Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Actor Leslie Howard: Happy Birthday Actor, Director, and WWII Spy?

Leslie Howard, screenshot from Of Human Bondage. 
Howard was a remarkably talented actor, writer, producer and director, 
but he was also dedicated to the anti-Nazi propaganda campaign during World War II.

Leslie Howard was a talented English stage and film actor, director, writer and producer, best known for his role as Ashley Wilkes, Scarlet O’Hara’s obsession in Gone with the Wind. However, when Howard died in a mysterious plane crash in 1943, many believed he was also working as a WWII spy.

Howard's Childhood and Early Career

Leslie Howard Steiner was born on April 3, 1893 in London, England to Lillian Howard and Ferdinand Steiner. His first language was German and he was raised in Vienna, but returned to London to attend Dulwich College, an independent school for boys. He was expected to work with his father and started as a bank clerk, but his heart was in acting. He used the surname Howard for his first film appearance in The Heroine of Mons, which was released in 1914 and directed by his uncle, Wilfred Noy.

Military Service

World War I began in 1914, and Howard joined the British Army where he served in the 20th Hussars on the Western Front during the Battle of the Somme, one of the largest battles of World War I. It was a gruesome battle. On the first day of fighting, the British Army suffered its worse one-day combat loss in its history with 60,000 casualties. As a result of his service during this battle, Howard was later diagnosed with shell shock, or Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. It was so severe that he relinquished his commission in May of 1916.

Howard on Stage

Howard returned to London, and acting, once again appearing on stage in 1917. With his classic good looks and refined acting style he was a huge audience draw in both London and the United States. In New York City he had great success performing in 1923’s Aren’t We All? Theater critics also praised his performance in Her Cardboard Lover in 1927.

One of Howard's most memorable appearances was in The Petrified Forest in 1936. His final American stage role was also in 1936 with 39 performances in Shakespeare’s Hamlet. In addition to acting, Howard generally worked either as the director or producer in many of his productions. He also wrote his own plays.

Film Career

There were a few times when Howard appeared in both the stage and screen performance of the same story, such as Berkeley Square, which brought him a Best Oscar nomination in 1933, and the 1936 film performance of The Petrified Forest, costarring Bette Davis and Humphrey Bogart. Howard and Bogart later appeared together in the stage performance of The Petrified Forest.

Leslie Howard, screenshot trailer from The Petrified Forest. 

Howard also costarred with Bette Davis in the 1936 film Of Human Bondage and 1937’s It’s Love I’m After. He is best remembered in American film history as Scarlet O’Hara’s love obsession, Ashley Wilkes, in the 1939 film Gone with the Wind. Unfortunately, World War II started shortly after the film was released and Howard returned to England to help with the war effort in Europe through anti-Nazi campaigns and 
anti-German movies.

Leslie Howard starred as Ashley Wilkes in Gone With the Wind. 

The Mystery of Leslie Howard's Death

In 1943, Leslie Howard and his agent boarded KLM Royal Dutch Airlines/BOAC Flight 777 for a flight from Lisbon, Portugal to Bristol, England. The plane was shot down by German aircraft over the Bay of Biscay, or Cantabrian Sea on June 1, 1943.

In his 1984 biography In Search of My Father: A Portrait of Leslie Howard, Howard’s son, Ronald Howard, speculated that either Leslie Howard or his agent was mistaken for England’s Prime Minister Winston Churchill, which would explain why the plane was attacked by the Germans.

However, it is also speculated that Howard may have been involved in British Intelligence efforts. Many of the passengers on the doomed flight had connections with British Intelligence.

In an article published in The Athens Observer, author and researcher Donald Wilkes explained that a disinformation plan had been released claiming Churchill planned to return to England via Portugal, which supports the mistaken identity theory. However, Wilkes also points out that even if Leslie Howard was the only passenger on the plane, he still would have been a target of a Nazi attack due to his anti-Nazi campaign efforts and anti-German movies.


Leslie Howard and Ruth Martin were married in 1916. They had two children: Ronald Howard, a successful actor and writer; and Leslie Ruth Howard, who was also a successful writer. Both of Leslie Howard’s children wrote biographies of his life and career.

In his lifetime, Howard appeared in 34 films, produced eleven, directed four, and had an even more successful career on stage. He was nominated for two Oscars for his performances in Pygmalion and Berkeley Square. He was awarded a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame for his contribution to the film industry.

Recognition of his remarkable professional versatility and extraordinary talents as writer, actor, producer and director were clearly neglected, possibly due to the fact that his career was overshadowed by both world wars.


  • Howard, Ronald. In Search of My Father: A Portrait of Leslie Howard. London: St. Martins Press, 1984.
  • “Leslie Howard.” British Film Institute Screen Online. Retrieved December 15, 2009.
  • Wilkes, Donald E. "The Assassination of Ashley Wilkes." Published in The Athens Observer June 8, 1995. Retrieved online December 15, 2009.


  1. I was looking at the A to Z blog and found you and like your writings:) I created gift cards but love film and am doing my A to Z on film stars but not as detailed as you:) Inspired by my dad when I was a youngin:) My favourite Howard film is Pygmalion and he is a great actor

    1. I agree--he's wonderful! Good luck with the gift cards!


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