The world has never seen a man quite like Noel Coward. As a writer he could knock off a hit show in a matter of days, as an actor his career spanned five decades and as a cabaret performer he won the hearts of a whole new generation. He was, undoubtedly, a star.
Born in Teddington, England in 1899 to Violet and Arthur Coward, Noel came into this world determined to make his mark. Encouraged by an ambitious mother he wasted no time in starting what would be a long and varied career. By the age of twelve he had made his first professional appearance on the stage and couple of years later he had his first encounter with the irrepressible Gertrude Lawrence when they appeared together in the play Hannele. The stage – as they say – was set.
In 1924 Coward starred in the first production of his play The Vortex. The young Coward could have had little idea how dramatically this event would change his life. The play dealt with the scandalous issue of drug abuse and caused the Lord Chamberlain to declare one particular scene as revolting in the last degree. It created an enormous stir on the London theatre scene and literally catapulted its writer and star into the public eye.
By the time he was in his mid-thirties Coward had written over fifteen plays including Hay Fever, Private Lives and Cavalcade. Despite his comparative youth the first of many Coward biographies had already been written. In 1930 Coward starred with Gertrude Lawrence in Private Lives and captured the glamorous image of his generation. With the outbreak of the Second World War the ‘balconies and cocktails’ image fell out of fashion and by the 1950s Coward had turned to the world of cabaret to earn his living.
This shift in his career was kick-started by his cabaret show at The Desert Inn in Las Vegas. The Vegas show was given a particularly special boost by Frank Sinatra. Sinatra travelled from Hollywood to see the show, and then went on to announce on national radio, “If you want to hear how songs should be sung, get the hell over to The Desert Inn!”. Four weeks later Coward left The Desert Inn a star reborn. As an added bonus he had a classic live-recorded album of the show which, forty-five years later, has yet to go out of print.
Of course Coward is as much remembered now for his films as for his live performances. His 1942 film In Which We Serve brought Coward an Oscar nomination for Best Writer and was ranked in the top 100 British Films ever in a recent BFI poll. As a writer he went on to produce such classics as Brief Encounter, but his career as a film actor is perhaps more notorious for it’s ‘might-have-beens’.
When approached to play the King in The King & I he politely declined and pointed Rogers and Hammerstein in the direction of a little-known young actor called Yul Brynner; when offered Professor Higgins in My Fair Lady he said no, and the part was then immortalised by Rex Harrison; he was asked to take the role of Colonel Nicholson in The Bridge on the River Kwai but turned it down – Alec Guinness later won an Oscar in the role, and finally Harry Lime in The Third Man was refused by Coward before being snapped up by the young Orson Welles.
Despite the inevitable ups and downs of such a lengthy and diverse career, Coward finally received the recognition he truly deserved in 1970 when he received a knighthood. His failing health was evident at the ceremony and three years later he died at home in his beloved Jamaica.
1999 was the centenary of Noel Coward’s birth. Despite his fears his memory has not faded and the centenary was marked by a gala night at the Carnegie Hall in New York. The previous year a statue was unveiled by his old friend the Queen Mother in the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, and Coward is commemorated with not one, but two blue plaques, at his previous houses in both Teddington and Sutton.
But what really keeps the memory of Coward alive are the songs, the plays, the films and the irrepressible one-liners he left behind. Famous for his razor-sharp wit he once said:
“Wit ought to be a glorious treat, like caviar. Never spread it about like marmalade”
Wherever he is now, Noel Coward is feasting on caviar!
Did you know? Five little known facts about Noel Coward
- Although he loved to paint, Coward was actually allergic to oil paints and consequently always painted wearing gloves.
- Dora Bryan is still a household name of the British theatre, but things could have been different . . . when Coward met an up and coming actress called Dora Broadbent he suggested her surname was perhaps not suitable for a West End calibre actress and she changed it. Perhaps this was the push that saw her finally on the road to success?
- In 1965 Coward underwent mild cosmetic surgery – one of the first men to do so.
- The distinguished writer R D Blackmore – author of Lorna Doone – was godfather to Noel’s older brother Russell. When asked if he would be godfather to Noel he declined, saying that as four of his five godchildren had died (including Russell) he felt perhaps he was a bad choice of godparent.
- Coward had no formal music training and although he did take singing lessons to work on his technique, he was a self-taught pianist who never took a single piano lesson in his whole life.
Noel Coward: A Life
- Born Teddington 16th December 1899
- The middle of three sons. The eldest, Russell, died of meningitis before Noel was born. The youngest, Eric, died of cancer aged only 28.
- In 1927 he bought Goldenhurst Farm in Kent with its surrounding 150 acres, and moved in his mother, father and two maiden aunts Ida and Vida.
- In 1947 he built a house in Jamaica. After being swamped with visitors he built a second house, Firefly, which became his home and his retreat.
- He shared thirty years of his life with his long-time partner Graham Pynn, but never publicly acknowledged his homosexuality, for fear of offending his public
- Died in Jamaica in 1973.
For more information about Noel Coward’s life and work, take a look at www.noelcoward.net – the website of the Noel Coward Society.