April 3, 1893, is the birthdate of British actor Leslie Howard, who, though remembered by many as personifying the quintessential English gentleman in many of his more than 25 films, was the son of a Hungarian Jewish father, and spent five years of his childhood in Vienna. Howard did indeed become a British patriot and passionate anti-Nazi, who devoted what were the last years of his career and life to artistic projects meant to support the Allied cause. When the passenger plane carrying him was shot down in 1943, over the Bay of Biscay, Howard was returning to the United Kingdom from propaganda appearances in neutral Spain and Portugal.
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Leslie Howard Steiner was born in Forest Hill, London, to Ferdinand Steiner, a Hungarian businessman, and the former Lilian Blumberg. Although Lilian was raised as a Christian in England, her grandfather Ludwig Blumberg was a Jew who had come there England from East Prussia, and she and Ferdinand were married at the West London Synagogue, despite her family’s objections.
When Leslie was 5, his family moved to Vienna, returning to London half a decade later, when his father took a job in the city, and after relations with his mother’s family had improved. His father arranged for him to take a job as a bank clerk, but at the start of World War I, Howard enlisted in the Northamptonshire Yeomanry. At the Battle of the Somme, he suffered from shell-shock, and was released from service.
Supposedly encouraged to act (something he had done while growing up) as therapy, Howard was soon performing on the London stage. He also was married in 1916, to Ruth Martin, who remained with him until his death, despite his frequent and sometimes serious affairs with other women. They had two children.
Leslie Howard quickly became a star of stage in both London and New York, and when Hollywood began producing talkies, in the 1920s, he embarked on a screen career as well. As an actor, he juggled theater and film work, but he also wrote, directed and produced.
Howard’s most-remembered role is probably his 1939 performance as Ashley Wilkes in “Gone with the Wind,” although it was a part he hated. He complained that dressing up in the uniform of a Confederate soldier made him look like “a doorman at the Beverly Wiltshire – a fine thing at my age.” More critically acclaimed were his performances in “Berkeley Square” (1933), “The Scarlet Pimpernel” (1935), and “Pygmalion” (1938, his directorial debut, working with Anthony Asquith; Howard was nominated for the Best Actor Oscar for both this film and “Berkeley Square”).
Shortly before the start of World War II, Howard returned home from the United States, and for the next few years, he devoted himself to the war effort, both in non-fiction films and feature work. The latter included “’Pimpernel’ Smith,” “The 49th Parallel” and “The First of the Few,” from 1940, ’41 and ’42, respectively.
The first of those three, which was directed by Howard, was something of an updated version of “The Scarlet Pimpernel,” about a mild-mannered professor who helps rescue individuals from the clutches of the Nazis.
There has long been speculation about whether Leslie Howard was more than a public symbol of the Allied cause, and was actually involved in espionage for Great Britain, and whether the Germans knew he would be on the plane. The answer to both of those questions seems to be no, but to this day there remain open questions about the downing of flight 777.
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