- Leslie Howard – The Lost Actor by Estelle Eforgan
Estelle Eforgan's extensively researched and well-written book on British actor Leslie Howard is more than any ordinary actor biography. On the one hand, it describes in detail Howard's life and career, as any actor biography would; on the other hand, Eforgan uncovers a lesser known side of Leslie Howard: namely, his work as alleged spy during the Second World War, who used his fame and fortune to hinder the Nazi and fascist agendas. As the book's subtitle 'Lost Actor' suggests, Eforgan also aims at reinstating Howard into the canon of great British actors of the 20th Century, tapping into a current trend of nostalgia for the first half of the last century and its 'forgotten' artists.
Eforgan, however, does not provide a superficial, lurid account of Leslie Howard's life and career. Rather, she expertly draws a three-dimensional image of a man whose professional and private conflicts shaped an ambiguous career. Eforgan presents all these ambiguities with skill and tact: the British gentleman who was a Hungarian Jew; the family man who had a string of extra-marital affairs; and, perhaps most significantly in the book, the publicly recognised actor who most probably worked as a spy to fight Nazism and fascism. Rather than exploiting these themes in a sensationalist fashion, Eforgan employs meticulous research to make her points and passes no judgment on Howard, whose complex private affairs often left him in ethically problematic situations, nor on those who surrounded him in his private or professional circles.
Eforgan's book comes at the time when interest in Howard, especially in his anti-Nazi activities, has grown, specifically with the aim of restoring the image of a versatile actor whose contribution to cinema history is now restricted to his role as Scarlett O'Hara's unrequited love interest, Ashley [End Page 86] Wilkes in Gone with the Wind (1939). A recent documentary, Leslie Howard - The Man Who Gave a Damn (2015), also interrogates Howard's career, aiming at uncovering his private involvement in the activities of intelligence services during the Second World War. While there have been rumours about Howard's ties to the intelligence services, until Eforgan's book and the recent documentary, they have remained rumours. Now, both the film and Eforgan's book emphasise Howard's heroic sacrifices and offer detailed accounts of what is known about his mysterious death.
Eforgan also describes all the 'supporting players' in Howard's life with meticulous detail and based on extensive research, thereby providing the reader with rounded characters throughout. This, as well as her academically appropriate but never dry writing style, make for a very engaging read, recommended for everyone with an interest in early 20th century cinema history, in espionage, or simply in a well-researched and well-presented account of an extraordinary life.