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His Design for Living

1.

Even the youngest of us will know, in fifty years’ time,” Kenneth Tynan wrote a little over fifty years ago, “exactly what we mean by ‘a very Noël Coward sort of person.’” Tynan himself was just twenty-six when he made this confident pronouncement, and although it’s possible if not indeed probable that “a very Noël Coward sort of person” doesn’t signify a great deal to most twenty-six-year-olds today, some of them—and certainly most people twice their age—would know precisely what kind of person Tynan was talking about. That person, we know, would be witty and amusing, with an epigram on his lips, a cocktail in one perfectly manicured hand, and a lighted cigarette in the other; he would, moreover, be impeccably and elegantly dressed, and would always manage to be just as impeccably, and perhaps a trifle theatrically, posed whenever he appeared in public.

He would, in fact, look just like the striking Cecil Beaton portrait of Coward that appears on the cover of Barry Day’s rich new collection of Coward’s letters: an image of “the Master” in dramatic profile, natty in a perfectly cut suit, holding a cigarette aloof from his lips as if he were just about to pronounce, or maybe had just pronounced, one of the bons mots for which he and his plays were so extraordinarily famous. It’s an image that sums up what most people during most of the twentieth century thought urbane sophistication looked like; and yet to those who know Coward’s life and work well, the amused and amusing persona that he perfected in the 1920s, when he first became famous, was just part of the story—“a nice façade to sit behind,” as Coward wrote of a character based on Somerset Maugham in his 1935 play Point Valaine, “but a trifle bleak.” (Both the life and work can be known in tremendous detail at this point: apart from an excellent biography by Sheridan Morley and no fewer than three volumes of autobiography by Coward himself, there are by now memoirs by friends and former lovers, his shrewd and funny Diaries, edited by Morley together with Coward’s longtime lover, Graham Payn, and numerous editions of his plays and songs, a dazzling seven of which were the handiwork of Barry Day, the Coward authority who has edited the present collection of Letters.)

Coward himself never succumbed to that bleakness. For all that he would come to be known for being (as someone says in his 1930 classic Private Lives) “jagged with sophistication,” the key to his phenomenal productivity and equally phenomenal emotional stability throughout his life may well have been that he managed to retain the stolid values of the decidedly unsophisticated, lower-middle class suburb where he was born (as his given name suggests) at Christmastime 1899, the second son of a piano-salesman father and a strong-willed mother who liked to reminisce about her family’s once-grander circumstances. Pragmatic, hardworking, admirably without illusions about either his strengths or his defects, generous, unabashedly sentimental and patriotic, he was that rarity among people who achieve dazzling success very early on in life (as he did at twenty-four, with his smash-hit cocaine-addiction melodrama The Vortex): someone who managed to withstand, for the most part, the powerful aura of his own public persona.

Hence although Day’s meticulous and artfully structured edition of the Letters will inevitably be read by those eager to be dazzled by refractions of the jagged sophistication of Coward’s busy social life (“I had a tremendous party given for me last night and it was rather fun. George Gershwin played and we all carried on like one o’clock”), its greatest significance may well lie in the extent to which its content demonstrates the temperamental qualities—unanticipated, perhaps, by those searching here for “a very Noël Coward sort of person”—of humaneness, tenderness, and a kind of Edwardian sentimentality that, as I have argued in these pages,* both underlie and give emotional texture to the surface cleverness in so much of his work. (Coward himself understood the way in which, just below the dazzlingly urbane repartee, there lurked the Teddington native’s unerring sense for what ordinary people were interested in: “I know all about my facility for writing adroit swift dialogue and hitting unimportant but popular nails on the head,” he wrote to T.E. Lawrence, one of his many illustrious correspondents, in 1931.) Among the greatest pleasures of this collection are, if anything, those moments when we get to see Mrs. Violet Veitch Coward’s son intersect with that “very Noël Coward sort of person,” as for instance in this 1954 letter to the Lunts about a production of his new musical version of Lady Windermere’s Fan:

I have been having a terrible time with After the Ball, mainly on account of Mary Ellis’s singing voice which, to coin a phrase, sounds like someone fucking the cat. I know that your sense of the urbane, sophisticated Coward wit will appreciate this simile.

Coward very rarely confused himself with “Coward.”

Day’s edition of the Letters will add nothing new to the ample record of Coward’s life, although it is interesting to see the life through the letters, which are inevitably more spontaneous, and written with less of an eye on posterity, than the entries in the Diaries. A nice continuity through the many years covered here—the first letter dates to 1906, the last to 1970 when Coward received his scandalously delayed knighthood—is provided by the fact that an astonishing number of them were written to the playwright’s mother, who throughout her long life was the recipient of weekly missives that Coward faithfully wrote to her wherever he happened to find himself. (She died at ninety-one in 1954, and apart from an occasional lapse into stage-motherishness—“I forgive you for making me so unhappy,” she wrote to him when, during World War II, he admonished her for being less than totally patriotic—seems to have been entertainingly sharp-witted herself.) This continuity is admirably enhanced by the manner in which Day has organized Coward’s correspondence, woven as it is into a fluid, year-by-year narrative, complete with potted mini-biographies of long-forgotten music-hall stars, novelists, and personalities (and, indeed, photographs of them that give the whole affair a charming, scrapbook feel), which make of this volume of Letters virtually a new biography.

And so Day is able to evoke, with great narrative verve and a gratifying richness of detail, the entire career: the early apprenticeship in touring companies (Charley’s Aunt, notably), where he learned his craft (and suffered from a terrible separation anxiety which he never quite conquered: “I really ought to have got over being a mother’s boy by now, but I never shall!” he wrote to his mother when he was in his late twenties); the relatively few years it took him to find his voice as a playwright and songwriter composing for the musical revues that were so popular at the time; the early career-building trips to New York where he made discoveries that would strongly influence his technique—

The speed! Everybody seems to say their lines at such a rate you’d think you wouldn’t understand a word—but you do! And then it suddenly struck me—that’s the way people actually talk

—and laid the groundwork for many long-lasting friendships recorded here. “I went to see her [Lynn Fontanne’s] opening night with her fiancé, an actor called Alfred Lunt and, my dear, a star was born,” he wrote Violet in 1921 during his first trip to America. These early letters also provide fascinating glimpses of the precocious youth in the process of turning himself into “Noël Coward.” Of a female relation whom he went to visit while touring with his fellow child-actor Esmé Wynne:

Esmé and I sang “We’ve been married just one year,” and she was most shocked. I’ve never met anyone so painfully provincial in all my life,

Teddington’s most famous son sniffed.

Not the least of the attractions of Day’s approach, particularly in the letters from these early years, is that, unlike many other editors, he will often interrupt the chronological trajectory at a given moment to show the reader how this or that relationship would develop over time—with Esmé, for instance, a friendship which began in the 1910s and stretched into the mid-century, when Coward was a celebrity and Wynne, much to her old co-star’s amusement, was writing inspirational books with titles like The Unity of Being; or, more important, with figures like Jack Wilson, the American Yalie who started out as Coward’s lover in the 1920s and ended up, disastrously as Coward realized only too late, as his business manager. These digressions provide context for later correspondence that might otherwise remain obscure.

After the remarkably brief period of apprenticeship came the successes which at first seemed to have caught the young Noël a bit by surprise (“And when you consider that bright particular star will be me!” he wrote Violet in 1922. “It’s a bit breathless!”) but which soon thereafter became almost, as Coward might say, monotonously predictable, first with The Vortex and then, in rapid succession, Hay Fever (1924), Private Lives, the patriotic historical pageant Cavalcade (1931), the ménage-à-trois comedy Design for Living (1932)—the list was to go on and on. And once Coward achieved his fame, the cast of correspondents was anything but “provincial.” A major advantage of this collection is, if anything, that Day has included numerous letters to Coward as well as from him, a choice that allows us to gauge the effect that the theatrical prodigy had in his heyday on people we might not have thought were fans. In 1928 Virginia Woolf wrote to him that her heart had “leapt” to find out that the twenty-eight-year-old Coward had liked Orlando—although to her diary she confided that she hoped to “save him from being as clever as a bag of ferrets & trivial as a perch of canaries.”

That the piano salesman’s son had risen to very high heights indeed was made clear during World War II, when Coward (who, despite the fact that he spent much of the war on grueling trips to entertain the troops, had enemies in various government offices) made use of his connections to people like Louis Mountbatten in order to guarantee what he knew would be the great success of his cinematic hymn to the Royal Navy, In Which We Serve. As the Letters make clear, certain higher-ups in the British war effort thought “Noël Coward,” the elegant star, was unsuited to the role of the Captain, who was based on Mountbatten—who along with his wife, Edwina, was an old friend from the Twenties; “Dickie’s” assiduous intervention got Coward the part.

Later on, when a hostile government figure intended to scuttle the entire project on the grounds that the film depicted a British warship being sunk, George VI himself quite sensibly intervened on Coward’s behalf:

  1. *

    See “Bitter-Sweet,” my review of recent productions of Coward comedies, in The New York Review, June 27, 2002.

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