Noël Coward: Biographical Sketch
by John Kenrick
His birthplace still stands, an attached brick house in Teddington, a quiet suburban village near London, England. One look at it would convince you that great things can start in the most unassuming places.
Noël Pierce Coward was born on December 19, 1899, and received his first name because Christmas was just days away . He was the son of Arthur and Violet Veitch Coward. Arthur was an unsuccessful piano salesman with little personal drive, so family finances were often shaky. Violet had seen her first son die as an infant, so she was fiercely devoted to Noël and did her best to gloss over their genteel poverty. Noël's younger brother Eric suffered from chronic poor health that kept him in the background for most of his short life. From day one, Noël was the family's star attraction. A basically healthy child, Noël survived several accidents in which fate seemed to intercede on his behalf. Once while playing on a beach, a broken bottle severed an artery in his foot. The only person in sight had just completed first aid training, and was able to save the boy's life. Such strokes of luck later earned Noël the nickname "Destiny's Tot."
From an early age, Noël was intelligent, temperamental, and an instinctive performer, making his first stage appearances in community concerts at age seven. He loved to sing and dance and threw frightful tantrums if he was not summoned to perform for guests. His formal education consisted of a few years at the Chapel Royal Choir School (which he despised) and some dance lessons (which he vastly preferred). In time, his voracious reading habits and keen sense of observation more than made up for his lack of schooling.
Coward excelled in amateur talent shows. With his mother's encouragement, he launched his professional acting career at the age of 12, making his London debut as Prince Mussel in a children's show called The Goldfish. He appeared in several West End productions with the popular comic actor-manager Charles Hawtrey, and played the "lost boy" Slightly in Charles Frohman's annual production of Peter Pan. The precocious Coward later admitted to having his first sexual experience at age 13 with fellow child actor Philip Tonge. However, his closest adolescent friendship was with aspiring actress and author Esme Wynne, who shared such intense conversations with him that they sometimes bathed together so as not to interrupt a line of thought. Coward and Wynne also exchanged clothes on occasion, strolling through London in reversed gender. In time, their friendship faded, but their pranks and witty banter would inspire material in many of Coward's future plays.
In the early 1900s, England was a terribly class-conscious society. As a boy actor born to relatively poor parents, Noël would have normally have been snubbed by the upper classes. However, his professional and social ambitions were insatiable, and Coward's extraordinary determination and charm won him an entree into the chicest circles.
Noël's social ascendancy began thanks to his youthful friendship with artist Philip Streatfield. We know they were close and that Streatfield had a taste for young boys – the rest is anyone's guess. Before wartime illness drove Streatfield to an early death, he asked wealthy socialite Mrs Astley Cooper to take Coward under her wing. She made the boy a frequent guest at her country estate, ignoring any complaints about the presence of such a lower class child. Butlers and maids, formal meals, riding and hunting – Coward thrived in this sophisticated environment, his first taste of the elegant world he would one day immortalize in his finest comedies. During his weekends at the Cooper estate, Coward encountered the writings of Saki, the pen name of Hector Hugh Munro. These witty short stories frequently centred on the wealthy, cynical young men whose world would be pulverized by World War I. Coward would essentially pick up where Saki (who would die in the war) left off.
Coward was too young to be drafted when the war broke out in 1914, so he appeared in several plays, building his professional reputation. His first screen role was in D W Griffith's Hearts of the World (1917), where he spent several scenes following silent star Lillian Gish around with a wheelbarrow. Just as Noël's acting career was showing real promise, he was drafted (or "called-up") for military duty in 1918. He used his connections to get an assignment to light duty in the Artists Rifles corps, but was thoroughly miserable. A minor head injury, incurred during a drill, set him into a complete nervous collapse. After nine months of service spent mostly in hospital, a sympathetic doctor helped Coward obtain an honourable medical discharge. Although relieved to be a civilian again, Noël found that the demand for his acting talents had evaporated. He continued to audition, but put an increasing amount of energy into playwriting and composing. He also sold short stories to several magazines to help make ends meet.
Coward had extraordinary self-confidence, writing with amazing speed and never letting rejection seriously discourage him. Mrs. Coward turned the family's London home into a boarding house, working tirelessly so Noël could pursue his theatrical dreams. Noël's father, no longer employed, seemed content to let his wife make the decisions.
Coward's remarkable self-possession saw him through many a sticky situation, even at this early stage. When he arrived at a party in full evening attire, only to find the other guests in casual clothes, he paused barely a moment before saying, "Now, I don't want anybody to be embarrassed." It was during these years of struggle that Coward first met Lorn McNaughtan, a woman who's sense of organization and salty language made her the perfect choice to be Noël's private secretary – a role she would fill until her death more than forty years later.
I Leave It To You (1920) was Coward’s first full length play produced in the West End, with Noël in a leading role – quite an accomplishment for a lad of 21. The brief run brought encouraging reviews, whetting Coward's appetite for more. However, most London producers were unwilling to gamble on a playwright Coward's age. So he looked across the Atlantic for possible salvation. In the summer of 1921, he scraped together enough money for steamship passage to New York, convinced America would embrace his work. No such luck! He spent a steamy summer roaming Manhattan, scraping by with the income from a few short stories, and occasionally wondering why he had ever left England. Coward made a slew of valuable new friends, including the then-unknown actors Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne. They optimistically made a pact to appear with Noël in one of his plays after they had all earned full stardom – an agreement that would benefit all three of them in years to come.
Coward learned about the American theatre's fast paced performing style, a refreshing change from the stodgy approach of most British productions. He also spent many evenings in the Manhattan home of playwright Hartley Manners and his wife, the eccentric actress Laurette Taylor. Their over-the-top theatrical lifestyle eventually inspired one of Coward's greatest hits, Hay Fever.
A sympathetic friend arranged for Coward to return to England, where his luck took a clear turn for the better. The London production of his play The Young Idea (1923) was a mild success, with Coward playing one of the lead roles. That same year, producer Andre Charlot featured several of Noël's songs in the hit revue London Calling. While all this was happening, Noël put the finishing touches on a daring drama that would change his career – and his life – forever.
Coward shrewdly decided his next project should involve a controversial topic, one guaranteed to attract publicity. He wrote, directed and starred in The Vortex (1924), a searing look at sexual vanity and drug abuse among the upper classes. A middle-aged socialite with a foolish penchant for extramarital affairs with younger men is violently confronted by her cocaine-snorting son Nicky (played by Coward). When most producers refused to consider such a lurid project, the small Everyman Theatre in suburban London agreed to take it on. But resources were limited, and it was up to Noël to raise the money and produce the show himself. When the female star dropped out just days before the premiere, veteran actress Lillian Braithwaite stepped in and learned the part with amazing speed.
On the opening night of The Vortex, the audience was both shocked and fascinated, and Coward got so carried away during a confrontation scene that he gashed his hand on stage. Without breaking character, he wrapped the wound in a prop handkerchief and played on. At the end, Coward and Braithwaite received a wild ovation. The combination of fiery acting and scandalous subject matter made The Vortex the talk of London. Other plays had examined drug abuse, but not among the rich and powerful. The production soon moved to a larger theatre for an extended run, making the long-suffering Coward an "overnight" sensation.
Coward knew the value of publicity. Although he still enjoyed a respectable lifestyle, he was more than willing to be portrayed as a dissolute playboy by the popular press. One photo taken of him propped up in bed one morning made him look half-drugged. The ensuing uproar delighted Noël . He wasn't about to complain about anything that helped make his name a household word all over England. Within a year, Coward had several plays running in London and songs featured in Andre Charlot's revues on both sides of the Atlantic. He was acclaimed as one of "the bright young things," a generation of young writers and artists who brought a world-weary perspective to the post war arts. He maintained an elegant art deco studio apartment on Gerald Road in London. Coward's stylish wardrobe made him a trendsetter in men’s fashion, a distinction he retained for the rest of his life.
During the London run of The Vortex, Coward met Jack Wilson, a handsome American stockbroker who became his lover and business manager for the next decade. Blinded by love, he overlooked Wilson's heavy drinking and blatant stealing – and he demanded that everyone else in his circle overlook these things too. To make his commitment clear, Coward purchased Goldenhurst Farm in Kent, renovated the buildings and moved his parents and Wilson there in 1926.
With the success of The Vortex, Coward was suddenly in demand. Over the two years he spent starring in the London and New York production, as well as an extended American tour, Coward took on a stream of demanding projects. Coward wrote the hilarious comedy Hay Fever (1925), which triumphed in London but failed in New York, and the hit West End revue, On With The Dance (1925). He also turned out Fallen Angels (1925), Easy Virtue (1925), The Queen Was in the Parlour (1926) and The Rat Trap (1926). Most of these plays were at least partially successful, but he was working at an unbearable pace. Three weeks into the run of The Constant Nymph in 1926, Coward collapsed on stage. At the insistence of his doctors, he forced himself to leave on an extended vacation. Noël's nerves were so frazzled that he was delirious with fever by the time he reached Hawaii. Friends got his proper care, then sequestered him in a private beach house, where he spent several weeks lying in the sun and reassessing his life. During this much needed rest, he dashing off just one song – the wistful "A Room With a View."
Coward's comedy The Marquis (1927) opened in his absence, and was a mild success. On his return to England, he wisely avoided performing for more than a year and focused on his writing. However, two of his weakest plays were produced in London during the autumn of 1927, with disastrous results. The Mayfair comedy Home Chat closed in a matter of weeks, but Sirocco had one of the most infamous opening nights in theatrical history. The audience responded to this sordid tale of free love among the wealthy with jeers and catcalls, breaking out into fistfights after the final curtain. Refusing to give in to fear, Coward faced the mob at the stage door, where they spat at him. He reacted with extraordinary calm, and the next day insisted on dining at The Ivy (a restaurant frequented by the theatrical community) as if nothing remarkable had happened. But he learned that the same popular press that fanned the fire of his popularity could turn on him without warning, and viciously too. He developed a warier attitude towards the press, and kept them at a healthier distance for the remainder of his life.
Coward's The Marquise was produced in London and New York in 1927. He wrote and directed the London revue This Year of Grace (1928), and co-starred with Bea Lillie in the New York production several months later.
In a nostalgic mood, Coward wrote and directed the romantic operetta Bittersweet (1929). The plot involved an ill-fated love affair in Vienna, and the lush score included the sentimental waltz "I'll See You Again." London audiences were enchanted, and the West End production enjoyed a long run. However, Florenz Ziegfeld’s New York production had the bad luck to open just weeks after the Wall Street crash of 1929, and rave reviews were not enough to keep the show open beyond a few months. Although Coward was not affected directly by the Great Depression, the world underwent a series of violent changes. Coward's challenge was to continually find new ways to keep the world amused.
Coward prospered through the worst of the Great Depression, enjoying a lifestyle most people could only dream about. He loved to travel, and frequently went on extended journeys to escape the pressures of show business. During one 1929 stay in Singapore, he awoke with a mental image of long-time friend Gertrude Lawrence in a white gown. He began writing immediately, and within a matter of days wrote Private Lives (1930). This biting comedy involved Elyot and Amanda Chase, a quarrelsome divorced couple who reunite while honeymooning with new spouses, running off to resume their tempestuous relationship. He co-starred in it with Lawrence and young Laurence Olivier, playing to packed houses in both London and New York. To avoid exhausting himself, Noël limited himself to no more than three months of performances in London, and the same in New York. No matter how much producers begged for longer commitments, he stuck to this policy for the rest of his career and never regretted it.
Always looking to do something unexpected, Coward next wrote and directed Cavalcade (1931), a spectacular stage drama that followed the lives of two London families (one rich, one poor) from 1899 to 1930. Through it all passed the “cavalcade” of recent British history – two wars, Queen Victoria's funeral, the seaside joys of Brighton, a Gaiety Theatre musical and even the sinking of the Titanic – each seen in the context of the character's lives. Acclaimed on the London stage, the film version won the Academy Award for Best Picture in 1933. (Forty years later, the TV series Upstairs, Downstairs paid affectionate homage to Cavalcade by using some of the same character names.)
Now at the peak of his popularity, Coward could seemingly do no wrong. He wrote and directed the London revue Words and Music (1932), which included "Mad Dogs and Englishmen" and the tortured ballad "Mad About the Boy." He then wrote and directed one of his most daring plays, Design For Living (1933), co-starring with friends Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne. It involved a bisexual romance between two men and a woman – an unspeakable subject in those days. The topic and the stellar cast guaranteed sold-out houses for every night of the limited Broadway run. That same year, he wrote, directed and co-starred with French soprano Yvonne Printemps in the London and New York productions of Conversation Piece (1933), another romantic costume operetta. He wrote, directed and starred in the London and New York productions of Tonight at 8:30 (1936), a demanding set of nine one-act plays and musicals performed in repertory. One of the most memorable, featured Coward and co-star Gertrude Lawrence as The Red Peppers, a mediocre husband and wife music hall team who bicker backstage and pull themselves together for their onstage act.
By the late 1930s, Jack Wilson's increasingly heavy drinking and questionable business practices permanently soured his romance with Noël . After their breakup, Wilson married, partially to spite Coward. Despite this, Noël maintained a friendship with his former lover, and frequently provided a sympathetic ear to Wilson's long-suffering wife Natasha. Jack's poor management of Coward's American business affairs eventually forced Noël to replace him with new agents. Wilson became a successful director, staging such hits as Kiss Me Kate before drink ruined him. But there is little question that Wilson used Coward shamelessly. Much as Coward regretted the end of this long-term romance, the outbreak of war in Europe soon forced him to focus his attention on more pressing matters.
When Britain declared war on Germany and Italy in 1939, Coward was determined to make up for his embarrassing efforts in the previous war. After serving for a brief time as a secret agent in Paris, he entertained troops in Europe, Africa and the Far East, frequently covering the expenses himself. In 1942, he turned out a trio of hit plays, including the semi-autobiographical comedy Present Laughter (1942) and the cockney drama This Happy Breed (1942).
His biggest wartime hit was Blithe Spirit (1942), a comedy about a novelist who's research into the occult brings back the ghost of his first wife – plaguing the novelist, his outraged second wife, and a daffy spiritualist. The play proved one of Coward's most popular successes, with character actress Margaret Rutherford winning stardom as the eccentric Madame Acarti. She repeated her role in a superb film version three years later.
Coward wrote, produced, directed and starred in the film In Which We Serve (1942), a naval drama which vividly depicted the heroism of a British destroyer crew facing the horrors of torpedo warfare. The then-unknown David Lean acted as co-director. Coward played the captain, a character based on close friend Lord Louis Mountbatten. Some critics complained that it was hard to accept the effete Noël Coward as a naval commander, but the film won deserved acclaim in Britain and the US. While Coward was entertaining troops overseas, he authorized Lean to adapt and direct film adaptations of This Happy Breed (1944) and Blithe Spirit (1945). Lean followed these by adapting one of Coward's one-act plays into the moving film Brief Encounter (1945), a dark wartime romance that is still justly considered one of the finest film dramas of the 1940s.
When London celebrated Germany's surrender in 1945, Coward took part in the merriment but couldn't help feeling a degree of unease. As he explained it in the second instalment of his autobiography –
There was, as in all celebrations of victory, an inevitable undertow of sadness. Parades generate only a superficial gaiety, because we all know that they cannot last, and although this was the end of the war, it was far from the end of the world's troubles. Japan was still unconquered and even when she was vanquished there was still the future to be fought. - Noël Coward, Future Indefinite (New York: Doubleday & Co, 1954), p. 332
If Coward could have foreseen just how much of a battle the post-war years would be for him professionally and personally, he might very well have headed back to that Hawaiian beach house for another extended stay. As it is, he braved through everything until his long-overdue recognition as a living treasure.
The years following the war were difficult for Coward. The army had requisitioned his beloved Goldenhurst during the war and left it a shambles. Post-war rationing made repairs impossible. So he purchased and renovated a cottage at the base of the White Cliffs of Dover. There he continued to turn out plays and musicals. Other than the London revue Sigh No More (1945), most of these works met with failure. Coward was understandably confused. He knew instinctively that his writing was better than ever. But tastes had changed, and the same critics who had previously praised Coward now dismissed his work as frivolous and out of date. In an age that was newly obsessed with realism, Coward's wit was dismissed as out of date. Some even suggested he should change his style. But how could critics expect him to be anything but Noël Coward?
When British post-war taxes became crippling, Coward made the difficult but necessary choice to become an expatriate. He relocated briefly to Bermuda before settling in Jamaica. The first of many British tax exiles, Coward was viciously attacked in the press as a traitor, and spiteful politicians saw to it that his well-deserved knighthood was delayed for decades. He had served his country selflessly during the war, only to see that country tax him mercilessly and calumniate his name afterwards. A strange way for Britain to treat the quintessential Englishman of the 20th Century!
It was during these difficult years that Coward fell in love with South African actor Graham Payne. As a young boy, Payne had appeared in one of Coward's revues. When they met again in 1945, Payne was a handsome young man. Mutual attraction apparently did the rest. Coward hoped to make Payne a star and featured him in several important London productions. Although Payne had an abundance of loyalty and genuine affection for Coward, he lacked Noël 's drive and star quality and would never reach the heights Noël had foreseen for him. As to their private life, Payne admits that they both had "brief encounters" with others, but they remained devoted companions.
In the mid-1950s, Coward found a new audience in America. A 1955 nightclub engagement in Las Vegas proved a surprise sensation, drawing stellar audiences and resulting in a hit live recording. This led to a series of network television appearances on CBS, including a memorable two-person special with Mary Martin called Together With Music (1955) -- Coward wrote and directed the show, setting a new standard for small screen entertainment. He next starred with Claudette Colbert, Lauren Bacall and Mildred Natwick in a televised adaptation of Blithe Spirit (1956). With the profits from these ventures, Coward expanded his home in Jamaica and purchased a chalet in tax-friendly Switzerland. Coward's chalet in Les Avant became his primary home, but he still spent part of every year at Firefly Hill in Jamaica. He also made annual visits to Britain and the USA, supervising new productions and catching the latest shows and films.
Coward channelled his long-time contempt for artistic pretension into Nude With Violin (1956), a comedy that starred John Gielgud in London and Coward himself in New York one year later. Look After Lulu (1958) and Waiting in the Wings (1959) continued a string of deftly written comedies that delighted audiences but met with maddening critical disdain. Undaunted, Coward carried on. Commuting across and between the continents, he was one of the brightest jewels in the new international "jet set.” While Coward kept his homosexual private life a scrupulously private matter, he couldn't resist dropping the occasional hint. During a 1956 television interview, journalist Edward R Murrow asked if Coward did anything to relax, to which Noël responded, "Certainly, but I have no intention of discussing it before several million people."
Coward caused a furore in 1961 with a series of articles in The London Times criticizing the new "kitchen sink" school of playwrights, and questioning the virtues of method acting. Although he had built his success on innovation and titillation, he calmly insisted that something more was needed to make a lasting contribution to modern drama. Coward wrote that the first purpose of every play was to entertain, urging new dramatists to –
Consider the public . . . coax it, charm it, interest it, shock it now and then if you must, make it laugh, make it cry, make it think, but above all dear pioneers, in spite of indiscriminate and largely ignorant critical acclaim, in spite of awards and prizes and other dubious accolades, never, never, never bore the living hell out of it.
While some younger playwrights protested that this "old man" had no business passing judgment on their work, the public reaction was overwhelmingly supportive of Coward's position. He dismissed the attacks, and no doubt enjoyed rattling a few bloated egos.
Coward's final musicals had much to offer, but did not catch on with the public. Sail Away (1960) gave Elaine Stritch one of the finest stage vehicles of her career, but critics dismissed this amusing musical comedy about romance aboard a cruise ship as a relic of another time. The Girl Who Came to Supper (1963) was a witty adaptation of the Terrence Rattigan's The Sleeping Prince, but stellar performances by Jose Ferrer, Florence Henderson and Tessie O'Shea were not enough to prevent critics from harping on the show's vague similarity to My Fair Lady.
Coward had better results with several non-theatrical ventures. His delightful comic novel Pomp and Circumstance offered a giddy look at life in a tropical British colony. He also found new popularity on the big screen, making scene-stealing appearances in Our Man In Havana, Around the World in Eighty Days and other films. When a team of Americans adapted Coward's Blithe Spirit into the musical High Spirits (1964), he was so pleased with the results that he directed it – with an unaccredited assist from Gower Champion. Thanks in large part to hilarious performances by Tammy Grimes and old friend Beatrice Lillie, (who dominated the show as a singing Madame Acarti), High Spirits was a success. It marked Coward's last direct involvement in a Broadway production. A London version produced the following year did not fare nearly as well.
A 1963 revival of Private Lives took London by storm, sparking renewed interest in Coward's plays on both sides of the Atlantic. Revivals and TV productions followed, and Coward was so encouraged that he wrote and starred in the London production of three new one-acts called Suite In Three Keys (1966). This included Song at Twilight, the story of an aging author who fears his homosexuality will be exposed. This was daring stuff in the mid-1960s, and it was well received. But Noël suffered memory lapses for the first time in his acting career. Sympathetic co-stars helped him through, but he was horrified. When doctors explained that years of self-indulgent eating, drinking and chain-smoking had begun to take their toll, Coward retired from the stage. But he remained active. When Richard Rodgers created a musical adaptation of Shaw's Androcles and the Lion (1967) for American television, he cast long-time friend Coward as Caesar. Coward also took on several small film roles, appearing as the Witch of Capri in Boom (1967) and playing a criminal mastermind in The Italian Job (1968).
With his health in a steady decline, Coward cut back on all public appearances. But he fully enjoyed the ongoing re-discovery of his works, a trend his friends affectionately described as "Dad's Renaissance.” His 70th Birthday in 1969 became a national celebration in Britain, and the following year he was finally granted his knighthood. Broadway followed this with a special Tony for Lifetime Achievement in 1971. New revues of his songs and sketches enjoyed successful runs in London (Cowardly Custard) and New York (Oh Coward!), and he had the satisfaction of seeing critics and the public once more acclaim him as a superlative writer, composer and actor. Coward wasn't surprised, really – he still possessed the supreme confidence that had seen him through his early challenges, and always knew the world would eventually come to its senses and give him the recognition he deserved.
Even as the Gay Liberation movement grew in the wake of New York's 1969 Stonewall riot, Coward resolutely refused to end his lifelong public silence regarding his sexual preferences. Part of it was no doubt rooted in his Edwardian upbringing – there were things one simply did not discuss. When pressed by friends to "come out," Coward refused, saying, "There are still a few old ladies in Worthing who don't know."
In January of 1973, Noël travelled to New York for a gala performance of the off-Broadway revue Oh Coward! He arrived with long-time friend Marlene Dietrich on his arm. Bent with age and illness, he remained the personification of elegance. Friends sensed that he was declining, but no one realized it was his last public appearance. In the early morning hours of Monday, March 26, 1973, Noël Coward suffered a stroke at his home in Jamaica. A servant found him on his bathroom floor, and was able to carry him to his bed. Insisting that there was no need to wake his friends, Noël slipped away just before dawn.
His simple gravesite lies on Firefly Hill. After years of unpardonable delay, Westminster Abbey installed a memorial to him in its hallowed Poet's Corner. Graham Payne has lovingly and faithfully supervised Coward's estate, preserving their home in Switzerland much as Coward left it. Along with Coward's plays, songs and other works, a never-ending stream of biographies, articles and documentaries keep alive his image as the personification of wit and elegance – not a bad legacy for a boy from Teddington.