Faster, Faster

Noël Coward’s dizzying life


Noel Coward

ack when popular culture actually had some, Noël Coward (1899–1973) seemed to create about half of it. In his songs (“Mad Dogs and Englishmen”), he put his own lyrics to his own music. On the London stage (Private Lives), he sometimes played the lead in the comedies he’d written. In the columns and on the town, he was so much the apex of sophisticated wit that not having been to “a party where they honored Noël Coward” was one reason, according to Rodgers and Hart, that the lady is a tramp. And yet, Coward’s sophisticated wit had a peculiar come-join-us quality. Even when heard from the second balcony, the high-life repartee of Design for Living made listeners feel they were third-row center—and actually belonged there.

Any chance to unpack what Coward described as his “fluffy little mind” reveals, beneath all the brightly colored excelsior, an assortment of sharp and steely tools, a first-rate intelligence that received little more than the peculiar education to be had touring the English provinces as a child actor before the Great War. At 13 and 15, respectively, Coward and Gertrude Lawrence, eventually his most important leading lady, learned not to eat too many peppermints after throwing up all over the scenery of Gerhart Hauptmann’s Hannele. (They were playing angels.)

Coward’s glamorous adult success writing for stage and screen sprang from excellent theatrical instincts and a lot of bloody hard work. If love really were all—well, then there wouldn’t have been time for so much of everything else. Coward generally kept his romantic affairs and disappointments within the well- regulated limits he set for his plays, and he built up a devoted, long-serving “family” of secretaries and majordomos who kept his spirits high and his show going decade after decade, through the chromium brilliance of the ’30s (Private Lives), the butched-up patriotism of World War II (In Which We Serve), and then the mixture of hits (Brief Encounter) and misses (South Sea Bubble) of his long last act, which ended with his death, in 1973, three years after a scandalously delayed knighthood.

Coming after three volumes of autobiography and a large compilation of his diaries, the just-published Letters of Noël Coward turns out to be a bit of a swindle, containing as it does loads of letters to the maestro as well as from him. Such an arrangement may have biographical potential, but the results here are a terrible jumble, the star having been thrown into a revue that needs lots of cutting and clearer direction. Still, time and again Coward steals back the scene, whether he’s assessing a performance by Deanna Durbin (“She sang ‘There’ll Always Be an England’ with tears rolling down her face as though she were bitterly depressed at the thought”); asking his new fan and correspondent, T. E. Lawrence, Aircraftman #338171, “May I call you 338?”; or defending his latter-day tax exile to a scolding Laurence Olivier:

I also know, darling, that the best way I can serve my country is not by sitting in it with a head cold grumbling at the climate and the telephone service.

Coward’s chief epistolary gift turns out to be not for zingers and self-justification but for careful truth-telling, for giving actors and intimates the firm correction they require, in a manner that risks, but manages to retain, their affections. His audience for this human and literary artfulness includes a deludedly grand Mary Martin:

Please believe that your future career depends on your throwing away your … exaggerated and grotesque conception of “Stardom” and concentrating on learning, diligently and painstakingly, to be the fine artiste your potential talent entitles you to be.

Marlene Dietrich, love-sickened by Yul Brynner, comes in for the same combination of velvet and sandpaper (“Stop wasting yourself on someone who only really says tender things to you when he’s drunk”); and John Gielgud, upbraided by Coward for “overacting badly and using voice tones and elaborate emotional effects,” takes it like a man: “I think it was like you to write like that and I do appreciate it.”

This talent to disabuse is in large part the obverse of Coward’s capacity for shrewd self-assessment. He had a firm sense of his professional skills, and usually took care not to overreach with them. The letter-writing showman sometimes gets his best effects playing against type, as when he reports to Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne that the voice of a leading lady,

to coin a phrase, sounds like someone fucking the cat. I know that your sense of the urbane, sophisticated Coward wit will appreciate this simile.

It was always important to make an impression and then get off. Coward wrote his biggest hits very quickly (Hay Fever in three days), and he liked them played the same way; in his correspondence, he sometimes reminds one of George Balanchine, wishing that the wretched players and his mixed-up friends would take things faster, faster. When he sailed the Mediterranean on the Queen Elizabeth in 1932, the ship’s bandmaster delighted him by playing only songs composed by the most famous passenger on board. Even so, Coward borrowed the baton and upped the tempo.