Oscar Actors: Howard, Leslie–Background, Career, Awards

Research in Progress (November 15, 2020)
Leslie Howard Career Summary:

Occupational Inheritance: No

Social Class: Hungarian Jewish father

Race/Ethnicity/Religion: Jewish



Training: bank clerk at 21; stage

Teacher/Inspirational Figure:

Radio Debut:

TV Debut:

Stage Debut:

Broadway Debut:

Film Debut:

Breakthrough Role:

Oscar Role:

Other Noms:

Other Awards:

Frequent Collaborator:

Screen Image: lead character actor

Last Film:

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Film Career Span:



Death: 50

Leslie Howard Steiner (April 3, 1893–June 1, 1943) was an English stage and screen actor.

He also wrote stories and articles for The New York Times, The New Yorker, and Vanity Fair and was one of the biggest box-office draws and movie idols of the 1930s.

Active in both Britain and Hollywood, Howard is probably best remembered for playing Ashley Wilkes in Gone with the Wind (1939).

He had roles in many notable films, often playing the quintessential Englishman, including Berkeley Square (1933), Of Human Bondage (1934), The Scarlet Pimpernel (1934), The Petrified Forest (1936), Pygmalion (1938), Intermezzo (1939), “Pimpernel” Smith (1941), and The First of the Few (1942).

He was nominated for the Best Actor Oscar for Berkeley Square and Pygmalion.

Howard’s World War II activities included acting and filmmaking. He was active in anti-German propaganda and shoring up support for the Allies—two years after his death the British Film Yearbook described Howard’s work as “one of the most valuable facets of British propaganda.”

He was rumored to have been involved with British or Allied Intelligence, sparking conspiracy theories regarding his death in 1943 when the Luftwaffe shot down BOAC Flight 777 over the Atlantic (off the coast of Cedeira, A Coruña), on which he was a passenger.

Howard was born Leslie Howard Steiner to a British mother, Lilian (née Blumberg), and a Hungarian-Jewish father, Ferdinand Steiner, in Upper Norwood, London. Lilian had been brought up as a Christian, but she was of partial Jewish ancestry—her paternal grandfather Ludwig Blumberg, a Jewish merchant originally from East Prussia, had married into the English upper-middle classes.

He received his formal education at Alleyn’s School, London. The family anglicized its name to “Stainer,” although Howard’s name remained Steiner in official documents, such as his military records.

At 21, he was a bank clerk in Dulwich when the First World War broke out; in September 1914 he voluntarily enlisted (under the name Leslie Howard Steiner) as a Private with the British Army’s Inns of Court Officer Training Corps in London.

In February 1915 he received a commission as a subaltern with the 3/1st Northamptonshire Yeomanry Regiment, with which he trained in England until May 1916, when he resigned his commission and was medically discharged from the British Army with neurasthenia.

In March 1920, Howard gave public notice in The London Gazette that by deed poll he had abandoned the use of the name Steiner and thereafter would be known by the name of Howard instead.

Howard began his professional acting career in regional tours of Peg O’ My Heart and Charley’s Aunt in 1916–1917, and on the London stage in 1917, but had his greatest theatrical success in the US in Broadway theatre, in plays such as Aren’t We All? (1923), Outward Bound (1924) and The Green Hat (1925).

He became an undisputed Broadway star in Her Cardboard Lover (1927).

After his success as time traveler Peter Standish in Berkeley Square (1929), Howard launched his Hollywood career in the film version of Outward Bound, but didn’t like the experience and vowed never to return to Hollywood. However, he did return, many times—later repeating the Standish role in the 1933 film version of Berkeley Square.

The stage, however, continued to be an important part of his career. Howard frequently juggled acting, producing and directing duties in the Broadway productions in which he starred. Howard was also a dramatist, and starred in the Broadway production of his own play Murray Hill (1927). He played Matt Denant in John Galsworthy’s 1927 Broadway production Escape in which he first made his mark as a dramatic actor. His stage triumphs continued with The Animal Kingdom (1932) and The Petrified Forest (1936).[10] He later repeated both roles in the film versions.

Howard loved to play Shakespeare, but according to producer John Houseman he could be lazy about learning lines. He first sprang to fame playing in Romeo and Juliet (1936) in the role of the leading man. During the same period he had the misfortune to open on Broadway in Hamlet (1936) just a few weeks after John Gielgud launched a rival production of the same play that was far more successful[11] with both critics and audiences. Howard’s production, his final stage role, lasted for only 39 performances before closing.

Howard was inducted into the American Theatre Hall of Fame in 1981.

In 1920 Howard suggested forming a film production company, British Comedy Films Ltd., to his friend Adrian Brunel. The two settled on the name Minerva Films Ltd. The company’s board of directors consisted of Howard, Brunel, C. Aubrey Smith, Nigel Playfair and A. A. Milne. One of the company’s investors was H. G. Wells. Although the films produced by Minerva—which were written by A. A. Milne—were well received by critics, the company was only offered £200 apiece for films it cost them £1,000 to produce and Minerva Films Ltd. was short-lived.[13][14][15] Early films include four written by A. A. Milne, including The Bump, starring C. Aubrey Smith; Twice Two; Five Pounds Reward; and Bookworms, the latter two starring Howard. Some of these films survive in the archives of the British Film Institute.

In British and Hollywood productions, Howard often played stiff upper lipped Englishmen.

He appeared in the film version of Outward Bound (1930), though in a different role from the one he portrayed on Broadway. He had second billing under Norma Shearer in A Free Soul (1931), which also featured Lionel Barrymore and future Gone With the Wind rival Clark Gable six years prior to their Civil War masterpiece. He starred in the film version of Berkeley Square (1933), for which he was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actor. He played the title character in The Scarlet Pimpernel (1934).

When Howard co-starred with Bette Davis in The Petrified Forest (1936)–having earlier co-starred with her in the film adaptation of W. Somerset Maugham’s  Of Human Bondage (1934)–he insisted that Humphrey Bogart play gangster Duke Mantee, repeating his role from the stage production.

This re-launched Bogart’s screen career, and the two men became lifelong friends; Bogart and Lauren Bacall later named their daughter “Leslie Howard Bogart” after him.

In the same year Howard starred with Norma Shearer in a film version of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet (1936)

Davis was again Howard’s co-star in the romantic comedy It’s Love I’m After (1937) (also co-starring Olivia de Havilland).

He played Professor Henry Higgins in the film version of George Bernard Shaw’s play Pygmalion (1938), with Wendy Hiller as Eliza, which earned Howard another Best Actor nomination.

In 1939, he played opposite Ingrid Bergman in Intermezzo; that August, Howard was determined to return to England. He was eager to help the war effort, but lost any support for a new film, instead being obliged to relinquish £20,000 of holdings in the US before he could leave the country.

Howard is best remembered for his role as Ashley Wilkes in Gone with the Wind (1939), his last American film, but he was uncomfortable with Hollywood, and returned to Britain to help with the Second World War effort. He starred in a number of Second World War films including 49th Parallel (1941), “Pimpernel” Smith (1941) and The First of the Few (1942, known in the U.S. as Spitfire), the latter two of which he also directed and co-produced. His friend and The First of the Few co-star David Niven said Howard was “…not what he seemed. He had the kind of distraught air that would make people want to mother him. Actually, he was about as naïve as General Motors. Busy little brain, always going.”

During wartime Howard made documentaries with Noël Coward for the BBC, typically in From the Four Corners (1942), in which he eulogized on the principles of defending the British Commonwealth. “To hell”, he said of his critics. He took to directing also with “Pimpernel” Smith (1941), after years of experience with technical cameramen. The film was a big success in Britain and US, but was deemed as deliberate attempt at propaganda. In throwing down the challenge to the Nazis, some critics have said the film spelt a death sentence to his career. He lived with Violette Cunnington at the weekend, now his girlfriend on the set of Pimpernel.

In 49th Parallel (1941) he delivered the famous lines, “So that’s how you are, Nazis!” The first of his nearly death-defying films came in 1942 with The First of the Few. R. J. Mitchell was the designer of the famous fighter aeroplane that featured in a romantic film that glorified the heroism of Mitchell’s role. Mitchell’s death was over-played and non-factual, but made more of the circumstances. (Matthew Sweet, film critic.). His son Ronald Howard worked in the Royal Navy during the war. His daughter married a Royal Canadian Army officer, Robert Dale-Harris. Howard’s attitude was “marry that dull young man”, and so she did in 1943. Howard then directed The Gentle Sex (1943). His biographer Quentin Falk believed the shock of Violette Cunnington’s death was total and devastating. Another biographer, American Professor Robert Wheeler, believed that the cultural expedition to Spain through the British Council was an effort to contribute more to the war effort, after his lover had gone. On 1 June 1943, his flight was arranged for Flight 777; some people were asked to depart. Howard was late, and stopped to buy stockings for a lady friend. They flew over the Bay of Biscay, but were shadowed by enemy aircraft, “tapped by enemy aircraft” in the last message. The plane was shot down over the sea. On board were three VIPs: Ivan Sharp, Economic Warfare Ministry man; Mr Shervington, Director of Shell Oil and Chief of Secret Service; Wilfred Israel, Head of getting Jews out of Europe, Spain station. Subsequent biographers have tried to explain the theory that the Nazis targeted the civilian flight.

The event is noted in an account of the war years based on the diaries of the Chief of the Imperial General Staff, Alan Brooke, the head of the Army at that time. Leslie Howard’s tax advisor and agent, Alfred Chenhalls, a tubby, bald, cigar-smoking bon viveur, was seen by German Agents and mistaken for Winston Churchill to whom he bore a resemblance and who was known to be returning from Algiers at the time.

In 1944, after his death, British exhibitors voted him the second-most popular local star at the box office.

Howard married Ruth Evelyn Martin (1895–1980) in March, 1916, and their children Ronald “Winkie” and Leslie Ruth “Doodie” who appeared with her father and David Niven in the film The First of the Few, playing the role of nurse to David Niven’s character, and as a major contributor in the filmed biography of her father, “The Man Who Gave A Damn”. His son became an actor and played the title role in the television series Sherlock Holmes (1954). His younger brother Arthur was also an actor, primarily in British comedies. His sister Irene was a costume designer and a casting director for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.[24] His sister Doris Stainer founded the Hurst Lodge School in Sunningdale, Berkshire in 1945 and remained its headmistress until the 1970s.

Howard was widely known as a “ladies’ man”, and he once said that he “didn’t chase women but … couldn’t always be bothered to run away”. He reportedly had affairs with Tallulah Bankhead when they appeared on stage in the UK in Her Cardboard Lover (1927), with Merle Oberon while filming The Scarlet Pimpernel (1934), and with Conchita Montenegro, with whom he had appeared in the film Never the Twain Shall Meet (1931).

There were also rumors of affairs with Norma Shearer and Myrna Loy during filming of The Animal Kingdom.

Howard fell in love with Violette Cunnington in 1938 while working on Pygmalion. She was secretary to Gabriel Pascal who was producing the film; she became Howard’s secretary and lover, and they travelled to the United States and lived together while he was filming Gone with the Wind and Intermezzo (both 1939). His wife and daughter joined him in Hollywood before production ended on the two films, making his arrangement with Cunnington somewhat uncomfortable for everyone.

He left the US for the last time with his wife and daughter in August, 1939, and Cunnington soon followed. She appeared in “Pimpernel” Smith (1941) and The First of the Few (1942) in minor roles under the stage name of Suzanne Clair. She died of pneumonia in her early thirties in 1942, just six months before Howard’s death. Howard left her his Beverly Hills house in his will.

The Howards’ family home in Britain was Stowe Maries, a 16th-century, six-bedroom farmhouse on the edge of Westcott, Surrey. His will revealed an estate of £62,761, the equivalent of £3 million as of 2019.[35][36] An English Heritage blue plaque was placed at 45 Farquhar Road, Upper Norwood, London in 2013.


In May 1943, Howard travelled to Portugal to promote the British cause. He stayed in Monte Estoril, at the Hotel Atlântico, between 1 May and 4 May, then again between 8 May and 10 May and again between 25 May and 31 May 1943. The following day, 1 June 1943, was aboard KLM Royal Dutch Airlines/BOAC Flight 777, “G-AGBB” a Douglas DC-3 flying to Bristol from Lisbon, when it was shot down by Luftwaffe Junkers Ju 88C6 maritime fighter aircraft over the Atlantic (off Cedeira, A Coruñ] He was among the 17 fatalities, including four KLM flight crew.

The BOAC DC-3 Ibis had been operating on a scheduled Lisbon–Whitchurch route throughout 1942–43 that did not pass over what would commonly be referred to as a war zone. By 1942, however, the Germans considered the region an “extremely sensitive war zone”.[42] On two occasions, 15 November 1942 and 19 April 1943, the camouflaged airliner had been attacked by Messerschmitt Bf 110 fighters (a single aircraft and six Bf 110s, respectively) whilst en route; each time, the pilots escaped via evasive tactics.[43]

On 1 June 1943, “G-AGBB” again came under attack by a swarm of eight V/KG40 Ju 88C6 maritime fighters. The DC-3’s last radio message indicated it was being fired upon at longitude 09.37 West, latitude 46.54 North.

According to German documents, the DC-3 was shot down at 46°07′N 10°15′W, some 500 miles (800 km) from Bordeaux, France, and 200 miles northwest of La Coruña, Spain. Luftwaffe records indicate that the Ju 88 maritime fighters were operating beyond their normal patrol area to intercept and shoot down the aircraft.[26] First Oberleutnant Herbert Hintze, Staffelkapitän of 14 Staffel, V./Kampfgeschwader 40, and based in Bordeaux, stated that his Staffel shot down the DC-3 because it was recognized as an enemy aircraft.

Hintze further stated that his pilots were angry that the Luftwaffe leaders had not informed them of a scheduled flight between Lisbon and the UK, and that had they known, they could easily have escorted the DC-3 to Bordeaux and captured it and all aboard. The German pilots photographed the wreckage floating in the Bay of Biscay, and after the war copies of these captured photographs were sent to Howard’s family.

The following day, a search of the waters on the route was undertaken by “N/461”, a Short Sunderland flying boat from No. 461 Squadron RAAF. Near the same coordinates where the DC-3 was shot down, the Sunderland was attacked by eight Ju 88s and, after a furious battle, it managed to shoot down three of the attackers, with an additional three “possibles”, before crash-landing at Praa Sands near Penzance. In the aftermath of these two actions, all BOAC flights from Lisbon were re-routed and operated only under the cover of darkness.

The news of Howard’s death was published in the same issue of The Times that reported the “death” of Major William Martin, the “ Man who never existed“ created for the ruse involved in Operation Mincemeat.

Theories regarding the air attack

Monument to the memory of Leslie Howard and his companions in Cedeira, Galicia, Spain
A long-standing but ultimately unsupported hypothesis suggested that the Germans believed that the British Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, was on board the flight.[46] Churchill’s history of World War II suggested that the Germans targeted the commercial flight because the British Prime Minister’s “presence in North Africa [for the 1943 Casablanca conference] had been fully reported,” and German agents at the Lisbon airfield mistook a “thickset man smoking a cigar” boarding the plane for Churchill returning to England. The death of the fourteen civilians including Leslie Howard “was a painful shock to me,” Churchill wrote; “the brutality of the Germans was only matched by the stupidity of their agents”.

Two books focusing on the final flight, Flight 777 (Ian Colvin, 1957) and In Search of My Father: A Portrait of Leslie Howard (Ronald Howard, 1984) asserted that the target was Howard instead: that Germans deliberately shot down Howard’s DC-3 to demoralise Britain.[26][48] Howard had been travelling through Spain and Portugal lecturing on film, but also meeting with local propagandists and shoring up support for the Allies. The British Film Yearbook for 1945 described Leslie Howard’s work as “one of the most valuable facets of British propaganda.”

The Germans could have suspected even more surreptitious activities, since Portugal, like Switzerland, was a crossroads for internationals and spies from both sides. British historian James Oglethorpe investigated Howard’s connection to the secret services.[50] Ronald Howard’s book explores the written German orders to the Ju 88 squadron in great detail, as well as British communiqués that purportedly verify intelligence reports indicating a deliberate attack on Howard. These accounts indicate that the Germans were aware of Churchill’s real whereabouts at the time and were not so naive as to believe he would be travelling alone on board an unescorted, unarmed civilian aircraft, which Churchill also acknowledged as improbable. Ronald Howard was convinced the order to shoot down Howard’s airliner came directly from Joseph Goebbels, Minister of Public Enlightenment and Propaganda in Nazi Germany, who had been ridiculed in one of Leslie Howard’s films, and believed Howard to be the most dangerous British propagandist.

Most of the 13 passengers were either British executives with corporate ties to Portugal, or lower-ranking British government civil servants. There were also two or three children of British military personnel.[26] Two passengers were bumped, George and William Cecil, the teenage sons of Cornelia Stuyvesant Vanderbilt, who had been recalled to London from their Swiss boarding school.[51]

A 2008 book by Spanish writer José Rey Ximena[52] claims that Howard was on a top-secret mission for Churchill to dissuade Spanish dictator Francisco Franco from joining the Axis powers.[53] Via an old girlfriend, Conchita Montenegro,[53] Howard had contacts with Ricardo Giménez Arnau, a young diplomat in the Spanish Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Further merely circumstantial background evidence is revealed in Jimmy Burns’s 2009 biography of his father, spymaster Tom Burns.[54] According to author William Stevenson in A Man called Intrepid, his biography of Sir William Samuel Stephenson (no relation), the senior representative of British Intelligence for the western hemisphere during the Second World War, Stephenson postulated that the Germans knew about Howard’s mission and ordered the aircraft shot down. Stephenson further claimed that Churchill knew in advance of the German intention to shoot down the aircraft, but allowed it to proceed to protect the fact that the British had broken the German Enigma code. Former CIA agent Joseph B. Smith recalled that, in 1957, he was briefed by the National Security Agency on the need for secrecy and that Leslie Howard’s death had been brought up. The NSA claimed that Howard knew his aircraft was to be attacked by German fighters and sacrificed himself to protect the British code-breakers.

A secretly taped account of one of the pilots involved appears in Sönke Neitzel and Harald Welzer’s “Soldiers: Germans POW’s on Fighting Killing, and Dying”. In a recently declassified transcript of a surreptitiously recorded conversation by two German Luftwaffe prisoners of war[who?] talking about the shooting down of Howard’s flight, one seems to express pride in his accomplishment, but states clearly he knew nothing of the passenger’s identities or importance until hearing an English broadcast later that evening. Asked why he shot down a civil aircraft, he states it was one of four such planes he shot down: “Whatever crossed our path was shot down.”

The 2010 biography by Estel Eforgan, Leslie Howard: The Lost Actor, examines then recently available evidence and concludes that Howard was not a specific target,[59] corroborating the claims by German sources that the shootdown was “an error in judgement”.

There is a monument in San Andrés de Teixido, Spain, dedicated to the victims of the crash. Howard’s aircraft was shot down over the sea north of this village.

Howard’s premature death preempted any autobiography. A compilation of his writings, Trivial Fond Records, edited and with occasional comments by his son Ronald, was published in 1982. This book includes insights on his family life, first impressions of America and Americans when he first moved to the United States to act on Broadway, and his views on democracy in the years prior to and during the Second World War.

Howard’s son and daughter each published memoirs of their father: In Search of My Father: A Portrait of Leslie Howard (1984) by Ronald Howard, and A Quite Remarkable Father: A Biography of Leslie Howard (1959) by Leslie Ruth Howard.

Estel Eforgan’s Leslie Howard: The Lost Actor is a full-length book biography published in 2010.

Leslie Howard: The Man Who Gave a Damn
Leslie Howard: A Quite Remarkable Life, a film documentary biography produced by Thomas Hamilton of Repo Films, was shown privately at the NFB Mediatheque, Toronto, Canada in September 2009 for contributors and supporters of the film. Subsequently, re-edited and retitled Leslie Howard: The Man Who Gave a Damn, the documentary was officially launched on 2 September 2011 in an event held at Howard’s former home “Stowe Maries” in Dorking, and reported on BBC South News the same day.[61] Lengthy rights negotiations with Warners then delayed further screenings until May 2012, although the situation now appears to have been resolved and Repo Films now intends to enter the film into various International Film Festivals.

Leslie Howard: The Man Who Gave a Damn premiered on Turner Classic Movies on 4 June 2018, opening a month-long tribute to Howard’s films.

Complete filmography

1914 UK The Heroine of Mons Yes Short
1917 UK The Happy Warrior Yes Rollo
1919 UK The Lackey and the Lady Yes Tony Dunciman
1920 UK Twice Two Yes Short
1920 UK The Bump Yes Short
1920 UK Bookworms Yes Yes Richard Short
1920 UK Five Pounds Reward Yes Yes Tony Marchmont Short
1921 UK Two Many Cooks Yes Short
1921 UK The Temporary Lady Yes Short
1930 US Outward Bound Yes Tom Prior
1931 US Never the Twain Shall Meet Yes Dan Pritchard
1931 US A Free Soul Yes Dwight Winthrop
1931 US Five and Ten Yes Bertram “Berry” Rhodes
1931 US Devotion Yes David Trent
1932 UK Service for Ladies Yes Max Tracey
1932 US Smilin’ Through Yes Sir John Carteret
1932 US The Animal Kingdom Yes Tom Collier
1933 US Secrets Yes John Carlton
1933 US Captured! Yes Captain Fred Allison
1933 US Berkeley Square Yes Peter Standish
1934 US Of Human Bondage Yes Philip Carey
1934 UK The Lady Is Willing Yes Albert Latour
1934 US British Agent Yes Stephen “Steve” Locke
1934 UK The Scarlet Pimpernel Yes Sir Percy Blakeney
1936 US The Petrified Forest Yes Alan Squier
1936 US Romeo and Juliet Yes Romeo
1937 US It’s Love I’m After Yes Basil Underwood
1937 US Stand-In Yes Atterbury Dodd
1938 UK Pygmalion Yes Yes Professor Henry Higgins
1939 US Intermezzo Yes Yes Holger Brandt
1939 US Gone with the Wind Yes Ashley Wilkes
1940 UK Common Heritage Narrator Short
1941 UK “Pimpernel” Smith Yes Yes Yes Professor Horatio Smith
1941 UK 49th Parallel Yes Philip Armstrong Scott
1942 UK The First of the Few Yes Yes Yes R. J. Mitchell
1942 UK From the Four Corners Yes Short
1942 UK In Which We Serve Yes Narrator Uncredited
1943 UK The Gentle Sex Yes Yes Yes Narrator (final film role)
1943 UK The Lamp Still Burns Yes Final production