Cary Grant: a name synonymous with Hollywood glamor in the mid-20th century. He tumbled and swanned, he looked equally incredible in a pristine tuxedo and in Katherine Hepburn’s fur-embellished silk robe in Bringing Up Baby, where he does a little jump and quipping, “I just went gay all of a sudden!” From Holiday to To Catch a Thief, Grant was cool yet passionate, funny yet slick. An immigrant from Bristol, England, Grant’s real theatrical start was in New York’s Greenwich Village, where he lived at 21 Commerce Street and 75 1/2 Bedford Street, the narrowest house in Greenwich Village. For Grant, then known as Archie Leach, Greenwich Village was a generative and varied stepping stone on his way from West Country, England to Hollywood.
Cary Grant, A Self Invention
A reporter once asked Grant, “Who is Cary Grant?” He replied: “When you find out, tell me.”
Archibald Alec Leach was born in a suburb called Horfield in Bristol, a part of the West Country of England, on January 18, 1904. Leach was born to a life similar to his name — unglamorous, provincial.
But Grant’s story is one of willful self-construction, and as we know he lost the accent, donned pristine tuxedos and high-waisted pants, and became a household name, a movie star, and a man of much mystery. When he landed in Hollywood and took the name Cary Grant, it seems he wanted to have never existed before that day. In the splendid lights and fame of Hollywood and his five marriages to heiresses and other glamorous women, his past and whatever muddled “truths” about his sexuality might be found paled. And certainly what matters is that he built the life he wanted, glamor and all, becoming Cary Grant. As many have observed, just that was his greatest role as an actor.
Before he changed his name, Grant’s evenings in Bristol were spent working backstage in local theaters. He had amazing physical comedy and acrobatic abilities, and before he’d reached his teens had trained as a stilt walker and began touring with a group of acrobatic dancers, the Bob Pender Stage Troupe, with whom he also juggled, rode a unicycle, and performed comedy sketches.
When he was 16, the Troupe set out for a tour of the U.S. Leach traveled with the group on the RMS Olympic to conduct a tour of the United States, where he made the decision to stay. This is when the future Cary Grant made his way to the Village.
Cary Grant’s Village Story
Grant and his troupe appeared in various shows, comedies, and musicals. Then, Grant left the troupe and struck out on his own in Greenwich Village.
In 1923, the house at 75 1/2 Commerce Street was leased by a consortium of artists who used it for actors working at the nearby Cherry Lane Theater. Cary Grant and John Barrymore stayed at the house while performing at Cherry Lane during this time. (Later, Edna St. Vincent Millay, the Pulitzer Prize-winning poet, and her new husband, coffee importer Eugen Jan Boissevain, renovated and lived in the house from 1923 to 1924.)
After that, Grant moved around for a while, before he met his one-time partner in showbusiness and perhaps also love, famed costume designer Orry-Kelly. Orry-Kelly would later write an autobiography which was discovered in a pillowcase decades after his death and subsequently made into a documentary of the same name. Called “Women I’ve Undressed,” a pun on Orry-Kelly’s work as an Academy Award-winning costume designer for An American in Paris, and Some Like it Hot, where he dressed Marilyn Monroe and Tony Curtis (in amazing drag!), among others.
Orry-Kelly was Australian, an immigrant himself who settled in Greenwich Village, which he described as others have at that time — a city for gentlemen, where men looking to make their name could find a room. He wrote that he met the struggling actor Cary Grant just before his 21st birthday in January of 1925 — making him seven years Orry-Kelly’s junior. Grant had been evicted from a boarding house for non-payment and had turned up at Kelly’s artist’s studio at 21 Commerce Street with a tin box containing all his worldly possessions. He promptly moved in.
Orry-Kelly wrote that Grant was ill when they first started living together, and he paid the younger man’s doctor bills. The “devastatingly handsome” Grant was working occasionally as a carnival barker in Coney Island and as a paid escort while seeking work in vaudeville. Grant partnered with Orry-Kelly (for a fee) in his fashion design work, gaining access to cultural establishments and theaters around the city by selling Orry-Kelly’s creations. Branching out a couple of years later, the two men briefly ran their own speakeasy in Manhattan, though the location and name are unknown.
It was Orry-Kelly who got Grant an audition for his first Broadway musical, for which he was listed as Archie Leach. Archie Leach is listed as having credits in five Broadway productions between 1922 and 1931. His performance at the Cherry Lane Theatre is not documented, though he is listed among performers and residents of 75½ Bedford Street, which at that time housed actors working at Cherry Lane.
In his own memoirs, Grant wrote only cursorily, but romantically, about being a struggling artist in a community of actors. They didn’t know where their next meal would come from, he said, but they could collectively afford their place in the city to build their careers and eventually move on to true fame.
Orry-Kelly’s memoir and the documentary both chronicle the continuation of his relationship with Grant over three decades, which can be described as volatile and on-and-off. Kelly stops short of claiming that Grant was his boyfriend — something the documentary states outright — but one can read his descriptions of Grant as someone who suffered heartbreak.
“There was such a pressure to conform to what was considered an ordinary, normal life,’’ the documentary’s director, Gillian Armstrong, told Out Magazine, referring to Grant’s four failed marriages to women. “Orry refused to hide his sexuality with a fake marriage. He had such a great sense of personal integrity, and we wanted to capture that sense of bravery in the film.’’
Leaving the Village
With Broadway and off-Broadway credits under his belt, Grant struck out west with Orry-Kelly, eventually landing in Hollywood. In 1931, the 27-year-old signed a contract with Paramount Pictures, who required him to change his name. He initially chose Cary Lockwood, which was the name of a character he’d played on Broadway in the show “Nikki,” but Lockwood was rejected by the studio, who gave him a list of names to choose from. He chose Grant, thinking the initials CG had proved lucky for other actors such as Clark Gable.
And the rest is history — Grant enjoyed wild successes, bringing old-school movie charm to everything from slapstick comedies and rom-coms to his later Hitchcockian thrillers. The truth of Grant’s sexuality has been long-debated, and while his only child wrote in her own memoirs that he would laugh when people called him gay, he also sued Chevy Chase for $10 million for calling him gay. Mysteries abound, and no one will ever know. What we do know is that Grant left much behind to create himself — his accent, his home country, his given name, and his time in Greenwich Village. We also know that Cary Grant would never have become Cary Grant, the twinkly-eyed gent in a dress shirt we’d like to clink martinis with, without Greenwich Village.