Star of stage and screen who helped the war effort honoured
Actor and film director Leslie Howard (1893-1943) has been commemorated with an English Heritage blue plaque at 45 Farquhar Road in Upper Norwood, south London. The plaque was installed on Tuesday 3rd September at the home where he lived in his later childhood – the years in which his love of theatre began to take hold.
Leslie Howard Steiner was born in Forest Hill, London, the eldest son of Ferdinand Steiner, a Hungarian-born stockbroker’s clerk. The family went to live in Vienna when he was only three, but returned to London about five years later. The house chosen for commemoration, 45 Farquhar Road, is part of an 1880s terrace, which originally faced the old high level railway station that served the Crystal Palace. It was Howard’s home for about four years from 1907, and he subsequently lived at another address nearby, now demolished. While living in Farquhar Road he attended Alleyn’s School in nearby Dulwich before leaving at the age of seventeen to work as a bank clerk in Whitehall. However, Howard had been interested in music and drama from a young age and performed in plays at the Stanley Halls in South Norwood.
Following the declaration of war in 1914 he enlisted and, after five months of training, was appointed a second lieutenant in the Northamptonshire Imperial Yeomanry. His military service was curtailed by ill-health, however, and in May 1916 he was discharged and decided to try his luck as a professional actor. After touring in various productions, he made his West End debut in 1917 and adopted the stage name of Leslie Howard. He gained his first major role in Arthur Pinero’s The Freaks, which played for over fifty performances.
Partly helped by his uncle, who was a film director, Howard found himself in front of a camera in 1919, but failed to shine in the resulting production, The Lackey and the Lady. In 1920 Leslie Howard formally adopted his stage name by deed poll and later that year he travelled to the United States to appear in a touring production of Gilbert Miller’s Just Suppose, which opened at the Henry Miller Theatre in New York.
His breakthrough came with leading roles in Her Cardboard Lover (1927), which transferred to London in 1928 with a cast headed by Tallulah Bankhead, and in John Gallworthy’s Escape (1928). In 1930, Howard was invited to Hollywood to appear in Robert Milton’s Outward Bound, which was followed by a succession of films made for MGM and RKO studios.
Howard continued to act on stage and achieved notable artistic and commercial success with his performance as the alcoholic writer Alan Squier opposite the then unknown Humphrey Bogart in Robert E. Sherwood’s The Petrified Forest (1935). By contrast his appearance as Hamlet on Broadway in Autumn 1936 proved a flop, as he struggled to compete with John Gielgud’s production of the play that had been a sensation only a month before.
Howard’s film career received a welcome boost in 1938 when his performance as Professor Henry Higgins in George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion earned him an Oscar nomination. It brought him to the attention of Hollywood again and he was cast alongside Vivien Leigh and Clark Gable in the MGM blockbuster, Gone with the Wind (1939). Although the film proved an enormous success at the box office, Howard loathed his part and dismissed Ashley Wilkes as ‘a dreadful milksop, totally spineless and negative’.
Following the outbreak of the Second World War, Howard – who had returned to London – offered his services to the government and devised a propaganda strategy structured to encourage the United States to enter the war, but this was quietly rejected. He nonetheless started a series of BBC radio broadcasts to American listeners, Britain Speaks, in June 1940 and continued to report as the Blitz took its toll on London.
When restrictions on the British film industry were relaxed, Howard seized the opportunity to produce a patriotic film, Pimpernel Smith (1941), which transplanted the action of Orczy’s novel from Revolutionary France to Nazi Germany. Its success inspired him to work on his next project, directing and starring in a biopic of R.J Mitchell, designer of the Spitfire fighter plane: Howard started shooting The First of the Few in Cornwall in summer 1941. His attention to detail and experience in working with the RAF led the Ministry of Information to commission him in 1942 to direct a recruitment film, The Gentle Sex, which would concentrate on women serving in the Auxiliary Territorial Service. The following year, Howard received an invitation from the British Council to go on a lecture tour to Spain and Portugal which, after first refusing, he was persuaded to accept.
At the end of his month-long trip, he boarded a civilian jet in Lisbon to return home, but was killed when the aeroplane was shot down by enemy fire as it crossed the English Channel on 1 June 1943. Howard was 50 years old. Conspiracy theories persist about the reasons for his trip and the manner of his death but no proof that he was a secret agent has ever been uncovered.
HISTORY OF LONDON’S BLUE PLAQUES SCHEME – The London-wide blue plaques scheme has been running for almost 150 years. The idea of erecting memorial tablets was first proposed by William Ewart MP in the House of Commons in 1863. It had an immediate impact on the public imagination, and in 1866 the (Royal) Society of Arts founded an official plaques scheme. The Society erected its first plaque – to poet, Lord Byron – in 1867. The blue plaques scheme was subsequently administered by the London County Council (1901-65) and by the Greater London Council (1965-86), before being taken on by English Heritage in 1986.