The richest, wittiest writer in all the world – Noel Coward was a dismissive, spoilt genius whose witheringly brilliant one-liners (‘She married in haste and repented in Brixton’) have yet to be bettered
- Noel Coward was the greatest theatrical animal of the 20th century
- READ MORE: Noel Coward and his male lovers lark about in never-before-seen photos alongside Lord Mountbatten and Sir Michael Redgrave
BOOK OF THE WEEK
Masquerade: The Lives of Noel Coward
by Oliver Soden (W&N £30, 656pp)
Noel Coward may well have been the greatest theatrical animal of the 20th century, the author of classic plays (Private Lives; Blithe Spirit), films (Brief Encounter; In Which We Serve) and songs (I’ll See You Again; Mad Dogs And Englishmen).
But there is no doubt he was also the most accident-prone. A horse bit his neck and a dog bit his leg, ‘scarring Noel for life. Paddling in the sea, he stood on a broken bottle and severed an artery.
He was knocked down by a cyclist and concussed. At Coney Island funfair in New York City, Coward managed to cut his cheek when his braces flew off. He burned his mouth on tomato soup. Smoking a pipe, he set his hair on fire. It was a common occurrence to slip in the shower and ‘take a wedge out of his nose’.
Noel Coward (pictured) may well have been the greatest theatrical animal of the 20th century, the author of classic plays. But there is no doubt he was also the most accident-prone
Called up during World War I and transferred to the Artists Rifles Officer Training Corps, within a fortnight Coward had fallen over on parade, sustaining a scar under his right eye. He was hospitalised for six weeks with headaches and fever, and discharged in August 1918 with a pension of eight shillings.
Throughout this provocative biography, Oliver Soden wishes to assure us of Coward’s ‘surprising gravity and bleakness’. He was ‘an intriguing combination of florid candour and unknowable reserve’. It rather seems, however, a life of complete egoism to me. Apart from the physical mishaps, Coward’s alleged sufferings come over as narcissistic. From the first, Coward never did anything he didn’t want to do; and if he said, ‘Be flippant. Laugh at everything,’ then as a philosophy that sounds cruel, dismissive.
To Soden, nevertheless, Coward had to endure ‘the pain of being always on show’, keeping up appearances with the dressing gown, the cigarette holder and the repartee, as he swished from party to party in the West End.
From the 1920s onwards he was quoted in the papers; he also featured in cartoons and fashion columns. Coward was a favourite of royalty, especially the Queen Mother. All this, apparently, was a strain — at one point the playwright was injected with strychnine, ‘which was thought at the time to calm the nervous system’.
Coward had to endure ‘the pain of being always on show’, keeping up appearances with the dressing gown, the cigarette holder and the repartee, as he swished from party to party in the West End
Coward was born at Christmas (hence his name) in 1899. His father was a piano salesman and his mother, Violet, was deaf. ‘Noel would later attribute his distinctive consonants to the clarity with which it was necessary to communicate with her.’ Usefully, when she later attended Coward’s first nights, she misheard boos as hearty cheers. The family lived in the London suburb of Teddington, their big house let out to lodgers.
Coward was spoilt, earning no rebuke when he poured boiling water down the speaking-tube into people’s ears. ‘In his mother’s eyes, Noel could do no wrong,’ says Soden, ‘and the notion of wrongdoing made little sense.’ He picked locks on slot machines and stole cakes from shops, all with impunity. Indeed, his mother abetted him. She was the lookout when he stole fruit from neighbours’ gardens.
Perhaps leeway was granted by his parents because Coward, by 1913, was earning £400 a week in today’s figures as a child actor. A particular hit was as a Lost Boy in Peter Pan, caught in a strange halflife in Neverland — a realm Coward never really left. London County Council did not yet enforce rules over the treatment of child actors, so Coward worked 14-hour days at the theatre. When war broke out, he entertained recuperating soldiers with his singing. There was little by way of formal education — he played truant and purchased a false beard and wig, ‘so as to wander the capital unnoticed’.
Another thing Coward’s parents turned a blind eye to was the hospitality offered by, er, bachelors. ‘The era was unsuspicious of such relationships,’ says Soden, citing J.M. Barrie and his creepy hold over the Llewelyn Davies family. From the age of 14, Coward toured the continent, and even went to the U.S. at others’ expense, earning his keep by playing the piano.
Noel Coward and Lillian Braithwaite arrive in NYC in 1925 for the American tour of The Vortex, Cowards, first great success, a play about sex and drugs among the English upper classes
He spent his days jotting random lines in notebooks — the dialogue for future plays: ‘She lives in Croydon and wants to see more of life’; ‘He keeps a small mistress in a large flat in Ebury Street and a large wife in a small house in Bayswater’; ‘She married in haste and repented in Brixton’.
As can be seen, Coward polished his lines and came to be the worthy successor of Oscar Wilde. Yet Coward thought Wilde had been foolish and sentimental, ‘a silly, conceited, inadequate creature’ (it takes one to know one), martyring himself on the altar of homosexuality, insisting on the trial that led to imprisonment.
According to Soden, ‘the illegality of Coward’s sexuality during a lifetime of intense fame’ was another cause of anxiety — but surely no one was fooled for a single minute?
Coward was as camp as Charles Hawtrey and Kenneth Williams combined, and the secret of camp comedy is there must be seriousness behind its slippery surfaces. Analysing, among others, Hay Fever (1924 — ‘finished it in about three days’) and Private Lives (1930), Soden says we can hear the ‘utterly beastly, perfectly ripping’ sound and diction of the Jazz Age.
Coward was fascinated by marriages wobbling and fraying; spouses and lovers getting tangled in emotional knots; honeymoons, quarrels, affection and insult. Dialogue had to be delivered ‘witheringly’ or ‘acidly’.
By the late 1920s, Coward was the richest author in the world, making the equivalent in today’s money of £3million a year. He got into trouble with the tax man over his nonregistration of foreign investments and this was given as the reason a knighthood was delayed until 1970, three years before his death. In fact, his flamboyance was the more pressing reason — Churchill ‘never really liked or appreciated Coward,’ says Soden.
By the late 1920s, Coward was the richest author in the world, making the equivalent in today’s money of £3million a year
How mean, as Coward was a supreme patriot — even if Soden or his ‘sensitivity editors’ have spots of difficulty over his enthusiasm for the Empire. During World War II, Coward sailed with the Royal Navy, sent back secret reports to Whitehall, dropped propaganda leaflets over Berlin and encouraged Americans to support the British cause.
He wrote and starred in In Which We Serve (1942), a homage to Mountbatten. Brief Encounter (1945) remains a masterpiece about English restraint and stoicism, rationing and fog.
Who can forget Celia Johnson, a somewhat bored housewife and mother with a dull husband, and the dashing Trevor Howard, seething with bottled-up emotion in a railway station buffet?
Blithe Spirit (filmed by David Lean in 1945), a spectral farce with Margaret Rutherford — unforgettable as Madame Arcati — is nevertheless about loved ones who are actually dead.
After the war, Coward fell out of favour, replaced by John Osborne and Harold Pinter. He had a cabaret career in Las Vegas; turned down the role of Bond villain Dr No; but is marvellous as Mr Bridger in The Italian Job, running his criminal empire from behind bars and voicing the opinion, ‘Everybody in the world is bent’.
Coward travelled between his luxurious homes in Kent, the Caribbean and Switzerland. Was he lonely? He’d had partners, but they were either dropped or, as with Cole Lesley and Graham Payn, expected to go on the payroll as secretaries. What Coward wanted were ‘permanently appreciative spectators’; a round-the-clock audience.
The brittle repartee in his plays is a refuge from, and a defence against, the catastrophe of emotion. He thought love made people idiotic. ‘Passionate love has always been like a tight shoe rubbing blisters on my Achilles heel.’ It is enduringly sad if he really believed that.
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