Cary Grant is remembered as one of the most famous actors of Hollywood’s Golden Age, the star of such classics as ‘Bringing Up Baby’, ‘The Philadelphia Story’ and ‘Charade’. He was suave, debonair, immensely rich and successful and the very image of imperturbable gentility. What many people don’t realize is that he was actually English, born into a working class family in a Bristol slum, and that his mother was incarcerated in a mental asylum by Grant’s father when Cary was 9 and he thought for the next 20 years that she was dead.
Cary Grant’s birth name was Archibald Alexander Leach. His childhood was not happy. His father, Elias, worked as a presser in a clothing factory. He was a drinker and a womanizer. Archie’s mother, Elsie, came from a family of laundresses and brewery laborers. Elias and Elsie married in 1898 and had a son a year later. In 1900 that child died just short of his first birthday. The effect on Elsie was devastating and it left her seriously depressed. She was advised by her doctor to have another child. She did so and Archie Leach, the future Cary Grant, was born on January 18, 1904.
When he was nine years old he came home from school and was told by his father that his mother had gone to the seaside. He and Elias went to live with his father’s parents who brought Archie up for the rest of his time in England. Cary remembered them as ‘cold and distant’. Over the next few years he was led to believe that his mother was dead. The reality was that she had been declared insane by his father who was having an affair with another woman called Mabel Alice Johnson. She was pregnant and Elias wanted his wife out of the way without the expense of a divorce and this was an excellent way of doing it. The cruelty of the man towards both his wife and his son defies belief.
When he was 14 years old Archie left school, forged his father’s signature on a letter of introduction and joined the Bob Pender troupe of touring acrobats and comedians. It was the start of his life in show business and he went with the troupe in 1920 to America for an extended run in New York. When the troupe returned after two years, he stayed in America and continued his education in show business and in life. He did it very well. In 1929 he changed his name to Cary Grant, and soon became one of the most famous men in the world and immensely rich but he still did not know that his mother was alive and living in a mental institution in England.
He did not discover the truth about his mother until 1935 when his father died and he became his mother’s next of kin. Grant traveled back to England and was re-united with Elsie. It must have been an incredibly emotional time for both of them. Poor Elsie was a confused lady and for the rest of her days found it very difficult to work out the difference between Archie Leach, the son she thought she had lost, and Cary Grant the debonair and famous Hollywood actor.
Grant had her released from the asylum and looked after her well. The doctors recommended she stay in England and indeed Elsie steadfastly refused to travel to America despite many subsequent invitations from Cary. He set her up in her own household in Bristol and visited her regularly. Elsie was as resilient as her son and she lived to the good age of 93, dying in 1973.
It is a sad story but also uplifting. Cary Grant was brought up in a loveless dysfunctional family, yet he lifted himself up by his own efforts, educated himself and became a success at his chosen profession. He finally found his mother and was able to look after her.