“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:
I have read it and think it a very good and appealing way of dealing with the subject. Although the ship is lost, the spirit which animates the Royal Navy is clearly brought out….
Coward was never to get over feeling slighted by the way his hard work during the war was continually misrepresented by the English press—among other things, much was made of a quite innocent tax mistake early on in the war, which gave Churchill grounds for blocking a knighthood. These feelings, along with the devastatingly onerous tax strictures after the war, led this most English of entertainers into tax exile, first in Jamaica and then in Switzerland.
This is not to say that he ever lost his sense of humor, which glints and flashes through virtually ever page of Day’s collection, from its descriptions of the many exotic places his travels took him to—a letter he sent while on a government-sponsored intelligence-gathering trip, to Russia before the war, describes the country as being “exactly like a whole world composed of the Whitechapel Road on August Bank Holiday”—to the sly signatures he’d append to his letters from Paris, where he worked in 1940 for the British propaganda service: “DREYFUS,” say, or “GERMAINE DE STAEL.” What’s remarkable here is how innocent the humor most often is; Coward’s letters are strikingly free of back-biting or bitchiness, and when he sharpens his pen, it’s hardly with the intent to kill:
I went to the first night of John Van Druten’s new play…all about a very pretty little actress who had to choose between love and a career. Judging by the way Miss Margaret Sullivan [sic] overplayed it I think she was right to choose love.
So there is much to dazzle here in just the way we expect from a very Noël Coward sort of person. As the years and pages go by, it’s often amusing to see Coward smoothly dealing with the great—in 1938 he writes that he is taking “the [Anthony] Edens and the Gary Coopers out to dinner” after Eden was forced to recite a public apologia for Chamberlain’s “Peace in Our Time” (to his credit, Coward had a lifelong loathing of Chamberlain)—and the merely glitzy:
We dined with Mike Todd and Liz [Taylor] who was hung with rubies and diamonds and looked like a pregnant Pagoda.
Of particular note is his correspondence with his close friend Marlene Dietrich, particularly during her tortured love affair, during the Fifties, with Yul Brynner—an exchange that not only sheds sympathetic light on Coward’s loyalty, but on Dietrich as well. “I long so for intelligence and brain food,” the worldly star managed to sigh even in the midst of being humiliated by the younger, married Brynner.
Other correspondents inevitably included stars of screen and stage, some of whom had been given a leg-up by Coward at the start of their careers (John Gielgud started as Coward’s understudy in The Vortex; Laurence Olivier’s first important part was in the original production of Private Lives in 1930); crowned heads and presidents—he particularly admired Roosevelt, whom he visited at the White House during one of his many trips to the US trying to drum up support for Britain at the beginning of the war (“I shall long to be in the warm friendly atmosphere of your study enjoying your very special cocktails,” he wrote to FDR in 1940); and of course many other writers: Edna Ferber and Alexander Woolcott, Somerset Maugham and Ian Fleming, Daphne DuMaurier and Edith Sitwell. From the start of his long career as a letter-writer, Coward remained unintimidated by such famous names. To Lawrence of Arabia, who had rather officiously headed a letter to Coward with both his alias and his full RAF identification number, the thirty-year-old Coward replied, “Dear 338171 (May I call you 338?)…”
What is striking about this volume of correspondence by the twentieth century’s greatest archetype of urbane elegance, however, is the degree to which it’s devoted to family and the intimate friends to whom Coward would remain so impressively loyal: his secretary Lorn Lorraine, his great friend Gladys Calthrop, the actress Joyce Carey, the inner circle on whom he liked to heap the improbable nicknames of which he was so fond (“Snig,” “Snog,” “Poj”). To them particularly he loved to address epistles composed in light verse, a form of which he was a master and which, as his letter home for Christmas 1939 indicates, was not necessarily limited to martinis and cigarette holders:
Let us ignore all the slaughter and danger
(Think of the Manger! Remember the Manger!)…
Now as our day of rejoicing begins
(Never mind Poland—Abandon the Finns)
Lift up your voices “Long Live Christianity!”
(Cruelty, sadism, blood and insanity)
All these letters end with effusive valedictions (“Love and mad mad kisses,” “Love, love, love love, love”), and you don’t ever feel that it’s forced.
If anything, this epistolary portrait of Coward reveals an enviably sane personality strikingly devoid of tics and neuroses, in which a healthy self-respect is nicely balanced by a realism that never curdles into cynicism:
My philosophy is as simple as ever. I love smoking, drinking, moderate sexual intercourse on a diminishing scale, reading and writing (not arithmetic). I have a selfless absorption in the well-being and achievements of Noël Coward.
His teasing words about his old friend Esmé Wynne’s idealistic writings betray his own informal but deeply felt philosophy, which prized above all the importance of snatching happiness in a world filled with emotional confusion imposed from without and exploding from within—the theme of so much of his work (“I think very few people are completely normal, really, deep down in their private lives…there’s no knowing what one might do,” Amanda says in Private Lives):
It is my considered opinion that the human race (soi disant) is cruel, idiotic, sentimental, predatory, ungrateful, ugly, conceited and egocentric to the last ditch and that the occasional discovery of an isolated exception is as deliciously surprising as finding a sudden brazil nut in what you know to be five pounds of vanilla creams. These glorious moments, although not making life actually worth living, perhaps, at least make it pleasanter.
Remarks such as these make you realize that Coward’s theatrical work is, essentially, Epicurean in nature—with a big rather than a little “e,” perhaps.
Most impressive are his letters during wartime, which often seem to sum up some essential aspect of the English character as he saw it, a kind of secretly tender sturdiness, which in fact saves so much of his theater from being the brittle drawing-room comedy it is now thought to be. There are traces of the deep sentimentality about England whose provenance was the Edwardian theaters he grew up in, which makes itself felt in everything from Cavalcade to In Which We Serve to Brief Encounter. Here he is in the letter in which he admonishes his mother for being too critical of the English leadership (she had written him saying that no one should fight for such incompetent governments):
I am working for the country itself and the ordinary people that belong to it. If you had been here during some of the bad blitzes and seen what I have seen and if you had been with the Navy as much as I have you would understand better what I mean. The reason that I didn’t come back to America was that in this moment of crisis I wanted to be here experiencing what all the people I know and all the millions of people I don’t know are experiencing. This is because I happen to be English and Scots and I happen to believe and know that, if I ran away and refused to have anything to do with the War and lived comfortably in Hollywood, as so many of my actor friends have done, I should be ashamed to the end of my days. The qualities which have made me a success in life are entirely British…. Everything I’ve ever written could never have been written by anybody but an Englishman.
Coward’s shrewd understanding of who he was both as a person and as a writer was part of a larger artistic self-awareness that is pleasantly evident here. As early as his earliest successes he knew perfectly well where his strengths lay: to the critic St John Ervine he wrote in 1928 that “my imagination doesn’t feel strong enough to reach things which have not actually happened to me”—by which he meant, ultimately, that his work must concentrate on human vanities, foibles, and relationships in all their often preposterous forms. As his letter to T.E. Lawrence demonstrated, he understood that he was above all an entertainer; no matter how jagged with sophistication he would get, he was never ashamed of the “popular nails” that he kept hitting with such great accuracy on the head.
This deep awareness, wholly lacking in vanity because it came from professionalism, of what his strengths were went hand in hand with an awareness of what his weaknesses, real and potential, might be. (To Ervine he also wrote that “constant repetitions of Parisian coquettes having cocktails at the Ritz bar are apt to become a bore.”) Still, as he rather startlingly wrote to his mother in 1926 after one of his plays flopped, he found
on close reflection that I am as unmoved by failure as I am by success which is a great comfort…. I like writing the plays anyhow and if people don’t like them that’s their loss.
What’s remarkable is that you believe it.
His sense of the theater came to seem increasingly old-fashioned as the years passed. After World War II he had greater and greater difficulty creating the kinds of hits that seemed to have flowed so effortlessly in the Twenties and Thirties. His horror of what he thought of as the ugliness of the postwar British theater brought “the Master” into conflict with the new generation of playwrights whose work, as he put it in a diary entry about John Osborne (who eventually warmed up to Coward), was characterized by a “destructive vituperation” that was “too easy”; no one would accuse Coward of being a theatrical visionary. Yet as wrongheaded as his judgments could be, even they bear witness to a dogged, almost moving belief in the value of pure entertainment which, even late in life, betrayed an underlying identification with the ordinary men and women who saved up each week for their tickets—the kind of people his parents had been, in the end. In a letter from the 1960s addressed to Arnold Wesker, the young author of plays about working-class life such as The Kitchen, with whom Coward was to become unexpectedly close in an almost paternal way, the Master indignantly defended the value of the theater as he saw it:
I, who have earned my living all my life by my creative talents, cannot ever agree with your rather high-flown contempt for “commercial art.” In my experience, which is not inconsiderable, the ordinary run of human beings, regardless of social distinctions, infinitely prefer paying for their amusements and entertainments than having them handed out to them for nothing…. There is nothing disgraceful or contemptible in writing a successful play which a vast number of people are eager and willing to buy tickets for…. Personally I would rather play Bingo every night for a year than pay a return visit to Waiting for Godot…. This is not to say that I think all your cultural activities will inevitably bore the public, but, judging by the purple and black brochure you sent me, quite a number of them are bound to.
You mustn’t be cross with me for holding these very definite views because, if you analyse them, you may find that they are based on common sense rather than cynicism.
The pride that resonates in that first sentence—the artisan’s, as it were, rather than the artist’s; certainly middle- rather than upper-class—is hard to miss.
And yet, a fascinating 1965 exchange shows Coward reaching across the generations to the young Harold Pinter after reading The Homecoming—twice. “You cheerfully break every rule of the theatre that I was brought up to believe in,” the sixty-five-year-old icon of sophistication wrote, “except the cardinal one of never boring for a split-second.” Here again, the bottom line was entertainment; and after all, there may have been more of a connection between Coward and Pinter than meets the eye. As Day reminds us in his comment on this exchange, Coward was the man who insisted that “suggestion is always more interesting than statement”; and a line from his own Shadow Play (1935) brings Pinter’s work powerfully to mind: “Small talk, a lot of small talk with other thoughts going on behind.”
“Small talk” is, of course, what Coward has been reduced to by now in the minds of so many readers and theatergoers, for whom “a very Noël Coward sort of person”—brittle and brilliantined, crackling with Roaring Twenties sophistication, sleek in smoking jackets and bristling with cigarette holders—is the only person Coward ever was. I should say here that a few (exceedingly few) editorial choices in this otherwise splendid collection might inadvertently suggest to some readers that its subject is indeed rather “small,” rather dated. Among other things, you wish that Day had included more of the correspondence between Coward and his various lovers. You can’t help thinking that they would have shed even more light on Coward the refreshingly humane man; and that the decision not to publish them may be owing to a reticence that belongs as much to Day himself as to Coward, who was famously cagey when it came to questions about his private life. “The thread that goes through this life in letters is, indeed, love,” Day writes in his introduction; “not the homosexual definition of love that can now not only speak but positively shout its name,” he goes on to sniff. These and a few other editorial comments—“One wonders what history will make of the present illiterate e-mail era,” he writes, apropos of letter collections—will do little to alleviate the sense that many younger readers already have of Coward as hopelessly dated and beside the point.
But this collection of Letters overwhelmingly points to a Coward well worth knowing today, particularly for a generation nourished on a notion of celebrity—“well known for being famous and famous for being well known,” as Day summarizes it—that the hardworking Coward himself would certainly have despised. Indeed, it is surely wrong for Day to claim that Coward was an “early role model” for this brand of celebrity: Coward became famous for having done something substantial extraordinarily well: writing very successfully for popular theater. If what he considered to be “entertainment” now seems a little narrow to us, we cannot fault him for that. As these letters show, he knew what he knew, and he knew it very well; and if some of the values he championed both in his work and in his life—discretion, a gentle self-awareness, the importance of gaiety (that old-fashioned word) and a forgiving humor as weapons in life’s conflicts—seem a little quaint today, those very values allowed him to observe the decline of his moment with a rare equanimity.
Indeed, Coward more than most would have appreciated, now, the wisdom of something that Max Beerbohm wrote to him in 1927 apropos of the “operette” Bitter Sweet, a work already nostalgic for the past and one that gave us the line most often used to describe Coward’s own gift: “a talent to amuse.” “Sentiment,” Beerbohm wrote,
is out of fashion. Yet Bitter Sweet, which is nothing if not sentimental, has not been a dead failure. Thus we see that things that are out of fashion do not cease to exist.
January 17, 2008