Leslie Howard: The Lost Actor

The life and death of a non-spy


By Estel Eforgan
Vallentine Mitchell, £45

When Leslie Howard was shot down over the Bay of Biscay by Luftwaffe Junkers, the loss of this quintessentially English and, perhaps much less obviously, Jewish film star at the age of 50 was much mourned.

It was 1943 and Howard had just left Lisbon, the final stage of his latest and, as it turned out, last anti-Nazi propaganda trip on behalf of Britain. The purpose was to bolster pro-British opinion in countries that were neutral in the war but where fascists were still active.

According to Estel Eforgan's painstakingly researched biography, the night before his death the actor was at a film screening where he was introduced to assembled guests and journalists as the very model of Englishness. Howard replied that his origins were in fact Hungarian.

Those origins include Jewishness on both sides of his family. On the maternal side, the Blumbergs had been in England since 1834 when Howard's great-grandfather Ludwig, a wealthy, Jewish merchant arrived from East Prussia. An importer of luxury goods, Ludwig married into the English upper middle classes, his descendents living in relative grandeur in Upper Norwood.

Judaism was forgotten by the time Howard's mother Lillian met a Hungarian Jew called Ferdinand and then, against her family's wishes, married the very un-English suitor - in West London Synagogue.

This - and the five years that he spent in Vienna as a child - was what Howard was thinking of in his reply to his Portuguese hosts. Ironically, Howard was there expressly to exploit his perceived Englishness, honed in the public-school system and drummed into him while training to be an officer in the cavalry. All of this fed into his on-screen persona and the watchful and erudite calm that made him an A-list (and philandering) leading man.

The manner of his death led to a cottage industry of theories about Howard's possible role as a spy working for MI5. You can see the temptation. By the time war broke out, just as his final Hollywood movie Gone With the Wind was released, it was clear that the actor abhorred Nazis. There was a hint of this in his 1935 movie, The Scarlet Pimpernel, in which the terrors of the French Revolution become an allegory for the rise of the fascism.

Eforgan points out that a scene in the original book, in which the hero disguises himself as a "greasy", Fagin-type "old Jew" to escape the clutches of his enemies is swapped (to the annoyance of the book's author Baroness Orczy) for one set at a boxing match in which Howard's Pimpernel eggs on a Jewish boxer called Mendoza. Other, more explicitly anti-Nazi films followed.

Eforgan reveals some fascinating collaborations. Howard recruited Churchill as a scriptwriter in his failed project to make a film about T. E Lawrence (of Arabia) whom Churchill knew. And Howard also used scripts written by A. A. Milne for both his silent film and West End and Broadway stage appearances.

But what drives this book is the mysterious war record, often fading into a sense of anti-climax as Eforgan finds no evidence to support the more fanciful theories. "He was no spy", she concludes.

Commendably, there is no sexing up here; the author's research is impressively exhaustive. But the result is that, in Eforgan's frustrated searches for Howard the spy, or Howard the First-World-War hero, there is more revealed about the times of Leslie Howard than about the life.

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