SIR NOËL PEIRCE COWARD, born (d 1973); Academy Award winning English actor, playwright, and composer of popular music. Well, really…why waste space in telling tales about Noel Coward, when every anecdote, every affair of the heart, every Coldstream Guard kissed, is mentioned in Cole Leslie’s biography of his multi-talented employer, Remembered Laughter? Only one thing is missing from this otherwise entertaining and informative (500 pages of small type) book. Since Sir Noel seems to have laid hands on anyone he wanted, didn’t he ever so much as touch his valet, Cole Lesley? Mr. Lesley is mysteriously silent on this point.
Since Oscar Wilde, there are few talents as breathtaking as Noel Coward and it is difficult to overstate his many accomplishments and futile in this space. He wrote more than 40 plays, among them, most famously, Private Lives, Blithe Spirit and Design For Living. He appeared in sixteen films, writing and directing In Which We Serve, a 1942 war film that tells the story of the British destroyer HMS Torrin, as told in flashbacks by the survivors as they cling to a life raft, which was given an honorary Academy Award for “his outstanding production achievement.” It was also nominated for Oscars for Best Picture and Best Writing, Original Screenplay.
He was 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 met 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 30 years until his death. Payn later co-edited with Sheridan Morely 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.” From his youth Coward had a stated distaste for penetrative sex and held the modern gay scene in disdain.
Coward was a neighbor in Jamaica of James Bond’s creator Ian Fleming and his wife Anne, the former Lady Rothemere. 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.”