Noël Coward - Biography

By J Poet

Noël Coward was an English actor, playwright, poet, writer of short stories, novelist, producer, director, singer, songwriter and recording artist who turned out an impressive catalogue of plays, film scripts, reviews, poems, stories and songs. An implicitly out gay man with a rapier wit, Coward was the toast of London’s high society from the 1920s to the late 1940s. In the 1950s, his popularity waned somewhat, but he toured cabarets both in Europe and the US and played Las Vegas with a review of his songs. He died at is estate in Jamaica in 1973.


Noël Coward was born on December 16, 1899 in a town just outside of London. He was named in honor of the approaching holiday. His father was a piano salesman, his mother somewhat absent after the death of her first son. Coward was a natural extrovert, performing for his parents’ guests and started putting on his own impromptu concerts by the time he was seven. After a few years at Chapel Royal Choir School and winning some local talent shows, he made his London debut at 12 in The Goldfish, a children’s play. He also played Slightly, a lost boy in a production of Peter Pan.


The British class system was in full force when Coward was born, but his wit, intelligence and charm won over many of the upper class people he met. At 14 he became friends with the artist Philip Streatfield who asked one of his wealthy friends, Mrs. Astley Cooper, to take Coward in. she let him live on her estate in Hambleton, Rutland, but in the farmhouse, because of his class. He continued acting and appeared briefly with Lillian Gish in D.W. Griffith’s Hearts of the World (1917.) He was drafted for WW I, but was discharged due to ill health. He continued acting, wrote and published short stories and began writing plays.


In 1920, at the age of 21, he had his first play produced in the West End, I Leave It To You. He was also the play’s lead actor. In 1921 he sailed to New York and struggled to find Broadway success to no avail, although he did meet two young actors like himself Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne, who agreed to star in one of Coward’s plays, should he ever write another. He returned to London in 1922 and had another play staged, The Young Idea (1923) himself in a leading role. He also placed several songs in London calling, a hit review produced by Andre Charlot.


In 1924 Coward wrote and produced The Vortex a tale of upper class drug abuse and homosexuality. It opened at the small Everyman Theater and caused a sensation. He moved into a posh apartment on Gerald Road, dazzled society with his stylish dress, and soon had several plays running and songs in Charlot reviews in London and New York. He purchased a farm in Kent and lived there with his parents and boyfriend in 1926. At that time the press stayed out of the private lives of celebrities, so his living arrangement caused no scandal. He toured America with The Vortex and turned out seven plays between 1925 and 1926 – Hay Fever, On With The Dance, a review for which he also composed the songs, Fallen Angels, Easy Virtue, The Queen Was in the Parlor, The Rat Trap and The Constant Nymph. During the first weeks of The Constant Nymph in 1926, Coward collapsed from nervous exhaustion and took off for a Hawaiian vacation.


In 1927 his play Sirocco had one of the worst opening nights in theatrical history. The audience rioted and when Coward appeared they spit on him.


This Year of Grace (1928) a light review did better. Bittersweet (1929) enjoyed a long British run, the New York production opened just weeks after the stock market crash of 1929. Coward began his recording career for HMV/RCA in 1928, delivering witty, world-weary songs like “A Room With a View,” “The Party’s Over Now,” “Mad Dogs and Englishmen” and “Half-Cast Woman.” They’ve been collected on the four-disc set The Masters’ Voice: Noel Coward, His HMV Recordings 1928 to 1953 (1993 Angel). They’re also available individually as A Room With A View (1928-1932) (2001 Naxos Nostalgia), Mad Dogs And Englishmen (1932-1936) (2001 Naxos Nostalgia), Mad About The Boy (1932-1943) (2002 Naxos Nostalgia) and I Wonder What Happened To Him (1944-1951) (2004 Naxos Nostalgia).


Despite the world financial crises, Coward prospered and turned out more hit plays. Private Lives (1930) in which he starred with Gertrude Lawrence was a romantic comedy about a dysfunctional couple. The London production featured a young new actor called Laurence Olivier. The play ran successfully in London and New York. Cavalcade (1931), followed two London families, one rich, one working class, from 1899 to 1930. The film version won the Best Picture Oscar in 1933. Words and Music (1932) a song and dance review introduced Coward hits like “Mad Dogs and Englishmen” and the gay anthem “Mad About the Boy.” Design for Living (1933) a bisexual farce, starred Coward and his old friends Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne. It was followed by the operetta Conversation Piece (1933) and Tonight at 8:30 (1936), nine one-act plays and musicals performed in a three-night cycle.


When WW II started, Coward served as a British spy in Paris, then put on shows for the troops in Europe, Africa and the Far East, often paying for the productions out of pocket. In 1942, he had three hits, Present Laughter (1942), This Happy Breed (1942) and Blithe Spirit (1942), a comedy about a novelist being haunted by the ghost of his first wife. He also wrote, produced, directed and starred in his first film, In Which We Serve (1942) about a British destroyer crew chasing German U-Boats.


After the war, Coward kept writing, and although the plays and song were still first rate, times had changed and his writing was dismissed as slight. Sigh No More (1945), a sprightly review, was well received, but the rest of his new plays failed, although they’re still staged successfully today. When British taxes were raised to pay for postwar rebuilding, Coward moved to Jamaica. He met Graham Payn in 1945 and fell in love; they lived together until Coward’s death. In 1955, Coward appeared in Las Vegas performing his songs. He was an instant smash. The show, and a later performance of Coward hits in New York appear on The Noel Coward Album (1991 Sony).


His Vegas engagement led to Together With Music (1955) a TV special with Mary Martin that he wrote and directed. It’s available on CD as Together With Music (1995 DRG). In the 50s, Coward was hot again and appeared in three hits in London and New York. Nude With Violin (1956), which starred John Gielgud in London and Coward in New York, Look After Lulu (1958) and Waiting in the Wings (1959). The critic’s carped, but they played had long runs.


In the early 60s Coward wrote two musicals, Sail Away (1960) and The Girl Who Came to Supper (1963) an adaptation of Terrence Rattigan’s The Sleeping Prince, but critics slammed it for its similarities to My Fair Lady. He wrote a novel, Pomp and Circumstance and directed a musical adaptation of his play Blithe Spirit, renamed High Spirits (1964). His last London production was Suite In Three Keys (1966), three one act plays including one about an author fearing that his homosexuality will be exposed, but he was finding it hard to remember his lines and regretfully retired from the stage.


He 70th Birthday in 1969 was a national celebration in Great Britain that he jokingly referred to as Holy Week. New reviews featuring his songs were hits in London and New York and he was awarded a Tony for Lifetime Achievement in the theater. In 1973, coward had a stroke and died on his Jamaican estate.


There are countless reissues of Coward’s seminal works worth tracking down including The Compact Coward (1989 EMI), More Compact Coward (1991 EMI) which includes a couple of one acts from Tonight at 8:30 with Gertrude Lawrence, Noël Coward Sings his score for The Girl Who Came to Supper (1997 DRG), rough demos with piano of the songs from the play, Noël Coward Sings Sail Away and Other Rarities (1999 Harbinger), I’ll See You Again (1994 ASV) and Noël Coward On The Air (1999 Pearl), rare radio acetate transcriptions of performances from 1944 -1948 backed by Mantovani His Orchestra.

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