I’ve talked about how great Scott Eyman’s books are before. You might remember me waxing poetic about his amazing biography on John Wayne that turned this Wayne hater into someone more understanding of the man and the persona that dominated him. Eyman paints a similar portrait in his new biography, Cary Grant: A Brilliant Disguise, taking the two halves of the man — Archie Leach and Grant — and showing how not only did one influence the other, but Grant was left questing for an identity of his own somewhere in-between. Thought slight on jaw-dropping revelations, it’s a must-read for Grant fans and those seeking a worthwhile quarantine read.
When I interviewed Eyman for Ticklish Business he brought up his desire to write a book where the reader believes they know the person and, for better and worse, you know Cary Grant by the time you finish 576 pages. Much of Grant’s backstory is so ingrained into classic film fans it’s practically etched in stone; he was born Archie Leach, made his way up through vaudeville, and had a flair for acrobatics. What Eyman does is emphasize how desperately Grant wished to get away from that and rewrite his own narrative. Hence, once he changed his name he didn’t want to be associated with vaudeville and the relationships he cultivated while he struggled — most prominently with future designer Orry-Kelly — were scrubbed clean of anything passing for controversial.
Grant certainly had a reason to desire a fresh start. As Eyman lays out, the then-Archie Leach felt like an orphan from a young age, emotionally distant from his father and believing for a long time that his mother, Elsie had died. In reality, Elsie had been placed in a sanitarium, and her clunky relationship with Grant would lead him to a lifetime of regret and abandonment issues. This fractured relationship could also explain why Grant’s marriages failed and why his love for daughter, Jennifer, become all-consuming. That being said, Eyman delves into Grant’s relationships with sensitivity and uncovers much about the marriages casual fans might not know, particularly when it comes to Woolworth heiress Barbara Hutton.
It’s hard to realize that much of Grant’s cool façade was simply that. For all his good intentions, Archie Leach manifested in several names, mainly in Grant’s frugality fostered by growing up in poverty. At times it becomes hard to read about Grant’s tendency to be callous and downright uncaring to the people around him, but what Eyman excels at is always reminding you of the reason for Grant’s responses. So much of what made Grant was his struggle at a young age, and while it’s unfortunate it left him unable to connect with others, you understand.
Of course, many will be asking if Eyman definitively proves the claims about Grant being bisexual and/or gay, as well as examining his relationships with Orry-Kelly and Randolph Scott in a new light. The answer is no, nothing is explicitly proven, but what Eyman does is bring in all the facts, especially with interviews with Grant’s wives, to at least allow them the opportunity to give their thoughts on the subject. There isn’t a yes or no answer, but Eyman certainly says that if Grant did have romantic relationships with men, he didn’t talk about it, whether because of his own staunch desire for privacy or because of his career ambitions.
I can’t say Cary Grant: A Brilliant Disguise is Eyman’s best, mostly because of how emotional I got reading his John Wayne book (seriously, it’s that good). But Eyman gives us the most comprehensive, no-holds-barred look at Grant you’re likely to find.
Interested in purchasing today’s book? If you use the handy link below a small portion is donated to this site! Thanks!
A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.