Rising above it

Russell Davies

  • The Noel Coward Diaries edited by Graham Payn and Sheridan Morley
    Weidenfeld, 698 pp, £15.00, September 1982, ISBN 0 297 78142 1

You may not like the book, but you will be impressed by the index. There’s Bette Davis and Joe Davis and Sammy Davis Jr. There’s Basil Dean and James Dean, Jack Warner of Dock Green and Jack Warner of Hollywood. Jayne Mansfield lines up alongside Mantovani, and Field-Marshal Viscount Montgomery is discovered between Maria Montez and Dudley Moore. Kim Novak and Ivor Novello are neighbours, but then so are Mozart and Malcolm Muggeridge, and the French sandwich of Arletty and Yvonne Arnaud contains Anthony Armstrong-Jones. The name of Neville Chamberlain seems to set off a nervous chain-reaction of theatricality, for he is noisily succeeded by Gower Champion, Coco Chanel, Carol Channing, ‘Chips’ Channon (by no means out of place), and Charlie Chaplin. All the Coopers are there: Lady Diana, Duff, Gladys, Gary and Tommy. There are Douglases, from Lord Alfred to Mr and Mrs Kirk; here are the Nicholses, Beverley and Mike; and you must distinguish, if you will, between Elizabeth Taylors one (actress), two (novelist) and three (friend of Gladys Calthrop). Wilde, Wilder and Wilding mark the beginning of the end; the Duke and Duchess of Windsor make 22 appearances: and in a trickle of Zanucks, Zinkeisens and Zolotows, the torrent ends. It must be one of the most astonishing cast-lists ever appended to a diary. For readers with the autograph-hunting temperament, it is the treat of the year.

It was the treat of a lifetime for Noel Coward. His diaries open in 1941, when he was already enjoying a warm bath of celebrity. ‘Lunched Dorchester with Bob Menzies,’ he begins. ‘He was absolutely charming. Came away comfortably reassured that I had done a really good job there.’ Meetings for Coward tended to be either comforting or confrontational. The middle ground, rarely explored, was boredom. Most people were interesting first time round. ‘Wednesday 9 July 1941: Lunched with Michael Foot, whom I liked very much. He hated and hates Chamberlain even more than I. His views, though a trifle too leftist, are sound.’ But they did not turn out to be permanently palatable. ‘Friday 3 October 1952: After dinner we watched a political debate on television – Michael Foot disgusting.’ Since Foot is never mentioned again, it is hard to judge whether this verdict attaches merely to his televisual performance on this one occasion, or to his life, opinions and dependents in perpetuity. Coward seldom pauses to explain, and never dilutes an opinion while it is still hot.

His feelings about people were, on the whole, uncomplicated: that is to say, he disliked being in two minds about them because it somehow reflected badly upon his own firmness of purpose and taste. He favoured, broadly, two types of close, confiding friend: those whom he could coddle with a mother’s love, and those whom he could shower with the tart pinpricks of a maiden aunt’s disdain. Only the most exceptional people, or people in the most exceptional of circumstances, could cause him to vacillate: but it did happen, perhaps most often with the Windsors, who flit in and out of the diaries, not just as the historical ghosts they notoriously were, but also in a kind of private mystery-play, dramatising for Coward the peculiar and imponderable strains of heterosexual marriage. Their first proper appearance is as Coward’s carousing partners in the reviving post-war cocktail belt along the Côte d’Azur:

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