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Coward, Sir Noël Peircelocked

  • Philip Hoare

Sir Noël Peirce Coward (1899–1973)

by Dorothy Wilding, 1930

© Tom Hustler / National Portrait Gallery, London

Coward, Sir Noël Peirce (1899–1973), playwright and composer, was born at Helmsdale, 5 Waldegrave Road, Teddington, Middlesex, on 16 December 1899, the second in the family of three sons (the eldest of whom died at the age of six) of Arthur Sabin Coward (1856–1937), a clerk, and his wife, Violet Agnes (1863–1954), daughter of Henry Gordon Veitch, captain and surveyor in the Royal Navy.

Childhood and upbringing, 1899–1910

Coward's antecedence directly affected both his upbringing and his expectations. On his father's side his grandfather James Coward was an organist, chorister, and composer who performed at the Crystal Palace; on his mother's there was a genealogical connection to border gentry (her grandfather Henry Veitch was consul-general to Madeira, and Field Marshal Earl Haig was a distant cousin) and even a vague link to royalty (her sister married Henry Bulteel, nephew of Sir Henry Ponsonby, private secretary to Queen Victoria). It is clear that Violet Coward saw in her son's emerging talent an opportunity to regain the lost social status of her own family.

Both parents were musical, and Violet was interested in the theatre, taking her son—all the more precious because his elder brother, Russell, had died in 1898—to his first pantomime, Aladdin, in Kingston at Christmas 1903. Throughout his childhood Coward's family—increasingly penurious after Arthur Coward lost his job as a piano salesman during the First World War—moved through London's transpontine suburbs, circling ever closer to the city where Coward would make his name; from Teddington via Sutton, Battersea, and Clapham, eventually to Ebury Street where Violet Coward acquired a boarding-house on the fringes of Belgravia.

Throughout these moves Coward experienced a distinct lack of formal education, marking his first visit to school in Sutton by biting the teacher's arm, 'an action which I have never for an instant regretted' (Coward, Present Indicative, 7). The erratic nature of his schooling stemmed mostly from his, and his mother's, pursuit of a stage career, prompted by an early discernment of theatrical and musical talent. In 1908–9 Coward attended the Chapel Royal School in Clapham, but was not accepted by the choir itself, preferring the lessons at Janet Thomas's Dancing Academy in Hanover Square.

Early stage appearances and writing, 1911–1921

In 1911 Coward made his first professional appearance on stage, as Prince Mussel in The Goldfish, an Edwardian fairy transformation piece directed by Miss Lila Field. The experience led to an audition for The Great Name later that year, given to Charles Hawtrey, the great actor–manager whom Coward hero-worshipped. Coward's one-line performance led to Hawtrey's production of Where the Rainbow Ends, a children's classic to rival Peter Pan, staged at the Savoy over the winter of 1911–12. The play also introduced Coward to Esmé Wynne, who became his confidante and co-writer; together they wrote adolescent playlets, two of which—Woman and Whisky and Ida Collaborates—were produced as ‘curtain-raisers’ under their joint sobriquet, Esnomel, in 1917.

In the meantime Italia Conti engaged Coward to appear in Gerhardt Hauptmann's Hannele at the Liverpool Repertory Theatre in 1913—the occasion for his meeting another important feminine influence and later interpreter of his work, the actress Gertrude Lawrence. After a brief stint that summer as a boy pilot in War in the Air—which ended with him crashing his aeroplane—Coward achieved the ambition of all child actors, appearing as Slightly in Peter Pan for two years running.

Coward was a precocious adolescent who seemed sure of what he wanted in life. At the age of fourteen he had already entered into what was probably his first serious sexual relationship with another man, the bohemian artist Philip Streatfeild, a stylistic pupil of Henry Scott Tuke who took the boy on a painting holiday to Cornwall in the summer of 1914. During the war itself Coward became an unofficial mascot to Streatfeild's regiment, the Sherwood Foresters.

For Coward war did not, as yet, severely limit his ambitions. In 1916 he toured England in Charley's Aunt with Esmé Wynne, and managed to avoid conscription (there is reason to suppose that he did so purposefully at medical boards) until the spring of 1918, when he was finally called up. His reaction to the army was psychosomatic, it seems: he suffered a breakdown, manifested in severe and debilitating headaches, and spent time in the First London General Hospital at Camberwell in a ward full of shellshock victims.

Discharged on medical grounds, Coward returned gratefully to his theatre life and an accumulating series of appearances on the West End stage. The Saving Grace in 1917, 'the real start of my name being known' (Castle, 4), having been rudely interrupted, he appeared in no less than three productions during 1919: the musical Oh! Joy; the drama Scandal; and The Knight of the Burning Pestle 'by Messrs Beaumont and Fletcher, two of the dullest Elizabethan writers ever known' (Castle, 38).

Although Philip Streatfeild died in 1917 from tuberculosis (from which Coward had also suffered, in a minor form), his legacy to Coward was an introduction to high society in the portly shape of Mrs Astley Cooper, eccentric hostess of Hambleton Hall, Rutland. Here Coward not only read Saki for the first time—another literary influence—but he experienced country-house life in a manner which later informed his dramatic work, especially Hay Fever (written, 1924; performed, 1925), with its comedy of appalling manners and ignored house guests, inspired by the bohemian Hambleton household.

Through Mrs Astley Cooper's influence, Coward travelled to the Mediterranean, and met Gladys Calthrop, who later became his stage designer; but it was Coward's first trip to New York in 1921 that provided the crucial impetus to national, and international, success. Coward returned to inject the staid drawing-room dramas of the London West End with the speed of Broadway, in the process inventing his own style—a style already hinted at in the pre-New York I'll Leave it to You (1920), suggested by Hawtrey and produced by him in Manchester and London.

The twenties: The Young Idea to Bitter Sweet, 1922–1929

Coward's first real dramatic success, The Young Idea (tour, 1922; Savoy Theatre, 1923), showed the influence both of Broadway and of Shaw in a comic drama which, with its two teenage protagonists, epitomized the new youth culture of the 1920s. The Evening Standard reported of the first night:

When some bright remark in the classic way of English comedy was made, somebody behind me said ecstatically ‘Another Noelism’. After somebody else on stage had worn a jazz kind of scarf, a party of people in a box whose horn spectacles set off their youth, hung quantities of the same material over the ledge.

Evening Standard, 2 Feb 1923

By the time the sensational The Vortex appeared in 1924, Coward was already a star in the making, and London was ready to be shocked.

The Vortex did just that, with its tale of an older woman taking a younger lover, and her son taking cocaine (commentators have since seen the drug as a mask for homosexuality). Coward went along with the convenient myth of his overnight success in the play which quickly transferred from Hampstead to the West End (see his memoir Present Indicative); yet this was as much a construction as the idea that The Vortex was the first English production to deal with drug abuse (the story of Billie Carleton, the chorus girl who died apparently from a cocaine overdose in 1918 and whose fate inspired Coward's play, had sparked off at least three drug-themed productions in 1919).

Coward may have already invented himself, but it was the fact that The Vortex cited the post-war neuroses as exemplified by ‘decadent’ Mayfair society; that its creator played the role of Nicky Lancaster in a dressing-gown; and that its characters called each other 'darling' in a flippant manner which established the play and its author as a central text for 1920s popular culture. Quite self-consciously, Coward used the image of a languid decadent—he appeared on the front page of The Sketch 'in bed wearing a Chinese dressing gown and an expression of advanced degeneracy' (Hoare, 139)—to promote himself and his work simultaneously, all the while subverting such notions with an ironic wink. 'I am never out of opium dens, cocaine dens, and other evil places', he told the Evening Standard and a public which wanted to believe him. 'My mind is a mass of corruption' (Lahr, 2).

Words were Coward's ammunition, and they rattled off his tongue like bullets from a Gatling gun, enunciated in the inimitable tone which he made his own, and yet which was the product of an early attempt to overcome both his mother's deafness and his own susceptibility to lisp. His physical stance was equally forthright. Never dressed less than elegantly, his slim, tallish figure was cut perfectly to his age, and his name became synonymous with the aspirational sophistication of a new meritocracy. In his style summary of the decade, The Glass of Fashion, Cecil Beaton observed that:

All sorts of men suddenly wanted to look like Noel Coward—sleek and satiny, clipped and well groomed, with a cigarette, a telephone, or a cocktail at hand … Coward's influence spread even to the outposts of Rickmansworth and Poona. Hearty naval commanders to jolly colonels acquired the ‘camp’ manners of calling everything from Joan of Arc to Merlin ‘lots of fun’, and the adjective ‘terribly’ peppered every sentence.

p. 153

Coward's irresistible rise to the serious stage was mirrored in his musical theatre career. He had already ventured into revue with the highly successful London Calling! (written in 1923 and sponsored by the avowedly dilettante figure of Lord Lathom), with its memorable 'Hernia Whittlebot' satire on the Sitwells' Façade, produced by André Charlot in 1924; he followed it with This Year of Grace in 1928, and with the more serious-minded Words and Music in 1932. These all-singing, all-dancing spectaculars, dressed in high fashion by artists such as Gladys Calthrop, Oliver Messel, and Doris Zinkeisen, showcased such hit songs as the jazz-influenced patter of 'Dance Little Lady' and 'Poor little rich girl'; the sentimental sweetness of 'A Room with a View'; and the perennial party-piece of 'Mad Dogs and Englishmen' which became Coward's most instantly recognizable contribution to twentieth-century culture—after his image itself.

The revue form perfectly suited Coward's polymath talents, combining his dramatic and musical abilities in comedy, satire, and romance. With the Cochran-produced romantic musical Bitter Sweet (1929) he astutely subverted expectation by abandoning jazz age freneticism for the waltzes of his parents' generation. Some critics were sceptical: for W. J. Turner of the Evening Standard it 'finally smashed' his 'hopes of Mr Coward, for a more inane and witless composition never left the pen of a distinguished author' (Evening Standard, 19 July 1929). 'It would be too bad', wrote Coward, 'if I were encouraged to believe that there was anything remarkable in writing, composing and producing a complete operetta' (Coward, Present Indicative, 353). Yet James Agate defended the piece as a 'thundering good job' (Sunday Times, 21 July 1929) and—perhaps most importantly—the public embraced it, and its wistfully resonant hit, 'I'll See you Again'. 'People are tired of speedier and speedier shows', Coward told an American reporter when the show opened on Broadway and stopped the traffic on Sixth Avenue. 'After all, a chorus girl can only wave her arms and legs about so much' (Boston Transcript, 29 Oct 1929).

Coward's own talents were certainly ambidextrous. His theatrical profile was sustained throughout the 1920s by Hay Fever (1925), Fallen Angels (1925), and Easy Virtue (1926)—plays which, with their apparently flippant approach to questions of morality, broadened Coward's appeal while seeming dangerously near the edge of what was allowable on the public stage. That was the delicious frisson that his public came to love.

Coward also turned his attentions to the United States, with productions of The Vortex, Hay Fever, and Easy Virtue (1925–6) confirming his arrival on Broadway as 'a violent and glittering success' (Coward, Present Indicative, 264). America also consolidated his relationship with John (Jack) C. Wilson (1899–1961), a Yale-educated stockbroker-cum-producer whom he had met in London in May 1925, and who had now become his manager and lover. The relationship lasted for more than a decade, eventually soured, not by Wilson's marriage to Princess Natasha Paley in 1937, but by his developing alcoholism and mismanagement of Coward's funds.

By the late 1920s Coward had achieved international recognition. His own plays were the vehicles for this fame, as were his select appearances in those of other dramatists, such as Margaret Kennedy's The Constant Nymph (1926) and S. N. Berman's The Second Man (1928)—the spectacular failures of his own Home Chat and Sirocco (both 1927) were left to appearances by his more handsome rival, Ivor Novello. Intimately intertwined with his public profile was his burgeoning social ascendancy; successful connections with aristocracy and royalty seemed at times to cast him as a court entertainer. Yet his manifest dissatisfactions with the restrictions of British life lent him the transgressive air of a modern artist, although in his case it was more a sense of personal affront and creative frustration than of radical zeal.

Shortly after the run of The Vortex, Coward had spent a night in police custody having been found 'throwing flower-boxes about in the streets of the West End'; he had then declared to a friend that 'England's played out' and that he intended to make his future life in America (Hoare, 149). Part of his dissatisfaction came from the censorship of his plays by the lord chamberlain, a running battle which culminated in 1926 when This was a Man had its licence withheld. 'Every character in this play, presumably ladies and gentlemen, leads an adulterous life and glories in doing so', thundered Sir Douglas Dawson of the lord chamberlain's advisory board. 'I find no serious “purpose” in the play, unless it be misrepresentation. At a time like this what better propaganda could the Soviet instigate and finance?' (Hoare, 165–6). Coward had the ear of the middle classes: when he appeared to voice subversive dissent, the consequences were that much more feared.The play was never performed in Britain.

The thirties: Cavalcade to Present Laughter, 1930–1939

By the early thirties Coward's increasingly mature work and its critical and popular success had established him as probably the most important dramatist of his day. Such was his theatrical omnipotence—of those who took the credit for first calling him the Master (a nickname only half-ironic), his idiosyncratic secretary, Lorn Lorraine, had the earliest claim—that even Bloomsbury took notice. Virginia Woolf, flattered by his attentions, professed to have fallen 'in love' with the playwright and his work, and encouraged him to write more adventurously (Letters of Virginia Woolf, 471). The openly gay Semi monde (1926) and the anti-war polemic of Post-Mortem (1930; neither performed in Coward's lifetime), written after his brief appearance in a Singapore production of Journey's End, appeared to be Coward's attempt to write up to these expectations, only to confound them with the patriotism of Cavalcade (1931), an innovative Drury Lane spectacular of historical set-pieces which delighted his public and enraged his former friends and critics, who publicly accused Coward of having broken faith with the common man.

'A play which makes me rage', said Ethel Mannin; 'a tawdry piece of work', wrote Sean O'Casey; 'the finest essay in betrayal since Judas Iscariot', complained Beverley Nichols (Hoare, 235–6). Coward ascribed as much seriousness to such opinions as he did to the right-wing press which lauded his blockbuster as confirmation of the coming sway of Conservative government. His opening night curtain call referenced the unironic patriotism of his lead character's line: 'In spite of the troublous times we are living in, it is still pretty exciting to be English' (Lesley, 144). It was an emotional, almost atavistic statement of faith, yet in the light of his past and future pronouncements on the English condition, even that appears equivocal.

Coward, whose Far Eastern trip also produced the classic Private Lives (1930), had reached a forked road in his career, in which he chose the path of popular culture and personal celebrity. The play, enormously successful on both sides of the Atlantic, saw Coward and Gertrude Lawrence define the quintessential and quotable Cowardian roles of Elyot and Amanda, a divorced couple who find that they can live neither apart nor together, and who, combined, epitomize Coward's slyly subversive persona via wry references to his own emotional dilemmas. 'I'm glad I'm normal', declares Amanda's bluff, hearty husband Victor, '… aren't you?' 'I think very few people are completely normal really, deep down in their private lives', replies Amanda (act I). Contemporary critics realized that the play was probably his best work: it prompted Arnold Bennett to call him 'the Congreve of our day' (Hoare, 520), while A. G. Macdonnell dissected the play's exposition of the Coward style: 'Mr Coward's plot is the contrast between brilliant cosmopolitanism and stodgy Anglo-Saxondom, his stand is Infidelity and his device of stage-craft is the Bicker' (ibid., 213).

Private Lives established Coward as one of the world's highest-earning authors, with an annual income from 1929 of £50,000. Yet money and fame did not appear to quell his worrisome soul. He bored easily—professing ennui as the reason for his announcement during Private Lives that he would never appear in one production for more than three months—and suffered precarious health, with a second breakdown precipitated in 1926 by the pressures of public fame and his own private life.

Coward's reaction to such pressures was to travel, often to exotic destinations. Now he sought to escape his native land, where his dramas were censored and his private life proscribed. In 1932 Coward declared defiantly that he would not subject his latest work, Design for Living, to the lord chamberlain's blue pencil—knowing that its trio of amoral meritocrats and a hint of cosmopolitan bisexuality would not be licensed there anyhow. It was produced in New York in 1933; in London, not until 1939.

With the onset of the more serious thirties and the drift to war, Coward sought to reposition himself. A series of inconstant love affairs (with the playwright Keith Winter and actors Louis Hayward and Alan Webb) and a sense of over-achievement—of having done it all—made him restless once more. The cycle of playlets that comprised Tonight at 8.30 was an inspired and fruitful way of staving off boredom, while the introspection afforded by travel informed his entertaining and often revealing memoirs, Present Indicative, and the equally revealing autobiographical overtones of Present Laughter (1939), in which the successful playwright Garry Essendine complains: 'Everyone worships me, it's perfectly nauseating', to which his former wife replies 'There's hell to pay if they don't'— a not altogether inaccurate portrayal of Coward's own ego (act I). He also turned to fiction with a sequence of short stories (To Step Aside, 1939; Star Quality, 1951; and others) that reflected his own childhood, theatre, and travel experiences, and which reward re-reading as a neglected aspect of Coward's creative output; a later novel, Pomp and Circumstance (1960), drew on his Jamaican life in a Mitfordesque manner—Coward remarked that it was so light that his publishers would have difficulty capturing it between hard covers.

The Second World War, 1939–1945

With the outbreak of war Coward, perhaps in an attempt to exorcise the guilt of having evaded the First World War, lobbied Churchill and others for useful employment. After an unsuccessful stint in the Paris office of the bureau of propaganda, he undertook still undefined work for the British secret service (for whom he had probably performed information-gathering duties in 1939) in the United States, talking up American support for the war while gathering intelligence. However, back in London parliamentary questions were asked as to his fitness as a representative of Britain, and a planned trip to South America was scotched, Coward alleged, by forces working against him. They were the same forces, it was said, responsible for the 'sabotage' of his knighthood, which evidence suggests that Coward expected in 1943 (Lesley, 225). This, along with his prosecution for contravening currency regulations in 1941 (which he regarded as 'celebrity-baiting'), contributed to Coward's increasing sense of dissatisfaction with his homeland (Hoare, 330).

Paradoxically, the war both consolidated and threatened Coward's public and creative status. He produced, with David Lean, a series of defining wartime films: In which we Serve (1942), This Happy Breed (1943), Brief Encounter (originally 'Still Life' from the Tonight at 8.30 sequence; 1945), and the film of his highly successful 1941 play, Blithe Spirit, written initially to fill a financial gap, yet one of the most satisfying (and most frequently performed) of Coward's high comedies. The ‘Play Parade’ nationwide tour of 1942–3, comprising Blithe Spirit, This Happy Breed, and Present Laughter, was a morale-raising venture which further underlined Coward's importance in the collective consciousness, a sense epitomized by perhaps his finest contribution to the Dunkirk spirit, the affecting emotion of the song 'London Pride'. The war put Coward 'on the highest wave of his career so far', wrote Beaton, then photographing the ‘Play Parade’ tour, '… but his hand twitches nervously for more triumphs—and the applause of the matinée audience does not satisfy him—he is waiting already for the evening audience to arrive' (Hoare, 334).

Post-war career, 1945–1964

For a man who came to be seen as the very epitome of Englishness—who would announce, in his imperial post-war exile, 'I am England, and England is me'—it is telling that Coward spent much of the rest of his life abroad (Sunday Express, 23 May 1965). With the coming of the Labour government in 1945 and subsequent high rates of taxation, his became a self-imposed estrangement; a decision taken for political, professional, financial, and emotional reasons: after the death of his mother in 1954, Coward felt there was nothing left to keep him in the country. 'I think on the whole that I have not done badly by England and I also think that England has not done very well by me', he told the actress Joyce Carey, another of his female confidantes, in 1955 (Hoare, 418).

In the late 1940s Coward settled in Jamaica, at Ocho Rios, where he built two homes, the beachside Blue Harbour and Firefly, a hilltop retreat, and where he found contentment in writing and painting in the company of Graham Philip Payn (b. 1918), the young South African-born actor with whom he spent the rest of his life. But happiness in his private world seemed to demand the price of a fall in Coward's professional fortunes. He appeared to lose his sense of timing, with the disaster of Peace in our Time (1947) positing a Nazi-invaded Britain when the country was quickly trying to forget its recent past. It prompted the Evening Standard's Beverley Baxter to write of a 'crisis for Coward', and to ask if the playwright had survived the war (Morley, 259).

The seemingly unstoppable dynamic of Coward's pre-war career had begun to falter: musicals such as Pacific 1860 (1946) and Ace of Clubs (1950), which attempted to replicate the American successes of Oklahoma and Pal Joey, did not win approval. Sheridan Morley, who wrote the second biography of Coward, A Talent to Amuse (1969) (the first, Patrick Braybrooke's opportunistic The Amazing Mr Coward, had appeared in 1933), saw Coward's post-war career as 'one long conjuring trick' (private information).

Yet it was Coward's stalwart ability to rise above the cynics ('I can take any amount of criticism', he declared, 'so long as it is unqualified praise'; UK press report, undated) and invent himself anew. He resumed an intermittent film career—which had begun in 1917 with a bit part in D. W. Griffith's Hearts of the World and peaked pre-war with the Brooks-Brothers-clad Lothario of The Scoundrel in 1935—with elegant, witty, and sometimes self-parodying cameos in films such as Around the World in Eighty Days (1955), Our Man in Havana (1960), and The Italian Job (1968), for which he did receive praise.

He was similarly and rightly lauded for his cabaret runs at London's Café de Paris and The Desert inn, Las Vegas (reprised on the iconic LP Noel Coward Live in Las Vegas, which extended the impact and reach of his post-war revival). Such performances artfully drew upon the unfaded glamour of Coward's own past and his talent for entertaining—a talent honed in high society and now delighting what he dubbed 'Nescafé society'—and represented him for the modern age. Coward's television show with Mary Martin, Together with Music (1955), is the only extant evidence of the seemingly effortless charisma of his extraordinary stage presence.

But the effort, with age and infirmity, was becoming harder. Further attempts to revive his career in musicals with After the Ball (1953) and Sail Away (1959–61) were less well received, and plays such as Relative Values (1951) and Quadrille (1952) were seen as old-fashioned in a period when the Bright Young People had been replaced by Angry Young Men. When his drama in a theatrical old folks' home, Waiting in the Wings, opened to abusive notices in 1960—T. C. Worsley of the Financial Times called it 'nauseating'—Coward seemed bowed at last, deeply upset by the virulence of the criticism (J. Russell, ed., File on Coward, 1987, 80). Retreating to Jamaica, or his newly acquired tax advantage eyrie above Lake Geneva, Coward directed his animus at the modern stage and the modern world. The collapse of the empire and its colonies distressed him, not least because he had made his home in one (a sense of post-war decadence and moral decay is explored in the unpublished play 'Volcano', written in 1956). Coward thought the disintegration of the Old World no good thing, and found it difficult to come to terms with the new. In 1948 he wrote in his diary: 'Gandhi has been assassinated. In my humble opinion, a bloody good thing but far too late' (Diaries, 103). Yet prejudice offended him: in South Africa four years previously he had spoken out for 'Cape coloureds', an expression of his 'strong contempt for any sort of racial discrimination' (Hoare, 344). The post-war changes in theatre were equally distressing for an artist whose life was about control, and who feared the lack of it. (Coward disliked drunkenness for that reason, and admitted to having taken recreational drugs once only, smoking a joint in New York. Having become nauseous, he summoned a doctor—who put his patient to bed and promptly finished off the rest of the cigarette.)

Coward, who believed no actor should attend a rehearsal in anything less than a lounge suit, railed against kitchen-sink drama in three lectures in the Sunday Times in January 1961. His attacks were precisely targeted and wittily couched in the form of one long finger-wag from the Master, but their reactionary, if well-intended, hauteur was ill received in some quarters. 'The bridge of a sinking ship, one feels, is scarcely the ideal place to deliver a lecture on the technique of keeping afloat', wrote Kenneth Tynan in the rival Observer (Hoare, 467). Yet John Osborne defended the playwright as 'his own creation and contribution to this century', adding: 'anyone who cannot see that should keep well away from the theatre' (Morley, 268); Kenneth Tynan compared Harold Pinter's 'elliptical patter' to Coward's stylized dialogue (Lahr, 8); and in 1964 Laurence Olivier invited Coward to direct Hay Fever at the National Theatre, the first living dramatist to be produced there.

Revival and last works, 1965–1973

'Dad's renaissance', as Coward dubbed it, peaked with his creative swansong, the triptych of short plays, A Suite in Three Keys (1965). In the most substantial piece, A Song at Twilight, an elderly writer (vaguely based on Somerset Maugham) is confronted with his own hypocritical and wounding behaviour regarding his covert homosexuality. It was a theme close to home but, to Coward's credit, a charge that could never be made against him. While sexually circumspect (having learned early from the example of Oscar Wilde, whom he called a 'silly artificial old queen') and disdaining the social overtness of modern homosexuality, Coward was personally affronted by intolerance of any kind (Diaries, 508). The fact that he was writing A Song at Twilight as the bill to decriminalize homosexual behaviour was being passed by the House of Lords made it all the more pertinent, both to himself and to his now grown-up public.

In 1969 came Coward's 'Holy Week', a series of celebrations for his seventieth birthday culminating in a ‘Midnight Matinee’ theatrical tribute and the long-delayed offer of a knighthood, which he accepted. On 26 March 1973 Coward died of heart failure at Firefly in Jamaica; three days later he was buried on the brow of Firefly Hill, overlooking the north coast of the island. On 28 March 1984 a memorial stone was unveiled by the queen mother in Poets' Corner, Westminster Abbey.

Morley's effective biography (1969) was necessarily limited by the fact that its subject was still alive. When Morley made tentative forays into a discussion of Coward's sexuality, it was vetoed on the grounds that it might disturb elderly ladies in the home counties who still held a torch for him. 'I can't afford to offend their prejudice', he told Morley, 'nor do I really wish to disturb them this late in their lives; if I had a very young audience, I might think differently' (Hoare, 509). In 1976 Coward's life was recalled by Cole Lesley's affectionate The Life of Noel Coward (Remembered Laughter in the USA), although the New York Times noted: 'Mr Lesley's massive, authorised biography takes its name from Coward's last poem, and the title is one indication of the book's shortcomings'. 'Mr Lesley is entirely too reticent about Coward's love life, and … too unrevealing about his artistic process' (Hoare, 520). Of the critical works on Coward that followed, the one which best corrected the latter was John Lahr's Coward the Playwright (1982), while the Diaries (1982), edited by Graham Payn and Sheridan Morley and covering the years 1941–61, shed some light on the former, although at the same time revealing the depths of Coward's bitterness at the uncertain trajectory of his post-war career. The present author's own Noel Coward: a Biography, approved but not authorized by the Noël Coward estate, appeared in 1995; 'A wholly plausible portrait', wrote Michael Billington (Country Life, November 1995).

Coward's work received a new appraisal in the 1990s and early 2000, partly because of its aptness for exploitation in modern gay cultural themes, and partly via radical revivals by directors such as Philip Prowse (Cavalcade, 1999; Semi monde, 2001); it was as though his remarks about a young audience—and his own sexuality—had come back to haunt him like Elvira's ghost. The 1998 three-and-a-half-hour BBC television documentary, directed by Adam Low, and an album of cover versions by Sir Elton John, Sir Paul McCartney, Marianne Faithfull, the Pet Shop Boys, and others indicated his continuing relevance, and the reason for his survival when theatre was seen to be in decline: transcending his chosen medium, Coward had become an icon of style to a new generation, just as he had been in his own youth. This sense of currency was consolidated in 1999 at the centenary of Coward's birth, with numerous revivals in London and New York, the first academic convention (at the University of Birmingham, to coincide with the announcement that archival material in possession of the Noël Coward estate—loyally administered after Coward's death by his companion Graham Payn—would be lodged with the university), and the installation of commemorative statues in London, New York, and Jamaica.

But of all the images of Coward, the life mask by Paul Harmann in the National Portrait Gallery, made during the London run of Private Lives in 1930, gives the most accurate sense of the man's physical presence at the height of his powers. His features are set magisterially: hair scraped back off a high forehead, a blunt nose, the tapering eyes which gave him an increasingly oriental look, and an almost non-existent, resolutely stiff upper lip. Yet deep lines already course his young face, prompting St John Ervine to note in 1937 that 'neurosis and incipient TB have helped give him that curious old look he has' (The Observer, 3 July 1937).

Even as a child Coward had seemed old beyond his years. A cartoon published around the time of Cavalcade's enormous success depicted the infant Noël in his perambulator, making notes for his future epic. 'Whether by genetic luck or environmental good judgement, Noël Coward never suffered the imprisonment of maturity', wrote Kenneth Tynan (Hoare, 202). It is perhaps apposite to note that the deepest emotional attachment of Coward's life was to his mother. 'Forty years ago', wrote Tynan when Coward was fifty-three, 'Noël Coward was Slightly in Peter Pan, and you might say that he has been wholly in Peter Pan ever since' (Lahr, 161). Throughout a life lived in the glare of the spotlight, Coward never lost his enthusiasm for performance; his was more than just 'a talent to amuse' (If Love were All, from Bitter Sweet), although entertainment was the determining factor in almost all he did. As an actor, director, composer, dramatist, and author, he was more than the sum of his parts; he existed beyond the stage and the piano as an inimitable image of his own creation. Coward's many achievements were presented as a glittering, and sometimes wilfully unserious façade behind which the ‘real’ man could hide; but it was a façade backed by a steely commitment—to his public, to his art, and to himself.


  • MSS, priv. coll. [to be deposited at U. Birm.]
  • P. Hoare, Noël Coward: a biography (1995)
  • N. Coward, Present indicative (1937)
  • N. Coward, Future indefinite (1954)
  • N. Coward, Past conditional (1986)
  • C. Lesley, The life of Noel Coward (1976)
  • S. Morley, A talent to amuse (1969)
  • J. Lahr, Coward the playwright (1982)
  • The Noël Coward diaries, ed. G. Payn and S. Morley (1982)
  • R. Mander and J. Mitchenson, Theatrical companion to Coward (1957)
  • BL, lord chamberlain's MSS
  • V. Coward, memoir, unpubd MS, Noel Coward estate
  • V&A, London, theatre collections
  • Lincoln Center, New York, Billy Rose Theater Collection
  • C. Castle, Noel (1972)
  • E. Wynne Tyson, diaries and letters, priv. coll.
  • C. Beaton, diaries, unpubd MSS, Beaton estate
  • C. Beaton, The glass of fashion (1954)
  • The letters of Virginia Woolf, ed. N. Nicolson, 3 (1977)
  • M. Dean, ed., A private life, BBC television documentary, 1983 [Michael Dean, director]
  • A. Low, ed., Arena, Noel Coward trilogy, three films, BBC, 1998 [Adam Low, director]
  • b. cert.
  • b. certs. [father; mother]
  • m. cert. [parents]
  • d. certs. [father, mother]
  • private information (2004)


  • BFI, corresp. with Joseph Losey
  • BL, corresp. with League of Dramatists, Add. MS 63370
  • BL, lord chamberlain's MSS
  • JRL, corresp. with Basil Dean
  • Mander and Mitchenson Theatre Collection, London
  • V&A, theatre collections, collection
  • V&A, theatre collections, letters to Esmé Wynne


  • BFINA, Omnibus, BBC, 8 April 1973
  • BFINA, ‘Let's face the music’, Yorkshire Television, 16 July 1984
  • BFINA, South Bank Show, LWT, 1 March 1992
  • BFINA, Arena, BBC2, 11 April 1998
  • BFINA, news footage
  • BFINA, propaganda film footage
  • Mander and Mitchenson Theatre Collection, London
  • Museum of Moving Image, New York, Together with music, Mary Martin (presenter), CBS 1956
  • Museum of Moving Image, New York
  • Noel Coward estate
  • NYPL for the Performing Arts, Billy Rose Theater collection
  • V&A, theatre collections


  • BL NSA, ‘Noel Coward talks’, P546WC1, P798WC1, P801WC1
  • BL NSA, documentary recordings
  • BL NSA, oral history interview
  • BL NSA, recorded talk


  • photographs, 1905–69, Hult. Arch.
  • P. Harmann, life mask, 1930, NPG
  • E. Kapp, chalk drawing, 1930, Barber Institute of Fine Arts, Birmingham
  • D. Wilding, photograph, 1930, NPG [see illus.]
  • C. Beaton, portraits, 1930–69; Sothebys
  • H. Coster, photographs, 1939, NPG
  • C. Beaton, photograph, 1942, NPG
  • C. Dane, bronze bust, 1945, NPG
  • C. Dane, oils, 1945, NPG
  • P. Tanqueray, photograph, 1952, NPG
  • G. Argent, photograph, 1968, NPG
  • E. Seago, oils, Garr. Club
  • D. Wilding, photographs, NPG

Wealth at Death

£20,000—in England and Wales: probate, 14 June 1973, CGPLA Eng. & Wales

British Film Institute, London, National Archive
New York Public Library, New York Public Library for the Performing Arts
British Library, London
Garrick Club, London
private collection
Historical Manuscripts Commission, National Register of Archives
British Library, National Sound Archive
John Rylands University Library of Manchester
British Film Institute, London
Hulton|Archive, Getty Images, London
National Portrait Gallery, London
BBC Written Archives Centre, Reading