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Edward J. Delaney on his novel 'The Acrobat', a portrait of Cary Grant

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "NORTH BY NORTHWEST")

CARY GRANT: (As Roger Thornhill) I'm an advertising man, not a red herring. I've got a job, a secretary, a mother, two ex-wives and several bartenders dependent upon me. And I don't intend to disappoint them all by getting myself slightly killed.

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Cary Grant - charming, dapper, debonair. The name sets off memories of favorite lines from some of his best films, and even not-so-great films he managed to class up.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "ARSENIC AND OLD LACE")

GRANT: (As Mortimer Brewster) I'll tell you what we do, Captain. I'll bring my bodies down from the attic, and you get yours up from the cellar, we'll get them all together, and we'll send them to Happy Dale.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "HIS GIRL FRIDAY")

GRANT: (As Walter Burns) Sort of wish you hadn't done that, Hildy.

ROSALIND RUSSELL: (As Hildy Johnson) Done what?

GRANT: (As Walter Burns) Divorced me - makes a fellow lose all faith in himself.

SIMON: But inside Cary Grant was Archibald Leach, the adolescent acrobat on the British vaudeville circuit, before he came to America and embodied Cary Grant on the screen and in life. "The Acrobat" is a new novel by Edward J. Delaney, the author whose previous works include "The Big Impossible" and "Follow the Irish" (ph). He joins us from Bristol, Rhode Island. Thanks so much for being with us.

EDWARD J DELANEY: Happy to be here.

SIMON: You revolve much of this portrait around Cary Grant at the age of 55 at a particular time in his life. What was going on?

DELANEY: I think he was at the zenith of his film career. Interestingly, the "North By Northwest" venture - he didn't think it was going to succeed, but it obviously did. It's one of his classic movies. But he was doing some light comedies, and he was making a lot of money. But he, at that time, at age 55, was underway with LSD treatment, and he was really trying to explore who he was. So it was a really crucial year in his life.

SIMON: We should explain, this was LSD under - although the technique is debatable, it was under psychiatric supervision.

DELANEY: Yeah. The way it worked was that he would do these very controlled doses of LSD under the supervision of Dr. Mortimer Hartman of the Beverly Hills Psychiatric Institute. The institute was essentially Hartman's office. Then they would explore his life and to some degree walk into what you might call waking dreams, in which he played out aspects of his life.

SIMON: Yeah. I had no idea until reading your novel - and although it is a novel, this is a fact - of the central role of losing a tooth in his childhood played in the person we know as Cary Grant.

DELANEY: When he was 13 years old, he had this bad fall on ice, and he knocked out one of his front teeth. And his father, who was a tailor's presser, could not afford to send him to a dentist. So he moved forward with this missing tooth. But as he went through puberty, the jaw grew out. The gap began to close. And he ends up with what is, to some degree, the perfect smile. If not for the missing tooth, young Archie probably would have had a much more toothsome smile - would not have had the kind of good looks that he otherwise had and good fortune went his way.

SIMON: We are talking about somebody who was working for a living from the age of 14.

DELANEY: That era was notable in the sense that in Britain, when he was growing up - he was born in 1904 - 900,000 British men died in the war. And so as all the young boys went to war, the younger boys were pulled up into their spots. And so for Archie, at age actually 13, if I'm not mistaken, he was hired. He was running a spotlight at the local theater. And that led to an audition with an acrobatic group, which was called the Bob Pender group. And by 16, you know, he was in America with the Pender Troupe touring the country, and he never really went back to England.

SIMON: Did America let Archibald Leach recast himself as Cary Grant?

DELANEY: It's interesting to look at who he thought he was and who he really was, and how those two personas worked together. And I think of the fact that at that time there were lots of young actors sort of reinventing themselves. Think of someone like Marion Morrison, the young actor who rebranded himself John Wayne. And he, I think, fully lived in the John Wayne persona without any hesitation for the rest of his life. But, you know, even later in his life, Grant really did still see himself as Archie Leach. And on some level, maybe he felt like he was tricking the world a little bit. And he often spoke very openly about the fact that Cary Grant was a character he played, in so many words. And I think he needed to preserve a little bit of who he really was.

SIMON: Married five times - I think you would agree, not a model husband.

DELANEY: Mmm hmm.

SIMON: Why couldn't Archibald Leach be happy being successful, adored, rich, desired and admired like Cary Grant?

DELANEY: I think it goes back to the most important event probably of his life, which was that when he was 9 years old, he came home from school one day, and his mother was gone. And weeks turned to months and months turned to years, and it was apparent she was never coming back at all. Certainly in his childhood it was a sense of just being abandoned. And so what he said at times was that he basically tried to heal that relationship by asking his wives to fill that role. That was not going to create a successful, loving relationship.

SIMON: You write at one point, all the world's a stage, as the Bard said, but that also means everyone dons a mask. Isn't that life in Hollywood?

DELANEY: Yeah, I think it's life for all of us. I think it was especially true of Cary Grant, and that's what interested me more than anything in this because he would say that this is a mask. I occupy this role, and people can't see through it to see who I am. And in one of his recollections, he said, but I can't see out either. How can I see out if no one can see in? So he was highly aware of that, but he certainly got a lot of benefit from it. He became that person to a larger degree, and I'm sure by the end of his life he was perfectly comfortable in that role.

SIMON: If people listening to us want to watch Cary Grant tonight, what do you suggest?

DELANEY: You know, of course, I love "North By Northwest."

SIMON: Yeah.

DELANEY: And I love "To Catch A Thief." But one silly movie I just love to see when it comes on is "My Favorite Wife." It's just one of those classic funny Hollywood movies. And there are some great scenes, particularly a courtroom scene that's just an absolute classic.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "MY FAVORITE WIFE")

GRANT: (As Nick Arden) Well, when Mrs. Mulligan, the first wife, returned, Mrs. Mulligan, the second wife, immediately sued for annulment. That left Mr. Mulligan, the husband, free to either remarry the first wife, Mrs. Mulligan, or the second wife, Mrs. Benson-Mulligan, or rather Mulligan-Benson.

GRANVILLE BATES: (As Judge Walter Bryson) Well, don't stand there gawking. What did he do?

GRANT: (As Nick Arden) He died suddenly of cirrhosis of the liver.

SIMON: Edward J. Delaney - his novel, "The Acrobat." Thank you so much for being with us.

DELANEY: My pleasure. Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.