A Marvelous Party, and Then Some

Just as the infernal machinery of the Yuletide season was ramping up its materialistic drone, the classy house of Knopf came out with a large collection of Noel Coward's letters and selected diary entries which are as welcome as a hot rum toddy in days of bleak weather and forced cheer.

Edited, with concise commentary by Coward's biographer, Barry Day, the letters are a treasure trove of theater lore traversing the British stage from George Bernard Shaw and James Barrie to the operettas of Ivor Novello and Coward's own “Private Lives,” “Design for Living,” Blithe Spirits,” and “Bittersweet,” “After the Ball,” “The Girl Who Came to Dinner,” and “Sail Away.”


With commentary by Barry Day

Alfred A. Knopf

$37.50; 753 pages

Although queer as a Maypole, Coward was very much a man of his homophobic era, as well as an inveterate mamma's boy, so curious readers will find no overt references to his love life, or erotic proclivities, except in occasional coded passages and double entrendres, and, of course, in his Wildean stage dialogue and lyrics: “I like America/ Its Society/ Offers infinite variety”…or “Mad about the boy/ I know it's stupid to be mad about the boy/ Although I'm quite aware/ That here and there/ Are traces of the cad about the boy.”

As Day explains in his preface, “He would not have been well pleased to become a gay icon at the expense of his work or to observe, for instance, 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.”

Arriving in New York for the first time aboard the SS Aquitania, an ebullient Coward camped it up at Customs Control, by regaling a flummoxed guard with one of William Blake's “Songs of Innocence:” “I felt that some sort of scene was necessary to celebrate my first entrance into America, so I said – 'Little lamb, who made thee?' to a Customs official. A fracas far exceeding my wildest dreams ensued, during which he delved down with malice aforethought to the bottom of my trunk and discovered the oddest things in my sponge bag. I think I am going to like America…”

A child prodigy, Coward was intoxicated by the theater from mere sprite, when he appeared in Lila Field's children's company as Prince Mussel in a fairy play, titled “Goldfish,” in 1911, and two years later he landed the part of Slightly Soiled in “Peter Pan,” which was running every Christmas at the Duke of York's theater, on the approval of its original producer Charles Froman. Later on, critic Kenneth Tynan would comment on Coward's diligently practiced persona as an eternal enfant terrible: “Forty years ago he was Slightly in 'Peter Pan' and you might say he has been wholly in 'Peter Pan' ever since.”

With early ambitions to be a playwright, in 1921 a callow Coward sent a script of his, “The Young Idea,” to George Bernard Shaw for comment. Shaw saw that the young writer was hoping to impress him by imitation, and wrote back with the sage advice: “I have no doubt that you will succeed if you persevere, and take care never to fall into a breach of essential good manners and above all, never to see or read my plays. Unless you can get clean away from me you will begin as a back number, and be hopelessly out of it when you are forty.”

In another letter, “Peter Pan” creator J.M. Barrie advised, as “One who has a warm belief in you… Don't think I am wanting you to 'conceive' like your predecessors. No good in that. You belong to your time – they to theirs. Give us yourself or nothing, but your best self. (This is a little too solemn. Be gay also while you can.)”

In 1924 Coward made a sensational reputation and early success by writing and appearing in the Oedipal melodrama “The Vortex,” about a narcissistic mother who clings to youth by a series of affairs with men young enough to be her son, and whose own son is in the thrall of drug addiction. When it was nearly banned by the lord chamberlain, Lord Cromer, Coward appealed that the play was actually a moral tract indicting the drug culture, and got the go-ahead, with Cromer declaring, “If we ban this, we shall have to ban 'Hamlet'!” Even Barrie wrote Coward that with “The Vortex,” “a real live new dramatist was appearing.”

Coward's queerness, always lying just under the radar, took the subversive naughtiness of his “Private Lives”( which he starred in with Gertrude Lawrence) a few steps further when he appeared with the Lunts in 1933 on Broadway in the “ambiguously daring” and ultra sophisticated “Design for Living,” about a ménage a trois. Of course the play was a sell-out hit, and the wittily insouciant Coward wrote his mother – “Dear Pussy” – “Capacity and standees at every performance and very common people, dear – not at all our class – given to spitting and coughing and belching during the quieter passages… The Lunts are perfect, and everybody sends you their love. So there. HITLER.”

The collection also contains communications involving Coward's lesser known stint as a covert agent working for the British intelligence during WWII.

There are as well hilariously dishy letters to friends, commenting on the various cultural icons of the day. In 1956, he wrote to Cole Lesley about his stay in New York City: “Carnegie Hall was a fair bugger on account of dear [Andre] Kostelanetz with uncanny showmanship, placing me second on the bill [narrating 'Carnival of Animals']… Went to hear Albanese as 'Manon Lescaut' and it was a grave, grave mistake on account of she didn't ought to have attempted it for several reasons. Time's Winged Chariot being the principal one. She sang most softly and looked like a neckless shrewmouse. Jussi Boerling did a Mary Martin and belted the living fuck out of her. He contrived this very subtly by the simple device of gripping her firmly by her shrinking shoulders, turning her bum to the audience and bellowing into her kisser…”

Coward can also be surprisingly ungallant at times, if not out and out misogynistic; as when his old friend, Beatrice Lillie, obviously suffering from what would come to be known as Alzheimer's disease, would constantly go up on her lines as the pixilated medium, Madame Arcati, in 1964's “High Spirits,” the Broadway musical version of his comedy “Blithe Spirits,” staged by Gower Champion. He penned a few childish, churlish verses, to the effect that: “Beatrice Lillie is a cunt/ No matter what you've heard/ Beatrice Lillie is a cunt/And doesn't know a word/Beatrice Lillie is a Twat/ Whatever news you've had/ Beatrice Lillie is a Twat/ Who's driving Master mad.”

This sounds more like Coward playing the bitchy Witch of Capri, in “Boom,” the bizarre film version of Tennessee Williams' “The Milktrain Doesn't Stop Here Anymore.”

However, in 1965, he wrote about his occasional Teutonic cohort, Marlene Dietrich: “The canny old Kraut remains one of my most cherished friends… However, I intend to talk to her briskly about her predisposition to whining ad nauseam about her aging process, as though she were the first gorgeous lady undone by Father Time. And I would dearly like to teach her something about humour, as in sense of humour. Unteachable, I suspect..” He also had a great friendship with Elaine Stritch – or “Stritchie” as he dubbed her – who starred as Mimi Paragon in his successful1961 musical “Sail Away”

As he became an iconic figure grise, Coward took a more conservative view about the “modern” theater. In one letter, he advised Edward Albee, after being confounded by the younger writer's heavily symbolic melodrama “Tiny Alice”(1965): “I have a profound respect for your rich talent and a strong affection for you, although I only know you a little. Expert use of language is to me a perpetual joy. You use it expertly all right, but, I fear, too self-indulgently. Your duty to me as a playgoer and a reader is to explain whatever truths you are dealing with lucidly and accurately. I refuse to be fobbed off with a sort of metaphysical “What's My Line.' Let me hear from you. Just an ordinary love letter will do. Noel.”

In his last years, the letters become testaments to a soulful and dignified resignation: “Gather ye rosebuds – or a ciggie – while ye may is my motto these days. Of course, I suppose I could make very old bones indeed – look at Mum – but I'm not all that sure I want that. I've never wanted to be the last one to leave the party. In fact, I was saying to Coley only the other day – 'I would prefer fate to let me go to sleep when it's my proper bedtime and not let me stay up too late.' Rather poetic, I thought… Yours, LAZARUS.”