“Don’t think I am not homesick for America. I say ‘homesick’ advisedly because I am a man with two homes — America, which gave me hospitality for many happy years, and where my daughter was born; and my native England.” –Leslie Howard
While the mere mention of Leslie Howard can immediately conjure up images of an intellectual Professor Henry Higgins in Pygmalion (1938) or a sensitive Ashley Wilkes in Gone with the Wind (1939), Howard made his mark upon Hollywood as an actor, director, and producer. Best remembered for his portrayals in many notable films, the career of this Academy Award-nominated actor was tragically cut short far too soon.
Leslie Howard Steiner was born to Ferdinand and Lilian Steiner in Crystal Palace, London, as the oldest of five siblings. His mother was British and his father was of Hungarian-Jewish descent. After Howard’s birth, his parents welcomed four more children into the family, including Doris, Irene, Jimmy, and Arthur. Over time, the family Anglicized their name to Stainer, though Howard’s last name would remain true to its original spelling in his official documents.
Howard attended Alleyn’s School in London as well as Belvedere House School in Upper Norwood. While at Belvedere House, Howard wrote his own Christmas play in Latin at the age of thirteen, which was performed by his classmates.
Prior to enlisting into the service at the outbreak of World War I, Howard worked as a bank clerk. He also married Ruth Evelyn Martin in 1916 around this time, with their marriage producing son Ronald or “Winkie” and daughter Leslie Ruth or “Doodie.” His service in the British Army called for him to be a subaltern in the Northhamptonshire Yeomanry but he suffered from shell shock. As a result, he relinquished his commission on May 19th, 1916.
After he left the service, Howard initiated his professional acting career with regional tours of Peg O’ My Heart and Charley’s Aunt in England. One of his largest successes onstage came in the United States in Broadway shows such as Aren’t We All?, Outward Bound, The Green Hat, Her Cardboard Lover, and Berkeley Square. In the meantime, he suggested forming a film production company to his friend Adrian Brunel. The duo named the company Minerva Films Ltd. In addition to Howard and Brunel, its board of directors included C. Aubrey Smith, Nigel Playfair, and A.A. Milne. One of the company’s investors included H.G. Wells. The production company was short-lived, as the cost of producing the films outweighed any returns.
Upon achieving his Broadway stardom, he began his Hollywood career with a film version of Outward Bound (1930). However, Howard was not pleased with the experiences and promised himself he would stay out of Hollywood. Nonetheless, he would return to Hollywood on several occasions, including partaking in A Free Soul (1933) with Norma Shearer, Clark Gable, and Lionel Barrymore, as well as the film version of Berkeley Square (1933). He received an Academy Award nomination for Best Actor as a result of his performance in Berkeley Square and carefully cultivated his onscreen image of a perfect Englishman.
While on Broadway, Howard balanced acting, producing, and directing duties in many productions. He was also a dramatist, starring in the Broadway production of this play, Murray Hill. His stage triumphs continued with roles in Escape, The Animal Kingdom, and The Petrified Forest. He would reprise his roles in the film versions of The Animal Kingdom (1932) and The Petrified Forest (1936). During the filming of The Petrified Forest, Howard and costar Humphrey Bogart became good friends. Bogart and Lauren Bacall would name their daughter Leslie Howard Bogart in honor of Howard.
Howard enjoyed performing Shakespeare, appearing as the lead in MGM’s Romeo and Juliet (1936). By the time he starred in the Broadway production of Hamlet in the same year, a rival production also opened and was far more popular. Undaunted, Howard continued with his film career, starring in It’s Love I’m After (1937) and Pygmalion (1938). His performance as Professor Henry Higgins would garner him his second Academy Award nomination for Best Actor. He would soon follow this string of successes with a dramatic performance in Intermezzo (1939) alongside Ingrid Bergman.
Though Howard was well-known as an actor, he had other family members who were also involved in the film industry. His brother, Arthur, acted in British comedies. Moreover, his sister, Irene, was a costume designer and casting director for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.
Howard’s portrayal of Ashley Wilkes in Gone with the Wind is arguably his most famous role. However, with World War II on the horizon, Howard wished to return to his home country in order to help with the war effort. Gone with the Wind would be his last American film. His next films included 49th Parallel (1941), “Pimpernel” Smith (1941), and The First of the Few/Spitfire (1942), with him taking on the roles of director and co-producer in the latter of the two. During the course of World War II, Howard made documentaries for the BBC with Noel Coward. At the same time, he directed films, wrote articles, and made numerous radio broadcasts.
In 1943, Howard scheduled a cultural expedition to Spain through the British Council in order to continue contributing to the war effort. While Flight 777-A or “Ibis” made its way over the Bay of Biscay, the plane was shadowed by an enemy aircraft. Tragically, the plane was shot down over the sea, killing all 17 passengers—including Howard—on board. He was 50 years of age.
Today, Howard’s life is celebrated in the documentary Leslie Howard: The Man Who Gave a Damn (2011) as well as at several points of interest in the England, the United States, and Spain.
In England, Howard once resided at 45 Farquhar Rd., in Upper Norwood, London. There is a historic plaque on the building commemorating his residency there. He also lived nearby when he moved out of the home on Farquhar but that building has since been demolished.
Alleyn’s School continues to function as a school. It stands at Townley Rd in Dulwich, London, SE22 8SU.
Stanley Halls, where Howard performed on stage, also continue to operate as a community space for music, theatre, art, and enterprise. It is situated at 12 S. Norwood Hill in London SE25 6AB.
Howard’s family home in England was known as Stowe Maries. Today, it is privately owned and stands on the bend of Balchins Ln near 2 Balchins Ln in Westcott, Dorking RH4 3LG.
When filming in the United States, one of Howard’s residences was a 606 N Camden Drive in Beverly Hills, California. This home also exists today and is privately owned.
Among other notable names, Howard is also honored with a plaque at the former site of the Empire Theater. The plaque is located in the lobby of the building at 1430 Broadway in New York City.
Finally, the most poignant memorial to Howard is in Cedeira, Galicia, Spain. A monument to Howard, as well as the passengers and crew of Flight 777-A, stands at A Capelda near San Andres de Teixido, near where his plane crashed on route to the United Kingdom.
Though Howard was taken far too soon, he is honored in many ways both in his home country and beyond.