On Jan. 18, 1904, Archibald “Archie” Leach was born into a lower middle-class family in Bristol, England. His father, Elias James Leach worked as a heat press operator in a garment factory. His mother, Elsie Maria Leach, worked as a seamstress. His parents’ first son, John, died from tuberculosis meningitis, commonly called TB, four years before Archie was born. His parents struggled to cope with John’s death, even after the birth of Archie. Archie’s dad tried to drown his sadness with alcohol and became withdrawn from everyone, even Archie. His mother often suffered with bouts of deep depression where she was unable to function. When Archie’s mother was not suffering from depression, she clung to Archie. She filled young Archie’s head with hopes and dreams of one day being rich and famous.
When Archie was 9 years old, he returned home from school to find his mother missing. He asked his father where his mother had gone. His father simply and vaguely replied that she had gone on holiday. His father gave no other details and Archie knew not to press the matter. Every so often, Archie would ask his father when his mother would return. Archie wondered if he was responsible for driving his mother away. Finally, his father told Archie that his mother had died. Archie was stunned. There had been no funeral and no grieving family members to console him or his father. No one mentioned her at all. She was just gone. Archie was crushed.
Archie was not what teachers would call a good student. He often acted out and was indifferent to his studies. He had mood swings and was what some people called prickly. Archie later described his early childhood with a hint of pain. He described “the paucity of my own youth. It lacked many advantages.” Like his father, he was vague and evasive about the details.
In 1932, Archie invented an alter ego. Archie said in later life: “I pretended to be somebody I wanted to be, and I finally became that person. Or he became me. Or we met at some point. It’s a relationship.” Through lots of practice, he somewhat Americanized his British accent. He had always dressed nicely, at his mother’s insistence, but now he dressed impeccably. He mastered etiquette and manners. He was kind, polite and courteous. Now, his alter ego just needed a good name. After some consideration, Archie chose the first name for his alter ego from a part he had once played in a stage production, and the last name from a list of one syllable last names prepared by a movie studio. Pretty soon, people all over the world knew and loved Archie’s alter ego.
In about 1938, several years after Archie had created his alter ego, he learned that his mother had not died as his father had told him. Archie’s mother had not gone on holiday. She was overcome by clinical depression and Archie’s father had her committed to a local mental institution. To his surprise, Archie learned that his mother was still in the mental institution. Archie found and reunited with his mother. He later said of their meeting: “I was known to most of the world by sight and by name, yet not to my mother.” By the time of their reunion, Archie’s alter ego had achieved fame and fortune, the dream his mother had filled him with when he was a child.
Archie and his mother remained close for the rest of her life. Once, while Archie and his mother were driving somewhere, she looked over at his graying hair. She remarked that he should start dying his hair. “Why?” he asked. “You should.” She replied. “It makes me look so old.” She was 89 years old at the time. Archie and his mother joined together in laughter.
In his 80s, some two decades after he had retired from acting, one reporter described Archie’s alter ego as having “thick, snow-white hair, lilting, affected accent, twinkling brown eyes, dimpled chin and a tan face that should be carved on Mount Rushmore. He is terminally debonair, utterly witty, and smoother than a Brandy Alexander.” Another reporter described Archie’s alter ego as “immortal – an ideal of sophistication … forever.”
On Nov. 29, 1986, Archibald Leach died from a stroke while preparing for a theater appearance. Archie’s alter ego starred in many notable pictures including “His Girl Friday,” “The Philadelphia Story,” and the Alfred Hitchcock classic “North by Northwest.” Archie was nominated for two Academy Awards but never won. In 1970, the Academy of Motion Pictures presented him with an honorary Oscar for “his unique mastery of the art of screen acting.” Women adored, and men wanted to be, not Archibald “Archie” Leach. Everyone, including Archie, preferred his alter ego … Cary Grant.
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