Below is an excerpt from Rowena Harker Leder's new memoir Love and Laughter Around the World.
A memorable flight happened in 1970. By then I only worked in the First Class and there would be 1 stewardess and 3 stewards to look after a maximum of 16 passengers. It was in the winter when I signed in at the airport with the rest of the Boeing 747 crew going to New York and we were told we only had one passenger in the First Class and his name was Cary Grant. I was perhaps not as excited as the rest of the crew for the following reasons.
In my early days of flying, I think 1964, I had a gorgeous boyfriend who was a top photographer in New York, he worked for Vogue and Harper's Bazaar etc. His studio was in Carnegie Hall. He had a great old friend, I think from school days and she was a budding Hollywood actress and her name was Dyan Cannon. One hot summers day, I must have been in New York for a three or four day-layover, we decided to go to Jones Beach near Coney Island. This is the nearest beach to Manhattan. Alex, my photographer friend said Dyan was in New York and he would ask her to come with us. She was pleased to get out of the city and we all flew along the Long Island Expressway to the beach. I liked Dyan immediately. She had a huge sense of humour and we were almost exactly the same age and hit it off very very well. She told us she had to be back in the city by 6pm because she would be receiving a phone call from her then current boyfriend in Hollywood and because we were such trustworthy people she would tell us his name, it was ...Cary Grant. She did spend 3 hours on the phone with him that night. I then spent a wonderful two more days with boyfriend and Dyan in New York and grew to like her enormously. One of those people you wish you had not lost touch with in life.
So... Dyan married Cary Grant in 1965 and they remained married for four years and had a daughter Jennifer. When the divorce happened, I kept reading about it in the newspaper and obviously followed the story avidly. What I read did not put Mr. Grant in a very good light. Firstly - he was very mean with money. This, to me, is unforgiveable and have never liked miserly men. Secondly, he wanted her to take 'strange substances' in the bedroom and this did not appeal.
So here we are five years later and I am finally going to meet Mr. C Grant and I had to put all his 'little faults and foibles' to the side and do my stewardessing job in a professional way. The First Class cabin looked perfect, flowers in place and the fruit basket quite asymmetric. We heard footsteps coming down the jetway and Cary Grant bent his head slightly and walked through the door. He was tall, elegant, suave, sophisticated. Beautifully dressed with immaculate grey Saville Row suit, Gucci shoes, Turnbull & Asser shirt, exquisite Italian silk tie. His hair was immaculate and his fingernails manicured and perfect. His face was smooth and pretty well wrinkle free. Lifted, mark you, definitely lifted - but so very, very discreetly and obviously the best money could buy. His face lift had not gone wrong as was the norm in those days.
He did seem to like me immediately and there was without a doubt, instant rapport. He amused me and I amused him. The flight was progressing normally when a new, young stewardess appeared from the rear of the aircraft. There were 12 crew members looking after 200 passengers. The stewardess was called Elizabeth and she whispered to me in the galley:
'Rowena, do you think I could possibly meet Cary Grant?'
I said 'I'm sure you could, is there a special reason?
'She replied with bright shining eyes 'Oh yes. I am from Bristol and my grandmother went out with Cary Grant when they were young and he was Archie Leach!'
I thought about this and in due course went to Cary Grant and said as delicately as possible:
'Excuse me Mr. Grant, there is a young stewardess on board who is from Bristol and she says 'one of her relations' knew you when you lived there'. His reply was immediately dismissive saying:
'Oh I shouldn't think so. So many people say this but bring her up anyway.'
With foreboding, I went and asked Elizabeth to come up to the First Class. She approached Cary Grant in a state of high, controlled excitement and said:
'Oh Mr. Grant, I am from Bristol and my Grannie knew you when you were young and lived there. Her name is............'
He ungraciously replied 'I very much doubt it Elizabeth, I would remember. Many people say things like that but they are not always true.'
Poor Elizabeth was devastated, her face crumpled and all she could stammer was:
'I'm very sorry, I'm very sorry.'
With that, she turned and hurried back down the cabin. I followed her and as we approached the galley I could see her little shoulders were going up and down and she was silently weeping. As I closed the Galley curtains, she turned to me and said:
''Oh Rowena Rowena - that awful man, that awful man. How dare he say my Grannies a liar, my Granny is not a liar.'
I was completely on her side and said: "What a stupid man. I can't remember who I went out with 5 years ago, how could he say he would remember after 60 years. I then tried to comfort and console her and we both agreed he was not too bright.
The flight continued and Cary Grant kept asking me to have dinner with him when we arrived in New York. We would go to the 21 Club and have a champagne dinner. Early on in the flight I had invented a boyfriend in New York whom I was meeting that evening. By the time we reached New York, this mythical boyfriend had become my fiancee and we were going to discuss the guest list and wedding preparations in great detail that evening.
There were three major reasons I did not wish to have dinner with him. The first was all I knew about the marriage to Dyan Cannon and I thought if he was not good enough for Dyan, he certainly would not be right for me. The second reason was of course, how he had treated Elizabeth. Had he just said:
'Oh I'm sure I did know her Elizabeth but it was a very long time ago and what did you say her name was again? Would you give her my kindest regards' all would have been acceptable. So lacking in grace I felt. The third reason was that Cary Grant was born on the same day, month and year as the then Archbishop of Canterbury and .... the Archbishop of Canterbury was older than my Father!
In retrospect it was probably a terrible booboo to refuse a date with him as he was, at that time, looking for another wife and how my life could have changed. Also, in retrospect, I think I must be the only person in the world to have refused a date with Cary Grant and further in retrospect, I don't regret it for a minute. He did of course, marry an English girl, 37 years his junior in 1981 and was very happy with her for the 2 years before he died and as he left her half his sixty million dollar fortune perhaps, in retrospect again, I do regret it! As they say, 'Money does not make you happy but you sure can be miserable in comfort.'
About the author:
In her new memoir, ‘Love and Laughter Around the World’, Leder unravels her life story between the years of 1936 and 1972. Starting with her days an au pair in France and later a Bluebell Girl from the Lido is Paris, readers follow the author as she left Europe and opened the Stardust Hotel in Las Vegas – later moving onto Beirut to open the Casino Du Liban. Leder then achieved her biggest dream, training as an air stewardess with BOAC, and travelling internationally throughout the Swinging Sixties.
Image published with Rowena Harker Leder's permission.