The Letters of Noel Coward (2007)


Here are over seven hundred pages of letters to the forgotten, the good and the great, friends and enemies alike, by the genius and spectacularly accomplished, flamboyant and happily gay Coward from his precocious teens to his peaceful passing at seventy-three in Jamaica. The letters reveal him. I find him entirely likable, sane and brave as well as immensely talented. The Vortex, Private Lives, Blithe Spirit, and Cavalcade are only fashionably and temporarily underrated amidst a spate of terribly serious pretentious stage plays of the past few decades sure eventually to fade as do all boring dramas; and meanwhile those four dazzlers by Coward are, and will be seen widely, I feel sure, to be on a par with many of the better dramas of the same period. He’s one of the important playwrights in the history of the stage, and he knew it and never worried much about it. “Personally,” he once confided, “I would rather play Bingo every night for a year than pay a return visit to Waiting for Godot.” In another letter he confessed of Arthur Miller, whose Death of a Salesman Coward found no more engrossing than Godot:

“I am relieved on the whole that Mr. and Mrs. Arthur Miller disdained my invitation. I have a feeling that it just might not have been a success mad. In the first place I am not an ardent admirer of Mr. Miller’s work on account of it lacking humor to an alarming degree. In the second place I once at Clifton’s (Webb) in Hollywood, sat for two hours at a tiny table with Marilyn and felt, at the end of two hours, a piercing need for a whiff of oxygen. She is certainly no Madame de Steal, is she?”

Elsewhere he explains later in life to his closest childhood friend, Esme Wynne:

“My philosophy is as simple as ever. I love smoking, drinking, moderate sexual intercourse on a diminishing scale, reading and writing. I have a selfless absorption in the well-being and achievements of Noel Coward. I don’t care for any church (even the dear old Mother church) and I don’t believe there is a Universal Truth, and if you have found it you are a better man than I, Gunga Din.”

Yet during World War Two he eagerly, earnestly and proudly worked as a traveling celebrity for British Intelligence gathering HUMINT at the bidding of the fabled William Stephenson, was fiercely patriotic, did the stirring film, In Which We Serve, and swallowed his even more ambitious and risky aspirations to serve the cause in deference to Churchill’s somewhat contemptuous dismissal of his usefulness other than to perform pure entertainment for the troops and did not complain when Churchill, of whom Coward fervently approved (without reciprocity), obstructed an early motion to bestow knighthood on Coward (an honor finally granted years later).

What I like most about Coward, and which comes through bracingly in his voluminous letters, is his sense of humor–really a pragmatic optimism–to whose determined maintenance he credited his very sanity. It is his answer to a famous line by Nicky in The Vortex (1924) which stands in for a number of lines of self-revelation in everything he wrote from the plays to the letters, a glimpse of his most acute and haunting understanding of the deep darkness within us:

“How can we help ourselves? We swirl around in a vortex of beastliness.”

I suspect his cheerfulness was his great abiding attraction for most he encountered in a life in which he knew, it seemed, practically everyone. He met them because he was the famous Noel Coward. If they didn’t like him at first–assessed he wasn’t, for example, a “serious writer”–they came nearly always to like him even as, often, he bloodied them with his rapier (a suitable name for his typewriter and the gracefully piercing counter missives it clacked out). His admirers included: Maugham, Woolf, Greene, Osbourne, Barrie, Tynan, Connolly; Ferber, Woolcott and the Algonquin Circle; and many more. Yes, as a rule they took to him, albeit he was not really of them (except for Maugham, who was a wary rival sometimes close to Coward in spirit if certainly more direct in dramatizing human ironies).

Coward’s letters bring over an era. He went from the stages of provincial Great Britain to London and the West End, Manhattan and Broadway, Hollywood, Honolulu, Jamaica, and the far East. He was in continental Europe frequently. His great friends included Gertrude Lawrence, Marlene Dietrich, Laurence Olivier, T. E. Lawrence, the Lunts, “Tulla” Bankhead, Cary Grant, Mary Martin, William Stephenson, David Niven, Alec Guiness, Vivian Leigh, and Alfred Hitchcock. (As to Hollywood, Coward did, after all, get in some preparation with In Which We Serve and his screenplay for Brief Encounter.)

He’s had quite a literary influence, in my view, including influence beyond the stage, though it has yet to be sufficiently acknowledged. As just one example, the Letters reveals the teen Coward as uncannily like J. D. Salinger’s sensitive and precocious adolescents in his The Catcher in the Rye, Nine Stories and Franny and Zooey. The first fifty pages of The Letters of Noel Coward, detailing Coward’s charming friendship with the almost equally precocious Esme Wynne, reminds much of the outlook of some of Salinger’s young characters. Salinger, though, with his suicidal whiz kids, is far distant from Coward’s cheeky cheerfulness.

Coward seems a man for all seasons, including the present one.