By Brad Darrach
December 15, 1986 12:00 PM

“I don’t know how I consider death,” Cary Grant remarked some months ago. “So many of my friends have been doing it recently. I hope I do it well.” That he did. Last week, at 82, the grandmaster of the graceful exit departed this life with his customary finesse—and with the subtle fillip of self-irony that defined his style. The King of Hearts, the mirror of charm, the most glamorous leading man of his generation, contrived to meet his end in an unglamorous burg called Davenport, Iowa. He had gone there to stage what he called A Conversation With Cary Grant—a program of film clips followed by an informal question-and-answer session—and with his usual zest was checking lights and microphones before the show when he felt a sudden onset of chills and. nausea. Supported by Barbara, his 36-year-old wife, he made his way to his hotel room, insisting jauntily that a nap was all he needed and that the show must go on. But the attack intensified and an ambulance was summoned. On the way to a hospital he sank into a coma and two hours later one of film’s most talented and enigmatic figures was dead.

Tributes clogged the media. “He was one of the greats,” said George Burns, “in the same league with Gable and Tracy.” Charlton Heston added: “What he did, he did better than anyone ever has. He was as important as anyone since Chaplin.” And Loretta Young spoke for millions of women when she said: “He was the elegant man.” But the story of how Cary Grant became a legend in his lifetime is not a simple tale of triumph. Pain inspired his style, and the roots of his ambition lay twined in a domestic tragedy.

Grant was born in Bristol, England, on Jan. 18, 1904 and christened Archibald Alexander Leach. His mother smothered him with possessive attentions and badgered his father, a charming ineffectual who pressed clothes in a garment factory, to find himself a better job. The worse she nagged the more he drank, and the more he drank the closer she veered to the edge of insanity. One day when Archie was 9 his father told him his mother had gone to the seashore for a rest—in fact, as Archie did not discover until more than 20 years had passed, she had been committed to an asylum. Abandoned (as he thought) by his mother and neglected by his father, Archie spent four dreary years as a latchkey child. But when he was 13 a teacher offered him a glimpse of the “smiling, jostling, classless” world of the theater. Like a shot, Archie left home to join a troupe of teenage acrobats, and at 17, when the troupe sailed back to Britain after a tour of America, he took a job on Coney Island as a stilt walker. By 1930 he was playing leads on Broadway, and in 1932 Paramount signed him to a five-year contract at $450 a week and changed his name to Cary Grant. In a year Grant did bit parts in seven movies. Then one day Mae West got an eyeful of his sultry good looks. “If he can talk,” she’s supposed to have said, “I’ll take him.”

Grant disliked the woman, but She Done Him Wrong made him faintly famous as the hunk she hooked with a notorious (and frequently misquoted) line: “Why dontcha come up sometime and see me?” Topper (1937) made him a star, and in movies like The Awful Truth (1937) and The Philadelphia Story (1940) he polished the facets of a complex and dazzling screen personality. The face alone was overpowering: strong sexy mouth, glittering brown eyes, rotisserie tan, chin-cleft you could crack a nut in. Then there was the whip-taut body, the deft movements, the caressing twang, the what’s-it accent. Was he serious? Was he kidding? Was the joke on him? On you? you could never be sure He approached, avoided, dodged definition, baffled—yet always entertained.

Startlingly, Grant was the same in person as he was in performance. “I pretended to be a certain kind of man onscreen,” he once explained. “I patterned myself on a combination of [British music-hall star] Jack Buchanan, Noel Coward and Rex Harrison, and I became that man in life. I became me. Or he became me. Or we met at some point. It’s a relationship.” And what happened to poor, pale, desperate, unloved, lower-class Archie? He was replaced by rich, bronzed, confident, adored, aristocratic Cary—or was he?

From the late ’30s through the early ’60s, Grant ran out a string of superhits (from Bringing Up Baby to Charade). Played opposite most of the era’s female superstars. Had hot-and-heavy love affairs with Sophia Loren, Ginger Rogers and photographer Maureen Donaldson. And married three beautiful actresses: Virginia Cherrill, Betsy Drake and Dyan Cannon. Plus one of the richest women in the world: Woolworth heiress Barbara Hutton (the press dubbed them “Cash & Cary”).

Grant never captured the Oscar for a particular role, though he did get two nominations and in 1970 was awarded the supreme statuette for his “unique mastery of the art of screen acting.” Yet, through it all, this apparently most fortunate of men too often seemed irritable, vain, socially insecure, reclusive, stingy, fearful of women and determined to control them at all costs.

In short, Archie/Cary had a smoldering identity crisis, and in 1957, not long before Betsy Drake walked out of their nine-year marriage (they were formally divorced in 1962), the crisis reached ignition point. Grant went into treatment with a psychotherapist who prescribed LSD, and over the next 10 years ingested the drug more than 100 times under controlled conditions. “It helped me a lot,” he said later, though at the time his fourth wife, Dyan Cannon, did not agree. She said “the master,” as she called him, tried to dictate what she wore and where she went, and when he couldn’t get his way he spanked her. Their 1968 divorce and the battle for custody of their daughter, Jennifer, Grant’s only child, made ugly headlines and nasty copy. Cannon testified that LSD had rendered Grant “unfit” to have custody, and Grant (or was it Archie?) protested bitterly: “Once the female has used the male for procreation, she turns on him and literally devours him.” This is the only negative observation Grant had ever been heard to make about any of his ex-wives, all of whom speak of him with warm respect.

The birth of Jennifer was the decisive event of Grant’s later years. In order to become a full-time father, he literally abandoned his career; after 1966, despite lucrative offers, he never made another movie. After Cannon won custody, he patched up their differences—a sable coat helped persuade her of his sincerity—and rented a second home right next door to her villa in Malibu. “Jennifer is my greatest production,” he said proudly. “She’s the most winsome, captivating girl I’ve ever known, and I’ve know quite a few. We have an honest relationship. We level with each other. I know when she’s looking at me she’s not thinking, ‘I wonder if I can get this old goat for a BMW.’ ” A lovely young woman of 20, Jennifer is now a senior at Stanford, majoring in American studies. “I hope,” Grant said fondly a few weeks before his death, “she’s majoring in happiness.” It’s rumored that he left her the lion’s share of an estate worth an estimated $40 million.

There’ll be plenty left over for his widow, of course. She’s an Englishwoman, born in East Africa, who was working as the public relations director of London’s Royal Lancaster Hotel when they met in 1976. Slender and well-bred, she was boundlessly devoted to her husband and brought to his last years a peace he had never known. At first, Barbara says, she was “terrified of the age difference,” but after living with Grant for three years she felt ready to marry him. Grant asked Jennifer first: “How would you feel if I asked Barbara to marry me? I’m getting on. I need her.” Jennifer burst into tears of happiness. They were married at home on April 15, 1981, with Jennifer and four others present.

Home was a handsome, French-style mansion surrounded by four and a half tastefully landscaped acres that nestle high in the Beverly Hills. Grant built a new wing on the house so that Jennifer could have privacy when she came home from college, but most of the year he and Barbara stayed there alone with a staff of three. They lived quietly. Mornings, Grant made business calls and wrote letters—since 1968 he had served as an international sandwich-board man for Fabergé cosmetics. Afternoons, Barbara often drove him out to the ball game (he was a Dodger fanatic) or to Hollywood Park when the horses were running (rich as he was, he never bet more than $2). Barbara paid close attention to her husband’s diet, but on these outings he usually managed to put away a few hot dogs—”All those reports about me being a health-food nut are false.” More often than not, they stayed home and Grant read, swam, rested. Evenings, they played Spite and Malice or sat with their cats, E.Q. and Sausage, and watched TV.

“We appreciate each other more than a younger couple,” Barbara said, “because time is so short.”

Grant felt the pressure of time, too. “I doubt if I have more than 70,000 hours left,” he said about eight years ago, “and I’m not about to waste any of them.” That was one reason he turned down a $5 million offer to write his memoirs, but there was another. “If you write your memoirs,” he said, “you’ve got to expose other people, and I hope to get out of this world as peacefully as possible, without embarrassing them—or me.” He felt less charitable toward scientists; he announced that they had let him down. “I never worried about death when I was younger,” he said, “because I assumed that science would take care of the problem before I would have to deal with it.” No such luck. Not long before the end, he murmured, “I’m sorry.” So are we all.

—Written by Brad Darrach, reported by bureaus in Chicago and Los Angeles