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Cary Grant: Life With Father

The actor's only child, Jennifer Grant, opens up about their relationship in a new autobiography, “Good Stuff: A Reminiscence of my Father, Cary Grant."

Cary Grant in 1955

Cary Grant in 1955.

Photo By Silver Screen Collection/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Jennifer Grant

Jennifer Grant

Photo By Robert Legg

Cary Grant with daughter Jennifer at the Hollywood Park racetrack 1978

Cary Grant’s cinematic persona had a seemingly effortless charm, combining his devastating good looks with great style and impeccable comic timing. An interviewer once said to him, “Everybody would like to be Cary Grant.” His response: “So would I.” The man who made such films as 1938’s “Bringing Up Baby,” 1940’s “The Philadelphia Story,” 1955’s “To Catch a Thief” and 1959’s “North by Northwest,” and who tops many polls as the greatest star in Hollywood history, married five times, but had only one child — brunette beauty Jennifer Grant, now 45. She was born to Cary and his then-wife, 29-year-old actress Dyan Cannon, when he was 62, and he retired from films to spend time with her. He became a spokesman for Fabergé, a job that gave him more free time than movie-making and came with the use of a company jet. By contrast, Cannon wanted to continue to pursue her acting career, which was at its height in the Seventies; her films include 1968’s “Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice,” 1973’s “The Last of Sheila” and 1978’s “Heaven Can Wait.” The two had lived together for three years before marrying, but their marriage lasted only two years, and was followed by years of wrangling over custody.

Cary died at 82 in 1986. Now Jennifer has written “Good Stuff: A Reminiscence of my Father, Cary Grant” (Alfred A. Knopf). She had often been asked to write about her father, and refused, but she changed her mind a few years ago when two friends unexpectedly asked her about it in one week. “He had all the qualities you see on-screen, his charm and his wit,” she says. “I know how they translated into being a father, but since I’m his only child, I wanted to share that with the world.” The phrase “good stuff” is one he used to, as she writes, “declare happiness.” Grant was an extremely hands-on, devoted parent who kept his daughter’s crib in his room when she was an infant, and who often recorded their exchanges and conversations when she was a small child and young girl. He made life lists for her and kept every drawing and note she sent him. Jennifer found all these items and many, many tapes when her stepmother, Barbara Grant, told her that she was doing some cleaning and wanted to turn over the cache of 10 to 15 large boxes to her. Grant had kept them in a fireproof safe, because he regretted that all of the physical records of his own childhood in England were destroyed by German bombs during World War I.

Given his enthusiasm for parenthood, why did Cary elect to have only one child? “I think he wanted to give his all to his career, and when he felt ready to graduate to his next phase, he wanted to give it his all,” Jennifer says. “But this is all guesswork on my part. It’s not as though he ever said that to me, [but] because I saw the way he parented.”

Cannon, with her long tousled hair and bohemian clothes, was also a style icon in the Seventies. Her daughter appreciates this, she says, “I think more so now. I had these two gorgeous parents who always looked great. As a child, you don’t really care. You have your outfit of the day, and the goal is getting out onto the beach. I was a little bit of a tomboy, sometimes it was the Hang Ten T-shirt and Levis, riding my horse. The one time that my father let me wear a logo, it was to wear Ralph Lauren’s shirts — my father ran into him, and said that I liked the shirts, and he sent them in every color. I was thrilled.” Ralph Lauren, in fact, is giving her a party today. Riding, Jennifer notes, was something her father enjoyed “because it was a group activity, something we could all get out and do together.”

Her father, she says, was “not a believer in trends,” then she adds, “If you see a picture of him now, you couldn’t tell [what year it was from]. He could walk in today in any of the clothes he wore and be perfectly in style. He actually taught me how to tie a tie when I was quite young. He would put a chair in his bathroom, tie the tie from behind him so that I learned how.” Photos of Grant turn up regularly in GQ, Esquire and other magazines in articles about classic men’s style.

What does she miss most about him? “He didn’t have rote opinions,” Jennifer says. “He would digest ideas. [If I asked a question], I knew there was no pedantic response, it would be a wise response, but something that was digested with current information. He was a great conversationalist in speaking about any issue, any problem, anything in life. He lived a very rich life, so he had a lot to bring to any question; he could see it from a lot of angles. I miss all of those perspectives on my tiny questions.”

Cary Grant and Dyan Cannon 1965

Cary Grant and Dyan Cannon, 1965.

Photo By SSPL/Getty Images

A life-list written for Jennifer Grant by her father Cary Grant

When Jennifer lost her baby teeth, he saved them, “and had one encased in Lucite and wore it around his neck, next to a St. Christopher charm and a Star of David. Some of his cuff links, he had made into earrings for me. Definitely every day, more than once a day, I was showered with love. It’s lucky for anyone to have that. [In making such things as a special alphabet for her] he drew all of those things himself, he found the picture, drew the drawing. I think he had that kind of attention to detail in his work, one would never know.…It came off so effortlessly, appeared effortlessly, with his fathering, all of that same attention went in.

“It’s remarkable, the archives in and of themselves. I pored over them. He would put a recorder on when I was in the room with friends. In later years, knowing it was there, you could hear us turning off the tape, and he’d try to sneak it in again. Hearing tapes of him putting me down for a nap — there’s a certain tone to your home, with doors closing, and the ring of the phone, the temperature of life. To rehear it 20- or 30-something years later, it was like a little earthquake, it just shook me to my bones in such a beautiful way. I feel now there’s a stillness in me about it.”

Neither of her parents were academic, but she went to Stanford and was planning to attend law school later. “I remember Dad getting the catalogues and poring over them. He had the Stanford Daily sent to the house. It was a whole new world. ‘Oh, how marvellous, the things you’re learning. I wish I could take this course.’”

Her parents didn’t want her to go into acting, but, after working at a public-interest law firm and as a chef, she ended up doing so, anyway. “I think they both recognized that it can be a challenging business, you know,” she says. “Dad was married five times, and I think Mom didn’t necessarily have to share with me all of her travails. She probably didn’t want to burden me. The business is not always too humane. Most of all, they wanted me to be happy, so despite their individual successes, they recognized that it comes with some sacrifice.” In 1993, she appeared in the recurring role of Celeste Lundy on “Beverly Hills, 90210,” and she has guest starred on a number of other shows, including “Friends,” and made several movies. She was married to TV director and producer Randy Zisk for three years, from 1993 to 1996, and has a young son, Cary Benjamin, born in 2008.

Seeing her father on screen, Jennifer notes, makes her feel “very proud of him. I’m somewhat amazed, especially now, by his talent, and by his wit — and then there’s the other side of it. I knew him so well and so intimately, there’s a bizarre disconnect there,” she says. Nevertheless, “I love romantic comedy, Frank Capra, I still love ‘When Harry Met Sally,’ and I could watch it over and over again. I don’t think that there are so many great romantic comedies out there, and Dad did a slew of them.”

Grant was also one of the first stars to go independent, which he did after his original Paramount contract ran out, so that he was able to choose his roles judiciously, and he sometimes got a percentage of the box office. He also had an arrangement whereby, after seven years, the ownership of his films reverted to him, and he earned millions just with this clause, leaving an estate worth about $60 million. Before he married his last wife, Barbara Harris, who was 47 years his junior and whom he met when she was public relations director of the Royal Lancaster Hotel, he asked Jennifer for her permission, because he knew that she would have to split the estate with Barbara when he died. Jennifer, seeing the two as a perfect match, agreed with enthusiasm.

Grant’s other wives were actress Virginia Cherrill, heiress Barbara Hutton, actress Betsy Drake and Cannon. Nevertheless, throughout his life, he was dogged by rumors that he was bisexual or gay. As a young actor, Grant shared a beach house with handsome actor Randolph Scott for years, which sparked gossip. Drake famously said, when questioned about this, “I don’t know, we were always too busy f---cking for me to ask.” His daughter writes, “Dad somewhat enjoyed being called gay. He said it made women want to prove the assertion wrong.” She also notes, “[You] can’t blame men for wanting him, and I wouldn’t be surprised if Dad even mildly flirted back.”

He was savvy about money, Jennifer notes. “I was at a hotel recently; they charged $40 for the valet. Those are the types of things that would drive Dad mad, because they were not fair and not thoughtful.” When Cadillac sold cars in a Jennifer Blue shade, he bought one in that color. But when his daughter was looking for a car, he didn’t come along, because he wanted her to comparison shop and knew that if he was recognized, the price would automatically go up. “He wanted me to know how to negotiate from a young age, because he left me money, and he wanted me to know how to handle it,” she says. “There was just nothing jaded about it, and I find it refreshing. He wanted the best and he wanted quality things, but he wanted to make sure that he was taking care of his hard-earned dough. He would spend money if the restaurant was worth it or the trip was worth it or the clothes, but again, there was nothing just for the sake of show; it had to have some real value.” He made it a point to encourage Jennifer to work. When, in college, she wanted a slightly jazzier car than the one he had bought for her, he asked her to earn half of the difference between her old and new cars — which she did, by waitressing.

Grant took his friends very seriously. Some of them were in show business, but he hadn’t necessarily met them on the set. Kirk Kerkorian, for example, was a close friend, so were Frank Sinatra and Billy Wilder.

Strangely, Grant never spoke to his daughter about his film career. In fact, she only remembers watching one of his films with him, 1957’s “An Affair to Remember,” when she was a small child. “There was Deborah Kerr, kissing my father,” she says. “I didn’t really understand what was going on. I walked right over to the TV screen and slapped her. I got a big laugh.”