Cary Grant: The life story you may not know

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June 10, 2021
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Cary Grant: The life story you may not know

David Thomson, the film industry’s leading historian, called Cary Grant “the best and most important actor in the history of the cinema.” High praise, indeed. Over the course of his life, the British-born star made over 70 films, became one of the first successful freelance actors, and won a myriad of awards.

Beyond those professional achievements, Grant is also remembered for being a savvy businessman, a devoted father, and a generous friend. Among his closest companions were celebrities like Grace Kelly, Frank Sinatra, Alfred Hitchcock, and Howard Hughes. Another of his pals, producer Albert “Cubby” Broccoli, urged Grant to play James Bond in a new franchise he was beginning to work on.

But there was more to the actor than spy roles, deep tans, and that very distinctive accent. For example, Grant experienced childhood trauma, which he carried into his adult relationships and eventually treated with LSD-based therapy. In honor of this lesser-known side of the megastar’s life, Stacker compiled a list of 25 facts about Grant’s life you may not know about. To put this list together, we consulted news reports, media accounts, and film histories.

Read on for a better look at the life of one of the greatest actors of all time.

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1904: The Bristol birth

Archibald Alexander Leach was born on January 18, 1904, in Bristol, England. Life in the seaside town was far from idyllic, as Archie was the only surviving child of an alcoholic father and an overbearing mother. The family lived in abject poverty, staying afloat on his father’s clothing factory salary until Archibald turned 11.

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1915: Dead or gone?

In what would become one of the most defining events of his life, Grant’s mother disappeared when he was about 11 years old. Initially, the performer was told she had simply gone to a seaside resort for a little rest and relaxation, and later that she had died. It wasn’t until he turned 30, and his father passed from liver disease, that Grant discovered she’d actually been placed in a mental asylum to be treated for “mania.” He then orchestrated her release and cared for her financially for the rest of her life.

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1910s and 1920s: A vaudeville star

After his mother vanished, Grant became a self-proclaimed “street kid” and got himself expelled from school. Without the burden of obtaining an education weighing him down, Grant joined a troupe of acrobats called the Loomis Troupe, with whom he performed acts on stilts, before becoming a vaudeville star. It was this line of stage work that brought him to America at the age of 16, and when the rest of his company packed up to return home at the end of a run, Grant stayed in New York to pursue a career on stage.

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1929-1933: If at first you don’t succeed…

It’s hard to imagine it now, but one of Grant’s earliest roles in the stage play “A Wonderful Night” was largely panned, with Variety writing that the show was “remarkably dull … the outlook for this one is dreary.” He didn’t fare much better in front of the camera, either, with one casting director passing him up due to his bowlegged walk and thick neck.

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1933: ...try, try again

However, four short years later, after being cast alongside Mae West in “She Done Him Wrong,” Hollywood had largely changed its tune about the handsome leading man, proclaiming he’d reached “the top flight of [box office] names.” The film is about a young nightclub owner and singer (West) who has several suitors including the handsome temperance league member played by Grant.

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1934: Grant’s first marriage

Shortly after his big break, Grant married for the first time. In 1934 he eloped with actress Virginia Cherril, whom he’d met at a party. The pair only remained married for seven months, with Grant explaining the split this way: “I doubt if either of us was capable of relaxing sufficiently to trust the happiness we might have had. My possessiveness and fear of losing Virginia brought about the very condition I feared: the loss of her.”

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1930s: Hollywood’s leading man

Throughout the latter half of the 1930s, Grant had established himself as Hollywood’s favorite leading man. He frequently starred in lighthearted comedies like “Topper,” “Bringing Up Baby,” and “His Girl Friday,” which showcased his physical humor abilities, while occasionally dabbling in more serious films like “Only Angels Have Wings,” where he shone as a grizzled, complex hero.

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1935: Leaving the studio system

After his initial contract with Paramount expired in 1935, Grant elected not to renew his contract with Paramount or any other major studio, becoming one of the first actors to leave the studio system. This new position allowed him to negotiate deals wherein he would earn a portion of the box office takes rather than a flat fee upfront. Ultimately, this allowed him to be one of the wealthiest actors in the industry, taking up to 75% of a film’s profits and maintaining total control over every project in which he appeared.

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1939: “Gunga Din”

Life came full circle for Grant in 1939 when he began production on “Gunga Din,” an American war film based on a poem by Rudyard Kipling, alongside Douglas Fairbanks Jr. Fairbanks Jr.’s father, the original Douglas Fairbanks, had been one of Grant’s first Hollywood friends after the pair met on the ocean liner that brought him over from England as a teenager. Fairbanks Sr., Grant, and Mary Pickford (Fairbanks’ wife) spent much of the voyage together, and the two men even became workout partners for the duration of the journey.

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1940: The end of Bachelor Hall

From the early 1930s through the end of 1940, Grant very publically lived on and off with fellow actor Randolph Scott in a waterfront home they dubbed “Bachelor Hall.” Over the years, the living arrangement has led many to question Grant’s sexual orientation, with some arguing it was purely an economic decision, while others speculated it was certainly a cover for a more intimate relationship. It wasn’t the only time Grant’s living arrangements would draw questions— for years, after first arriving in New York, he had lived with openly gay costumer designer Orry-Kelly until they had a major falling out.

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1940: The first Hitchcock film

The year 1940 also saw the release of Grant’s first picture with Alfred Hitchcock, “Suspicion.” In the romantic thriller, Grant plays a dishonest gambler who dupes a quiet young heiress (Joan Fontaine) into marriage just before his new wife becomes convinced he’s trying to murder her. By the end of his career, Grant would star in four Hitchcock films.

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1941: Grant’s second marriage

A year later, in 1941, Grant tied the knot for a second time. This wife’s name was Barbara Hutton, and she happened to be the heiress to the Woolworth’s fortune, a millionaire many times over. The pair remained married for four years, and although it was very on-again-off-again, it was, by all accounts, a fairly happy relationship. Still, Hutton’s aversion to the Hollywood scene and Grant’s refusal to let it go ultimately drove them apart.

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1947: The King’s Medal for Services in the Cause of Freedom

While Grant never physically engaged in combat during WWII, he certainly did his part financially. The movie star donated his salaries from “The Philadelphia Story” and “Arsenic and Old Lace” to the British War Relief Effort and the U.S. War Relief Effort, respectively. In 1947, King George VI awarded Grant the King’s Medal for Service in the Cause of Freedom to thank him for his monetary contributions to the allied powers.

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1949: Grant’s third marriage

In 1949, Grant entered his third and longest marriage with Betsy Drake, a fellow actress whose career Grant had a hand in making. They were married for 14 years. In his memoirs, Grant wrote of his wife: “Betsy was good for me. Without imposition or demand she patiently led me toward an appreciation for better books, better literature … I never clearly resolved why Betsy and I parted.”

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1952: An early retirement

With the rise of younger, grittier actors like Marlon Brando and James Dean, Grant began to worry that his time in the spotlight might be drawing to a close. In a preemptive move, he announced in 1952 that he’d be retiring from Hollywood. However, this self-imposed expulsion didn’t last for long: Grant returned to the screen in Alfred Hitchcock’s 1955 film “To Catch a Thief.”

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1960s: LSD therapy

In order to deal with the trauma of his youth, Grant experimented with legal LSD therapy during the late ’60s. By his own estimate, Grant told a reporter he used the drug “100 or 150 times” in order to “get pure again,” and to “drop off all the barnacles and misconceptions [he’d] built up.” Although he quit the practice once the drug was made illegal, Grant always touted how helpful he believed it could be, and even left $10,000 to the doctor who’d facilitated this form of therapy when he died in 1986.

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1965: Grant’s fourth marriage

The 28-year-old Dyan Cannon became the fourth Mrs. Grant in 1965 when she married the then-61-year-old movie star at pal Howard Hughes’ Desert Inn in Las Vegas. Grant first laid eyes on Cannon when she appeared in a guest role on the TV show “Malibu Run.” He got her phone number through mutual acquaintances, called her up asking to meet, and the rest was history.

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1966: Grant becomes a father

A year after his marriage to Cannon, Grant welcomed his first and only child, the couple’s daughter, Jennifer. In her book “Good Stuff,” Jennifer recalls the doting and attentive nature of her father, who documented everything on film and tape, and saved artifacts from her childhood in a fireproof vault. According to her, this dedication to memorializing her younger years stemmed from the loss Grant experienced in his own life, “because his own records were burned in the bombings of Bristol in World War II.”

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1966: “Walk, Don’t Run” and retirement

In 1966, Grant completed his final film, “Walk, Don’t Run,” a romantic comedy set in Tokyo against the backdrop of the Olympic-induced housing crisis. After it was released to mediocre reviews, he turned down every other project that came his way, choosing to focus on being a more present father instead.

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1968: Trading movie sets for cosmetic sets

Grant had a reputation for being one of the savviest businessmen in Hollywood, constantly working to make investments and diversify his streams of income. His practicality when it came to money was never more clear than in 1968 when he became a director of Fabergé, a cosmetics company. Not only did the position guarantee him a regular income, but it also afforded him a private plane that Grant regularly used to make trips to see his daughter.

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1970: An honorary Academy Award

Despite making over 70 movies—many of which were box office hits and modern-day classics—Grant never won an Oscar. Back in 1935, when he quit the studio system and became a freelance actor, Grant also quit the Academy. While the move wasn’t quite the career suicide many predicted it would be, it’s believed to be the primary reason he never won one of the film industry’s top honors until 1970 after he finally rejoined the Academy and was presented with an honorary Oscar by his good friend Frank Sinatra.

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1970: The paternity scandal

Following the dissolution of his fourth marriage to Cannon, Grant publically dated several women, including Cynthia Bouron. In 1970, just after winning his Academy Award, news broke that Grant had allegedly fathered a child out of wedlock. Bouron, who’d listed Grant’s name on her daughter’s birth certificate, sued him for child support, but after refusing to provide a blood sample to confirm his paternity, the case was dropped, and the court ordered Grant’s name be taken off the document.

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1975: Joining the board of MGM

In 1975, Grant joined the board of MGM/UA, where he had made five films in his early career including “The Philadelphia Story” and “North by Northwest.” Far from being an honorary position, Grant was regularly involved in the day-to-day operations of the company, particularly its hotel holdings in Las Vegas. To thank him for his years of service, MGM renamed its studio lot theater the Cary Grant Theater in 1984.

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1981: Grant’s fifth and final marriage

In 1981, a 77-year-old Grant married his fifth and final wife, Barbara Harris. A former public relations agent at the Royal Lancaster Hotel in London, Harris was only 33 when the duo made their romance official. Speaking of Grant, Harris once told a reporter that she was “impressed by the person. Not so impressed by the legend,” which is how they managed to make their relationship work despite its significant age gap.

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1986: Death in Iowa

On November 29, 1986, while preparing to make an appearance at a fundraising event in Iowa, Grant suffered a fatal stroke. He was 86 years old. At the behest of his wife, in honoring Grant’s own wishes, there was no funeral. Instead, he was cremated and his ashes were scattered in the Pacific Ocean.

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