The St. Petersburg Falcon: Tom Conway
George Sanders wrote in his autobiography, Memoirs of a Professional Cad, “I remember having an odd feeling on the day we left St. Petersburg that we would never return. As it turns out, we never did.”
Being from St. Petersburg myself, I have a special fondness for St. Petersburg-born actor Tom Conway and his younger brother George Sanders. I tried finding videos of them speaking Russian to no avail. I assume they did since Tom left at age thirteen and George at eleven. There isn’t a lot of readily available information on Tom Conway as there is on Sanders. In actor Brian Aherne’s biography, A Dreadful Man: A Personal Intimate Book about George Sanders, he copied a letter written by Tom and George’s sister, Margaret:
I have only just discovered that Tom, George and I were fed a lot of baloney by our parents as to our father’s real background. It appears that Sanders is an assumed name only and after our father was, in reality, the illegitimate son of a Prince von Oldenburg and a very beautiful Russian Countess whose name I have been so far unable to discover. The Prince was married to one of the Czar’s sisters and I have a medallion with two crowns, one blue and one scarlet, and entwined initials. It’s a long story and full of gaps-everybody is too old to remember details
I did find a biography titled A Long Way From St. Petersburg: The Tom Conway Story by C.E Parkinson. Her research on him took two years. I have not read the biography but on the back cover it states he was diagnosed with a terminal illness in 1953. He went to Capri to die but a doctor gave him a drug to prolong his life. He lived 14 more years but tragically died an alcoholic and bankrupt.
My first introduction to Tom Conway was in I Walked With A Zombie (1943). I thought to myself “This man looks and sounds like George Sanders.” Images from Rebecca (1940) and Village of the Damned (1960) kept flashing through my mind as I watched the movie. I knew he wasn’t Sanders because obviously he had his own face despite the great similarities. I had to find out more about him. It came as no surprise to learn he was Sanders’ brother. From then on until now, instead of Sanders images flashing through my mind at the sight of Tom Conway, images of The Carol Burnett Show with Tim Conway (born Thomas) flash through my head.
The story is when the Sanders brothers went to Hollywood. Tom lost a coin toss and changed his surname. Later, actor Tim Conway called himself “Tim” despite being born Thomas. If Tom Sanders had picked a different surname, there would be no Tim Conway. Conway’s career jump-started when George Sanders wanted to leave the RKO Falcon movie series after three films. The studio convinced Sanders to stay for one more film, The Falcon’s Brother (1942), co-starring his real-life brother. Sanders believed the series would continue with his brother but the studio planned to kill the series by killing Sanders’ character but the movie was a success. Conway continued in the series as the suave sleuth with a penchant for the ladies, firstly in The Falcon Strikes Back (1943) until his tenth and last Falcon film, The Falcon’s Adventure (1946). Three more Falcon movies would be made with John Calvert. I still haven’t seen any Falcon movie but have watched along with I Walked With a Zombie, Conway’s two other Val Lewton films, Cat People (1942) and The Seventh Victim (1943) — all wonderful movies in my opinion especially since I am enamored with the cutest gamine ever to hit the silver screen-Simone Simon.
Conway didn’t have the fame of his brother but had steady work and income in the 1940s and transitioned into television in the 1950s. If you haven’t seen the Falcon Series or his classic Val Lewton films then surely you would have heard his narrations in such classics as Waterloo Bridge (1940), Peter Pan (1953) and 101 Dalmatians (1961)
On Sept 1965, it was reported he was living $2/day in a Venice, California motel. He told a newsman he made almost a million in his film career. He admitted to a falling out with his brother a few years earlier—a shame since they seemed close or close enough. In Brian Ahere’s biography there are photos of the two brothers at a stag party for Douglas Fairbanks, Jr and a family photo with Sanders’ ex-wife Zsa Zsa Gabor. Besides The Falcon’s Brother, the two brothers also worked together on Death of a Scoundrel (1956) also with Zsa Zsa Gabor. Conway added he would not enter the Motion Picture Country Home for retired actors because it would mean a permanent retirement and his career would be completely over. Sadly he died in 1967 at age 62 leaving behind no children. That same year George Sanders’ wife and mother died. Sanders committed suicide 5 years later. It is a sad legacy of two brothers who began a fairy-tale life in aristocratic St. Petersburg and made their marks in glamorous Hollywood.