Sir Noël Peirce Coward (16 December 1899 – 26 March 1973) was an English actor, playwright and composer of popular music. Among his achievements, he received an Academy Certificate of Merit at the 1943 Academy Awards for "outstanding production achievement for In Which We Serve."
He was born in Teddington, Middlesex, England to Arthur Sabin Coward (1856–1937), a clerk, and his wife Violet Agnes (1863–1954), daughter of Henry Gordon Veitch, captain and surveyor in the Royal Navy. He was the second of their three sons, the eldest of whom had died in 1898 at the age of six. 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 cast as the Lost Boy Slightly in the 1913 production of Peter Pan.
At the age of 14, he became the lover of Philip Streatfeild, a society painter who took him in and introduced him to high society in the form of Mrs. Astley Cooper. She gathered a salon of artists and invited him to live on her property at Hambleton, Rutland, but on the farm rather than in the Hall, due to his lower social class. Streatfeild died from tuberculosis in 1915.
He played in several productions with Sir Charles Hawtrey, a Victorian actor and comedian, whom he idolized and to whom he virtually apprenticed himself until he was 20. It was from Hawtrey that Coward learned comic acting techniques and playwriting. He was drafted briefly into the British Army during World War I but was discharged for ill health. Coward appeared in the D. W. Griffith film Hearts of the World (1918) in an uncredited role. 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 20. The following year he completed a one-act satire, The Better Half, about a man's relationship with two women, and it had a short run at the Little Theatre, London in 1922. The play was thought to be lost until a typescript was rediscovered in 2007 in the archive of the Lord Chamberlain's Office, which at that time licensed all plays for performance in the UK , and imposed cuts or complete bans.
After he enjoyed 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 drug abuse and homosexuality, made him an overnight sensation on both sides of the Atlantic. Coward followed this 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 with Lawrence in Tonight at 8:30 (1936), an ambitious cycle of ten short plays that were randomly "shuffled" to make up a different playbill of three plays each night. One of these plays, Still Life, was 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, many now reissued on CD. Coward's most popular hits include the romantic I'll See You Again and Dear Little Café; and 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 war started he 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, he was also engaged by the British Secret Service MI5 in intelligence work. He was frustrated by the criticism he faced for his glamorous lifestyle, apparently living the high life while his countrymen suffered—especially his trips to America to sway opinion there. Coward was unable to defend himself because he could not reveal that he was working for the Secret Service.
Had the Nazis invaded Britain, Coward would have been arrested and killed as he was on The Black Book along with other figures such as the socialist writer H. G. Wells. Before Coward’s work for the Secret Service came to light, it was assumed the Nazis only targeted him as a homosexual.citation needed George VI, a personal friend, encouraged the government to award Coward a knighthood for his efforts in 1942. This was blocked by Winston Churchill, who disapproved of Coward's flamboyant lifestyle. Churchill advised giving the official reason as Coward's ₤200 fine for spending ₤11,000 on a trip to America.
Coward 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 Churchill, his frequent painting companion, that he felt he was not 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 the naval film drama In Which We Serve, which Coward served as writer, star, composer and co-director (alongside David Lean). The film was immensely popular on both sides of the Atlantic and Coward was awarded an honorary certificate of merit at the 1943 Academy Awards ceremony.
In the 1940s Coward wrote some of his best plays. The social commentary 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, which starred Coward in all three simultaneous productions. Blithe Spirit went on to make box-office records for a West End comedy that were not beaten until the 1970s,citation needed and was later filmed 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 failing to find much favour with critics or audiences. Despite this he maintained 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 (available on CD), and starring in films such as Bunny Lake is Missing, Around the World in 80 Days, Our Man in Havana, Boom! and The Italian Job.
After starring in a number of American TV specials in the late 1950s alongside Mary Martin, Coward left the UK for tax reasons. He first settled in Bermuda but later moved to 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.citation needed 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 dubbed this comeback "Dad's Renaissance".
Coward's final stage work was Suite in Three Keys (1966), a trilogy set in a hotel penthouse suite, with him taking the lead roles in all three. The trilogy 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. Only two of the plays were performed in New York, with the title changed to Noël Coward in Two Keys and the lead taken by Hume Cronyn.
By now suffering from severe arthritis and bouts of memory loss, which affected his work in The Italian Job, Coward retired from the theatre. He was knighted in 1970, and died in Jamaica in March 1973 of heart failure. He was buried three days later on the brow of Firefly Hill, Jamaica, overlooking the north coast of the island. On 28 March 1984, a memorial stone was unveiled by the Queen Mother in Poets’ Corner, Westminster Abbey.
As well as over 50 published plays and many albums' worth of original songs, Coward wrote comic revues, poetry, several volumes of short stories, the novel Pomp and Circumstance (1960) and three volumes of autobiography. Books of his song lyrics, diaries and letters have also been published. He was a spirited painter, and a volume containing reproductions of some of his artwork has also been published.
The Noël Coward Theatre on St Martin's Lane, originally opened in 1903, was renamed in his honour and re-opened on 1 June 2006, after extensive refurbishment, for the London premiere of Avenue Q.
The theatre opened in 1903 as the New Theatre, renamed the Albery Theatre in 1973. Coward made his West End début at the New Theatre, in 1920.
Coward was homosexual and never married, but he maintained close personal friendships with many women. These included actress and author Esmé Wynne-Tyson, his first collaborator and constant correspondent; the designer and lifelong friend Gladys Calthrop; secretary and close confidante Lorn Loraine; his muse, the gifted musical actress Gertrude Lawrence; actress Joyce Carey; compatriot of his middle period, the light comedy actress Judy Campbell; and (in the words of Cole Lesley) 'his loyal and lifelong amitié amoureuse', film star Marlene Dietrich.
He was a valued friend of Laurence Olivier, Vivien Leigh, Gene Tierney, Judy Garland, Elaine Stritch, Princess Margaret and Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother. He was a close friend of Ivor Novello and Winston Churchill.
Coward's insights into the class system can be traced back to London life in World War I, when thousands of troops passed through the capital every day, and officers and other ranks met civilians in dozens of highly secret clubs.
Coward enjoyed a 19-year relationship with Prince George, Duke of Kent and a liasion with the stage and film actor Graham Payn for several decades until Coward's death. Payn later co-edited with Sheridan Morley the collection of his diaries, published in 1982. He was also connected to composer Ned Rorem, with details of their relationship published in Rorem's diaries.
Coward refused to acknowledge his sexual orientation, wryly stating, "There is still a woman in Paddington Square who wants to marry me, and I don't want to disappoint her". From his youth Coward had a distaste for penetrative sex and held the modern gay scene in disdain.
He was the president of The Actors' Orphanage, an orphanage supported by the theatrical industry. In that capacity he befriended the young Peter Collinson, who was in the care of the orphanage, becoming Collinson's godfather and helping him get started in show business. When Collinson was a successful director he invited Coward to play a role in the film The Italian Job; Graham Payn also played a small role.
Coward was a neighbour in Jamaica of James Bond's creator Ian Fleming and his wife Anne, the former Lady Rothermere. Though he was very fond of both of them, the Flemings' marriage was not a happy one, and Noël 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."citation needed
At a dinner welcoming Gene Tierney to London, "I want to tell you, Miss Tierney, you gave me one of the most memorable evenings I ever had in the Theater in your film Leave Her to Heaven. When I saw the expression on your face in the sequence in the in which you drowned the boy , I thought ' That was acting'."
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'."citation needed
When someone pointed out a rising young actor at a party with the words "Keir Dullea" Coward's instant reply was "Gone tomorrow."citation needed
The Papers of Noel Coward are held in the University of Birmingham Special Collections.
On the BBC Midweek radio programme on 11 October 2006 Hunter Davies revealed that Coward had told him during an interview that he liked to attend and watch hospital operations in his spare time; apparently when Davies started to push this line further Coward clammed up on the subject and would not elaborate.
Parodies and popular culture
Revues, musicals and operetta
By Noël Coward
About Noël Coward