Masculine, Assertive, Athletic and Elegant

E.S. Turner

  • Noël Coward: A Biography by Philip Hoare
    Sinclair-Stevenson, 605 pp, £25.00, November 1995, ISBN 1 85619 265 2

A few yards back from the Bund, in Shanghai, is the Freedom Hotel, formerly the Cathay. It makes an undistinguished stopover, but has one claim to notice: it is where, in 1930, Noël Coward holed up, suffering from flu and, with only a pad of paper and an Eversharp pencil, wrote Private Lives in four days (having earlier conceived the plot during a restless night in Tokyo, when he was visited by a shimmering vision of Gertrude Lawrence). Four days to write a classic comedy was good going, but he had already written Hay Fever in three. In 1941, when hard up, he withdrew to the Italianate folly of Portmeirion in Wales (presumably festooned in barbed wire) and knocked out Blithe Spirit in seven days. Those were probably his three most popular plays (Blithe Spirit ran for four and a half years). Whatever the man was, he was a superb professional. The pity of it, or conceivably the charm, was that he was also a professional enfant terrible.

Philip Hoare’s biography is described as authoritative, rather than authorised. An authorised biography was to have been written by James Pope-Hennessy, who had gathered much material before he came to his violent end. Hoare received the ‘approval and co-operation’ of the Coward estate. Over the years other hands had tried to pluck away the veils from the Coward legend. We read how Coward, then a Swiss national, was found in bed reading the proofs of Sheridan Morley’s A Talent to Amuse (1969). ‘How is it?’ he was asked. ‘I’m afraid Sherry has to do a bit more work,’ was the reply. ‘There are still a few old ladies in Worthing who don’t know ...’ More work meant more expurgation. Any old ladies in Worthing who read Clive Fisher’s Noël Coward (1992) will have gathered what close friendship sometimes, though not always, meant. They may be more shocked to learn from Hoare (quoting Robin Maugham) that in youth Coward was a gifted and audacious shoplifter (‘a daredevil game many adolescents play’). Hoare tells us that in the spring of 1918 the precocious Coward, 18 years old, received a ‘salutary lesson in British justice – and prejudice’. This refers to the outcome of the wildly scandalous Pemberton Billing case, involving a supposed register of 47,000 British perverts kept in the cabinet noir of Prince William of Wied. The upshot was a wave of anti-homosexual feeling not unlike that which greeted the downfall of Wilde.

But did Coward absorb this salutary lesson? Bumptiously cultivating men of letters, he met and greatly irritated Siegfried Sassoon and Wilde’s friend Robert Ross. On Armistice Day he was to be seen in a tail-coat in a Rolls-Royce belonging to an epicene Chilean opium addict, a pretty example of feasting with panthers. Six years of dangerous living in the theatre were capped by the succès de scandale of The Vortex, which earned him a Rolls-Royce of his own. In America, complete with Rolls, he kept exotic company: ‘As in London (where their preponderance was supposedly due to the lack of eligible men post-war) Noël’s female acquaintance in Manhattan encompassed an inordinate number of lesbians – an entire social network of their own.’ And the men? The types to which he was attracted were ‘masculine, assertive, athletic and elegant’, preferably in uniform. The relationships which stud these pages range from encounters and dalliances to romantic involvements, from speculative affairs to intense and passionate ones; and the parties cited run from prince of the blood to television repairman (shared with a fellow composer). Coward’s reputation in the theatre became such that he had to assure nervous callers to his home: ‘I shan’t jump on you. I’m not the type,’ along with an assurance that there was a police station just across the road. Anxious about his mannerisms, he asked Marlene Dietrich to keep an eye on them: ‘I must not appear effeminate in any way. Do be a dear – watch out for anything that could be considered less than “butch”, if you see me being at all “queer” tell me immediately.’ Such problems did not apparently worry his mother, who was ‘well aware of her son’s sexual proclivities’. Writes Hoare: ‘It is strange to think of the Cowards sharing a house with their son’s lover; Noël’s friends certainly found it odd.’ But, as the newspapers confirm daily, mothers of performing sons will put up with a great deal.

Any biography of a successful theatrical figure has to be a repetitive tale of hits and flops, with familiar landmarks: £1000 a week for the first time; the endless Atlantic crossings, with or without a private deck; the horrors of Hollywood; the search for a congenial tax haven, when the agent’s fee exceeds the author’s own percentage; the entertaining of the troops; the well-remembered cruel notices; the nervous breakdowns, tiffs, tears and tantrums. Hoare leaves nothing out. As the author of a life of Stephen Tennant he is au fait with the more preposterous figures of the times. He knows who was asked to leave which country, and who badly misjudged a gondolier in Venice, and why the Ritz Bar in London was closed in the last war. He slips up oddly when he describes a recruit to Coward’s entourage as having been ‘ADC to Evelyn Waugh’ in the Royal Marines. Many expected witticisms turn up, though not the possibly apocryphal description of the Sit-wells as ‘two wise acres and a cow’. The footnotes are often good value. One of them quotes a last verse of ‘Mad about the Boy’ which was deleted by an American management: ‘But I’m mad about the boy/And even Doctor Freud cannot explain it/Those vexing dreams/I’ve had about the boy.’

The war service of Noël Coward makes a rum story. Called up in 1918, the reluctant 18-year-old played the passive resistance game for all it was worth and was finally rejected, even in the hour of the Army’s acutest manpower shortage. It is a great pity he never elected to be a conscientious objector, since we could then have had his witty reply to ‘What would you do if a German were about to rape your sister?’ In 1930 he wrote a polemical anti-war play, Post Mortem, but ruled that it should never be professionally produced; and next year undermined its sentiments with Cavalcade, which Beverley Nichols, then in a pacifist frenzy, denounced as ‘the finest essay in betrayal since Judas Iscariot’. In World War Two Coward kicked off with a rather ridiculous ‘intelligence’ foray to Paris, followed by a much-criticised ‘mission’ to America, resulting in a prosecution for currency offences. His triumph, if such it can be called, was to impersonate the captain of a destroyer in In Which We Serve, leaving Richard Attenborough to play the reluctant rating. It is staggering to find Coward dissolving in tears because, despite Mountbatten’s efforts on his behalf, he did not receive a knighthood in the 1943 Honours List. Any such award would have caused nationwide apoplexy.

Coward’s relationship with the Navy is a subject on which Hoare might usefully have expanded. When he had finished writing Private Lives in Shanghai he obtained a lift from a British warship on the next leg of his world tour. In succeeding years he was forever going on cruises with the Navy. At Bermuda, where he was then based, he presented himself on board HMS Dragon and was taken aback when the captain very reasonably asked: ‘What the hell are you doing on board this ship?’ Coward replied that he was ‘exhausted, overworked and on the verge of a nervous breakdown and had joined the ship in order to be nursed back to health and strength and waited on hand and foot’. Not only was he given a passage to Trinidad, but other cruises under the same captain followed. In the House of Commons Emmanuel Shinwell enquired repeatedly why this man was being carried about on personal cruises by His Majesty’s Fleet. Nobody took Shinwell very seriously, but he had a good point. So how was he fobbed off?

More embarrassing than Coward’s love affair with the Royal Navy was his love affair with the royal ladies, his ‘darling Ma’ams’, which is enough to bring blushes to a hagiographer’s cheek. Hoare is no hagiographer, and readily concedes ‘Coward could never resist royalty, even the deposed variety.’ He was an appalling snob and climber. We learn that the Court Circular page of the Times contained items like: ‘Mr Noël Coward has gone abroad for several weeks. He intends to have a complete holiday and no letters will be forwarded.’ (He had gone to join HMS Queen Elizabeth in Greece.) Presumably the Court Circular page did not mention his operation for piles, though the New York Times gave it a multi-deck headline containing the words ‘Dramatist Stricken.’ It would be no surprise, however, to find that Coward formally announced in the Times that ‘Mr Noël Coward wishes the public on all occasions to place a diaeresis over the letter E in his name.’ This book accedes to his wish on the title page, but not in the text.

Much incidental pleasure is to be found in the judgments of the Lord Chamberlain’s readers on Coward’s non-stop submissions. These courteous gentlemen, sometimes playwrights themselves, had his measure, but they gave him an easy rein, resignedly accepting ‘a characteristic immoral twist’ and admitting that they were not arbiters of taste, while drawing the line at indecency. With The Vortex the problem was not so much a son accusing his mother of unchastity – ‘revolting in the last degree’, but what about Hamlet? – as that by portraying Society as morally corrupt the play was likely to foment class hatred. Coward called round to see Lord Cromer personally and persuaded him that the play was a moral tract. It was a genial meeting, but Coward continued to abuse the officials of St James’s Palace, often pompously. In his day Vanbrugh, suffering from Lord Chamberlain trouble, had packed in playwriting and taken to designing palaces. Coward, not wishing to design a Castle Howard (there’s a clerihew there), went on pushing his luck. Then in late life he underwent a volte face, telling David Frost that the Lord Chamberlain’s censorship had been ‘nearly always justified. I think it’s a very, very good thing indeed.’ Was this another betrayal on the Judas Iscariot scale? Or a belated recognition that tennis is best played with a net?

Writing against the restraints of censorship was one thing; writing against the checks imposed by public opinion was another. It has long been the fashion to search the works of homosexual playwrights for coded messages, for cheats and contrivances, to point to women characters who are really men, and so forth. Hoare plays this game a little half-heartedly, with talk of Coward’s ‘inverted emotional acrobatics’. He quotes the late Derek Jarman as saying that drug-taking in The Vortex was a synonym for homosexuality – ‘Noël Coward put his homosexuality in a little silver box and sniffed it.’ It is vastly more likely that Coward simply sat down to write a shocker about fashionable drug-taking, which was much in the headlines. It is just as likely that his early comedies were simply vehicles for people to be entertainingly rude to each other, with absolutely nothing below the surface. Hoare cites Blithe Spirit as a play in which Coward displays ‘a vague misogynism – the female as encumbrance to men’, but there is little to be built on that. He is on firmer ground when he comes to the ‘loaded charade’ of Design for Living – ‘the overall tone was unmistakably homosexual’. The new Lord Chamberlain, Lord Clarendon, surprisingly was content to let it go as ‘an artificial comedy of manners’, though the Public Morality Council lobbied against it. Sean O’Casey described the players as ‘poor wincing worms in a wine-cup’.

Fulsomeness is notably lacking from this biography, but fairness is not. Hoare’s own rather tentative estimate of this ‘enormously talented man’ (Coward’s self-description, from which it is hard to dissent) has to be sought out, a sentence or two at a time, throughout these densely packed pages. Mainly the asides are critical: This Happy Breed was ‘an affecting tribute to a mythical England; a Cockney neoromantic townscape, a snapshot of a city and a people that existed only in Noël Coward’s head’. Other judgments: ‘In trying to find himself, Coward found only other masks to wear’; ‘Even in his sixth decade there was still the desire for a smash hit’; ‘Coward remained essentially childish throughout his life.’ Kenneth Tynan confirmed that Coward ‘never suffered the imprisonment of maturity’.

Mature years, however, brought on a reactionary rage, not only against the follies of the past but against the excesses of the Sixties. Resolute not to ‘come out’, Coward began to abominate the public posturings of those who had. When persuaded to visit Fire Island, he appreciated the adulation of the vacationers but found the atmosphere ‘sick-sick-sick’, not least because of the numbers of lesbians ‘glowering at each other’. His considered view was that a large group of homosexual men was ‘more than unattractive, it’s macabre, sinister, irritating and somehow tragic’.

Where to live out his tax exile was a worry for the toast of Las Vegas. Bermuda had proved too suburban, Jamaica was ‘on the turn’. The Isle of Man was surely unthinkable. To widespread surprise he chose the land of Calvin. Like so many of his Hollywood friends he underwent supposedly rejuvenating treatment by goat extract. On his 70th birthday the ‘three hundred close friends’ at the Savoy Hotel were probably unaware that the creased face beaming on them had been recently lifted, and that during the operation his heart had stopped. If they had not pummelled him back to life, what a headline that would have made.