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The Amazing True Story of Cary Grant’s Mother
Cary Grant is remembered as one of the most famous actors of Hollywood’s Golden Age, the star of classics such as ‘Bringing Up Baby’, ‘The Philadelphia Story’ and ‘Charade’. He was suave, debonair, immensely rich and successful and the very image of unflappable paganism. 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 locked up in a mental asylum by Grant’s father when Cary was 9 and he thought for the next 20 year she died.
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 workers. Elias and Elsie married in 1898 and had a son a year later. In 1900, that child died just shortly after 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 sea. He and Elias went to live with his father’s parents who brought Archie for the rest of his time in England. Cary remembers 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 was declared insane by his father who had an affair with another woman named 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 to do it. The cruelty of the man against both his wife and his son against the faith.
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 beginning of his life in show business and he went with the troupe to America in 1920 for a longer 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 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 reunited 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 tell the difference between Archie Leach, the son she thought she had lost, and Cary Grant, the debonair and famous Hollywood actor .
Grant had released her from the asylum and was taking good care of her. The doctors advised her to stay in England and indeed Elsie steadfastly refused to travel to America despite many subsequent invitations from Cary. He put her in her own family in Bristol and visited her regularly. Elsie was as resilient as her son and she lived to the ripe old age of 93, dying in 1973.
It’s a sad story, but also an uplifting one. Cary Grant was raised in a loveless dysfunctional family, but he raised himself through his own efforts, educated himself and became a success in his chosen profession. He finally found his mother and was able to take care of her.
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