Sir Noel Peirce Coward (December 16, 1899 – March 26, 1973) was an English actor, playwright, and composer of popular music.
Born in Teddington, Middlesex to a middle-class family, he began performing in the West End at an early age. He was a childhood friend of Hermione Gingold, whose mother warned her against him.
A student at the Italia Conti Academy stage school, Coward’s first professional engagement was on 27 January 1911, in the children’s play, The Goldfish. After this appearance, he was sought after for children’s roles by other professional theatres.
He was featured in several productions with Sir Charles Hawtrey, a Victorian actor and comedian, whom Coward idolized and to whom he virtually apprenticed himself until he was twenty. It was from Hawtrey that Coward learned comic acting techniques and playwriting. He was drafted briefly into the British Army during WWI but was discharged due to ill health. He found his voice and began writing plays that he and his friends could star in while at the same time writing revues.
He starred in one of his first full-length plays, the inheritance comedy I'll Leave It To You, in 1920 at the age of twenty. After enjoying some moderate success with the Shaw-esque The Young Idea in 1923, the controversy surrounding his play The Vortex (1924) — which contains many veiled references to both drug abuse and homosexuality — made him an overnight sensation on both sides of the Atlantic. Coward followed this success with three more major hits, Hay Fever, Fallen Angels (both 1925) and Easy Virtue (1926).
Much of Coward's best work came in the late 1920s and early 1930s. Enormous (and enormously popular) productions such as the full-length operetta Bitter Sweet (1929) and Cavalcade (1931), a huge extravaganza requiring a very large cast, gargantuan sets and an exceedingly complex hydraulic stage, were interspersed with finely-wrought comedies such as Private Lives (1930), in which Coward himself starred alongside his most famous stage partner Gertrude Lawrence, and the black comedy Design for Living (1932), written for Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne.
Coward again partnered Lawrence in Tonight at 8:30 (1936), an ambitious cycle of ten different short plays which were randomly "shuffled" to make up a different playbill of three plays each night. One of these short plays, Still Life, was later expanded into the 1945 David Lean film Brief Encounter. He was also a prolific writer of popular songs, and a lucrative recording contract with HMV allowed him to release a number of recordings which have been extensively reissued on CD. Coward's most popular hits include the romantic, I'll See You Again and Dear Little Cafe, as well as the comic Mad Dogs and Englishmen, The Stately Homes of England and (Don't Put Your Daughter on the Stage) Mrs Worthington
World War II
The outbreak of World War II in 1939 saw Coward working harder than ever. When the second World War started, Noel had only just left Paris. He took time off from writing to perform for the troops, but after was eager to return. Alongside his highly-publicised tours entertaining Allied troops, Coward was also engaged by the British Secret Service MI5 to conduct intelligence work. He was often frustrated by criticism he faced for his ostensibly glamorous lifestyle; criticised for apparently living the high life while his countrymen suffered, he was unable to defend himself by revealing details of his work for the Secret Service.
Had the Germans invaded Britain, Noel Coward would have been arrested and liquidated as he was on The Black Book, along with other public figures such as H. G. Wells (Wells was targeted for his socialist views). This may have been due to his homosexuality.
He also wrote and released some extraordinarily popular songs during the war (the most famous of which are London Pride and Don't Let's Be Beastly To The Germans). He complained to his frequent painting companion, Winston Churchill, that he felt he wasn't doing enough to support the war effort. Churchill suggested he make a movie based on the career of Captain Lord Louis Mountbatten. The result was a naval film drama, In Which We Serve, which Coward wrote, starred in, composed the music for and co-directed with David Lean. The film was immensely popular on both sides of the Atlantic and Coward was awarded an honorary Oscar.
The 1940s also saw Coward write some of his best plays. The social commentary of This Happy Breed and the intricate semi-autobiographical comedy-drama Present Laughter (both 1939) were later combined with the hugely successful black comedy Blithe Spirit (1941) to form a West End triple-bill in which Coward starred in all three simultaneous productions. Blithe Spirit went on to break box-office records for a West End comedy not beaten until the 1970s, and was made into a film directed by David Lean.
Coward's popularity as a playwright declined sharply in the 1950s, with plays such as Quadrille, Relative Values, Nude with Violin and South Sea Bubble all failing to find much favour with critics or audiences. Despite this, he still managed to maintain a high public profile, continuing to write (and occasionally star in) moderately successful West End plays and musicals, performing an acclaimed solo cabaret act in Las Vegas (recorded for posterity and still available on CD), and starring in films such as Bunny Lake is Missing, Around the World in 80 Days and The Italian Job.
After starring in a number of American TV specials in the late 50s alongside Mary Martin, Coward left the UK for tax reasons in the late 1950s and moved to the Caribbean, settling first in Bermuda and then in Jamaica, where he remained for the rest of his life. His play Waiting in the Wings (1960), set in a rest home for retired actresses, marked a turning-point in his popularity, gaining plaudits from critics who likened it to the work of Anton Chekhov. The late 1960s saw a revival in his popularity, with several new productions of his 1920s plays and a number of revues celebrating his music; Coward himself dubbed this comeback "Dad's Renaissance".
Coward's final stage work was a trilogy of plays set in a hotel penthouse suite, with him taking the lead roles in all three, under the collective title of Suite in Three Keys (1966); the plays gained excellent reviews and did good box office business in the UK. Coward intended to star in Suite in Three Keys on Broadway but was unable to travel due to illness; the lead roles in the plays in New York were eventually taken by Hume Cronyn.
By now suffering from severe arthritis and bouts of memory loss (which affected his work on The Italian Job), Coward retired from the theatre. He was knighted in 1970, and died in Jamaica in March 1973 of natural causes at the age of 73. He is buried in Firefly Hill, Jamaica.
As well as over fifty published plays and many albums' worth of original songs, Coward also wrote comic revues, poetry, several volumes of short stories, a novel (Pomp and Circumstance, 1960), and three volumes of autobiography. Books of his song lyrics, diaries and letters have also been published.
He was also a spirited painter, and a volume containing reproductions of some of his artwork has also been published.
As a gay man, Coward never married. He enjoyed a lengthy relationship with the stage and film actor, Graham Payn, for almost thirty years until the end of Coward's life. Payn later edited the collection of his diaries published in 1982. Coward refused to acknowledge his homosexuality, wryly stating, "There is still a woman in Paddington Square who wants to marry me, and I don't want to disappoint her."
He served as the president of The Actors' Orphanage, an orphanage supported by the theatrical industry.
Coward was a neighbour of James Bond creator Ian Fleming in Jamaica, and his wife Anne, the former Lady Rothermere. Though very fond of both of them, the Fleming's marriage was not a happy one, and Noel eventually tired of their constant bickering, as recorded in his diaries. When the first film adaptation of a James Bond novel, Dr. No was being produced, Coward was approached for the role of the villain. He is said to have responded, "Doctor No? No. No. No."
When speaking to Peter O'Toole about his performance in Lawrence of Arabia, he said "If you'd been any prettier, it would have been 'Florence of Arabia'."
The Papers of Noel Coward are held at the University of Birmingham Special Collections.
Parodies and homages of Coward and his style include: