The man who made men seem like a good idea
- Cary Grant: A Class Apart by Graham McCann
Fourth Estate, 346 pp, £16.99, September 1996, ISBN 1 85702 366 8
A man has been mistaken for somebody else. He has been kidnapped, forced to drink a bottle of bourbon and sent off to meet his death in a stolen car. He survives, and decides it is time to get things straight. He bribes his way into the hotel room of the man he is supposed to be. On the table he finds a photograph of the person who tried to kill him the night before. In the bathroom he finds a ‘bulleted’ hairbrush – his double had dandruff. In the wardrobe he finds a suit. He takes off his impeccably tailored Hitchcock-grey jacket and pulls on the other man’s. He shrugs uncomfortably to make the collar sit, then lets his arm hang in mid-air as he stares with distaste at the shortness of the cuffs. He holds the trousers up to his waist. They couldn’t be less his style. Gangster bags with woven stripes and turn-ups – and they stop halfway down his shin. ‘Obviously,’ he exclaims, as if this were the worst injustice done to him, ‘they’ve mistaken me for a much shorter man!’
The well-dressed man in a fix is, of course, Cary Grant – a man whose ‘lean-fitting suit’, according to Pauline Kael, ‘seemed the skin of his character’. His audience has come to see his suits as part of his image: clean-cut and suave, all-weather, drip-dry. Together, they can go through anything and come up smelling of Fabergé. As in art, in life: Grant remembered his father being the person who had ‘first put into my mind the idea of buying one good superior suit rather than a number of inferior ones. Then, even when it is threadbare, at least people will know at once it was good.’ Grant’s personal assistant in the Seventies recalls that ‘there was something about Grant that made his clothes stay in perfect shape. While on other people clothes developed stains, creases and spots, Grant’s remained impeccable.’
But the image of a well-cut suit covers up the ever-present underside of Cary Grant. Whether he’s the grinning fibber of The Awful Truth, the nervy nincompoop of Bringing Up Baby, or the irresistible lover suspected of murder in Suspicion, there is always something in Grant that makes sophistication turn. In some films this aspect is unknowably criminal, but even at Grant’s silliest, ‘each movement,’ Kael wrote, ‘was as certain as the pen-strokes of a master cartoonist.’ He was awkward to a tee.
So the moment in North by Northwest when Grant puts on somebody’s else’s ill-fitting jacket epitomises his screen image. By 1959, when this film was made, Grant had spent some of his most famously ridiculous screen moments wearing clothes that were not his own: a feathery negligée in Bringing Up Baby, a leopard-skin dressing-gown in My Favourite Wife, full drag in I Was a Male War Bride. The more renownedly well-fitting his own clothes were, the funnier he was in someone else’s.
In the Hitchcock film, the suit marks a turning-point: having been kidnapped, Grant (Roger Thornhill) is taken to a country house and interrogated by James Mason (Van Damme), who assumes Grant is one George Kaplan. After the bourbon and the car, Grant returns to the scene of the crime with the police, only to find all signs of his story erased. While he is trying on Kaplan’s suit in the hotel room, the phone rings. He answers. It is one of his kidnappers, who sniffs at Grant’s protestations about his identity: ‘You answer his telephone. You live in his hotel room. And yet you are not Mr Kaplan.’ The kidnapper is right to sniff. Grant has put himself in a position in which, logically, he ought to be George Kaplan. The valet assumed he was, so did the housekeeper. (‘This is room 796 isn’t it? So you’re the gentleman in room 796, aren’t you?’) A few minutes later we are watching a US Intelligence meeting, where someone is saying with a shrug: ‘How can you get mistaken for George Kaplan when George Kaplan doesn’t even exist?’
We find out long before Cary Grant does: George Kaplan is an invention, a ‘non-existent decoy’. The suit that Grant was trying on didn’t belong to anyone. Or rather, it belonged to nobody; the same nobody Grant’s identity would get tangled up in for the rest of the film. For a moment he was inside that suit, the unsuspecting accomplice in the making of another man. The suit didn’t fit him, but there is no ‘shorter man’ it ever did fit. Since it wasn’t made for anyone else, it must belong to the person who has it on (‘you’re the gentleman in room 796, aren’t you?’). George Kaplan isn’t anyone else, so he must be Cary Grant.
The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.
Vol. 19 No. 7 · 3 April 1997
Graham McCann ‘sets the record straight’, Gaby Wood writes, on Cary Grant’s ‘alleged homosexuality’ (LRB, 6 March): ‘he wasn’t gay, and McCann is very funny about the proposed evidence.’ I would like to offer this (inconclusive) evidence to the contrary. In 1977, researching a story out of Hollywood, I spent a bracingly informative hour or so with Gary Grant’s former agent of many years. Alas, I have forgotten his name, but he seemed to have forgotten nothing: indeed, he was a fund of good-humoured observation and real-life information rare in the world’s spin capital, no doubt encouraged by the fact that he was well retired and outside the fray. I wasn’t there to talk about Grant specifically, but later rather than sooner the subject came up. My friend of the hour spoke warmly of the actor as a man of genuine style and wit on a personal level: but there was one thing, he said, that had blighted Grant’s life, which was that he was homosexual and had never been able to come to terms with it. ‘It hasn’t been for want of trying,’ said the agent. ‘Cary has tried everything – yoga, psychoanalysis, LSD. And marriage, often. But none of it’s worked, and it’s made him a fundamentally very unhappy man.’ He was speaking nine years before Grant died. The actor was certainly touchy on the subject. A couple of years later, Chevy Chase, a guest on a late-night talk show, mentioned, in a flippant aside, the story that Cary Grant was gay. One never knows what, if anything, to take seriously with Chase, the man who has single-handedly given irony a bad name, but Grant and his lawyers were on the case before the next commercial, and Chase retracted fulsomely the next morning.
Vol. 19 No. 8 · 24 April 1997
David Cobb, if I understand him correctly, suggests that Cary Grant was a homosexual who continued, right up to his death in 1986, to have relationships with women (and marry five of them, and have a daughter with one of them) because he could not come to terms with the truth about himself (Letters, 3 April). Although this sounds like the theory – and, believe me, it exists – that Rock Hudson spent so much time with men because he could not face the fact that, deep down, he was really attracted to women, I think I see Cobb’s point.
The ‘evidence’ he cites is, he acknowledges, ‘inconclusive’: I would say it is rather less impressive than that. His source – he cannot recall his name – is referred to as ‘Grant’s former agent of many years’: this is odd – Grant’s agent, Frank Vincent, died in 1946, and Grant acted as his own agent from that point on, so who Mr Cobb spoke to in 1977 remains something of a mystery. Lew Wasserman and Stanley Fox assisted Grant in certain contractual negotiations, but neither man was ‘well retired and outside the fray’ by the late Seventies, and neither would have made such allegations about his close friend.
Cobb goes on to claim that Grant ‘was certainly touchy on the subject’ of these rumours, but I would contest this. He told one interviewer: ‘If someone wants to say I’m gay, what can I do? I think it’s probably said about every man who’s been known to do well with women. I don’t let that sort of thing bother me. What matters to me is that I know who I am.’ All of his ex-wives rejected the rumours – even Dyan Cannon, years after their acrimonious divorce, told an inquisitive friend that he was ‘definitely not gay’ – and I know that Barbara Harris, his widow, is similarly dismissive.
Why did the gossip persist? Perhaps because Hollywood was – and, in spite of the obligatory red ribbons now on display, continues to be – one of the most homophobic and hypocritical institutions in the Western world, and because Grant, who despised gossip as much as he hated homophobes, refused to apologise for the fact that some of his dearest friends and colleagues happened to be homosexual. Such an attitude, in a place where tittle-tattle passes for scholarship and the possibility of decency and integrity is taken far less seriously than astrology or the likelihood of imminent alien invasion, was really just asking for it.
Vol. 19 No. 13 · 3 July 1997
Graham McCann (Letters, 24 April) may find my (inconclusive) evidence regarding Cary Grant’s homosexuality unpersuasive. However, what I find much more unpersuasive is McCann’s insistence against the odds – and the available evidence – that the ageless icon had to be a superstud heterosexual because he married all those women. Five, count ’em! But what if Grant had married fifty? More to the point, what if he’d married only one or two – would the jury still be out? Surely after all these Freudian years we can accept that the marrying of many women, especially in Hollywood, is a guarantee of SFA: it can be used to prove anything from impotence to rampant priapism to infantilism to Oedipal outrage. Why would McCann in his biography of Grant insist otherwise? It seems from my reading as if he would find the slightest suggestion of non-heterosexuality threatening to his personal vision of Cary Grant, superstar, as if Archie Leach’s Cary Grantness would wither for ever in the absence of a Guaranteed Grade-A Het branded on its haunches.
When he was starting out in Hollywood Grant shared a Hollywood bungalow for some years with Randolph Scott (who also married – and became, incidentally, one of the wealthiest people in Hollywood history). What do we deduce from this? Nothing, McCann would insist, except that the studio was sufficiently worried about appearances that they arranged for Grant and Scott to be photographed, as a send-up, cooking for each other in the kitchen, wearing frilly aprons – a photograph which, it appears, was never released, but found its way into Kenneth Anger’s Hollywood Babylon.
Last month in the New Yorker, in a review largely devoted to McCann’s book, Brendan Gill wrote that
Grant was obliged by studio fiat to endure a quasi-comic role not unlike the roles he played on-screen. The New York photographer Jerome Zerbe, who, strikingly handsome and flirtatious, was a lover of both Grant and Scott, used to tell me of how Grant and he in the Thirties were obliged to honour the prevailing Hollywood taboos and at the same time generate favourable publicity in movie magazines and among Grant’s doting fan clubs. To that end, Grant was reported in the press to be enjoying an impassioned affair with the starlet Betty Furness. Night after night, he took the good-natured Furness out to dinner and returned her to her apartment promptly at ten o’clock, after which Zerbe and he and assorted companions went out on the town … Poor Cary Grant! What about all the men he was attracted to in his youth and with whom he sought to form permanent relationships, always in vain? The story of that struggle, often heartbreaking, remains to be told.
McCann says the struggle never existed.
Vol. 19 No. 14 · 17 July 1997
A biographer has a duty to respect the available facts, not rubber-stamp the fictions. David Cobb (Letters, 3 July) asserts that my biography of Cary Grant – which he still seems not actually to have read – took issue with much of the gossip concerning his sexuality because I regarded ‘the slightest suggestion of non-heterosexuality threatening’ to my ‘personal vision of Cary Grant’. If Cobb could bring himself to do something so strenuously empirical as to consult my previous book, Rebel Males (1991), he would find an entirely uncritical reference to Grant’s ‘bisexual inclinations’; I came to doubt the accuracy of that description only after, and certainly not before, I had the opportunity to research his life in great detail.
Cobb goes on to share with us yet more of his many – admittedly ‘inconclusive’ – bits of ‘evidence’. He reveals, for example, the shocking fact that Grant, during his early years in Hollywood, shared a ‘bungalow’ with Randolph Scott. This is true: it was a seven-bedroom beach house in Santa Monica, just a few doors down from the very similar one shared by the well-known homosexuals David Niven and Errol Flynn. Cobb adds that a humorous picture of Grant and Scott in their kitchen was taken but ‘never released’: I know of at least two popular magazines of the time that printed it.
Cobb concludes by quoting at length from Brendan Gill’s predictably manipulative review of my book in the New Yorker. Gill declared that Betty Furness, a young starlet, was ‘good-natured’ enough to fake ‘an impassioned affair’ with Grant in the mid-Thirties in order to dupe the inquisitive press. In 1991, five years after Grant’s death, Betty Furness went on record as saying how angered she had been by the spurious claim put forward by a certain writer that her relationship with Grant had been a sham: ‘I would simply like to state,’ she said, ‘that my relationship with Cary was a romance on both parts. It was not set up by anyone.’ Who was the writer she was referring to? Brendan Gill.
King’s College, Cambridge