I don’t recall why or how, as a youth, that I came to know and understand that Noël Coward (1899 -1973) was gay. I do know that as I came out to myself at 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 being 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.
Known for his wit and elegance, Coward defined the post-World War 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 when he was13 years old, but his closest friends were girls, including his best friend and fellow child actor, Gertrude Lawrence.
15-year-old Coward was already a famous actor and he 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. 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.”
World War 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he continued to write and perform, but his style fell out of favor and his work was criticized as being frivolous and outdated.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, including Cole Porter, Laurence Olivier, Marlene Dietrich, Errol Flynn, Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne, writer Daphne du Maurier, Spencer Tracy, Katharine Hepburn, David Niven, Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, Julie Andrews and Blake Edwards, Ian Fleming, Joan Sutherland, and most members 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 the British Royal Family until our own era’s 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 World War 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, Laurence 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 at Coward’s home, “Firefly”.
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. Design For Living (1932) depicts a ménage a trois between two men and a woman. It starred Coward and his famous friends Lunt and Fontaine, both of whom were gay in real life 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 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 Firefly in Jamaica two months later.
In 1984 a memorial stone was unveiled at 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.”
Noël Coward was named for the holiday so close to his birth. He would have been 121 years old today.
“I like long walks, especially when they are taken by people who annoy me.”