8-Oct-1941) as Philip Armstrong Scott
“Pimpernel” Smith (26-Jul-1941) as Prof. Horatio Smith
Gone with the Wind (15-Dec-1939) as Ashley Wilkes
Intermezzo: A Love Story (22-Sep-1939) as Holger Brandt
Pygmalion (6-Oct-1938) as Higgins
Stand-In (29-Oct-1937) as Atterbury Dodd
It’s Love I’m After (8-Oct-1937)
Romeo and Juliet (20-Aug-1936) as Romeo
The Petrified Forest (6-Feb-1936) as Alan Squier
The Scarlet Pimpernel (23-Dec-1934) as Sir Percy Blakeney
British Agent (15-Sep-1934) as Stephen Locke
Of Human Bondage (28-Jun-1934) as Philip
Berkeley Square (15-Sep-1933) as Peter Standish
The Animal Kingdom (23-Dec-1932) as Tom
Smilin’ Through (24-Sep-1932)
Devotion (25-Sep-1931) as Trent
Five and Ten (10-Jul-1931) as Berry Rhodes
A Free Soul (20-Jun-1931) as Dwight Winthrop
Never the Twain Shall Meet (16-May-1931) as Dan
Outward Bound (17-Sep-1930) as Tom Prior