Noël Coward was a Renaissance Man. The only difference was that — except for the first two weeks of his life—he lived in the twentieth century.
At a party to honour him on his 70th birthday his old friend, Lord Louis Mountbatten said this of him...
"There are probably greater painters than Noël, greater novelists than Noël, greater librettists, greater composers of music, greater singers, greater dancers, greater comedians, greater tragedians, greater stage producers, greater film directors, greater cabaret artists, greater TV stars. If there are, they are twelve different people. Only one man combined all twelve labels — The Master."
The century he graced was to provide a number of new and unanticipated opportunities for him for him to prove himself The Master in both the old world and the new... "I scraped together a hundred pounds, which was enough for my fare one way on the Aquitania, with a little over for expenses." At the end of May 1921 he set sail on the first — and certainly the most impoverished — of his many trips to New York. What this suburban Englishman had failed to take into account — apart from the question of his fare home —was that June, July and August in New York are (to misquote Chaucer and Eliot) "the cruelest months." Most of the people he was hoping to meet were out of town for the summer.
His first night was spent at the Algonquin but the next day he moved to the cheaper (and air-conditioned) Brevoort. He found the city "more sharply beautiful than I could ever have imagined — a slightly tawdry beauty, detached, impersonal, and a little scarifying."
However, the trip was far from wasted. After a shaky start, he did manage to sell a few of the rather tattered scripts he had brought over in his luggage. He cabled his mother, Violet, "PLAY ACCEPTED FOR AMERICA. ADVANCE OF FIVE HUNDRED DOLLARS. PASSING PEACEFULLY AWAY. LOVE NOËL."
He also met Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne, who were "keeping company" and had yet to transmute themselves into "The Lunts." Alfred was beginning to earn a reputation on Broadway. Lynn, a fellow Brit, had been a permanent understudy and supporting actress to Laurette Taylor, was also cast in her first important role as Dulcy in George S. Kaufman and Marc Connelly's play of that name. Alfred and Noël watched her opening night, clutching each others' arms nervously. They needn't have worried.
Over meager meals in Alfred and Lynn's West Side "digs" the three of them pondered their futures. They would all become huge stars (naturally) and, once this new constellation was securely in the firmament, they would act together in a play that Noël would write specially for them. That settled, Noël borrowed money from friends he had managed to make and booked his passage home in October on the S. S. Cedric warning Violet to put a light in the window. "Must rush or the Astors or Vanderbilts will think I'm not coming. Won't be long now before your dear son is back to bore everyone with his stories and exploits, some of which actually happened."
His verdict on that first visit? "It seemed, in spite of its hardness and irritating, noisy efficiency, a great and exciting place."
Three years later he returned just after a severe blizzard, which showed him New York in quite a different temper. It was a brief visit during which he was able to see producer André Charlot's compendium 1924 Revue, starring Beatrice Lillie, Gertrude Lawrence, and Jack Buchanan. Several of Noël's numbers were included in the show and it irked him only a little to see Buchanan performing a song that he (Noël) had originally played in London to far greater effect. "It wasn't until later that I acknowledged to myself in secret that the truth of the matter was that his whole technique was superior to mine."
It was 1925 before he was able to "ride in triumph through Persepolis" — or, at least, Broadway. Late the previous year he had made the breakthrough in London with his play The Vortex — a strange little tale of an adulterous mother and a neurotic, drug-addicted son that owed more than a little to Hamlet in terms of plot. In fact, the Lord Chamberlain's Office (which had to license all theatrical productions) would like to have banned it outright but — as its inspector noted — "If we ban this, we shall have to ban Hamlet."
Overnight Noël Coward was not only an actor/playwright to be reckoned with — he was well on the way to becoming a celebrity — "Noël Coward," in fact. Next stop — Broadway! There was to be a small stumbling block in the diminutive shape of "Little Abe" Erlanger, a leading producer/theater owner of the time, who was to co-produce with Charles Dillingham. The play would not open in New York in one of his theaters, Erlanger declared, until the last act had been completely rewritten. The public would never accept the sight of a son "abusing the woman who gave him birth." But Noël was not to worry. He (Abe) would come to the theater and tell what to do. It was Noël who told Erlanger what to do and the play was finally staged by the production team of Sam Harris and Irving Berlin.
The Vortex was an even greater success than it had been in London ("Never before or since in all my experience have I received such a personal stimulus from an audience."). Noël came to the Broadway stage an unknown — and as they would say in the soon-to-be-talking pictures — left it a star. There was, however, to be one professional setback on the visit.
It had been decided to capitalize on the current Coward éclat by staging Hay Fever and here he was not so fortunate. The American cast could not grasp the insubstantial and virtually plotless Englishness of the piece. Opening night at the Maxine Elliott Theater was a gala occasion, alive with expectation. Judith Bliss was played by Laura Hope Crews with "a performance of such unparalleled vivacity that it completely overbalanced everything." From his box Noël watched "as the play proceeded majestically, and with measured tread towards complete failure."
Somewhere in the middle ground between triumph and disaster came Easy Virtue with Jane Cowl — the first of Noël's plays to premiere in New York. It received only moderate reviews but Mrs. Cowl's star power helped it to run for 147 performances.
Three plays on Broadway within the span of a single year was a considerable achievement and taught Noël a great deal, one of the lessons being that nothing in the theater can be taken for granted. The Vortex ended its five-month New York run and then went off on a short tour. It was in Chicago that he learned an object lesson in audience chemistry. A little puzzled by the comedy of the first act, by the last melodramatic act Chicagoans felt they were now on the right wavelength. "Never have I heard such uproarious mirth in a theatre. The curtain fell to considerable applause." Back in his dressing room Noël wrote on the wall in indelible pencil — "Noël Coward Died Here!" When he played there three years later Clifton Webb found it still there, like some carving on the Rosetta Stone.
When he sailed for home, he carried something else in his mental luggage: a sense of theatrical pace. From his first experience as a theatergoer in 1921 he had been struck by the speed and naturalness of the way dialogue was delivered on the Broadway stage without losing clarity. It was a technique he intended to employ on the London stage the moment he got home.
The end of 1926 saw Noël back in New York for the staging of a play he had written in the interim — This Was a Man. Again, it was a piece that the Lord Chamberlain's office had refused to license. Perhaps they were wise on artistic grounds, too, since it only survived at the Klaw Theatre for 31 performances with Francine Larrimore and those two most English of actors, A.E. Matthews and Nigel Bruce. After the opening night Noël described Matthews' performance. "He ambled through the play like a charming retriever who has buried a bone somewhere and can't remember where." Matthews would write apologetically to Noël — "I spoke all your lines upside down." Noël admitted to himself that the writing was slow but that the production — by Basil Dean, who had directed several of Noël's earlier works, "was practically stationary." This Was a Man was subsequently staged in Berlin and Paris. It has never been seen in England.
Since The Vortex, the success of "Noël Coward - Playwright" had clearly begun to curve downwards. He had done too little and done it in too much of a hurry. He badly needed another major hit. He would get it triumphantly with the CB. Cochran revue This Year of Grace! It would have a London run of 316 performances but, while it was still running there to capacity business, Noël put together the New York production, which would star Beatrice Lillie and himself. In addition to the majority of the original numbers, he added a solo number for Bea. At the Selwyn Theater on November 7th, 1928, audiences would hear "World Weary" for the first time. The lady sang it dressed as a small office boy, perched on a stool and munching an apple, a feat which Noël recalled she performed "realistically, sometimes at the expense of the lyric."
So successful was the production that Noël agreed to stay on longer than the three months he usually stipulated. In any case, he was busy working on his next show - a book musical which would be another career landmark: Bitter Sweet, He had completed the libretto but the score was giving him trouble. The show needed a theme waltz and it was proving elusive, until one day in a taxi back to his apartment after a matinee, he found himself in a twenty-minute traffic jam at the corner of 42nd Street and 7th Avenue. "The 'I'll See You Again' waltz dropped into my mind, whole an complete."
Bitter Sweet opened in London in July 1929 to considerable acclaim from critics and public alike. American Peggy Wood played the lead, Sari Linden. Noël's original preference had been for the English star, Evelyn Laye, but there had been a problem. Laye's husband, Sonnie Hale, had co-starred in This Year of Grace with Jessie Matthews, fallen in love with her, and divorced Laye to marry her. Miss Laye somehow felt that Noël and Cochran were to blame and turned her back on the new play. However, when she saw the great success Peggy Wood was making of the part and heard a New York production was in the offing, her attitude suddenly changed.
On November 5th at the Ziegfeld Theatre, the American production had an English leading lady, whereas the English production had an American. Laye had a considerable success of her own and the play ran for 159 performances. Once again, Noël had to deal with cross-cultural considerations. Ziegfeld felt that the show lacked the kind of production values he was used to and offered to add a bevy of his Ziegfeld Girls to brighten things up. Noël firmly refused and after opening night, the Great Ziegfeld was great enough to admit that Noël had been right. He cabled — "THE THEATRE CANNOT DIE AS LONG AS IT HAS GENIUS LIKE YOU. REGARDS, FLO." Noël wrote to Violet — "I've got only 283 telegrams to answer! Evelyn is wee-ing down her leg with excitement... I'm delighted with her success."
One could probably win any number of small bets as to the origins of "Mad Dogs and Englishmen." One of Cochran's London revues, surely? Yes, it certainly turned up, sung by Romney Brent in the 1932 Words and Music, but it had actually been introduced a year earlier (June 1st, 1931) in The Third Little Show at the Music Box Theater in New York — sung by Bea Lillie. Another incidental example of cross culture — a Canadian singing about the English...in America.
And then in the same year there was Private Lives — and the enshrining of "Noël and Gertie" for all time. It opened in London at the inauguration of a brand new theatre, the Phoenix, on September 24th, 1930. Noël played his statutory three months. Then got on with several other projects—not least the daunting piece of theatrical staging known as Cavalcade —before bringing the show to New York. The Lunts had hoped they might take it over in the New World but Noël—much as he loved them—was having none of that. He and Gertie were most certainly going to play it with Laurence Olivier, with Olivier's current wife, Jill Esmond, replacing the original Adrianne Allen. Lynn wrote to Noël, "Of course, wouldn't we have Private Lives dangled in front of our noses and not get it, but I think it is the final amalgamation into the Chinese German with a touch of Indian blood and Christian Science by persuasion play." The New York opening was at the Times Square Theater on January 27th, 1931, and the play was, if anything, even better reviewed than the London version. "I think we retained, on the whole, the shine that we had started with; at all events, we strained every nerve to justify the almost overwhelming praise that was most generously lavished upon us." It ran for 256 performances.
In 1932, on his leisurely way back from a trip to South America, Noël received a cable that had a ten-year history. Those evenings in 1921 with the Lunts and their dreams of acting together were about to take concrete form.
"DARLING, OUR CONTRACT WITH THE THEATRE GUILD UP IN JUNE, WHAT ABOUT IT?"
For the rest of the journey he concentrated on writing the play he had promised and which—now that all three were undeniably stars—it was time to deliver. "To sit down and write an effective vehicle for one talented personality in the theatre is none too easy, to attempt to write for three... seemed to me then and seems to be now an extremely tricky assignment. It was also, of course, one of the most stimulating challenges I have ever faced in my life...The idea slipped into my mind, with neither prayer nor supplication, on the first evening out of Panama... It was a painless confinement and no instruments were needed to ease the birth beyond an extra typewriter ribbon, which I happened to have with me." He left the boat with the manuscript of Design for Living under his arm. It opened at the Barrymore Theatre in New York on January 24th, 1933, and was so well received that Noël broke his own rule and agreed to extend his three months to five. Although theirs was a friendship that lasted fifty years until Noël's death, it was the one and only time they acted together. There was talk of a reunion from time to time and he was to write two more plays for them but the "tricky assignment" was not to be repeated.
He would be less successful with Conversation Piece (1934), the story of a soi-disant French count who brings his "niece" to Regency Brighton with a view to finding a profitable marriage for her — only to find that she has been in love with him all the time. Noël played the lead briefly in the London production opposite French singing star Yvonne Printemps. The production did moderately well but when Mlle. Printemps was brought over to reprise it in New York, it proved not to be the theatergoing public's taste and closed after 55 performances.
Noël's career was entering another of its lulls. Point Valaine was written expressly for the Lunts but this time they all miscalculated badly. Lynn as a woman with a questionable past and Alfred as her brutal discarded Russian lover were not the "Lunts" that their admirers expected or would accept. Alfred would mutter for years to come that his only hope was that the first night audience were all dead! They would consider it their only outright flop.
Soon after the New York opening Noël received welcome distraction in the shape of his first real film role, to be filmed at New York's Astoria Studios. He was to play the lead in The Scoundrel — the rather bizarre tale of a "cad" who drowns and whose ghost has to find someone on earth who genuinely loves him before his spirit can be released. The experience of being soaking wet for most of the film stayed with him. He later claimed he turned down the chance to play the lead in The Bridge on the River Kwai on the grounds that all the characters seemed to spend most of their time under water. Alec Guinness accepted the part and the subsequent Oscar. When The Scoundrel was released it was a success in the big cities, if not in Middle America and Noël received so many offers to make more films that he was seriously tempted. Other projects took precedence, however, and he was not to make another until World War II changed everyone's plans.
1936 brought a project that would prove to be one of his greatest successes. Tonight at 8:30 was a series of nine one-act plays, all with very different characters and settings. The only thing they had in common was that the two leading characters in each were played by...Noël and Gertie. They toured the United Kingdom for three months before opening at "their theatre"—the Phoenix—in January, to a reception that was at least as enthusiastic as they had received for Private Lives.
In September they took the show on the road again — this time to the National Theater, New York, where the plays ran for 118 performances and could easily have stayed except for Noël's notoriously short attention span as a performer. He had done what he set out to achieve and, once again, it was time to move on. "Upheld by my stubborn faith in the star system, (I set out to create) acting, singing, and dancing vehicles for Gertrude Lawrence and myself. The success we had with Private Lives both in London and New York encouraged me to believe the public liked to see us playing together, and this belief, happily for us both and the managements concerned, turned out to be fully justified."
1939 brought Noël's last Broadway revue. Set to Music, starring Bea Lillie, was an adaptation of the 1932 London show Words and Music, together with some new material. One of the new songs would become a Coward "standard," as Bea sang "I Went to a Marvelous Party." It was Noël's riposte to society hostess (and longtime friend) Elsa Maxwell. When they were all in the south of France, Elsa invited Noël and Bea to a "little party" she was throwing. It would be "just ourselves." In fact, it turned out to be "about a hundred of us, all in the last stages of evening dress." They were to be the entertainment. Noël refused point blank but audiences are still entertained by the version he committed to song. The show opened at the Music Box Theater, New York, on January 18, and ran for 129 performances.
By the time the run ended, Noël was preoccupied with more weighty matters...such as the imminence of war...
As soon as it was declared on the morning of September 3rd, Noël was dispatched to Paris to open an office of information. It was a job he approached energetically but one to which he was ill-suited with its bureaucratic formality. After a few months his superiors distinctly heard "a beating of wings" and ordered him to take a fact-finding trip to the U.S., which at this time was still neutral. Technically, he was a spy by operating in this way and the experience had its own frustrations, to which he responded typically by writing a play, which would show American audiences the stark contrast between their own (as he saw it) apathy and self-delusion and the reality of events in Europe.
The play was called Time Remembered and it told the story of a London wife and mother who is persuaded to bring her two small children to America for safety at the height of the Blitz. The attitude she encounters is so upsetting that she determines to return home, whatever the consequences. By the time she does so, several of her American friends are beginning to see the light. The events at Pearl Harbor in December 1941 changed the circumstances Noël was depicting overnight. Time Remembered was forgotten. It was never produced.
Although he was not to return to America until after the war, he remained a presence there — most especially with his film about the Royal Navy, In Which We Serve (1942) — and with a Broadway production of his hit play, Blithe Spirit. It opened at the Morosco Theatre on November 4th, 1941, and ran for 657 successful performances with Clifton Webb in the lead and the occasional transatlantic prompt from Noël.
The immediate post-war years were not kind to Noël as far as his reputation in the UK was concerned. The critics decided that austerity, no-nonsense Labour England had no room for what they considered his brittle urbane sophistication. Although he always professed to ignore them, the evidence is otherwise. In his secret heart he began to wonder if he was perhaps, after all, out of touch.
An example was the play Home and Colonial -— a 1949 comedy of British colonial politics and manners that he had written with Gertie in mind. She dithered and eventually it was premiered in the US at the Cape Playhouse and the Westport Country Playhouse under the title Island Fling and starring Claudette Colbert. Clearly it needed work and it was not produced until 1956 in London as South Sea Bubble with Vivien Leigh in the lead. It has never been seen in the US.
Meanwhile, New York saw him only at one remove, when Present Laughter was presented at the Plymouth Theater — again with Clifton Webb in the lead. It did not replicate the success of Blithe Spirit, lasting for only 158 performances.
1952 saw him reunited with the Lunts. He wrote the Victorian comedy Quadrille with them in mind, and the combination—staged at the Phoenix—seemed to work well enough, running for 329 performances. The Lunts then took the play to New York, after a certain amount of reluctant rewriting on Noël's part (as well as theirs). It ran at the Coronet Theater from November 3rd, 1954 for 139 performances before the Lunts decided it was time for them to turn to something else. It was the last collaboration for the trio. Meanwhile, tired of battling London's critical hostility, Noël decided to change his focus. Starting in 1951 he "reinvented" himself by performing annually in cabaret at the Café de Paris. This led directly to his engagement at the Desert Inn, Las Vegas, in June 1955 — historically preserved in the album that introduced so many of the post-war generation to him — Noël Coward in Las Vegas,
America—which had always been a second home to him—was now to receive a great deal more of his time and attention. In addition to his cabaret persona he became a TV star in the US ("I have always believed that television is for appearing on — not looking at."). A three-program deal with CBS-TV saw him appearing on the Ford Star Jubilee show "Together with Music" with Mary Martin ("A 90-minute entertainment from New York in color" — October 22nd, 1955). The second in the series - Blithe Spirit — was broadcast from Los Angeles — but May 5th saw Noël back in New York, directing and starring in This Happy Breed, live for CBS again. The show was watched by an audience of 52 million people.
The TV links would last to the end of his life in both countries. In 1956 alone he appeared on "The Ed Sullivan Show" (April 8th) and Ed Murrow's "Person to Person" (April 27th). Then "Ed Sullivan" again (December 8th, 1957) and Murrow's "Small World" (March 22nd and 29th, 1959) with James Thurber and Siobhan McKenna ("I cannot understand this white man's magic but it certainly is remarkable that three people can chat to each other and be seen and heard doing it with a distance of thousands of miles between them."). There were to be many other guest spots on talk shows.
Nude with Violin —a satire on the modem art business—was written in 1954 but not staged in London until 1956 with John Gielgud in the lead. Despite the by-now-expected critical apathy, it settled in for a long run and Noël decided it would be the vehicle he would use for his return to the Broadway stage. (May 12th) “The time has come for me to stir my stumps... I think seriously of playing Nude myself for a limited season on Broadway. With me in it it would be practically sure-fire..." Well, it turned out to be not "sure-fire." New York audiences did not find the subject matter relevant. Noël tried to rationalize the reaction: "In England the audience can identify with the family and its dilemma...Such a class doesn't really exist in America." The play opened at the Belasco Theatre on November 14th, 1957, and as the run limped on, Noël decided to alternate it with a second play — his good old standby Present Laughter. This pairing saw him safely through the rest of his Broadway and Los Angeles commitment. It was the last time he was to act on an American stage.
1959 presented another problem. Noël's adaptation of the Feydeau farce Occupe-toi d'Amélie, Look After Lulu, opened at the Henry Miller Theater, New York, on March 3rd, starring Tammy Grimes and Roddy McDowall, and ran for only 39 performances (it would do better in London later that year with Vivien Leigh).
Nor did Sail Away set sail under a fair wind. Noël had begun by writing a musical called Later than Spring, intended as the further adventures of Mrs. Wentworth-Brewster, the born again femme fatale of the Bar on the Piccola Marina. The piece stubbornly refused to take satisfactory shape, so he put it aside and started again with a different plot. This time it would be the story of an unhappily married woman who takes herself off on a cruise to sort out her feelings and has a brief fling with a young passenger. The comedy sub-plot would involve the cruise hostess, Mimi Paragon, and her own problems. Audience reaction in Boston told him quite clearly that the main plot was depressing and that the main interest was Mimi (Elaine Stritch). When it opened in New York's Broadhurst Theatre on October 3rd, 1961, he had cut the first theme entirely and Mimi was now both the romantic and comic lead. And Stritch was from that night a star.
By this time, New York was Noël's principal creative focus.
In 1963 he was asked to provide words and music for The Girl Who Came to Supper —a musical version of Terence Rattigan's Coronation Year play The Sleeping Prince. The stars were Jose Ferrer and Florence Henderson. It opened at the Broadway Theater on December 8th in that year and managed 112 performances. Despite a charming score, it somehow didn't appeal, just as the earlier Broadway production of the original play starring Michael Redgrave had failed to take off.
By this time Noël was immersed in a second musical adaptation. This was Hugh Martin and Timothy Gray's version of Blithe Spirit under the title High Spirits. They had brought it virtually complete to a skeptical Noël, who found that, in fact, he liked it a great deal. With Tammy Grimes, Edward Woodward, and Beatrice Lillie in the lead, it played at the Alvin Theater for 375 performances. By this time, Noël began to realize that he had taken on too much and the further frustration was that for the last two projects he had lacked the one thing he most valued—total artistic control. He vowed never to put himself in that position again.
There was to be one more play—or, rather, play sequence—Suite in Three Keys. Three plays with quite different characters set in the same Swiss hotel suite—a variation on Tonight at 8:30. After a debilitating illness, Noël starred in all three at London's Queen's Theatre beginning on April 14th, 1966. It was a fitting swan song. He had planned to take them to Broadway but found he no longer had the energy. Two of them were done after his death at the Barrymore Theatre, New York, starring Jessica Tandy, Hume Cronyn, and Anne Baxter (February 28th, 1974) — as Coward in Two Keys.
Even then, Noël had not quite done with New York — or New York with him. His long-expected Knighthood in 1970 brought on numerous revivals and TV appearances most memorably on "The Dick Cavett Show" (February 10th) in which he appeared with his old friends the Lunts, together with Tammy Grimes and Brian Bedford (currently appearing in a Tony Award-winning revival of Private Lives).
The party was nearly over but not quite. In March 1973, Noël attended a special gala performance of the revue Oh, Coward! With him were his close friends Cole Lesley and Graham Payn and on his arm was Marlene Dietrich. Had he enjoyed the show? "One does not laugh at one's own jokes." Then he added — "But I did go out humming the tunes."
A few days later he went to his beloved Jamaica, where he died on the morning of March 26th.
For complete details of Coward's work, see The Theatrical Companion to Coward (Oberon Books, London, 2000).
BARRY DAY has written extensively about The Master for the last 20 years. He had edited Coward's Complete Lyrics; Collected Revue Sketches and Parodies ; The Unknown Noël ; The Theatrical Companion to Coward ; Letters of Noël Coward ; and the recent Complete Verse and Treasures of Noël Coward, in addition to adapting several Coward musicals into concert versions. He is a Trustee of the Coward Foundation and Vice President of the Noël Coward Society. In 2004, the Queen awarded him the O.B.E. (Order of the British Empire) "for services to British culture in the USA."