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‘He left it to his wife, Ruth, to supervise having the three rooms knocked into one.’ The drawing room typifies the Howard image.
‘I answered the door to find a group of fans from Houston, Texas, on the doorstep. Nowadays we go through the same thing with different groups at least three times a year.’ Born Leslie Howard Stainer in Forest Hill, South London, the actor was educated at Dulwich College after early years in Vienna, where his Hungarian/ Jewish father worked in a bank.Another room built for Howard has fallen into disrepair – the private cinema next to the swimming pool.This is used for storage but it’s still poignant to stand at the dusty Art Deco bar – where Walt Disney is pictured in the sepia picture in Ruth’s bedroom – and imagine when the giant projectors, still in working order, whirred into life and the latest film played on the big screen.‘We still get many high-profile buyers and at present there’s a great shortage of houses,’ says Serena Brown of Brown’s estate agents, Cranleigh.Behind the high hedges there are much sought-after country houses – Howard’s former home is a prime example – and their prices begin at about the [pounds sterling]1.25million mark.‘His marriage to Ruth was strong,’ says Ann Wickham, ‘but she certainly knew of his girlfriends.
The maid, who still lived in the village in the Eighties, told me that Ruth insisted that Bette Davis and Ingrid Bergman stay at the local hotel instead of at the house on party weekends.’ The little sitting room, Ann discovered, was Howard’s domain.
‘For successful City types, it’s a rite of passage to live as twenty- or thirtysomethings in London and then move out to the country when they have children approaching their teens,’ says Rupert Connell of The Buying Solution – agents working for buyers.
He adds: ‘They want access to good schools and a better quality of life for their children: and somewhere to keep the horses is another big attraction.’ Alan Knight at Jackson-Stops & Staff estimates that prices are rising by about six per cent a year.
He held seances there when, heartbroken, he wanted to contact Violete after her tragic death from septicaemia in 1942, aged only 32.
Upstairs, Ann has made an exhibition of memorabilia in Ruth’s old bedroom.
Theatre posters, cuttings and signed pictures of Howard with the likes of Walt Disney, Anna Neagle and Noel Coward at the house make a fascinating display.