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A star's last act



Last modified: Saturday, March 31, 2012
"Power, I said. Power to walk into the gold vaults of the nations, into the secrets of kings, into the holy of holies, power to make multitudes run squealing in terror at the touch of my little invisible finger. Even the moon's frightened of me, frightened to death!"

Yikes. Me too.

That's why I recently Googled British actor Claude Rains, whose commanding voice, ruthless nature and unquenchable ambition in The Invisible Man chilled me to the bone.

I knew Rains had worked with some of the greats, like Humphrey Bogart and Cary Grant, but I didn't know this:

". . . died from an abdominal hemorrhage in Laconia, New Hampshire, on May 30, 1967 . . . interred in the Red Hill Cemetery, Moultonborough, N.H."

Huh?

You mean the Claude Rains? The actor who played Capt. Louis Renault in Casablanca, the movie that made Bogey Bogey? Who starred opposite Jimmy Stewart in Mr. Smith Goes To Washington? Who was nominated for four Academy Awards? Who terrified audiences in the 1933 movie, his American film debut, in which he played a scientist driven to madness when his drug-induced invisibility transforms him into a greedy monster?

That Claude Rains?

"Suddenly I realized the power I held, the power to rule, to make the world grovel at my feet!"

I found the Invisible Man, but not wrapped in bandages and wearing dark glasses and a robe - as he wore in the movie when he wasn't committing murder.

I found him, instead, at his final resting place in Moultonboro, and at the six-bedroom mansion he owned in Sandwich until his death at age 77. In both towns, those who knew him or knew of him shared their thoughts.

Rains, born in London in 1889, and his sixth wife, Rosemary, settled in Moultonboro in the 1960s. The postal carrier said 1963. The Nolans said '62.

I met Bob Nolan as he walked toward the entrance of the Sandwich Post Office on a frigid day recently. I asked about Rains, and he pointed his cane to a woman sitting in the passenger seat of their car. She had white hair and glasses, and her eyes grew wide once she knew what I wanted.

"Oh, you mean Rainie?" Nolan's wife, Timmy, said.

Bingo.

"My mother had become close friends with Rosemary," she continued, "and when we were here we would see her, but her daughter, Angel, and I became close friends, and so I would be in and out of the house frequently."

Timmy is a retired speech pathologist. Bob was a public relations executive. Timmy's grandparents bought a summer home in Sandwich in 1902, and Timmy grew up visiting there before the couple settled in town 27 years ago.

Timmy says Rainie got the idea to move to Sandwich from his urologist, who had a home there. "Rainie would come visit him," Timmy said. "When he moved here, the people here were very excited."

She was asked about Rainie's personality. "He was a marvelous actor. He could be charming. The voice was marvelous. . . . And he thought the world revolved around Claude Rains. People kowtowed to him."

And why not? The man rubbed elbows with Bogey. Did Timmy see anyone like that around? Maybe at a house party?

"If Bogey had been here," she said, "I would have been standing out there myself."

"Out there" is the home at 324 Wentworth Hill Road, an L-shaped house with six bedrooms, a bright red door, tall columns and fresh white paint.

Attorney Boone Porter and his wife, Maggie, moved there in 2001, nearly 50 years after Porter attended St. Paul's School while Rains was starting his retirement years in the state.

"When we moved here, we became acquainted with some people who knew him and his family," said Porter, sitting in his warm, makeshift office, next door to the main house. "You'd hear various anecdotes."

Like?

"I'm told he was protective of his privacy, as you might imagine," Porter said. "But he wore a rather dramatic cape, and you were never supposed to say, 'Hey, you're Claude Rains,' but he had rather dramatic attire, so you couldn't help but notice him."

Porter said people, locals and tourists alike, stop by his home while he does yard work.

"They say they knew him or tell you a story about him, or they were a great fan of his and they were in the area and just wanted to see his house," Porter said.

"When you're out mowing the lawn or raking leaves, it provides a nice interlude if you want to take a rest and chew the fat."

Rosemary, nearly 30 years younger than her husband, died in 1964 from cancer. Rains followed three years later.

They're buried side by side on Bean Road, in a small cemetery with a narrow dirt path running down the middle and houses on either side of the plot.

Catherine and Mario Teran moved from California three years ago into the house that's closest to the gravesite, 50 yards away, to be near their 3-year-old grandson in Sandwich. Catherine, a retired law school administrator, discovered who she was living near in a Wolfeboro coffee shop.

"Yep, that's our neighbor," Catherine said. "There was a book about interesting things in New Hampshire. It shows pictures of the tombstones and a little short story. It said if you listen carefully, you can hear moaning."

This was a good day for that, cold, with strong winds, even a few flurries. The couple's headstones are bullet-shaped, shiny and black. There is no mention of Rains's career, just a poem about a "soul, once living, lives forever."

And Rains, like other Hollywood stars, lives on. I happened to see him on TV recently, when he was in a bad mood.

"An invisible man can rule the world. No one will see him come, no one will see him go. He can hear every secret. He can rob . . . and kill."

And then disappear, to a quiet New Hampshire town.

(Ray Duckler can be reached at 369-3304 or rduckler@cmonitor.com.)