When actor and screenwriter Leslie Howard died in a mysterious plane crash over the Bay of Biscay in June 1943, the Guardianobituary described his most outstanding quality: “the intensely English quality which made him popular everywhere.” 1 Even today, Howard is remembered primarily for his roles as English aristocrat in films such as The Scarlet Pimpernel(Harold Young, UK, 1934) and Pygmalion(Anthony Asquith, Leslie Howard, UK, 1938), or as tragic hero in productions like Of Human Bondage(John Cromwell, USA, 1934) and Gone with the Wind(Victor Fleming [George Cukor], USA, 1939). As a symbol of refinement and gentlemanliness, Howard’s character spoke to the social instability British audiences were experiencing due to political crisis and war. It was a time when conceptions of “Englishness” were being challenged—not least because of the influx of Jewish migrants and refugees escaping persecution in Europe who created a space of difference in British society. Howard, as Estel Eforgan’s meticulously researched biography, Leslie Howard: The Lost Actor, reveals, was nothing if not aware of the social and political influences of his dramatic persona.
Eforgan’s biography is a compelling and thorough overview of Howard’s life and career within the context of social and political upheaval, migration, and war. As such it makes an important contribution to the fields of media and cultural [End Page 207]studies, as well as Jewish studies, revealing the influential role that actors and filmmakers played in the political arena. As Eforgan uncovers, there was more to Howard’s persona as “ideal Englishman” than most people consider. Leslie Howard Steiner, whose father was a Hungarian Jew and whose mother’s origins were also Jewish (from Russia and East Prussia), was intensely committed to political activism and anti-Nazi efforts in the years leading up to World War II. And while the biography covers much more than that—including Howard’s career on the English stage in the 1920s and the launch of his stardom in New York and Hollywood—Eforgan makes clear that by the mid-1930s Howard was making career and life choices that were influenced by politics. More specifically, he began to use his fame as a tool to resist Hitler’s rise to power and the persecution of Jews in Europe.
Eforgan’s sympathy for her subject will strike a chord with readers and personalize the exhaustive amount of detail on Howard’s life. The chapters that trace Howard’s development as an actor, screenwriter, producer, director, and public intellectual from the 1920s to the 1940s are filled with lively anecdotes as well as with valuable comments on the social and cultural milieu. Some of the most entertaining points in the biography include Eforgan’s musings on Howard’s stage mishaps and love affairs, and the colorful characters who peppered the actor’s professional and personal lives. Yet it is the way Eforgan frames Howard’s career in connection with Jewish migration and persecution during the rise of Nazism and at the start of World War II that makes this biography especially noteworthy. Eforgan’s view that these elements played a key role in the actor’s life is underscored in the way the biography is bookended by Leslie Howard’s little-known Jewish roots. The work begins with a story of Howard’s “real family history” in Vienna and England (3), and ends with his last speech before his death, when he laughed at someone’s suggestion that he was the “idealised picture of the perfect Englishman.” He surprised the press when he publicly admitted, “I suppose we do not have to tell them that I began as a Hungarian” (229).
Indeed, there is a good deal to discover about British Jewish migration, as well as assimilation, at the turn of the century from Eforgan’s description of Leslie Howard’s background. His father, Ferdinand Raphael Steiner, moved from Hungary to Vienna and then to England in 1886, at a time when approximately two and a half million...