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Toronto Star (16/Feb/1986) - Cary Grant: He's still an old smoothie



Cary Grant: He's still an old smoothie

At 82 his face is a bit rounder -- but he looks just like you'd want him to

"Yeah," I said into the telephone.

"Diane Shah?"

"Yeah." It was 10.15 in the morning. I was in the office filling out an expense report, a chore that always makes me grumpy. I am never in the office at this hour, so I figured whoever was calling wasn't anybody I wanted to talk to.

"This is Cary Grant."

"Uh-huh." Had I eaten lunch on Monday and, if so, where was the bloody receipt.

"And I just wanted to tell you how much I enjoyed your column today."

I laughed. "Thank you." Whichever of my friends was doing this had "the Voice" down remarkably well.

"Poor Reggie. I know exactly what he went through."

The column had been about a dinner with Reggie Jackson, and how the rudest people had come barging up to his table, blowing cigarette smoke in his face, pushing his plate aside, demanding autographs. The character on the end of the line began talking about the perils of celebrityhood.

Wasn't easy

Suddenly, I was pressing my ear into the phone. There was a loud banging, either my knees knocking or my heart pounding. Then a faint voice was interrupting. Whispering, "Excuse me... but are you really Cary Grant?"

Even so, given this, gearing up to call him back was not easy.

For nine months, no, a year, magazine editors drummed the steady beat of my telephone number on their dialing pads. "Cary Grant!" they cried. "We must have Cary Grant!"

And I would hang up and I would look at my calendar and I would pick a day, maybe Thursday, put it off a little, you know, and I would write carefully in ink, "Call C. Grant." Or maybe I would just sit there and stare at my phone for a while before lifting the receiver as if it were a piece of Limoges china, and taking about an hour to push each of the seven digits and then taking a deep breath as someone at the Grant residence put me on hold for a very brief moment. Then...

"How are you today!"

Just like that.

Over the lines came that wonderful lilting voice that could cheer up the dead pharaohs, that gravelly British-tinged voice that had impelled President Kennedy to call up from time to time and implore, "Say anything, I just want to hear your voice."

Now that voice was chatting amiably away as if he had nothing better to do in life than sit there taking my phone call.

And so it would go like this, month after month, until at last we finally agreed to meet for a day at the races at Hollywood Park.

"How much are we betting today, darling?"

This is Barbara Grant, beautiful, impeccable in a peach suit, her race card and The Daily Racing Form spread on the table in front of her, smiling at her husband. It is a ritual, a private little joke, the How-much-are-we-betting-today? inquiry. Because as Grant once explained over the phone, "I make $2 bets, you see, because they won't take $1.50. I've tried."

He reaches into the pocket of his exquisite olive-green suit (the crisp white shirt is tinged ever so slightly with pink; the tie is black) and removes a roll of money. Carefully, he peels off a new $50 bill, then two 20s and finally 10 singles, one by one, and hands them over to Barbara, the bookkeeper. She tucks the money into the program and laughs. "If we lose more than that, there goes our food money for the week," she says gaily.

It is a Sunday in July, the day before the spring-summer season of Hollywood Park racetrack draws to a close. Cary Grant and his wife Barbara come to the track often because he is on its board of directors. "I'm used for public relations," he says, "certainly not for my business acumen" — and because he has always enjoyed the sport. ("People who come to the track are so caught up in making bets they don't notice fellows like me.")

Grant studies the program and selects a horse named Safety Bank with 8-to-1 odds. "I have my own handicapping system," he notes, explaining that he bets on jockeys. "First I bet on McCarron, then on (Laffit) Pincay (Jr.). And then I alternate. Now, this fellow (Gary) Stevens is also good, so sometimes I bet on him. Does it work? Of course it doesn't work."

While Safety Bank is plodding to his fourth-place finish, let us switch our attention to Grant. For what you want to know, this minute, is what does he look like, really? The answer: exactly as you might hope he would look. The face, compared to the one from the '50s and '60s is rounder, but handsome and startlingly youthful all the same.

He is over 6 feet tall, still moves with agility and grace, and if there is an extra pound or two around the middle, as he claims, toast a man who will eat what he likes. That he recently turned 82 is a point he keeps reiterating both out of pride and out of amazement, but where he has hidden the last 20 years is a secret he is not about to reveal.

No exercise

"You mean you don't even swim?" asks someone at the table.

"No, no, no," says Grant, making a face. "I don't think I do anything.

"They say that stretching is the best exercise of all," comes another comment.

Grant nods, stands up and begins rotating his shoulders, then slowly raises his legs, one at a time, behind him, as the conversation continues. Suddenly, he stops. "I don't think I'll stretch anymore," he says with a foolish grin. "I just kicked that lady."

"Who do you like in the second race?" says Barbara, whose horse in the first race, Saloum, came in first. Grant picks Stevens' mount Free World to win, and one called Built To Last to place. Neither horse finishes remotely in the money.

A man walks by, marvels at Grant's appearance and tells him, "Whatever you're doing, it agrees with you."

"Losing," says Grant.

One remarkable thing about Grant is that for a man of his fame he is so cheerfully available to people who encounter him. When he comes to the track he moves about the VIP director's room at will, happily chatting with everyone. By comparison, other regulars such as Roger Moore and Michael Caine sit glued to their tables making it quite clear that they are not to be bothered by strangers who happen by.

Not that Grant seeks the limelight.

"I was at Dodger Stadium last night sitting in Peter's box," he says, referring to Dodgers owner Peter O'Malley, "when I spotted some people I knew down below. I started down, but I never got there. I began to attract so much attention. It was like throwing bread to the pigeons."

Not embarrassed

Yet when he is asked what it has been like to be that man feeding the pigeons for so many years, Grant is silent for a moment. Then he says, "I don't feel awed by it a bit, because it's always been part of my life. I honestly don't know what life is like without it. I am not embarrassed at being well-known. I am only embarrassed at being recognized."

For the third race, Grant puts his money on a Pincay mount, Relaunch A Tune. "Five dollars," he tells Barbara. "I'm showing off.

"When I was insecure I used to throw money around to impress people," he adds. "But then I learned you don't impress people like that. So I became a tightwad, or so people said. When you're a star, you're either a tightwad or a homosexual. I've been accused of both."

His horse comes in first.

Barbara nudges him. "For the seventh race, we're going to bet this one on your behalf," she says, pointing to a name in her program, "Lord Of The Wind."

"I think I'm more Duke Of The Wind," says Grant agreeably.

They were married in 1981, after having met in London in 1976 at the Royal Lancaster Hotel. Grant was there to attend a meeting for Faberge, whose board he sits on. Barbara, some 47 years younger than Grant, was living in London and doing public relations for the hotel.

"Yes," says Grant, "I saw a great deal of Barbara then. From 10:30 in the morning till 11."

"When you were freeloading," she adds.

"I just noticed this beautiful gal roaming around. She tried to avoid me."

"That's not true," she insists.

"The first time I saw you..."

"I raced off to see Margaux Hemingway's press conference."

"Yes, I was upstairs..."

"No. You were downstairs at the bar."

"Was I?"

Barbara is asked what her first impression was of Grant. She toys with her napkin. He waits expectantly. She says, "Since this story isn't about me, I don't think it's an appropriate question."

"Aw, come on," says Grant. "I want to know. What did you think of me? I'll tell you what I thought of you. I thought you were quite a dish."

She smiles. He smiles. And that is the end of that.

Later she says, "Darling, did you notice? Lord Of The Wind came from behind."

'More westerns'

A few days later, we are on the phone again. Cary Grant is saying, "One night a fellow stood up and said, 'Mr. Grant, why aren't there more Westerns, we would like to have more Westerns.' And I said, 'Well, OK, I'll spread the word.' Twenty minutes later another fellow stands up and says, 'Why don't we have Westerns?' I said, 'What's your name?' He said Mr. So-and-So. And I said, 'Why don't you two talk to each other?' So they did. After a while, I said, 'Do you mind if I lie down?' "

Grant puts on auditorium performances several times a year. He accepts some offers, rejects most and says he isn't quite sure why he does them at all.

His acceptances are generally for performances in parts of the country he would like to visit. Each evening comes with his ironclad dicta. For his latest performance, at the Claremont Colleges outside Los Angeles, Grant stipulated no advertising, no interviews, no fan mail. No tape recorders and no cameras. Perhaps a few sandwiches.

The final shot of the introductory montage of Cary Grant film clips is of Grant, ever so large on the screen, walking onto a stage, while below, the live article, dressed in an elegant gray suit and crisp white shirt, is walking onto the auditorium stage. The 2,483 people who have driven through a downpour to see him leap to their feet and applaud him.

'So excited'

"Thank you very much, thank you. I haven't the vaguest idea how to start." Pause. "If you feel like asking questions, shoot. If not, we'll all dance."

(A woman): "Mr. Grant, all of us in this room cannot believe we're really here with you ... we're so excited."

"Thank you. But how do you know they're so excited?"

(Continuing): "I would like to ask you what was the most memorable moment in your whole spectacular, wonderful life, including a woman if you like."

"Well, actually it does. It includes my mother ... the day I was born."

(Another woman): "I was wondering what your daughter Jennifer thinks of your films?"

"Well, I can tell you this. If she sees my films, she's staying up too late. But she seems to like me, we enjoy each other's company. I think I took her to see Bringing Up Baby; I ran it up specially at MGM somehow. She was 14, perhaps. She didn't like it at all. She pretended to, of course."

"Would you ever come out of retirement?" asked one man.

"No, no. When I was a young man, I saw an actor I regarded so highly, a very big star in the silent movies. And when I saw him years later in a film, I was so disappointed. He was not the same man. He was the same man but, my goodness, he didn't look like the same man. I was very disappointed that he had aged, or was aging."

Grant did, in fact, come out of retirement once. It was in the early '50s. He was married then to Betsy Drake, his third wife. (The five, in order, are actress Virginia Cherrill; heiress Barbara Hutton; Drake; Dyan Cannon, the mother of his only child Jennifer, now a junior at Stanford University; and Barbara Harris.) Grant decided to make no more pictures and set off on an around-the-world tour.

"I was in the Orient," he would later relate, "when I got a wire from Hitch (Alfred Hitchcock) saying, 'Come back. I've got this wonderful new actress.' Well, if Hitch had said I'm going to make a movie of the telephone book, I'd be there. So I came back. He said, 'I have this new girl, and she's terrific.'

" 'Who's that?' I said.

" 'Grace Kelly.'

"Well, I was delighted, because I had seen her in a small role and I was very impressed. We made To Catch A Thief, and she was the best actress I ever worked with, with all due respect to Ingrid (Bergman). But Grace, she was really there in a scene. She really listened. Unlike most actresses, she wasn't worried how she looked or what angle the camera was shooting her from. So if I changed a bit of dialogue, she went right along. Then she had the indecency to marry Rainier. And that was the end of that."

On the phone again.

"Now, what else would you like to know?"

"About the LSD."

"But that is so old, it's all been said."

"I'm curious. It was a very long time ago, wasn't it?"

"Yes, 25, 30 years ago."

"How often did you go?"

"Every week, for 100 sessions. We had a small group; it was with a doctor in L.A. Each of us went separately, of course, and it was monitored. The dosages were small."

"How did it work?"

"I laid down on a couch. The doctor read a book over in the corner with a little light. He played music associated with my youth. Like Rachmaninoff. It would last three or four hours."

"What would happen?"

"You would see nightmares, your fears, the scenes associated with nightmares."

"What came out of these sessions?"

"I learned to forgive my parents for what they didn't know. And my fear of knives. If I see a sharp knife, I cringe."

"Why is that?"

"I know where that came from, but I won't tell you."

"And so now the demons are gone, you are at peace?"

"You join humanity as best you can. I like myself as far as I've gone, though I do wish my vocabulary were better. Otherwise, I think I'm a fairly decent fellow. I no longer have hypocrisies..."