Noel Coward’s letters reveal wartime espionage, but nasty editor shoves his sex life in closet
“The Letters of Noel Coward,” Edited and with commentary by Barry Day. (Alfred A. Knopf, November 2007) 798 pp., $37.50.
Once the darling of the English-speaking world Sir Noel Coward (1899-1973) was an undisputed genius. He could dash clever things “off the cuff” that would’ve taken other writers hours to labor over. He acted, composed, directed and produced, and usually did it all quite adroitly.
He’s also one of the most chronicled playwrights of his time, so why on earth do we need another biographical sketch of him?
As editor Barry Day points out, Coward was hardly self-effacing. Regarding Noel’s “Diaries,” Day opines, “What may have started out as a series of notes for the still-to-be-written autobiography of his later years became more and more a piece of literature with an eye on posterity.”
The letters complete the portrait of what it was like to be Noel Coward. Since Coward flourished during a time when letters and telegrams were still a primary method of communication, many sterling examples of these survive in various private collections. And Day takes the unusual step of including the correspondents’ letters as well, giving readers a more complete picture of the man, his times and the rarefied circles in which he traveled.
Certainly one of the more surprising revelations herein is Coward’s secret activities for British Intelligence before and during World War II. Recently declassified files show that Coward used his many connections as the perfect go-between at a time when America was still officially neutral in the conflict and bordering on isolationism. By playing his persona of “a merry playboy” to the hilt, Coward could socialize with President and Mrs. Roosevelt and key figures within Hollywood without raising undue suspicion. His frustrations at the British press, which mocked his travels while the Official Secrets Act prevented him from disclosing anything, are quite poignant at times.
Although “The Letters of Noel Coward” are largely arranged in chronological order, occasional chapters are devoted solely to some of the more important figures in Coward’s life, like Jack C. Wilson, who (mis)managed Noel’s affairs, and Lorn Loraine, his devoted right-hand woman; actress, co-star and dear friend Gertrude Lawrence; and Marlene Dietrich (“the canny old Kraut remains one of my most cherished friends “).
Unquestionably, his unvarnished opinions of various celebrities and co-workers are an acerbic highlight. As far as he was concerned, Tallulah Bankhead was “a conceited slut” and “a black liar.” During a 1956 television production of “Blithe Spirit,” Claudette Colbert “made a beast of herself from the word go.” And during the troubled production of “After the Ball,” he reserved particular venom for Mary Ellis. Apparently her singing voice “sound[ed] like someone fucking the cat,” and her comic timing wasn’t much better: “She couldn’t get a laugh if she were to pull a kipper from her twat.”
Only in one area does this lengthy book fall rather flat: anything pertaining to Coward’s homosexuality. “To the end of his life even when the social climate had become more permissive he remained firmly private in his private life,” Barry Day notes, and then unnecessarily adds, “a decision that one wishes today’s gay community would honor.”
Comments such as that and “[Noel] would not have been well pleased to become a gay icon at the expense of his work or to observe a generation of young gay directors giving us Coward plays, “‘as darling Noel would have produced them,’ had he been able to in the prehistory of sexual liberation,” come across as especially petty and mean-spirited when balanced against the bulk of Coward’s work and life, which were gay in every accepted sense of the word.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition February 1, 2008