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Shadows on a Legend : Cary Grant's Image as the Perfect Hollywood Heartthrob Is Sullied in Two Competing New Books Portraying a Darker Side to the Star

March 24, 1989|GARRY ABRAMS | Times Staff Writer

Wrapped in the armor of the silver screen, Cary Grant--the movie idol who died 2 1/2 years ago--left a legacy as the perfect leading man, a smooth, sophisticated heartthrob untarnished by the vulgarities of reality.

It seemed too good to be true.

And now some are saying it was.

Grant's image is being given a coat of human frailty by two new books. "Cary Grant: The Lonely Heart" (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich) by Charles Higham and Roy Moseley is a full-scale biography, titillating, racy and sweeping--designed to keep fans' eyes popping as they turn the pages. Most notably, the authors assert that Grant was a bisexual who had affairs with eccentric billionaire Howard Hughes and fellow actor Randolph Scott and that he physically abused two of his five wives. "An Affair to Remember: My Life With Cary Grant" (Putnam) by Maureen Donaldson and William Royce is an intimate memoir of a tumultuous romance by Grant's mistress of four years, now a Los Angeles photographer.

As posthumous revisionism Hollywood-style, the two books are a fattening double-dollop of what the authors say are behind-the-scenes glimpses of Grant, star of such classics as "North by Northwest," from the boudoir to the boardroom. Together, they paint the superstar as complicated, contradictory and often in emotional turmoil--a far cry from the assured cinematic presence that defined Grant's mystique. As added spice, the authors of the two books are at odds, with Grant's former lover disputing some of the biography's more startling assertions and maintaining that portions of the book dealing with her are untrue.

Was a User of LSD

In this battle of Hollywood books, Higham's and Moseley's entry seems likely to attract the most attention because it claims to cast light into the shadows of Grant's life. The book portrays Grant as a user of LSD--a fact the star himself admitted--and a miser who marked milk bottles in his refrigerator. It also hints that he may have been on the grounds of the Sharon Tate house the night the actress and four others were murdered by Charles Manson's followers.

The publishers believe it will sell. They've printed 100,000 copies.

In fact, "The Lonely Heart" already has drawn blood. Last week, widely syndicated New York Daily News columnist Liz Smith reported that Fred Astaire's widow had called her to protest contents of the book as reported by Smith in a previous column. According to Smith, Mrs. Astaire (Robyn Smith) told her that Randolph Scott and her husband were friends for a quarter-century and that "reports that Scott was a homosexual was a dastardly lie." Smith quoted Robyn Smith as saying, "Fred knew him (Scott) so well. I know it's not true; I just know it." The columnist also quoted Mrs. Astaire as saying, "Maybe Cary Grant was gay; after all, everybody said he was."

Meanwhile, Nancy Nelson--the New York agent who booked Grant's speaking appearances in the last years of his life and became the actor's friend--said that she is "upset about what I've heard" regarding both books. Hoping to counter their impact, Nelson said she is working on a book of her own, "which I feel accurately shows Cary Grant to be the gracious, generous, loyal man that the public conceived him to be." Other friends of Grant also are said to be disturbed by this wave of publicity. One, columnist Abigail Van Buren, said she is "angry" over reports of the book's contents, adding, "I wouldn't read the book and I wouldn't buy it."

Donaldson's "An Affair to Remember," although more intensely personal and revealing in a kiss-and-tell way, contains less inflammable material. But it too does its share to bring Grant down to earth. Among other things, Donaldson writes that Grant accused her of stealing light bulbs and toilet paper, was secretive about his family in England, wouldn't have plants in the house because they stole oxygen and thought actress and one-time co-star Mae West--who promoted an image as an early sex goddess--suffered from a glandular disorder that made her less than totally female. "An Affair to Remember" was rushed into print about a month early to steal a march on the Higham-Moseley entry.

That's the main plot in a nutshell. But there's more. . . .

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