Born in Teddington, Middlesex, England to a middle-class family, he was the second of a family of three sons (the eldest of whom died in 1898 at the age of six) of Arthur Sabin Coward (1856–1937), a clerk, and his wife, Violet Agnes (1863–1954), daughter of Henry Gordon Veitch, captain and surveyor in the Royal Navy. He began performing in the West End at an early age. He was a childhood friend of Hermione Gingold, whose mother warned her against him.
A student at the Italia Conti Academy stage school, Coward’s first professional engagement was on 27 January 1911, in the children’s play, The Goldfish. After this appearance, he was sought after for children’s roles by other professional theatres.
At the age of fourteen he was the lover of Philip Streatfeild, a society painter who took him in and introduced him to high society, in the form of Mrs. Astley Cooper. She gathered a salon of artists and invited him to live on her property at Hambleton, Rutland, not in the Hall but on the farm, due to his lower social class. Streatfeild died from tuberculosis in 1915.
He was featured in several productions with Sir Charles Hawtrey, a Victorian actor and comedian, whom Coward idolized and to whom he virtually apprenticed himself until he was twenty. It was from Hawtrey that Coward learned comic acting techniques and playwriting. He was drafted briefly into the British Army during World War I but was discharged due to ill health. Coward appeared in the D. W. Griffith film Hearts of the World (1918) in an uncredited role. He found his voice and began writing plays that he and his friends could star in while at the same time writing revues.
He starred in one of his first full-length plays, the inheritance comedy I'll Leave It To You, in 1920 at the age of twenty. The following year a one act satire The Better Half was completed, concerning a man's relationship with two women, and had a short run at the Little Theatre, London in 1922. The play was thought to be lost until a typescript was rediscovered in 2007 in the archive of the Lord Chamberlain's Office; plays for performance had to be licensed at this time in the UK and were subject to cuts or complete bans.
After enjoying some moderate success with the Shaw-esque The Young Idea in 1923, the controversy surrounding his play The Vortex (1924) — which contains many veiled references to both drug abuse and homosexuality — made him an overnight sensation on both sides of the Atlantic. Coward followed this success with three more major hits, Hay Fever, Fallen Angels (both 1925) and Easy Virtue (1926).
Much of Coward's best work came in the late 1920s and early 1930s. Enormous (and enormously popular) productions such as the full-length operetta Bitter Sweet (1929) and Cavalcade (1931), a huge extravaganza requiring a very large cast, gargantuan sets and an exceedingly complex hydraulic stage, were interspersed with finely-wrought comedies such as Private Lives (1930), in which Coward himself starred alongside his most famous stage partner Gertrude Lawrence, and the black comedy Design for Living (1932), written for Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne.
Coward again partnered Lawrence in Tonight at 8:30 (1936), an ambitious cycle of ten different short plays which were randomly "shuffled" to make up a different playbill of three plays each night. One of these short plays, Still Life, was later expanded into the 1945 David Lean film Brief Encounter. He was also a prolific writer of popular songs, and a lucrative recording contract with HMV allowed him to release a number of recordings which have been extensively reissued on CD. Coward's most popular hits include the romantic, I'll See You Again and Dear Little Cafe, as well as the comic Mad Dogs and Englishmen, The Stately Homes of England and (Don't Put Your Daughter on the Stage) Mrs Worthington
World War II
The outbreak of World War II in 1939 saw Coward working harder than ever. When the second World War started, Noel had only just left Paris. He took time off from writing to perform for the troops, but after was eager to return. Alongside his highly-publicised tours entertaining Allied troops, Coward was also engaged by the British Secret Service MI5 to conduct intelligence work. He was often frustrated by criticism he faced for his ostensibly glamorous lifestyle; criticised for apparently living the high life while his countrymen suffered - especially his trips to America to sway opinion formers there.He was unable, however, to defend himself by revealing details of his work for the Secret Service.
George VI, a personal friend, encouraged the government to award Coward a knighthood for his efforts in 1942. This was blocked by Winston Churchill, who disapproved of Coward's flamboyant lifestyle.Churchill however advised giving the official reason as being Coward's fine of ₤200 for currency offences (he had spent ₤11,000 on a trip to America).
Had the Germans invaded Britain, Noel Coward would have been arrested and liquidated as he was on The Black Book, along with other public figures such as H. G. Wells (Wells was targeted for his socialist views). While some feel that this may have been due to his homosexuality, recent documents have surfaced showing Coward to have been a covert operative in the Secret Service.
He also wrote and released some extraordinarily popular songs during the war (the most famous of which are London Pride and Don't Let's Be Beastly To The Germans). He complained to his frequent painting companion, Winston Churchill, that he felt he wasn't doing enough to support the war effort. Churchill suggested he make a movie based on the career of Captain Lord Louis Mountbatten. The result was a naval film drama, In Which We Serve, which Coward wrote, starred in, composed the music for and co-directed with David Lean. The film was immensely popular on both sides of the Atlantic and Coward was awarded an honorary Oscar.
The 1940s also saw Coward write some of his best plays. The social commentary of This Happy Breed and the intricate semi-autobiographical comedy-drama Present Laughter (both 1939) were later combined with the hugely successful black comedy Blithe Spirit (1941) to form a West End triple-bill in which Coward starred in all three simultaneous productions. Blithe Spirit went on to break box-office records for a West End comedy not beaten until the 1970s, and was made into a film directed by David Lean.
Coward's popularity as a playwright declined sharply in the 1950s, with plays such as Quadrille, Relative Values, Nude with Violin and South Sea Bubble all failing to find much favour with critics or audiences. Despite this, he still managed to maintain a high public profile, continuing to write (and occasionally star in) moderately successful West End plays and musicals, performing an acclaimed solo cabaret act in Las Vegas (recorded for posterity and still available on CD), and starring in films such as Bunny Lake is Missing, Around the World in 80 Days, Our Man in Havana, Boom!, and The Italian Job.
After starring in a number of American TV specials in the late 50s alongside Mary Martin, Coward left the UK for tax reasons. He first settled in Bermuda but later moved to Jamaica, where he remained for the rest of his life. His play Waiting in the Wings (1960), set in a rest home for retired actresses, marked a turning-point in his popularity, gaining plaudits from critics who likened it to the work of Anton Chekhov. The late 1960s saw a revival in his popularity, with several new productions of his 1920s plays and a number of revues celebrating his music; Coward himself dubbed this comeback "Dad's Renaissance".
Coward's final stage work was a trilogy of plays set in a hotel penthouse suite, with him taking the lead roles in all three, under the collective title of Suite in Three Keys (1966); the plays gained excellent reviews and did good box office business in the UK. Coward intended to star in Suite in Three Keys on Broadway but was unable to travel due to illness; the lead roles in the plays in New York were eventually taken by Hume Cronyn. Only two of the plays were performed, with the title changed to Noel Coward in Two Keys.
By now suffering from severe arthritis and bouts of memory loss (which affected his work on The Italian Job), Coward retired from the theatre. He was knighted in 1970, and died in Jamaica in March 1973 of heart failure at the age of 73. He was buried three days later in the brow of Firefly Hill, Jamaica, overlooking the north coast of the island. On 28 March 1984 a memorial stone was unveiled by the Queen Mother in Poets’ Corner, Westminster Abbey
As well as over fifty published plays and many albums' worth of original songs, Coward also wrote comic revues, poetry, several volumes of short stories, a novel (Pomp and Circumstance, 1960), and three volumes of autobiography. Books of his song lyrics, diaries and letters have also been published.
He was also a spirited painter, and a volume containing reproductions of some of his artwork has also been published.
The Noël Coward Theatre on St Martin's Lane opened on 1 June 2006, after extensive refurbishment, for the London premiere of Avenue Q. The theatre itself first opened in 1903 as the New Theatre (undergoing a name change to the Albery Theatre in 1973). It was in 1920 at the New Theatre that Noel Coward made his West End début.
Being homosexual, Coward never married, but he maintained close personal friendships with many women. These included actress and author Esmé Wynne-Tyson, his first collaborator and constant correspondent; the designer and lifelong friend Gladys Calthrop; secretary and close confidante Lorn Loraine; his muse, the gifted musical actress Gertrude Lawrence; actress Joyce Carey; compatriot of his middle period, the light comedy actress Judy Campbell; and (in the words of Cole Lesley) 'his loyal and lifelong amitié amoureuse film star Marlene Dietrich.
He was also a valued friend of Vivien Leigh, Judy Garland, Princess Margaret and Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother. He was a close friend of Ivor Novello and Winston Churchill.
Coward's insights into the class system can be traced back to London life in World War I, when thousands of troops passed through the capital every day, and gay officers and other-ranks would meet together with civilians in dozens of highly-secret clubs.
He enjoyed a 19-year relationship with Prince George, Duke of Kent and another lengthy one with the stage and film actor, Graham Payn, for almost thirty years until the end of Coward's life. Payn later co-edited (with Sheridan Morley) the collection of his diaries, published in 1982. He was also connected to composer Ned Rorem with details of their relationship published in Rorem's diaries.
Coward refused to acknowledge his homosexuality, wryly stating, "There is still a woman in Paddington Square who wants to marry me, and I don't want to disappoint her." Also, from his youth Coward had a distaste for penetrative sex and held the modern homosexual scene in disdain.
He served as the president of The Actors' Orphanage, an orphanage supported by the theatrical industry. In that capacity he befriended the young Peter Collinson, who was in the care of the orphanage, eventually becoming Collinson's godfather and helping him get started in show business. When Collinson was a successful director he invited Coward to play a role in the film The Italian Job; Graham Payn also played a small role.
Coward was a neighbour of James Bond creator Ian Fleming in Jamaica, and his wife Anne, the former Lady Rothermere. Though he was very fond of both of them, the Flemings' marriage was not a happy one, and Noel eventually tired of their constant bickering, as recorded in his diaries. When the first film adaptation of a James Bond novel, Dr. No was being produced, Coward was approached for the role of the villain. He is said to have responded, "Doctor No? No. No. No."
When speaking to Peter O'Toole about his performance in Lawrence of Arabia, he said "If you'd been any prettier, it would have been 'Florence of Arabia'."
When someone pointed out a rising young actor at a party with the words "Keir Dullea" Coward's instant reply was "Gone tomorrow."
The Papers of Noel Coward are held at the University of Birmingham Special Collections.
On the BBC Midweek programme on 11 October 2006 Hunter Davies revealed that Coward had told him during an interview that he liked to attend and watch hospital operations in his spare time; apparently when Mr Davies started to push this line further Coward clammed up on the subject and wouldn't elaborate.
Parodies and popular culture
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Parodies of and homages to Coward and his style include:
The character of Beverly Carlton in the 1939 Broadway play The Man Who Came to Dinner was based on Coward. He was portrayed by Reginald Gardiner in the 1942 film of the play.
In the sixth season of Frasier in an episode entitled "How to Bury a Millionaire", Niles Crane purchases a pen once owned by Noel Coward.
In the third season of Frasier, Frasier gives a Christmas gift to his father, that he says "Noel Coward would love it, but it's not you."
Charles and Fiona, (Dame Celia Molestrangler and Aging juvenile Binkie Huckaback) characters in Round the Horne.
In the 1982 film Better Late Than Never, David Niven played Nick Cartland, an ageing cabaret artiste, whose showpiece is I've Been To A Marvellous Party.
Jon Wynne-Tyson's play Marvellous Party, about a middle-age reunion in Las Vegas between Noel Coward and his collaborator Esmé Wynne-Tyson was broadcast by the BBC World Service in May 1994, starring Stanley Baxter as Coward and Dorothy Tutin as Esmé.
In 1998 Twentieth-Century Blues: The Songs of Noel Coward was released. The album contains versions of Coward's songs performed by Sting, Elton John, Pet Shop Boys, The Divine Comedy, Vic Reeves, Paul McCartney and others.
Coward appeared as a regular character in the fifth and sixth series of the BBC sitcom Goodnight Sweetheart.
Coward is the leading figure in Jeremy Kingston's comedy, Making Dickie Happy, also featuring Agatha Christie and Louis Mountbatten (the 'Dickie' of the title) as other characters, first staged at the Rosemary Branch Theatre in London in September 2004 '
The name for the men's clothing line 'Godspeed the Well-Dressed Man' came from the closing of one of Coward's letters.
Monty Python parodied Noel Coward in the Penis Song segment of their 1983 movie, The Meaning of Life and then on their album Monty Python Sings as Penis Song (Not the Noel Coward Song).
The Doctor Who novel Mad Dogs and Englishmen features a version of Noel Coward who has allied himself with alien poodles and gained time travel technology.
The opening to the song "The Lady Is a Tramp" includes the line "Alas, I missed the Beaux Arts Ball, and what is twice as sad I was never at a party where they honored Noel Ca-ad (Coward)".
Coward's play "Private Lives" is parodied in the off-Broadway musical revue "Secrets Every Smart Traveler Should Know" in a short scene entitled "Private Wives."
Marcy Kahan's Noel Coward quintet for BBC Radio 4 dramatises Coward as a detective in "Design For Murder" (2000), "A Bullet at Balmain's" (2003) and "Death at the Desert Inn" (2005) and as a spy in "Blithe Spy" (2002) and "Our Man In Jamaica" (2007). The cast of the quintet includes Malcolm Sinclair as Coward, Eleanor Bron as his secretary and Tam Williams as Cole Lesley.
'Two Old Queens' (2007). Perth Western Australia Staring Edgar Metcalf as the Queen Mother and John Michael Swinbank as Coward. A conversation between the two at the unveiling of the statue of Coward in Poets corner.
The Last Chapter (Ida Collaborates) (1917), one-act comedy, co-written with Esmé Wynne under their joint pen name Esnomel, fp 1917
Woman and Whisky (1918), one-act play, co-written with Esmé Wynne, fp 1918
The Rat Trap (1918), play in four acts, fp Everyman, Hampstead 1926, first revived Finborough, London 2006
I'll Leave It To You (1919), light comedy in three acts, fp 1920
The Young Idea (1921), comedy of youth in three acts, fp 1922
The Sirocco (1921), play in three acts, revised and fp 1927
The Better Half (1921), comedy in one act, fp 1922
The Queen Was in the Parlour (1922), play in three acts, fp 1926
Mild Oats (1922), play in one act, unproduced
Weatherwise (1923), comedy in two scenes, fp 1932
Fallen Angels (1923), comedy in three acts, fp 1925
The Vortex (1923), play in three acts, fp 1924
Hay Fever (1924), comedy, fp 1925
Easy Virtue (1924), play in three acts, fp 1925
Semi-Monde originally Ritz Bar (1926), play in three acts, fp Glasgow Citizens 1988
This Was a Man (1926), comedy in three acts, fp 1926
The Marquise (1926), comedy in three acts, fp 1927
Home Chat (1927), play in three acts, fp 1927
Private Lives (1929), intimate comedy in three acts, fp 1930
Post-Mortem (1932), play in eight scenes, fp King's Head, London, 1992
Cavalcade (1930, 1931), play in three parts, fp 1931
Design For Living (1932), comedy in three acts, fp 1933
Point Valaine (1934), play in three acts, fp 1934
Tonight at 8.30 (1935, 1936), three programmes of one-act plays, fp 1935:
We Were Dancing, The Astonished Heart, Red Peppers;
Hands Across the Sea, Fumed Oak, Shadow Play;
Ways and Means, Still Life, Family Album;
Star Chamber (one performance only, 1936)
Present Laughter (1939), play in three acts, fp 1942
This Happy Breed (1939), play in three acts, fp 1942
Blithe Spirit (1941), improbable farce in three acts, fp 1941
Peace In Our Time (1946), play in two acts, fp 1947
Long Island Sound (1947), comedy adapted from his short story What Mad Pursuit?, fp 1989 (Windsor gala performance)
South Sea Bubble, Island Fling in USA, (1949), comedy in three acts, fp 1951
Relative Values (1951), comedy in three acts, fp 1951
Quadrille (1951-2), romantic comedy in three acts, fp 1952
Nude With Violin (1954), comedy in three acts, fp 1956
Look After Lulu! (1958), three act farce adapted from Feydeau, fp 1959
Volcano (1957), play in two acts, Mill at Sonning staged reading only 1989
Waiting in the Wings (1959-60), play in three acts, fp 1960
Suite in Three Keys: A Song at Twilight; Shadows of the Evening; Come into the Garden, Maud (1965), a trilogy, fp 1966
Star Quality (1967), Coward's last play, comedy in three acts, fp Bath, 1985
Revues, musicals and operetta
London Calling (1922, 1923), revue in collaboration with Ronald Jeans, fp 1923
On With the Dance (1924, 1925) , revue, fp 1925
This Year of Grace (1927, 1928), revue, fp as Charles B Cochrane's 1928 Revue
Bitter Sweet (1928, 1929), operetta, fp 1929
Words and Music (1932), revue, fp 1932
Conversation Piece (1933), comedy with music, fp 1934
Operette (1937), musical play, fp 1938
Set to Music (1938), revue, fp 1938
Sigh No More (1945), revue, fp 1945
Pacific 1860 (1946), musical romance, fp 1946
Ace of Clubs (1949), musical play, fp 1950
After the Ball (1953), musical based on Lady Windermere's Fan, fp 1954
Sail Away (1959-61), musical comedy, fp 1961
The Girl Who Came to Supper (1963), musical comedy based on Terence Rattigan's The Sleeping Prince, fp 1963
Oh, Coward! revue fp 1972
Cowardy Custard revue fp 1972
Hearts of the World (1918, uncredited)
Across the Continent (1922, uncredited)
The Scoundrel (1935)
In Which We Serve (1942, also director/screenwriter)
Blithe Spirit (1945, as narrator)
The Astonished Heart (1949)
Around the World in Eighty Days (1956)
Our Man in Havana (1959)
Surprise Package (1960)
Paris - When It Sizzles (1964)
Present Laughter (1964, TV)
The Vortex (1964, TV)
Bunny Lake Is Missing (1965)
Androcles and the Lion (1967, TV)
The Italian Job (1969)
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