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:

Saturday 6 April 1946: In the evening the Windsors arrived. The hotel got itself into a fine frizz and old General Politigor was round my neck like a laurel wreath. I gave them a delicious dinner: consomme, marrow on toast, grilled langouste, tournedos with sauce béarnaise, and chocolate souffle. Poor starving France. After that we went to the Casino and Wallis and I gambled until 5 a.m. She was very gay and it was most enjoyable. The Duke sat rather dolefully at one of the smaller tables. At the end of the evening I was financially more or less where I started. Saturday 17 August 1946: The Windsors, were charming. I like her and I think that, now, she is genuinely fond of him. They are lovers, so perhaps there is something to be said for the whole set-up. I wonder how their story will end.

Monday 23 November 1953: Tonight I watched on television the departure of the Queen and Prince Philip from London Airport. It was immensely moving. The Queen looked so young and vulnerable and valiant, and Prince Philip so handsome and cheerful. A truly romantic couple, star quality in excelsis. True glamour without any of the Windsors’ vulgarity.

Sunday 17 June 1956: As usual the Duchess was charming to me. I cannot help rather liking her. He, as usual and as always, was completely idiotic. The difficulties of conversation with him are now enhanced by his deafness. My social sense leapt to the fray and I laid myself out to be pleasant, to which he barked amiably.

Monday 18 June 1956: I’ve just finished Tom Driberg’s life of Max Beaverbrook ... the Duke of Windsor virtually half-witted from first to last (no surprise to me).

Monday 19 January 1959: The Windsors’ party was very gay. She certainly is a most charming hostess and he was extremely amiable. The conversation was mostly general and largely devoted to the question of whether or not the Duchess should have her face lifted. The main consensus was no. Wallis brought this subject up with a sort of calculated defiance. I think, however, that she is a curiously honest woman and her sense of humour, particularly about herself, is either profound or brilliantly simulated ... Princess Sixte de Bourbon was definitely shocked when the Duke and I danced a sailor’s hornpipe and the Charleston, but there was no harm in it, perhaps a little sadness and nostalgia for him and for me a curious feeling of detached amusement, remembering how beastly he had been to me and about me in our earlier years when he was Prince of Wales and I was beginning. Had he danced the hornpipe and the Charleston with me then it would have been an accolade to cherish.

Monday 31 December 1962: The Duke of Windsor has been attacked in the Press for having hobnobbed with Hitler in the late Thirties. Secret papers have disclosed his pro-Nazi perfidy which, of course, I was perfectly aware of at the time. Poor dear, what a monumental ass he has always been!

Monday 8 August 1966: I dined with the Windsors at Neuilly. She, as usual, was charming to me, he very amiable. It was not a violently stimulating evening but agreeable.

As an account of a social relationship, this sequence is, for Coward, unusually detailed and full. It is perhaps unfair to draw into focus repetitions that are widely and acceptably scattered through a fat volume: but the repetitions are interesting, just the same, as an aspect of Coward’s defensiveness. He is concerned to account for his attachment to people he ‘cannot help liking’, though he knows he ought really to resist – hence the tone of mild surprise that is so easy to read into his reaction when he realises yet again that yes, the Duchess is charming. The 1959 entry, with its rare dip into past grievances, comes closer to revealing the real tensions operating in his mind as he meets the Windsors. Yet Coward never actually admits what was surely the case, that he suppressed a kind of personal horror (inspired chiefly by the Duke) in favour of the flattering fun of a snobbish association.

On another occasion, however, Coward does admit it. In 1955 he writes:

Another book I am reading is Richard Aldington’s blistering, debunking attack on Lawrence of Arabia. I do not care for Richard Aldington’s mind, and his malice is a little too apparent; nevertheless quite a lot of it ’ as far as I have read – sounds suspiciously like the truth. Lawrence was an inverted show-off and I have myself heard him talk the most inconceivable balls. Even at the time I was inwardly aware of this, but his legend was too strong to be gainsaid and I, being a celebrity snob, crushed down my wicked suspicions. He was charming to me anyhow, with a charm that could only be repaid by affection and a certain arid loyalty. We had, of course, nothing in common.

This revisionist confession – in a bilious mood, one might call it a civilian’s version of ‘I was only obeying orders’ – is about as far as self-accusation goes in these pages. I suppose it is inevitable that actors will put most of their scientific rigour, if not in some cases their entire capacity for self-criticism, into their literally life-enhancing work on the stage. Theatrical motivation is enough to be getting on with, without going too deeply into one’s offstage impulses. So an actor’s diary, unless he is fundamentally more of a theoretician than a practitioner, will tend to be the kind of document which does not research and preserve truth so much as keep up morale. Coward is the quite shameless exploiter and beneficiary of his own powers of encouragement, and, what’s more, believes his pep-talks. Quite a lot of what he writes is calculated to provide the comforting echo of his own approval. To scorn mock-modesty is one thing: to go in for intimate self-salesmanship in the Coward manner is something hilariously other:

Saw very rough cut of Brief Encounter ... Whole thing beautifully played and directed – and, let’s face it, most beautifully written ... It is a truly wonderful gift, my natural and trained gift for dialogue ... I think on the whole I am a better writer than I am given credit for. It is fairly natural that my writing should be casually appreciated because my personality, performances, music and legend get in the way ... The dialogue scenes already written are quite good as I cannot help writing good dialogue ... It is foolish for a writer constantly to decry the critics; it is also foolish, I think, for the critics so constantly to decry anyone who writes as well as I do ... I had a private showing of Bunny Lake. It is a thrilling picture and I am very good ...

The tactics of Coward’s inner cheer-leader do not change much over twenty years – but then the critics did not change much either.

He proved unsinkable. After his Forties successes in the cinema, there was a period of somewhat uphill work in comedy and revue, but by 1955 Coward the song-writer had been reborn as a cabaret performer. Booked into Las Vegas by the marvellously unlikely figure of Joe Glaser, Louis Armstrong’s manager, he was a huge hit. For the next decade or so, he could always raise money, when required, on the strength of his solo act – not that this was often necessary once the cinema had rediscovered his choice way with a line. His elderly camp/sinister presence, useful for undercutting the modern glamour actors, was much in demand for a time in the studios, and work simply fell into his lap. For what turned out to be a day’s work on Around the World in Eighty Days, Mike Todd paid him one Bonnard painting, valued in 1955 at £4500. But Coward was a big spender, maintained too many homes in too many places for too long, and never lost the anxiety of the freelance. He lived from project to project, recharging his batteries and resting his ego only when some recently-launched item of his had proved itself solidly ‘bankable’.

From a couple of professional crises more fully exposed than usual in his diaries, it’s clear that the midwifery involved in bringing a theatre production to the stage was the most involving process in Coward’s life. For one thing, it sometimes threw up matchless opportunities for the kind of into-the-breach heroics that theatre history thrives on. Coward is ever eager to save the day: he does it on page 39 (‘decided the understudy was not good enough. Decided to go on myself for the evening show. Had a terrific reception ... ’), on page 87 (‘made quick decision and played the last two acts. Rapturous reception ... ’), and on page. 102 (‘suddenly decided to play the matinee myself ... didn’t dry up once ... company and audience were all thrilled ... ’). But much earlier in the process, long before these gratifying opportunities to replace his own voiceless minions presented themselves, Coward would be combatively immersed in the play-making process – to facilitate which he would be prepared to change anything. Not only would he butcher a script, hacking out scenes and changing the sex of a character, but, more seriously for his own peace of mind, he would also overturn his personal assessment of his own performers and collaborators. Time and again, his better judgment, in association with public and critical opinion, forces him to eat the hat he had been throwing in the air when rehearsals began. In the early stages, Coward’s actors, once firmly chosen, are extensions of his own will to succeed, and as such they bask in the glowing reports dictated by his outspoken confidence. After that, it is all downhill – a slide both painful and funny. Consider what happened to Jose Ferrer, cast in the lead for Coward’s The Girl who came to Supper on Broadway in 1963:

Sunday 27 January: On Saturday Jose Ferrer appeared from Hollywood ... In the afternoon he gave us an audition at the Winter Garden. He was beguilingly nervous and sang perfectly charmingly. Perfect diction and perfect stage authority. He is ugly but he is also curiously attractive. Monday 2 September: Jo Ferrer is charming to work with and is going to be fine. Florence Henderson is enchanting and will, I think, become a great star.

Sunday 22 September: Florence is superb. So is Jo Ferrer.

(The show opens in Boston.)

Saturday 5 October: Florence is miraculous and I love her every minute. José Ferrer a bit inaudible and an ugly voice and appearance, but great charm, a fine comedian and will be vocally improved after I’ve been after him.

Tuesday 5 November: The show is much improved but José Ferrer is ghastly and it’s no good wishful thinking any longer.

Sunday 17 November: Even Jo Ferrer came off fairly well and his performance is improving. He has all the signs of being a good comedian, but those evil fairies at his Puerto Rican christening bestowed on him short legs, a too large nose, small eyes, a toneless singing voice and a defective sense of timing ...

Monday 16 December: The two factors in my opinion which mitigate [sic] against it are not enough heart in the book ... and Jo Ferrer not being physically attractive enough. He gives an excellent performance but I feel in my bones that the great public wants that extra star quality which actually neither he nor Florence possesses.

After which one scarcely knows what impression to take away, apart from a strong suspicion that Coward was not naturally gifted with the betting man’s eye of a casting-director. The line about ‘the great public’, it’s worth noting, is no heavy irony: in his way, Coward did treat his audience with reverential care. He felt he had mastered the secret of how to please, and what really nettled him about the new young playwrights of the Fifties, one senses, is that they had either disregarded or deliberately cast away the techniques of pleasing which he and his generation had learnt on their behalf.

If Coward’s character, perceived over an extended period of time, was ruled by expediency, his opinions, consulted at any given moment, would have offered a compensating vehemence and decidedness. He was valued, and in some quarters quite possibly dreaded, for the ‘finger-wag’ (a favourite phrase) he was capable of administering over the dinner-table without warning, though more usually to close friends than to chance acquaintances. Reserved for more critical situations, and for antagonists who had no hope of becoming friends, was his technique of ‘flying at’ the object of his wrath – often a thoroughly premeditated rage, in spite of the impression of uncontrollable spontaneity the phrase creates. People in these diaries are flown at just as deliberately as they are finger-wagged: it’s the urgency with which results are desired that makes the difference. The phrases themselves are part of a pattern of verbal habits (‘merry as a grig’ is an especially tenacious recidivist) which unite in Coward’s voice the twinned voice of governess and infant. The accents of the child appear whenever he is at his most ‘grown-up’: ‘And now I intend to rise above it and get on with everything. This has been a dreadful day.’ One is surely not wrong to detect in this resolution an effort to live up to the advice of his childhood ‘elders and betters’. ‘Rise above it, Noel, do!’ It is his favourite formula. Even his most consciously ‘adult’ remarks never quite lose the archness of nursery parlance. ‘I wonder who thought of introducing leatherette into the tropics?’ he writes in old age. ‘Whoever did should have his balls snipped off and fastened to his nose with a safety-pin.’ Struwwelpeter meets The Bitch.

In intimate matters, Coward’s stance within these journals is determinedly neutral without being neuter. ‘There will be books proving conclusively that I was homosexual and books proving equally conclusively that I was not,’ he forecasts, evidently determined that this shall not be one of the books in question. We find him in love, and owning up to it, just once, in New York, in 1957. The admission is made in handbag-clutching tones: ‘My secret news is that I fear Old Black Magic has reared itself up again. This is stimulating, disturbing, enjoyable, depressing, gay, tormenting, delightful, silly and sensible ... I can already see all the old hoops being prepared for me to go through. Ah me!’ The subject does not recur. That list of adjectives is characteristic – notably in its inclusion of ‘gay’, which always figured in such purple sequences and, indeed, usually started them off. Nancy Spain ‘is gay, intelligent, affectionate and well read’. Coward had probably contracted the habit from his own early songs: ‘Let’s say goodbye’ is ‘gay and sweet and terribly exciting’, and there are dozens of variations on this flapperish locution.

‘Gayness’ in the sexual sense comes under Coward’s scrutiny only when he is recording sensible changes in the law, or finding something censorious to say about homosexual behaviour: ‘so we drove to the apartment. It has completely changed, the work of the sodding little queen who has rented it.’ Pure pique probably supplies the terminology here, but Coward does have the ‘respectable’ homosexual’s slightly fearful detestation for those who draw attention to their persuasion. Among these he counts Oscar Wilde: ‘It is extraordinary indeed that such a posing, artificial old queen should have written one of the greatest comedies in the English language.’ Anyone who took sex out of the context of domestic intimacy came in for a colourful pinafored finger-wag. A visit to Fire Island in 1963 was recorded in the following aunt-like cadences:

I don’t really think I shall ever go again ... Never in my life have I seen such concentrated, abandoned homosexuality ... I wished really that I hadn’t gone. Thousands of queer young men of all shapes and sizes camping about blatantly and carrying on – in my opinion – appallingly. Then there were all the lesbians glowering at each other ... I have always been of the opinion that a large group of queer men was unattractive. On Fire Island it’s more than unattractive, it’s macabre, sinister, irritating and somehow tragic.

The genuine distress of the occasion has interestingly awakened Coward’s talents as a dialogue-writer: this little sequence would go very well as a stage speech, though the part would probably be best assigned to Thora Hird.

In an interesting footnote extracted from a letter to his childhood friend Esmé Wynne, Coward sets out, by request, his philosophy. It is, he says, ‘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 achievement of Noel Coward ... In spite of my unregenerate spiritual attitude I am still jolly kind to everybody and still attentive and devoted to my dear old Mother, who is hale and hearty, sharp as a needle and occasionally very cross indeed.’ It must be said that Coward bore this latter crossness with humour (‘Tuesday 20 April: Mother’s and Hitler’s birthday’) – and, further, that he was broadly right about himself, as many thoroughgoing egocentrics cheerfully are. Coward was fortunate in possessing the force and perhaps forbiddingness of character to ensure that those around him were as ‘self-lessly absorbed’ in his achievement as he was. In the theatre, the process happens naturally: success for the big cheese implies success for all the subordinates and associates – but Coward enjoyed the greater luxury of support, loyalty and, no doubt, a necessary deference from his domestic partners, Cole Lesley and Graham Payn.

Coward contemplated with satisfaction the likelihood that the emotional mechanics of his ménage would puzzle the outside world for years to come. Predictably, he offers posterity no help in elucidating the system here. The highly efficient Cole remains a highly efficient mystery. But Graham Payn, one of the editors of the present volume, does figure in it as one of Coward’s latterday troubles. In spite of all Noel’s attentions, the Payn stage career refused to take off.

He just wanders through his life with no impetus and no genuine ambition ... He is extremely popular, and everybody loves him, but he is almost pathologically idle ... soon he will be an elderly man who has achieved nothing at all. It is indeed a sad worry.

There’s no great fun for Mr Payn in the rereading of this, but it’s a useful inclusion just the same, showing Coward in loco parentis again but this time in the role of heavy father – detectably revelling in, as well as regretting, his ‘son’s’ lack of the parental virtues. It was one of the ways in which Coward gave a sens.; of family to these his closest friends. To experience such comfort himself he had to look elsewhere, and, ambitious as ever, he fixed upon the highest family in the land. The sense of reunion when Coward meets the Royals again is unmistakable – and they are theatrically impeccable too, which is where almost any other family would have let Coward down. For him, of course, the key figure in the outfit was the Queen Mother – a phrase which in this volume carries its full freight of benevolent ambiguities.

Coward had his ‘last remaining tooth out’ in 1963. Two years later he had his ‘under-chin jowls’removed. Apprehensive about the manner of dying, he was ‘neither impressed by nor frightened of death’. Again the echo of childish defiance: ‘it doesn’t impress me.’ He always drew a very firm line under the dead, insisting to himself – it was almost a finger-wag – that he would never see them again and that they were extinguished for ever. Such firmness presumably helped him to ‘rise above it’. He finally did so on a permanent basis on 26 March 1973, in Jamaica. The diaries had ceased some three years earlier, as though satisfied by the knowledge that Mr Wilson had offered a knighthood. The news was communicated to Coward personally by the Queen, during a birthday lunch given by the Queen Mother, of whom Coward had become quite an intimate (‘She was charming, gay and entirely enchanting, as she always is’). Knowing better than to try to top this, Coward simply walks offstage.

Like most books of its sporadic and sprawling kind, this one contains its own accidental epitaph, in the form of Coward’s comment on a novel of his, in progress in 1957: ‘I am pleased with it up to a point, it is gay and amusing and at moments there are patches of good descriptive writing, but it is very, very light and trivial and I have a feeling that it would be wiser to serialise it.’