December 16, 1899– Noël Coward:
“It is discouraging how many people are shocked by honesty and how few by deceit.”
I don’t recall why or how, as a youth, that I came to know and understand that Noël Coward was gay. I do know that as I came out to myself at around 12-years-old. I researched everything I could find about homosexuality and the news was never good. At the public library, all the information and listings included the words “invert” and “perversion”.
As a teenager, I latched onto the idea that Coward would be a fine role model for dealing with the realization that I was gay. He was after all, fascinating, fabulous, famous, well-loved and he moved in a circle with the most talented artists of the day. I read everything by and about him, an avocation that lasts to this day.
I eventually played Elyot in Coward’s Private Lives in 1974. The director of that piece told me recently on The Facebook, that I reminded her of “a young Peter O’Toole” at the time we were doing this play. God, I hope that was true. Unfortunately, I would go on to ape many of O’Toole’s worst behaviors later in life. I loved doing Private Lives, which I think is a perfect piece of theatre, with not a wasted bit of dialogue or a false moment. I have seen it several times. My favorite production was directed by John Gielgud, and starred Maggie Smith and her husband at the time, Robert Stephens, at the Ahmenson Theatre in Los Angeles in 1975.
In the summer of 1978, I had the good fortune to play Simon in an elegant, enticing and exquisite production of Hay Fever, which was designed (sets, lights and costumes) and directed by the man that would eventually become my husband (at the time we were simply colleagues). It was a very happy summer living in Coward’s witty, wicked world, but I was starting to fall in love with my director.
Coward has been a major player in my life and helped shaped the man I am today. Known for his wit and elegance, Coward defined the post-WW I era. Although regarded as an ultimate Gay Icon now, he was never completely open about his gayness during his lifetime.
Coward had his first sexual experience with another boy at-13 years-old, but his closest friends were girls, including his BFF and fellow child actor, Gertrude Lawrence.
By 15-years-old, Coward was already a famous actor and had begun writing plays and composing songs for the theatre. He produced and starred in his first full length play, I Leave It To You, when he was just 21-years-old. Four years later, The Vortex, a controversial work about sex and drugs among the British upper-class, was a smash hit and made the young Coward a considerable celebrity.
By his mid-30s, Coward had written and produced some of his best-known plays, including Hay Fever (1924), Private Lives (1930), Design For Living (1932) and Cavalcade (1931). During his long career, he wrote and appeared more than 50 plays and composed at least 300 songs, plus he starred in 25 films.
Coward once said that to create successful work:
“An artist must 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 never, never, never bore the living hell out of it.”
WW II brought major changes in Coward’s life, which up to that point, had been busy, but breezy. He briefly worked as an undercover intelligence agent, a job for which he proved to be too well-known. He then devoted himself to entertaining the Allied troops around the globe. After the war, he continued to write and perform, but his style fell out of favor and his work was criticized as being frivolous and outdated.
In the 1950s, when many considered Coward to be washed up, he reinvented himself as a cabaret performer, drawing sold out crowds and terrific accolades for his act in Las Vegas.
To avoid Britain’s high taxes, Coward took up residence in Jamaica and Switzerland. His friends would come to visit and they were among the most famous artists of the 20th century: Cole Porter, Laurence Olivier, Marlene Dietrich, Errol Flynn, Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne, Daphne du Maurier, Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn, Joan Sutherland, David Niven, Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, Julie Andrews and Blake Edwards, Ian Fleming, and most of the British Royal Family.
Coward had sexual and romantic relationships with many men throughout his life. His first serious gay affair ended in tragedy. The passionate affair was with Queen Elizabeth II’s uncle, the incredibly handsome, notoriously randy, cocaine sniffing Prince George, The Duke Of Kent. He was the brother of King George VI, famous as the subject of the Academy Award winning film The King’s Speech (2010). Although two of his brothers would become King of England, Prince George was the most interesting, intelligent and yummiest member of his the British Royal Family until our own Prince Harry. Their affair began in 1923 and lasted for two decades, until the Prince died in an airplane crash under mysterious circumstances during the war. He was just 39-years-old.
Jack Wilson, an American stockbroker, was Coward’s lover and business manager for a decade beginning in the mid-1920s. After WW II, Coward fell in love with South African actor Graham Payne. They were a couple until Coward left this world in 1973. Payne took his final bow in 2005, at 85, at the home in Switzerland he had shared with Coward.
Coward was always circumspect about his same-sex relationships, as were most gay men of that era, a time when homosexuality was still illegal in Britain. He enjoyed assignations with composer Ned Rorem, and actors Michael Redgrave, Olivier, and Dirk Bogarde. Later in life he had a penchant for hunky rent boys who would receive round trip airline tickets to Jamaica for a visit.
Although never publicly adopting an openly gay identity, Coward sometimes addressed gayness metaphorically in his work, which often dealt with hidden longing, society’s hypocrisies, and the battle against conventional moral restrictions. 1932’s Design For Living, depicts a ménage a trois between two men and a woman. It starred Coward and his famous friends Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontaine, both of whom were gay, but married to each other in a special modern relationship. The play sold out every night of its yearlong Broadway run. In 1966, Coward wrote and starred in Song At Twilight, about of an ageing gay author who fears he will be exposed. This is his only work to deal explicitly with being gay.
Coward was knighted by The Queen in 1970. In January 1973, he went out with longtime friend Marlene Dietrich to a performance of the Off-Broadway revue of his work, Oh Coward! It would be his last public appearance. He died at his home in Jamaica, Firefly, two months later.
In 1984 a memorial stone was unveiled in Westminster Abbey bearing words from one of his songs:
“I believe that since my life began, the most I’ve had is just a talent to amuse.”
I still love to pick up my volume of The Collected Letters Of Noël Coward, opening it up to a random page. Having just done so, this is what I found. In 1949, Coward wrote to his childhood friend Esme Wynne, who was trying to get him to find God:
“My philosophy is as simple as ever. I love smoking, drinking, moderate sexual intercourse on a diminishing scale, reading and writing (not arithmetic). I have a selfless absorption in the well-being and achievements of Noël Coward… In spite of my unregenerate spiritual attitude, I am jolly kind to everybody and still attentive and devoted to my dear old Mother.”
If you don’t know Cowards work, you really should, and you can start with the recent bouncy Broadway revival of his Present Laughter. A combination of artifice and rue is the essence of Coward, who played the lead role of Garry Essendine in the original London production in 1942 and admitted: “Garry Essendine is me”. Pulling off a great Coward performance is no easy task for an actor, but the physical comic actor Kevin Kline blissfully plies his witty athleticism and perfect timing that won him two Tony Awards (On The 20th Century, The Pirates Of Penzance) and an Oscar (A Fish Called Wanda) when he was young. He is matched by a surprisingly sly Cobie Smulders, dressed to kill in Susan Hilferty’s slinky period gowns and a terrific Kate Burton, all adept at bandying the dialogue, which remains priceless. Kline won a third Tony Award for his performance, and it is magnificent. Present Laughter is currently streaming on PBS.
Noël Coward was named for the holiday so close to his birth. He would have been 118 years old on this day, December 16th.
“I like long walks, especially when they are taken by people who annoy me.”