What is this I hold in my hands? Is it just a book? It’s quite heavy, but somehow, instinctively, one feels its light heart. When I eventually prize its even glossier inner core from its glossy padded outer shell, I still ask: what is this? It looks like a book, but its pages don’t shut flat or lie open; they spring apart, gaping enticingly, as if someone had inserted bulky, once-essential memos or long-forgotten mementos between the pages. But shake it, and nothing falls out. No shopping list, no ribbon-tied bundles of unrequited love, no scrunched up scraps of half-remembered receipts. Open it at one of these many inviting gaps. What’s this? A manilla envelope, seemingly casually inserted, but integrally attached to the right-hand page. Lift the flap, draw out the contents. What can they be?
There can’t be much left to say about the subject of this elaborate compendium; but by creating so novel a volume on Noël Coward’s trawled-over life and talent, Barry Day has come up with the goods. The manila envelopes contain facsimile documents of the rise of Destiny’s Tot to Total Adoration to Nation Indebted. They show that from his nativity (copy of the certificate recording that blessed event included) in Teddington, then a leafy suburb a mere crow’s-flight from the tinkly West End waltzes of The Dollar Princess or Maid of the Mountains, Peirce Noël Coward was a living cert to take ‘thear-tah’ by the throat and stuff his perception of modern life down it.
His progress, from playing fairy sunbeams via writing sentimental semi-operas, or drug-fuelled youthful declines, the gayest of comedies, the brittlest of revues — often starring himself — to more maudlin late flops about fearful senility, has been thoroughly documented; but the ephemera included in this book — letters from Mountbatten, lyrics for Marlene, far-flung journeys and star-crossed casts — give the Master’s life a lasting, tactile dimension.
He always knew. ‘I have star quality’, boasted this oddly least boastful of luvvies. He could hold an audience, on stage or off, by sharp one-liners only matched by Groucho Marx or on one occasion, Edna Ferber. Seeing the pinstripe-suited authoress, Noël said: ‘Goodness, Edna, you look almost like a man!’ Miss Ferber replied: ‘So do you, Noël.’
His plays, his tunes and lyrics are now folkloric, and if the former are unavoidably dated these days, the latter have an everlasting, utterly English poignancy (‘Somewhere I’ll Find You’) or a kind of Wodehousian, deprecating humour (‘The Stately Homes of England’). In his outlook, he seems somewhat parochial compared to the worldly sophistication of his nearest rival, Cole Porter. Though Porter was richer, better dressed, had better taste and wrote bigger hits, Noël showed no envy towards him, but acknowledged such talent by writing that Nina from Argentina, a grumpy Latino lass who refused to dance the beguine, ‘cursed the man who taught her to. She cursed Cole Porter too.’
If he had no taste in decoration — his houses were for the most part banal — Coward certainly knew how to choose friends. He was a sucker for royalty, Prince George, Duke of Kent specifically, and the Duke’s sister-in-law Queen Elizabeth before and after she became Queen Mother. And he always had a close coterie of other intimates whom he cherished. An illuminating side of the text shows that while fawned on by major stars, and later, even, when fading himself, he never deserted the friends of his youth. The letter from Daphne du Maurier describing her last days with their mutually beloved, dying Gertrude Lawrence — Coward’s co-star in his earliest successes — is particularly touching. His loyalty was unbounded, sometimes even detrimental, such as the fruitless determination to make Graham Payne, the boy he was mad about, into a major star.
But throughout this clever creation, paramount is its subject’s sheer pleasure in living life; from the smiling ingénue’s eyes under a silk hat to the last photograph, a quizzical wrinkled moon face at his easel in Jamaica, his essential ‘niceness’ is evident.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated 15 December 2012