The Letters of Noël Coward
edited and with commentary by Barry Day
Knopf, 780 pp., $37.50
“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 …