Homeless cat, hospitable busker (St. Martin's Lane, 1939)
Elsa recollects at 81:
We always had a cat but we didn't ever go out and get a cat. Somehow the cats found us. When we moved to our house in Brentwood (1), one day we drove in and we heard a meeping and rustling in the driveaway, and eventually we fished out five kittens from the ivy. In Hollywood at least, if a poor family had a cat and it had kittens and they couldn't afford to have the mother cat "fixed", and they couldn't bring themselves to kill the kittens, they would put them in a basket and drop them in the gardens of the people who were better off. So we had cats. We kept them for a few weeks, all five, and we had five kittens chasing one another around the house–a great entertainment. It was much, much better than going to a ballet. Eventually we found homes for them all, except one–a ginger one–so this one was called "Mister Pinky" and he was considered Charles' cat. After that we always had ginger cats. For some reason, ginger cats always turned up.
Two doors away from the Brentwood house lived Henry Hathaway. He had an aunt and, I believe, a mother living there, two apparently rather deaf elderly ladies. One day their gardener told our gardener that "the Laughtons barbecue cats." We were infuriated. Tracing the atrocious statement to its source, we found that one old girl had said to the other, "You know, the Laughtons harbor cats," and the other deaf old girl heard "harbor" as "barbecue"
Oh yes, there's some distance between "harbor" and "barbecue", but it is a distance many a writer on films has covered easily, even breaking planetary records. As Greg from Cinema Styles put it here, "Of course, I have discovered through years of film study that 'History of the Movies' books are often poorly researched and repeat the same legends they've heard elsewhere without any verification", which is a good reason I not only read bibliography on Laughton, but bibliography on people and subjects related to him.
Many urban myths about Charles start like a little snow flake going down a slope and end like a big snowball. I have even read comments of people around Charles who probably ignored certain things about Charles when he was alive, but having learned new things about him after his death, they just "incorporate" the new information to their reminiscences of the man... Mind me: when a person had a close personal or working relationship with Laughton, it is very likely that they chose to keep some things to themselves while Charles was alive... But every then and now I come across some people's statements, not close to him in any way, whose reminiscences, or so it seems to me, carry a whiff of disingenuousness.
You may say, and you'll be right up to a point, that this is the price to pay for fame, but then we are talking of the old-style type of fame, the one who came along with merits and skills (not the present-day Paris Heelton attention-craving, empty type of celebrity, so to say). And since along these myths there is some stuff which is not only damaging to our subject , but also rather untrue, I recommend to be cautious about what you learn about people, all the more if there is no alternate view... And don't get me started about I-emm-dee-bees and wikis: the snowball gets bigger and bigger as the stories start to circulate online without people bothering to check the sources!
Wife. Husband. Utterly guileless sofa
I could mention, for instance, the story of a discarded sofa. Of how a wife decided to get rid of it because the seat brought the wife painful reminiscences: the sofa, you see, was associated to a marital infidelity.
Such story was recounted by the wife, many years after the husband's demise, she being the only, noncontrasted source....And allow me to add, she didn't actually watch the scene but -so she referred- was just briefed about the events, afterwards, through the husband's tearful confession. This story has enjoyed a number of retellings by third parties, some quite imaginatively amusing, one actually saying that the guilty sofa was burnt in a bonfire as if the wife were a fierce Inquisitor, and the sofa a doomed heretic.
Oh boy! I cannot wait to read the version of the story in which the wife burns the sofa, its guilty occupants (who in this version will be caught, of course, in fraganti) and the whole building while she laughs maniacally.
Sources and Notes
Elsa is quoted from her 1983 autobiography.
(1) The house at Brentwood was Charles and Elsa's first regular house at Hollywood in the 1940s, after they had been staying temporarily at the Garden of Allah.