Leslie Howard Steiner (1893-1943) was born in London, to an English mother and a Jewish father who had emigrated from Hungary. Howard became the quintessential British matinee-idol, languid, slightly detached, but with a sense of something more beneath: a curious case of art imitating life.
AFTER leaving his cavalry regiment in 1916 suffering from shell-shock, Leslie Howard turned to acting, starring as Percy Blakeney in ‘The Scarlet Pimpernel’ in 1934, and most famously as Ashley Wilkes in ‘Gone With The Wind’.
That same year, however, war broke out and Howard pledged himself to Britain’s cause, broadcasting searing criticisms of Nazism across occupied Europe and in wavering America.
Germany, he believed, had made ‘no progress’ towards democracy, whereas Britain had blended Roman government, Greek democracy and freedom of art, French traditions of the family, a certain Viking courage, and Christian faith, into something worthy of defence.*
Howard was flying home from Portugal on 1st June 1943 when his plane was shot down over the Bay of Biscay by the Luftwaffe.
Exactly what this ‘British cultural ambassador’ to Franco’s Spain had been doing remains a mystery, but like the muddle-headed professor he played in ‘Pimpernel Smith’ (apparently infuriating Goebbels), there was always more to Howard than met the eye.
‘Not a very profitable transaction’
In ‘Pimpernel Smith’ (1941), the apparently absent-minded Professor Smith masterminds the escape of twenty-eight men of science and the arts from Germany, on the eve of the invasion of Poland. In this clip, the professor warns General von Graum that sidelining democracy so that politicians can have more power to make the world as they want it is a road from which there is no turning back.