MOVIE LEGEND Cary Grant was married five times and starred with the most beautiful women of his era(s) - Irene Dunne, Katharine Hepburn, Audrey Hepburn, Grace Kelly - but he had only one leading lady: his daughter Jennifer.
Born when Grant was 62 - to brief wife No. 4, Dyan Cannon - Jennifer was the apple of her father's eye until he died suddenly 20 years later. He retired from the movie business to be her dad. He raised her in relative seclusion away from prodding photographers, and aware of his advanced age and mortality, documented much of their life together on note cards, in still photos, on audiotapes and home movies. From the time he divorced Cannon in 1968 (they shared custody and love for Jennifer after an acrimonious breakup) to the time he started seriously dating Barbara Harris in the late 1970s, when Jennifer was already a teenager, there weren't even many girlfriends.
As he did with most things, Grant took fatherhood seriously - but not solemnly. He was a strict parent, cautious with a buck but with an unending sense of curiosity and fun. The real Grant was very much like the actor of his 1930s screwball comedies - athletic, graceful, charming, witty and in love.
With his daughter.
Now 25 years after Grant's death, Jennifer, 45, has finally given in to the advice of friends and decided to share the father she knew with the world. The result is Good Stuff: A Reminiscence of My Father, Cary Grant (Knopf, $24.95), a detailed, doting book about growing up under the wing of one of the 20th century's most famous men.
"The process," Jennifer said via phone last week, "was remarkably cathartic. I'd sit and listen to my father's voice - having not heard some of these tapes for 30 years and hearing his voice laying me down for a nap, our giggles and cooking dinner - and I remembered all those wonderful days. Normal days."
Best known as an actress for her role as Celeste Lundy in "Beverly Hills, 90210," Jennifer said she also wrote the book to re-shine a positive light on her father and stardom.
"There's a sad aspect to a lot of celebrity, and I actually had a dad who was amazing," she said.
"We all decide who we choose to become," Jennifer said about the image-crafting of celebrities, "and he chose to become someone really wonderful."
Good Stuff, however, is not merely a big, wet kiss to a loving father; it's also a thoughtful consideration of what it's like to have an older parent - even if Grant was an older parent who never got old, dying suddenly of a cerebral hemorrhage at a still vibrant 82.
"Dad was synonymous with his charm and wit and grace, and it was sort of the perfect way to go for him," Jennifer said wistfully.
"He used to speak about his mother, Elsie, and how she passed in her sleep, and he'd say, 'That's a good way to do it. I'd like to do it that way. Have a cup of tea, lay down for a nap and off I go.'
"I would have loved to stretch it out for 20 more years," Jennifer said, "but I'll take what I got."
And she got a lot. More than most children get from younger, working parents.
"Most men are far younger when they have their children," she said, "and they're building their careers. If they are older they probably don't have the luxury of retiring - and generally sixtysomething-year-old men don't choose to have a child and spend all their time with that child. So it was a very unique situation. If somehow we could count the hours, I probably had the quality and the quantity. If I could really tally up the number of days that we spent together, it was a lot of time."
But most of that time had stayed locked in Jennifer's head. She didn't want to write the book and over the years had turned down numerous offers of tributes to her father.
"Selfishly, I didn't want to share him," she said. "Everyone else already had so much of him. And I didn't want to let go.
"It took a couple of close friends of mine asking in the same week to really get me to take a look at it. And I still leveled them with a firm 'No.' It ticked me off a little that people so close to me were asking.
"Then I called my stepmother, Barbara, because she was the closest person, other than I, to my father. She loved the idea, and it really shocked me because she was part of the family - she was as private as we were. So when I got the answer that she really thought it would be a great idea for me to do it, I thought, I've got to do this now. I've got to embrace this.
"I didn't realize I had so many tears left in me," she added.
"But I've been really lucky. People love Dad so much, and in my opening up this side of his life there's a lot of love being reflected back at me that really is the love people have for my father - and it's really a good feeling."
Writing also opened Jennifer up to a new generation of happiness.
"I wasn't ready to have a child until I was fairly well into the writing process," she said, "and I think it was no coincidence. I think it took me letting go of some repressed grief about dad to actually have space to welcome the joy of a child. I had to get emotionally caught up, and that was really the only way."
In August 2008, Jennifer gave birth to Cary Benjamin Grant.
Asked about bestowing the name of Hollywood royalty on her son, single mother Jennifer said, "My son Cary's generation likely won't know who my father was, but it's something nice for him that his grandfather was an icon. . . . I had one chance to pass along that name."