Leslie Howard was a British actor best known for playing Ashley Wilkes in the 1939 blockbuster Gone with the Wind. His most important role, however, was off camera. And he gave his life for it.
Leslie Howard was born in London in 1893 to a Jewish Hungarian immigrant family. He worked as a bank clerk before enlisting in the British Army. Leslie served as an officer in World War I, but suffered severe shell shock and relinquished his commission in 1916.
In 1917, Leslie began appearing on the London stage. After performing in several plays, Leslie moved to New York, where he found success on Broadway. Throughout the 1920’s, Leslie appeared in numerous hit productions. He wasn’t just an actor – Leslie also produced and directed plays.
After starring as Peter Standish in “Berkeley Square” to rave reviews in New York, Leslie moved to Los Angeles to reprise the role for the film version. Leslie’s movie career took off. Ironically, he specialized in playing the perfect upper-class English gentleman, though he was actually from a family of Eastern European Jews.
Leslie starred in a string of Hollywood hits, including The Scarlet Pimpernel (1934), Of Human Bondage (1934), and Pygmalion (1938), which he also directed. After the huge success of Gone with the Wind, Leslie could have stayed in Hollywood and continued to make blockbusters.
Instead, Leslie returned to Great Britain to support his countrymen as World War II broke out.
As both an Englishman and a Jew, Leslie wanted to use his talents to fight Hitler. He became the chief propagandist for the Allied Forces, directing himself in several flag-waving films about the need to fight the Nazis.
These films included the 49th Parallel (1941) and First of the Few (1942.) He also made The Gentle Sex (1943) about women’s contributions to the war effort.
In 1943, Leslie traveled to Spain to lecture about the Nazi threat, working to persuade its leader, Francisco Franco, not to join the Axis powers.
Rumors were starting to circulate that Leslie was an Allied spy.
On June 1, 1943, Leslie boarded a plane in Lisbon to return to Great Britain. The aircraft was shot down by German fighter planes over the Bay of Biscay, and all seventeen passengers were killed.
Leslie Howard was 50 years old.
It has long been debated whether Leslie Howard was the intended target of the German attack. An original hypothesis was that the Germans believed Winston Churchill was on the flight. However later evidence showed that German intelligence knew exactly where Churchill was.
Many historians, and Leslie’s own family, believe that the order to shoot down the plane came from master Nazi propagandist Joseph Goebbels, who despised Leslie and considered him a major threat.
The details of Leslie Howard’s death may never be known. What we do know is that he left a glamorous life in Hollywood to use his talent fighting Nazis.
For that we salute him, and honor Leslie Howard as this week’s Thursday Hero at Accidental Talmudist.
Get the best of Accidental Talmudist in your inbox: sign up for our monthly newsletter.