Howard's Second World War activities included acting and filmmaking. He was active in anti-Nazi propaganda and reputedly involved with British or Allied Intelligence, which may have led to his death in 1943 when an airliner he was a passenger in was shot down over the Bay of Biscay, sparking conspiracy theories regarding his death.
Howard was born Leslie Howard Steiner to a British mother, Lilian (née Blumberg), and a Hungarian father, Ferdinand Steiner, in Forest Hill, London, UK. His father was Jewish and his mother was raised a Christian; her own grandfather was a Jewish immigrant from East Prussia who had married into the English upper classes. He was educated at Alleyn's School, London. Like many others around the time of the First World War, the family changed their name, using "Stainer" as less German-sounding. He worked as a bank clerk before enlisting at the outbreak of the First World War. He served in the British Army as a subaltern in the Northamptonshire Yeomanry, but suffered shell shock, which led to his relinquishing his commission in May 1916.
Howard began acting on the London stage in 1917 but had his greatest theatrical success in the United States on Broadway, in plays such as Aren't We All? (1923), Outward Bound (1924), andThe Green Hat (1925). He became an undisputed Broadway star in Her Cardboard Lover (1927). After his success as time traveller Peter Standish in Berkeley Square (1929), he launched hisHollywood career by repeating the Standish role in the 1933 film version of the play.
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 playwright, starring in the Broadway productions of his plays Murray Hill (1927) and Out of a Blue Sky (1930). (He also wrote, but did not act in Elizabeth Sleeps Out (1936).) However, he was always best known for his acting, enjoying triumphs in The Animal Kingdom (1932) and The Petrified Forest (1935) (repeating both roles on film in 1932 and 1936, respectively). But he had the bad timing to open on Broadway in William Shakespeare's Hamlet (1936) just a few weeks after John Gielgud launched a rival production of the same play that was far more successfulwith both critics and audiences. Howard’s production, his final stage role, lasted only 39 performances.
Howard was inducted into the American Theatre Hall of Fame in 1981.
and Howard in Of Human Bondage
In 1920 Howard and his friend Adrian Brunel founded the short-lived company Minerva Films in London; Howard was producer and actor, and Brunel the story editor. Early films include four written by A. A. Milne, including The Bump, starring C. Aubrey Smith; Twice Two; Five Pound Reward; andBookworms. Some of these films survive in the archives of the British Film Institute.
Following his move to Hollywood, Howard often played stiff-upper-lipped Englishmen. He appeared in the film version of Outward Bound (1930), though in a different role than the one he portrayed on Broadway. 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) and later Professor Henry Higgins in the film version of George Bernard Shaw's play Pygmalion (1938), which earned him another Academy Award nomination for Best Actor. (In 1956, after Howard's death, Lerner and Loewe setPygmalion to music in My Fair Lady. Rex Harrison played Higgins on Broadway and in the 1964 motion picture. Harrison once quipped to writer Earl Wilson, "Actually, my dear fellow, I play Leslie [Howard] doing Higgins.")
in The Animal Kingdom
Howard co-starred with Bette Davis in The Petrified Forest (1936) and reportedly insisted that Humphrey Bogartappear in the film as gangster Duke Mantee. It proved to be Bogart's break-out role. Howard and Bogart had previously appeared in the play together on Broadway and became lifelong friends; Bogart and Lauren Bacalllater named their daughter "Leslie Howard Bogart" after him.
Howard had earlier co-starred with Davis in the film adaptation of W. Somerset Maugham's book Of Human Bondage (1934) and later in the romantic comedy It's Love I'm After (1937) (also co-starring Olivia de Havilland). Howard starred with Ingrid Bergman in Intermezzo (1939) and Norma Shearer in a film version of Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet (1936).
Howard is perhaps best remembered for his role as Ashley Wilkes in Gone With the Wind (1939), but he was uncomfortable with Hollywood and returned to England 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."
In 1944, after his death, British exhibitors voted him the second most popular local star at the box office.
Howard married Ruth Evelyn Martin in 1916 and they had two children. His son Ronald Howard (1918–1996) became an actor and is noted for portraying the title character in the 1954 television series Sherlock Holmes.
Arthur, Howard's younger brother, was also an actor, primarily in British comedies. A sister, Irene, was a costume designer. Another sister, Doris Stainer, founded a small school, Hurst Lodge, inSunningdale, Berkshire, UK, and remained its headmistress for some years.
Widely known as a ladies' man (he himself once said that he "didn't chase women but … couldn't always be bothered to run away"), Howard is reported to have had an affair with Tallulah Bankhead when they appeared on stage (in the UK) in Her Cardboard Lover (1927); Merle Oberon, while filming The Scarlet Pimpernel (1934) and Conchita Montenegro, with whom he had appeared in the film Never the Twain Shall Meet (1931). However, towards the end of his life, with the full knowledge of his wife, he did take a mistress, Violette Cunnington. The actress who appeared under the stage name of Suzanne Clair, in "Pimpernel" Smith and First of the Few in minor roles, acted as his secretary, but died in 1942 of pneumonia in her early 30s, six months before Howard's death. In his will, Howard had left her his Beverly Hills house. His home in England was Stowe Maries, a 16th-century six-bedroom farmhouse on the edge of Westcott village near Dorking, Surrey.
Howard's will revealed an estate of $251,000, or £62,761 (in 1943 pounds sterling).
There are also rumors of affairs with Norma Shearer and Myrna Loy (during filming of The Animal Kingdom). Howard was friends with Humphrey Bogart. They worked together on The Petrified Forest on Broadway in 1935, and later in the film version. Bogart's daughter, born in 1952, was named Leslie Howard Bogart.
Howard died in 1943 when flying to Bristol, UK, from Lisbon, Portugal, on KLM Royal Dutch Airlines/BOAC Flight 777. The aircraft, "G-AGBB" a Douglas DC-3, was shot down by Luftwaffe Junkers Ju 88C6 maritime fighter aircraft over the Bay of Biscay. Howard was among the 17 fatalities, including four ex-KLM flight crew.
The BOAC DC-3 Ibis had been operating on a scheduled Lisbon–Whitchurch route throughout 1942–1943 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." 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) while en route; each time, the pilots escaped via evasive tactics. On 1 June 1943, "G-AGBB" again came under attack by a schwarm 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 longitude 10.15 West, latitude 46.07 North, some 500 miles (800 km) from Bordeaux, France, and 200 miles (320 km) northwest of A 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.Bloody Biscay: The Story of the Luftwaffe's Only Long Range Maritime Fighter Unit, V Gruppe/Kampfgeschwader 40, and Its Adversaries 1942–1944 (Chris Goss, 2001) quotes First Oberleutnant Herbert Hintze, Staffel Führer of 14Staffeln and based in Bordeaux, that his Staffel shot down the DC-3 because it was recognised as an enemy aircraft, unaware that it was an unarmed civilian airliner. Hintze further states 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 Bay of Biscay was undertaken by "N/461", a Short Sunderland flying boat from No. 461 RAAF Squadron. Near the same coordinates where the DC-3 was shot down, the Sunderland was attacked by eight Ju 88s and after a furious battle, managed to shoot down three of the attackers, scoring an additional three "possibles," before crash-landing at Penzance. In the aftermath of these two actions, all BOAC flights from Lisbon were subsequently 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 red herring used for the ruse involved in Operation Mincemeat.