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Leslie Howard: Hero in "Gone With the Wind" and WWII Spy

Darla Sue Dollman, B.A., M.F.A., has 42 years experience as a journalist and editor. She has also studied film, acting, and theater.

Publicity Screenshot for "Gone with the Wind."

Publicity Screenshot for "Gone with the Wind."

Leslie Howard: A Man of Many Faces

Leslie Howard was a talented English stage and film actor, director, writer, and producer who was best known for his role as Ashley Wilkes, Scarlet O’Hara’s obsession in Gone with the Wind. And yet, there was far more to Leslie Howard than his fans may realize.

Historians believe Howard may have been working as a WWII spy when he died in a mysterious plane crash in 1943. Others believe it was a case of mistaken identity, or perhaps he was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time. There were many rumors surrounding his death, but one thing is certain: like the characters he played on film, Leslie Howard was a strong, daring man who was dedicated to his country.

Film and television actor and writer Ron Howard was also the son of Leslie Howard and author of his father's biography, "In Search of my Father: A Portrait of Leslie Howard."

Film and television actor and writer Ron Howard was also the son of Leslie Howard and author of his father's biography, "In Search of my Father: A Portrait of Leslie Howard."

What We Know of Leslie Howard

Leslie Howard Steiner was born on April 3, 1893, in London, England to Lillian Howard and Ferdinand Steiner. His mother was British and his father was Hungarian-Jewish, but Leslie's first language was German, which could have been helpful during World War II. He was raised in Vienna, but returned to London to attend Dulwich College, an independent school for boys.

It was made clear to Leslie that he was expected to follow the family tradition and work in banking so he started a career as a bank clerk. He soon realized that his true desire was to be an actor so he chose to pursue an acting career instead. The transition was easy since he had family in the film business--the popular actor Arthur Howard was his younger brother and his sister, Irene Howard, was a casting director. He used the surname Howard for his first film appearance in The Heroine of Mons, which was released in 1914 and was directed by his uncle, Wilfred Noy.

Leslie Howard and Ruth Martin were married in 1916. They had two children: Ronald Howard, a successful actor and writer; and Leslie Ruth Howard, who was also a successful writer. Both of Leslie Howard’s children wrote biographies of his life and career. They are shown often in photos and films about Howard's life.

Military Career and PTSD

World War I began on July 28, 1914. Howard joined the British Army where he served in the 20th Hussars on the Western Front during the Battle of the Somme, one of the largest battles of World War I.

The Battle of the Somme was a gruesome battle. It began on July 1, 1916, and continued until November 18, 1916. It was the largest battle to take place during World War I, but it was also considered the bloodiest battle in human history with over a million men recorded dead and even more injured.

The battle was fought using trench warfare. The fact that Howard was in the British Army was an emotional disadvantage. The losses were staggering for the British. In one day of fighting during the Battle of the Somme, the British Army lost 60,000 soldiers. Howard had to have witnessed the carnage, which was far more than he or any man could cope with emotionally. He suffered from shell shock, the psychological term that was the forerunner to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. The diagnosis was clear and his symptoms were so extreme that Howard did the unthinkable for a soldier at that time and relinquished his commission in May of 1916.

Like most soldiers who continue to relive the battles that left them traumatized, Howard searched for a way to continue to help the cause. He found his cause by creating an acting career when World War I ended and used his name and popularity to aid his country when World War II threatened to begin. Howard would be asked to join the anti-Nazi propaganda campaign during World War II and he eagerly accepted.

Leslie Howard and Ann Harding in The Animal Kingdom.

Leslie Howard and Ann Harding in The Animal Kingdom.

Return to Acting

Howard returned to London, appearing on stage in 1917. In addition to acting he generally worked either as the director or producer in many of his productions and wrote his own plays. With his classic good looks and refined acting style, he was a huge success and a box office draw in Europe and the United States. His skills were widely noted with his performance in the 1923 production Aren’t We All. Critics also praised his performance in Her Cardboard Lover in 1927.

In 1932, he appeared in the controversial comedy/drama The Animal Kingdom with Ann Harding and Myrna Loy, which received poor reviews. Howard knew he would have to choose his next films carefully to boost his career. Unlike some of his contemporaries, it took Leslie Howard less than a year to recover his reputation.

Humphrey Bogart, Leslie Howard, and Bette Davis in "The Petrified Forest" screenshot.

Humphrey Bogart, Leslie Howard, and Bette Davis in "The Petrified Forest" screenshot.

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Effortless Transitions From Stage to Film

There was a few times when Howard appeared in both the stage and screen performance of the same story, such as Berkeley Square, which brought him a nomination for Best Actor in the Oscars one year after the release of The Animal Kingdom, in 1933. He also appeared in the 1936 film adaptation of The Petrified Forest, which costarred Bette Davis and Humphrey Bogart.

Howard costarred with Bette Davis in the 1936 film Of Human Bondage and 1937’s It’s Love I’m After. Howard and Bogart later appeared together again in the stage performance of The Petrified Forest. His final American stage role was also in 1936 with 39 performances in Shakespeare’s Hamlet.

Ashley Breaks Scarlett's Heart

Gone With the Wind Endears Howard to the Hearts of Americans

Leslie Howard is perhaps best remembered in American film history as Scarlet O’Hara’s love obsession, Ashley Wilkes, in the 1940 film Gone with the Wind, an interesting film that appears to be a love story, but is also an extensive American Civil War saga.

Howard openly expressed his dislike for the film and the role of Ashley Wilkes. Gone with the Wind was the last film Howard made in the United States. This was not the result of his widely-publicized opinions of the film. Howard's career came to an end with his sudden death.

Gone with the Wind

 Trailer screenshot of Leslie Howard from the trailer for the film Gone with the Wind.

Trailer screenshot of Leslie Howard from the trailer for the film Gone with the Wind.

Howard's Final Film in the United States

Leslie Howard left the United States shortly after the release of Gone with the Wind and before its public release on January 17, 1940. World War II had started and Howard believed he had an obligation to return to England to help with the war effort in the anti-Nazi campaigns. His shell shock prevented him from joining the men in battle, but he would find other ways to help his country by using his acting career and reputation to create anti-Nazi propaganda films.

In 1941, Howard produced, directed, and starred in the film Pimpernel Smith, which was released in the United States under the title Mister V. Pimpernel Smith is not only an anti-Nazi production, but it plays off one of Howard's greatest roles in The Scarlet Pimpernel, filmed in 1934. Howard's anti-Nazi efforts in Pimpernel Smith inspired the rescue operation of thousands of Hungarian Jews in Budapest and placed him on the Nazi radar.

BOAC Flight 777 Passenger List

Passenger list for the flight that crashed into the Bay of Biscay, killing Leslie Howard.

Passenger list for the flight that crashed into the Bay of Biscay, killing Leslie Howard.

WWII Spy or Mistaken Identity

On June 1, 1943, Howard and his agent boarded KLM Royal Dutch Airlines' BOAC Flight 777 for a flight from Lisbon, Portugal to Bristol, England. It is also known that this plane was shot down by a German aircraft over the Bay of Biscay, or Cantabrian Sea.

In his 1984 biography, In Search of My Father: A Portrait of Leslie Howard, Howard’s son, Ronald Howard, speculates that either Leslie Howard or his agent was mistaken for England’s Prime Minister Winston Churchill, which would explain why the plane was attacked by the Germans.

In an article published in The Athens Observer, author and researcher Donald Wilkes also reports that a disinformation plan was released claiming that Churchill planned to return to England via Portugal, which supports the mistaken identity theory that the plane was shot down because German military officials believed Churchill was one of the passengers.

However, it is also speculated that Howard may have been involved in British Intelligence efforts. In fact, many of the passengers on the doomed flight had connections with British Intelligence.

The Anti-Nazi Threat Theory

All this considered, there is still another possibility. Leslie Howard was highly-respected, a hero in the minds of the British and American people. His work in propaganda films could have been seen as a threat greater than average propaganda efforts and his sudden death may have been an attempt to dishearten the British public. Howard's career, spanning both World Wars, and his public persona as an actor was influential in ways that Nazi leaders may have perceived as a threat.

Howard's Legacy

In his lifetime, Howard appeared in 34 films, produced 11, directed four, and had an even more successful career on stage. He was nominated for two Oscars for his performances in Pygmalion and Berkeley Square. He was awarded a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame for his contribution to the film industry. Unfortunately, rrecognition of his remarkable professional versatility and extraordinary talents as writer, actor, producer, and director were sadly neglected, possibly due to the fact that his career was overshadowed by both World Wars.

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© 2019 Darla Sue Dollman

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