The Leach household was not happy and when Archie Leach was nine his mother was suddenly committed to a mental institution. Nobody told the boy what had happened to her and in time he came to believe that she was dead. The sense of abandonment deeply affected his character and left him with a lack of trust which was to ruin all but one of his many marriages and love affairs. He was a lonely child, hanging around backstage doing odd jobs at the local music-halls. Stagestruck, he left school at fourteen and joined a troupe of boy acrobats, stilt walkers, and slapstick comics called Bob Pender's Knockabout Comedians. With them he toured the British music-halls, learning physical skills and a sense of timing which never left him. In 1920 they went to America for a long run at the huge New York Hippodrome, followed by a tour of large American cities. Pender returned to England in the early 1920s but Leach and some of the other men stayed on and ran their own troupe for several years. He later told colourful stories about the strange jobs he had during the next few years. Always a charmer, he soon became welcome in New York theatrical circles and appeared in musical shows for both the Hammersteins and the Shuberts. As he grew more sophisticated he acquired mannerisms which became characteristic of him— including the well-timed double take, the quizzically raised eyebrow—and modified his working-class accent to one all his own, clipped and jerky but apparently acceptable to American ears as typically British. A screen test at Paramount's small New York studio was not a success but his first film, later shown as Singapore Sue, was made there in 1931. He went to Hollywood, where his good looks, charm, and useful contacts easily got him a five-year contract with Paramount, and in 1932 he assumed the more elegant name of Cary Grant. He legally adopted the name in December 1941.
Between 1932 to 1936 Paramount used Grant in over twenty films as well as lending him to other companies. He played opposite many well-known stars but the films, although good experience, were stereotyped and undistinguished. To Grant's frustration Paramount made no attempt to promote him as they promoted their big star Gary Cooper. However, his appearance in a star vehicle with Marlene Dietrich and two more with Mae West drew attention to him, and the talented director George Cukor borrowed him to play opposite Katharine Hepburn in Sylvia Scarlett (1935). Although this film was a failure, Cukor's sympathetic direction enabled Grant to explore a style of his own and it was a milestone in his development.
In February 1934 Grant married a young actress, Virginia Adler (1908–1996), daughter of James Edward Cherrill, and former wife of Irving Adler. The marriage rapidly fell apart and ended in a bitter divorce the next year. Grant returned to the apartment he had previously shared with a fellow Paramount actor, Randolph Scott. This convenient bachelor arrangement was not uncommon at the time but led to talk of bisexuality. Whatever the truth, Grant's desire for a happy marriage was to prove one of the driving forces of his life. During a pause in his work for Paramount in 1935 he made a film in England with the actress Mary Brian, with whom for a while he contemplated a second marriage. About this time his father died and he was able to settle his mother, whose whereabouts he had discovered, in a house of her own. He was to visit her many times until her death in 1973.
As his reputation grew, Grant decided to leave Paramount and in future negotiate his own contracts for single films or groups of films. He refused to renew his contract in the autumn of 1936, a brave move at the height of the studio system. From then on he was to insist on a share of the box-office take on top of a guaranteed fee. His next film, Topper (1937), in which he made a debonair appearance as a ghost, was made at MGM and was such a box-office hit that Columbia and RKO eagerly signed overlapping contracts with Grant. By the middle of the war he had made some twenty films for them, more or less on his own terms. He worked with some of the best directors in Hollywood, including, Howard Hawks, Frank Capra, and George Stevens. The Awful Truth firmly established him in 1937 as a leading comedy actor. Bringing up Baby (1938) and Holiday (1938) were other crazy comedies and Gunga Din (1939), an enormous success, was an uproarious version of Kipling's story. His screen image and comic timing were now so polished that success at the box-office was assured, and his departure from Paramount was triumphantly justified. A perfectionist, his apparently casual performances were achieved by meticulous attention to detail.
When war broke out in 1939 Grant remained in Hollywood, reassured by the British ambassador's comforting view that members of the expatriate community were acting as their country's representatives. He became an American citizen in June 1942. The citation for the king's medal for services in the cause of freedom, awarded him in April 1947, was for his contributions to the British War Relief Fund.
Grant continued to make films, mainly comedies, during the war. One which was outstanding as both a critical and a commercial success was The Philadelphia Story (1940) for MGM, and co-starring Katharine Hepburn. James Stewart received an Oscar for his part in this film. Grant, on the other hand, had such a relaxed comedy style that he hardly seemed to be acting at all and was taken for granted by the academy. He was nominated as best actor for his next film, the sentimental Penny Serenade (1941), but to his disappointment the Oscar that year went to Gary Cooper. The black comedy Arsenic and Old Lace (1942) was another tremendous commercial hit. His next film, Suspicion (1941), was the first of four important collaborations with the English director Alfred Hitchcock. Characteristically, Hitchcock saw more in Grant than the urbane charmer. He detected a hidden side, guarded and even with a hint of menace, and cast him as a man plotting to murder his wife. Both Grant and the studio demurred and the ending was changed, but a teasing ambiguity remained, and the film has probably had a greater appeal to later, more sophisticated generations than it had at the time. Joan Fontaine won an Oscar as the wife, but as usual Grant's unostentatiously perfect performance went unrewarded.
On 8 July 1942 Grant married a second time. His wife, Barbara Hutton,), was heiress to the Woolworth fortune, and the extravagant and gregarious lifestyle of a wealthy socialite was so much at variance with Grant's lack of security that despite a real affection which lasted until her death in 1979 the marriage could not survive, and ended sadly in 1945. Grant was deeply distressed by this second failure and by his lack of recognition as an actor, and for a while his work suffered.
It was Hitchcock who revitalized Grant with one of the best films of his career, Notorious, in 1946. Again Hitchcock cast him as not entirely straightforward, a cool intelligence agent using the woman he loved to entice another man. The film, with Ingrid Bergman, had the usual Hitchcock suspense and was much admired. Refreshed, Grant returned to making light comedies. Among them, I was a Male War Bride (1949) was an uncharacteristically broad comedy, with Grant in deliberately unconvincing drag, and rather surprisingly was another huge box-office hit. In December 1949 Grant married for the third time. Betsy Drake (b. 1923) was another young actress, an intelligent and well-educated girl of wide interests. Desperately anxious to get this marriage right, for a while they lived quietly and for some years Grant read widely and made fewer films. It was through Betsy that he met a doctor who was experimenting with the use of LSD to help patients solve their problems by reliving their pasts. Grant attended a number of sessions and believed they had been beneficial.
By 1950 Grant had been in films for nearly twenty years and his type of sophisticated, screwball comedy was beginning to look dated as gritty realism took over. He talked of retiring. Before long, however, he was again lured back by Hitchcock and in 1954 filmed one of his most popular and glamorous films, the comedy thriller To Catch a Thief (1955), with Grace Kelly. Far from retiring, he continued to make films for another twelve years and, though fewer in number and lacking some of the old sparkle, most of them made money. One made in Spain in 1957 co-starred Sophia Loren, with whom he fell madly in love. This wrecked his already faltering marriage to Betsy and he was devastated when Loren married Carlo Ponti. Once more he was rescued from despair by Hitchcock with the last of their four films together, one of Grant's best, the classic comedy thriller with a chase, North by North West (1959). His third marriage having ended in divorce in 1962, and 3 years later Grant married another young actress, Dyan Cannon (born Samille Diane Friesen; b. 1939) , but despite the welcome birth of his only child the marriage was no more successful than the others and ended in 1968. In a lamentable last film, Walk, Don't Run (1966), for the first time Grant did not get the girl.
At sixty-two Grant was still a vigorous and handsome man and had no intention of becoming a silver-haired character actor. Without formally announcing his retirement he simply turned his attention to other things. He had always been interested in business and for some years he now pursued an active business career which included directorships of MGM. In 1970 the Academy gave him the survivor's consolation prize, an honorary award ‘for his unique mastery of the art of screen acting, with the respect and affection of his colleagues’. Later his films found new life on television and video, and as times changed a new audience's perception of him shifted slightly. A hint of the hidden depths and vulnerability could be detected behind the cool façade so carefully constructed to divert attention from the uncertainty within.
During the last decade of his busy life Grant achieved married happiness at last. He had met Barbara Harris (b. 1951), an English girl forty-seven years his junior, in 1976 when she was a public relations consultant for Fabergé, and after several years of passionate friendship they married in April 1981. As an old man with thick white hair and undimmed charm he toured the small towns of America with a one-man show called A Conversation with Cary Grant, reminiscing and chatting with the audience. It was as he prepared for the show in Davenport, Iowa, in November 1986 that he had a severe stroke. He died on 29 November 1986 at St Luke's Hospital in Davenport.