Palm Springs, California, 18 January 1954

Sharpen the blade on the strop fixed to the wall, moisten the soap in the bowl with hot water, remove any loose bristles from the badger-hair brush, soap your face, pass the razor across your face, slow down as you get to the cleft in your chin, remove any remaining soap with the hot flannel, inspect your face for remaining hairs. Cary shaved with his right hand, enjoying every moment of that morning liturgy, followed by the holy vestition: suit and shirt commissioned from Quintino of Beverly Hills, matching tie and socks, no suspenders because Cary’s socks wouldn’t dare slip down his calves. Derbies or full brogues on his feet.

Archie, who was left-handed, brushed his cheeks with his left hand. Two days without shaving, and without any wish to do so. Grizzled, troublesome, bristly stubble.

Lingering in that pose he felt against his lower lip what remained of one of those old calluses from his days as an acrobat, a bump of dry and whitish tissue, nearly thirty years old.

Every morning the manicurists filed and cut, spread unguents, softened Cary’s hands, hands that every woman in the universe would have wanted under their skirts or busy unbuttoning their blouses, but the callused tissue was beginning to grow again, a memory of his previous life, the past of Archibald Alexander Leach.

Hands on the floor in hundreds of somersaults, friction on the ropes for a thousand vaults, luggage transported from one town to the next, hundreds of little theaters and music halls, putting on make-up, jumping. Bob Pender and his Knockabout Comedians. Tightrope walkers, clowns and conjurors, every evening and matinee facing the working classes of the kingdom.

Pender said, “Come on, boy, you’ve got to earn your keep. There’s more to the theater than just walking on your hands!”

From the wings, while the extraordinary magician David Devant was performing on the stage, Archie gazed enraptured at the eyes of the younger members of the audience, which quivered in the flickering limelight. Archie read those eyes, the surprise, the dreams, the temporary escape from a life of shit and work. Eyes of young people already cheated of their own futures, but prepared to react with a shrug of the shoulders and a fuck it, in their slightly worn out Sunday best, not stiff or formal, but cheeky and sniggering in the queue for the tickets, children once more at the sight of the flying acrobats and an illusionist’s sleights of hand.

The eyes of the little boy from Bristol who had, one fateful afternoon in August 1910, been hypnotized by the mimes and stunts of Bob and Doris Pender, so much so that he wanted to follow them, to be an actor, to leave an elusive father and the void of a vanished mother. In the Empire and in the Hippodrome the lights go down…

The ragged-trousered Englishman had crossed the Atlantic to accomplish a titanic enterprise: to climb the highest mountain as though faced by a hillock, a pathetic hump, a slope, moving one foot behind the other without bothering to think.

Cary Grant.

How astonished he had been, in the late ’30s, the man of the new century. Astonishment went hand in hand with awareness: who had never yearned for such perfection, to draw down from Plato’s Hyperuranium the Idea of “Cary Grant,” to donate it to the world so that the world might change, and finally to lose himself in the transformed world, to lose himself never to re-emerge? The discovery of a style and the utopia of a world in which to cultivate it.

Meanwhile there was an Austrian dauber out there winning a career and followers, whose speeches hit the hearts of the Volk “like hammer-blows,” and a distant clang of weapons heralded the worst: the clash of two worlds.

Against the world of Cary Grant, the dauber had finally lost with dishonour, in a puddle of blood and shit.

Without a doubt, the Russian winter was partly responsible, but one thing was certain: the New Man, at least for the time being, wouldn’t be having to tuck his trousers into two-foot-high leather boots to march the goose-step.

The New Man, if there was such a thing, would be reflected in Cary Grant, the perfect prototype of Homo atlanticus: civil without being boring; moderate but progressive; rich, certainly, even extremely rich, but not dry, and not flabby either.

Even some of the most vehement enemies of capitalism, of America, of Hollywood, were willing to concede that the baby was one thing, the bathwater quite another.

Cary Grant, born a proletarian and with a ludicrous name to boot, had defied fate with the ardour of the best exemplars of his class. He had denied himself as a proletarian, and now he was bringing dreams to millions. If one individual could achieve it, there was no reason why the rest of the working class shouldn’t have it as well.

Cary Grant was a living demonstration of the fact that progress existed, and had been going in the right direction at least since Cro Magnon man. Socialism would crown this impressive series of results with social justice, harmony among human beings and the liberation of all creative energy. In a classless society, anybody could be Cary Grant. Well, not really. That’s what a few intellectuals might have claimed. Neither the proletariat nor the bourgeoisie really gave a damn about historical materialism. Simply speaking, they admired Cary Grant and they wanted to be like him.

That day Archie Leach turned fifty. The last two years had been the worst.

And how hard they had been for Cary! Three box office flops in a row. The decision to retire from the screen. A holiday in the Far East with Betsy, which hadn’t been sufficiently restorative. The exhausting quest for palliatives, yoga, new reading matter, the perennial intoxication of self-improvement but without the moment of truth, without setting foot on-set. A difficult relationship with Archie, who also used his body and came to get it back in periods of crisis and disorientation….

As for Betsy, she was madly in love, she did her absolute best to keep his spirits up, she had hypnotized him to stop smoking, quite the best wife he could have had. But it wasn’t enough. It was never enough.

After an interminable year and a half, he was touched by the cautious desire to return to acting, casting complicit glances at the audience, improvising those wonderful one-liners. But that desire had to do battle with the effects of a long depression, with a lack of interesting scripts, and above all with Archie’s disgust at the inroads being made by Joe McCarthy and his henchmen. A sense of guilt and embarrassment for his own indifference, for not protesting, for not defending the free world as he had done fifteen years before in the war against the Germans.

For Archie, the Americans were now their own Germans. Chaplin in exile. The best writers on the blacklist.

Cary was a long way from being a radical, let alone a communist, but how could he bear all those intrusions into people’s privacy, their political ideas: “Have you ever been a member of such and such a party, such and such a union, such and such a circle…?” What had come over everyone? Either you were good at your work or you weren’t, you were a good set designer, or director, or actor, or you weren’t. If the jokes were funny, if the love scenes were exciting, if the story had a beginning and an end, in that order if possible, then nothing else mattered.

For at least a year Archie had returned to brooding over Frances Farmer, for whose fate everyone felt responsible, even Cary, and especially Cliff.

After a few weeks Frances had come back to see them….Not the Frances of ’54, exhausted by the mental hospital. It was the Frances of ’37, the new, wild, and beautiful actress, the girl who didn’t believe in God, the girl who had been to Russia.

“You know, Cary, I don’t get you. Everything you do, the way you move, the way you speak in that accent that isn’t English and isn’t American … I can see it, you work hard on your character … No, not your character in this film, I mean a character you’re going to be playing every day for the rest of your life. I feel you’ve nearly got it, but there’s one thing that doesn’t convince me, you know?”

She talked like that during coffee breaks on The Toast of New York, she turned to look at Cary, but it was Archie she was talking to, a cocoon about to pop.