Fate rarely writes the perfect ending.
Eleanora Duse died in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
John Huston died in Middletown, Rhode Island.
And Cary Grant died in Davenport, Iowa.
He had been doing “A Conversation with Cary Grant” for several years, playing second- and third-tier towns, avoiding New York, Chicago, or Los Angeles in favor of Fort Lauderdale, Joliet, and Schenectady. As Grant explained to Douglas Fairbanks Jr., a good friend since they costarred in Gunga Din
, he did the show for “jam money.” Fairbanks found this amusing since, as he would confide, “
Cary’s still got the first dollar he ever earned.”
“A Conversation with Cary Grant” began with eight minutes of film clips, ending with a shot of Grant walking out to accept his honorary Academy Award in 1970. As the screen showed Grant in 1970, a spotlight would hit him striding onto the stage, invariably meeting with thunderous applause. He had maintained the trim figure of his movie star prime; his only apparent concessions to age were a full head of white hair and glasses with heavy black rims. They were identical to the glasses worn by Lew Wasserman, the head of MCA-Universal, who had made Grant extremely wealthy.
Grant told Doug Fairbanks that he chose the large rims because he didn’t want to go to the trouble of plastic surgery, and the rims covered the bags under his eyes.
Grant would take his place on a stool, and after a brief introduction, take questions, generally from women in various stages of emotional distress at being in the same geographic space as Cary Grant.
“You look gorgeous—what’s your secret?”
“Who was your favorite leading lady?”
“What was it like to kiss Grace Kelly?”
The answers were, in order, think thin, Grace Kelly, and divine. His least favorite leading lady was Mae West, whose choice of a youthful Grant as her leading man in She Done Him Wrong
and I’m No Angel
gave him a large career boost. Nevertheless, he was not grateful. “She was all contrivance, all artifice,” he said. “I don’t like artifice in a woman.”
Occasionally, there were uncomfortable moments. In Stamford, he was asked about both Sophia Loren and Randolph Scott. And in February 1984, while speaking at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, things teetered uncomfortably. Before Grant was introduced, the audience was told there would be no photographs and no autographs, the latter a pet peeve since he became a star a half-century before.
That night in Baltimore, the first question came from a man in the rear of the audience. In a put-upon voice, the man begged for an autograph. “
I don’t give autographs,” said Grant, who attempted to be light and casual about it. But the man would not let go, claiming the autograph was for a crippled child who was counting the hours until he had Cary Grant’s autograph.
“Yes, yes,” said Grant, whose patience was obviously wearing thin. “You’re obviously the same man who previously requested an autograph at the stage door. I’d sent word to you then that I’d sign one for you before leaving. But it’s the only one I’ll sign tonight, I’ll tell you that!”
A young man named Greg Mank was in the audience and thought it was possible that Grant might storm off and end the evening prematurely. Grant went on at some length, fretfully talking about how autograph hounds harass celebrities and make it impossible for them to go out in public. But he gradually sensed that the audience was on his side and began to relax. The show continued. He told the audience that, while he wouldn’t sign autographs after the show, they were welcome to come to the front of the stage and shake his hand.
That night in Baltimore, and in all the other cities, he was cumulatively charming, funny, and demonstrated excellent recall. He talked about a simple thing like mixing a drink in a scene. You had to mix the drink correctly or someone in the audience would be sure to notice and complain, but at the same time you also had to make sure to hit your marks and remember the dialogue. If you dropped ice cubes in the glass you had to do it gently, so the sound of the ice hitting the glass wouldn’t make a distracting sound. He made it sound like a six-ball juggle, a technical and creative burden that was accompanied by a load of tension no matter the level of feigned nonchalance camouflaging a very real professional expertise.
Grant was a marvelously skilled ringmaster at controlling his audience. As far as he was concerned, the shows were a chance to be seen and to be reassured that he was remembered. As if anybody could forget Cary Grant.
Grant’s ease in front of audiences confounded his friends, because for most of his life he had been a nervous wreck whenever he had to make any kind of speech in public, no matter how innocuous. Even a prepared speech would give him weeks of anxiety, but over the years he managed quite well with press conferences to promote his films. He would sit amongst the reporters and answer questions in a tone that never strayed far from the light touch people expected from Cary Grant. It was those apparently relaxed sessions with reporters that Grant sought to replicate with “A Conversation with Cary Grant.”
He expected the mixture as before when he arrived in Davenport by private plane on Friday evening, November 28, 1986. The Saturday performance would be the thirty-seventh time he did the show.
It was the crowning event of a four-day event Davenport called the Festival of Trees, which included carolers, a Filipino dance troupe, a boys choir, fiddlers, and clog dancing, as well as $100-a-person dinner dance and tree auction called “An Affair to Remember.” Grant and his wife, Barbara, registered at the Blackhawk Hotel in room 903, then spent a quiet evening in their room.
It was not his first trip to Davenport.
More than sixty years before, in September 1925, when he was still Archie Leach, he had been part of a vaudeville act called Robinson, Janis & Leach and had played at Davenport’s Columbia Theater for four days.
Saturday morning dawned crisp—it was going to be 50 during the day, a chilly 30 that night.
At 2 p.m. Grant and his wife took a walk along the Mississippi River and chatted with people who recognized him. They came across a restaurant called Archie’s, which Grant took as a good omen. He told his hosts in Davenport that if ticket sales were insufficient, he would be happy to adjust his fee. Assured that ticket sales were more than satisfactory, he relaxed.
He was an eighty-two-year-old man in fine fettle. Although he had a long-standing fear of surgery, he had had few serious illnesses—a bout with hepatitis in 1949 while shooting I Was a Male War Bride
, hernia surgery in 1977, a small stroke a few years before the trip to Davenport. Other than his hair, the only obvious signs of age were his voice, which was now sandy compared to the ringing tones of his acting years, and a very slight stoop that had appeared in the last year or two. He appeared to be one of nature’s miracles, and in truth he had very few petty vanities for a man of his renown—he had age spots removed as soon as they appeared, and he darkened his eyebrows slightly because he felt that white eyebrows limited his expressiveness.
At 4 p.m., Grant and his wife arrived at the Adler Theatre for a rehearsal for the 8:30 performance. He set the stool on which he would sit downstage, close to the audience, and instructed the stagehand, a man named Jack Dexter, about the necessity of timing his entrance on the stage to synchronize precisely with his entrance on the film. He was concerned about the ushers who would handle the microphones for audience members asking questions. “He was very particular about what he wanted,” remembered Dexter. At about 5 p.m. he apologized for taking so much rehearsal time and said he would go back to his dressing room for a moment. “We’ll go through it again,” he said. But Grant didn’t come back after a few minutes, so the stagehand assumed that he had decided everything was all right after all.
The trouble had begun while Grant was still rehearsing. At first, he felt slightly nauseous and unsettled. A photograph of Grant, his wife, and Dexter before he returned to his dressing room shows Grant looking uncharacteristically disheveled—his tie askew, his hair rumpled. He’s gazing downward and his wife is looking at him with concern. Shortly afterward Grant began to develop a slight balance issue, at which point he and Barbara returned to his dressing room, where he became dizzy and vomited.
Something was clearly wrong. The theater manager was told Grant would have to cancel the show. “I’m sorry I can’t go on,” he said several times according to J. Douglas Miller, the Davenport broadcasting executive who had brought Grant to Davenport. He said it while in the throes of nausea, said it as a stagehand and two policemen carried him to a car to go back to the hotel. He didn’t speak as he was driven back to the hotel, but refused to go to the hospital. At this point, Grant thought he had a stomach flu.
Actually, it was a stroke.
As the blood slowly leaked into his skull, probably from the midsection or rear of the brain, it began to apply pressure to his brain stem, gradually affecting vital functions—balance, alertness, breathing. What started with headache and nausea was inevitably extending to weakness and clumsiness of the hands—all completely unfamiliar sensations for a man whose absolute command of his body had been a hallmark of his professional life.
Two doctors, Dr. James Gilson, a cardiologist, and Dr. Duane Manlove were called. When they arrived at the hotel suite, they contacted Grant’s physician in Los Angeles. It was now clear that this was no stomach flu—Grant’s blood pressure was 210 over 130. “
By about 8:15 he was beginning to have a lot of pain, but he was still coherent,” Manlove remembered. “He was talking about going back to Los Angeles and maybe seeing a doctor there. But I knew that was impossible.… He didn’t have that much time left to live. The stroke was getting worse. In only fifteen minutes he had deteriorated rapidly. It was terrible watching him die and not being able to help. But he wouldn’t let us.”
At about 9:15 p.m., an ambulance arrived to take Grant to St. Luke’s Hospital. He was still conscious, but deteriorating quickly—a photograph taken as he was being moved shows that Barbara Grant had covered his face, so that his distress couldn’t be observed. Barbara kept whispering to him, reassuring him, and Grant whispered back. “I’m sorry,” he told her. Barbara Grant placed a call to their friend Kirk Kerkorian, asking for a plane to get Grant back to California and his doctors. Kerkorian started to round up a flight crew. Just about the time he was being admitted to the hospital, Grant fell into a coma. He was immediately placed in intensive care, where his condition continued to deteriorate.
By this time, Gregory Peck, one of Grant’s closest friends, had alerted Stanley Fox, Grant’s business partner. It was obvious that Kerkorian’s plane would take too long to get to Davenport from Los Angeles.
Finally, a Learjet air ambulance was located in Bloomington, Illinois. But it was all too late.
The word had gone out that Grant was ill. By 12:30 a.m., a reporter from the Chicago Tribune
had arrived at St. Luke’s. The reporters were waiting, only to be flummoxed when United Press ran with a bulletin from CNN in London that Cary Grant had died in Davenport, Iowa. There was no confirmation from St. Luke’s. One reporter shouted, “
It’s a hell of a note to learn from London that Cary Grant has died in Davenport.” The report originated with Stanley Fox, who had been told by Barbara Harris Grant that her husband had died.
Ten minutes after the United Press story moved, St. Luke’s confirmed the story, and the reporters rushed for the phones. Cary Grant had died in the Davenport hospital at 11:22 p.m. He was eighty-two years old. The death certificate, signed by Dr. Gilson, stated that his death was due to “massive intracerebral hemorrhage.”
There was no neurological ICU in Davenport, and, allowing for the state of medicine in 1986, even if the stroke had occurred in a major city such as Chicago the outcome would probably not have been any different. If the doctors had somehow managed to save Grant, he would have spent the remainder of his life severely damaged, in a wheelchair.
Decades later, the retired Dr. Gilson said that he doubted Grant could have survived even if he had gone to the hospital immediately, even if he had been able to be magically transported to Los Angeles and Cedars-Sinai. It was, simply, a catastrophic event. “He was still alive [when he got to the hospital] but his brain was so badly damaged that he couldn’t talk. One side was totally paralyzed, and his [pupils] were dilated. Cary felt no pain.”
As one twenty-first-century doctor said after examining the record, “
It was a relatively quick and merciful death.”
It was his time.
An hour after Grant’s death, the Weerts Funeral Home was called to prepare Grant’s body for transportation to California. At 2:45 a.m., the chartered Learjet carrying the body and Barbara Grant left for Los Angeles. When the plane arrived at a remote gate at LAX at dawn, Stanley Fox was there waiting. The body was cremated by the Neptune Society.
A few days later, his widow, daughter, and Kirk Kerkorian took a boat out into Santa Monica Bay and scattered Cary Grant’s ashes into the Pacific Ocean.
One of the great legends of the movies was gone. And that was that.
Or was it?
PEOPLE SAW THE ASSURED, polished, radiantly alert character that Cary Grant portrayed in movies for close to forty years and naturally assumed that he was that man. It was a reasonable enough supposition; most movie stars play emphasized aspects of themselves filtered through fictional contexts.
In fact, Scott Fitzgerald’s dictum that the mark of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two mutually opposing thoughts in your head at the same time was personified by Grant—the most self-invented man in the movies. “
He’s a completely made-up character and I’m playing a part,” Grant would explain. “It’s a part I’ve been playing a long time, but no way am I really Cary Grant. A friend told me once, ‘I always wanted to be Cary Grant.’ And I said, ‘So did I.’ In my mind’s eye, I’m just a vaudevillian named Archie Leach. When somebody yells ‘Archie’ on the street I’ll look up. I don’t look up if somebody calls ‘Cary.’ So I think Cary Grant has done wonders for my life and I always want to give him his due.”
This philosophical awareness of an essential duality took Grant decades to assimilate, and it was accomplished only after sacrificing four marriages, enduring years of therapy, and over one hundred LSD sessions—an experience he came to regard as life-altering.
His specific genius was to project a consistent image of style and grace… with a little something extra. As Peter Bogdanovich wrote, Grant “
became synonomous with… a kind of… directness combined with impeccable taste and a detached and subtle wit.”
But it was more than that. He was arguably more poised, more focused
than any movie actor of his generation; he played every emotion except self-pity with a touch of acerbity.
The psychological cross-reference for Archie Leach was Charlie Chaplin, with whom he shared a number of elements—a disturbed mother, an indifferent, alcoholic father, a catch-as-catch-can childhood that led to a youthful infatuation with the music hall and to the movies. There was also a willingness to repeat themselves within the niche they created, which they both got away with because of a remarkable ability to simulate spontaneity. Like Chaplin, Grant could also project a wary coldness that shadowed the humor and charm, giving his character a sense of dimension it would not otherwise have had.
And there were differences as well. Underneath Grant’s fascinating, nonpareil facade was a personality of nearly perpetual anxiety—a perfectly natural response to his experience of life.
On occasion, he would step out of his comfort zone and allow his natural disillusion to show through, seasoned with a touch of bitterness—Sylvia Scarlett, None But the Lonely Heart, Notorious
, a few others. As the critic David Thomson noted, he would have made a spectacular Archie Rice in The Entertainer
, and could have brilliantly played the narrow, cheap James Tyrone in Long Day’s Journey into Night
if only because he was a consummate professional with a comprehensive experience of the demeaning byways of low-end show business. He didn’t broadcast it, but Archie Leach once worked in Nashville on a bill with four performing seals.
Mainly, he tended to shy away from parts that demanded self-exposure. Similarly, in movies as varied as Bringing Up Baby, To Catch a Thief
, and Charade
, he gazed impassively at stunning women, then backed away, leaving the chase to them. Retreat can be funny because of its essential lack of composure; ardor can be tedious because of its sincerity. Aside from this preference for being left alone, he brought the unusual addition of pratfalls and somersaults to romantic comedy, a genre that favors the genteel.
He was always the conspicuous object of desire; his character preferred to be left alone—passion was to be ignored, love was to be endured. When he did want a woman, as in His Girl Friday
, his character arranged things so that he would be the last man standing—a fait accompli.
Similarly, he tended to emphasize the comedy in “romantic comedy.”
What really turned Grant on as an actor was the possibility of fun, so that he could unleash his inner clown, which is why he seemed to stimulate other actors to his own level of attentive intelligence and joie de vivre. And there was something else. He wasn’t about his close-ups. He’s actually at his best in medium shots, when he’s reacting to another performer. “
He is always fretting at, muttering against, or edging away from the solitude that stars generally inhaled with the light,” wrote David Thomson. “He does not quite talk to the audience or look at the camera, but he communes with the film.”
In recent years, most discussion about Grant has moved beyond—or beneath—analyses of his acting skills to the matter of his sexual identity—his years of living with Randolph Scott, insinuating comments by people like Arthur Laurents, who called him “bisexual at best.” Gays have been eager to claim Grant as one of their own, while straights have been every bit as insistent about his presumed heterosexuality.
Caught in the middle are skeptics, who ask why a supposedly gay man would marry five times. For that matter, 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!” Not to mention the title character in I Was a Male War Bride
So much talent, so many mysteries.
This is the story of the man born Archibald Alexander Leach, whose greatest performance was unquestionably as the matchless specimen of masculine charm known as Cary Grant.