1939 was a year that would go down in history for a number of reasons. It was, of course, the year when Hitler would begin World War II by invading Poland. It also happened to be the year when Gone With the Wind would take the cinematic world by storm. Leslie Steiner, a Jewish man of Hungarian descent, born in London, would play a significant role in both events. You see, we know him better as Leslie Howard, the actor to whom Scarlett crooned, “Ashley, Ashley…” He was already a veteran of stage and screen and a heartthrob, but Gone With the Wind catapulted him to mega stardom.
Leslie Howard walked away from it all in 1940, buying out his contract and forfeiting royalties in favor of writing and producing anti-Nazi propaganda films for the British government. This move earned him the enmity of the Nazi leadership in general, but especially that of Joseph Goebbels, the German propaganda minister. On June 1, 1943, Leslie Howard was one of 17 people aboard Flight 777, a civilian aircraft flying from neutral Portugal to Bristol. By mutual agreement, such civilian planes flew safely back and forth with great frequency. On that day, however, six Junkers Ju 88 fighters attacked the defenseless Douglas DC-3, causing it to crash in the Bay of Biscay and killing all aboard.
All of Britain was shocked, but not so the Nazis. Many historians believe it was Minister Goebbels himself who ordered the attack and delighted in the death of his nemesis. Leslie Howard died at age 50, a superstar, but one whose greatest role was not on the silver screen but in the theatre of life.