Published in Pasadena Magazine May 1998
The legend took shape in 1924. Noel Coward, sleek, young 23 year-old writer/ star of that influential, youth-oriented, strike-the-pose play, “The Vortex,” had himself photographed in his elaborate, scarlet bedroom, languidly smoking a cigarette, wearing a Chinese dressing gown and an imperious look. The caption read, ‘Noel the Fortunate.’ That picture of decadence, glamour and insouciance became an icon of the quick-witted playwright, composer, lyricist, poet, novelist, actor, producer and director.
Born in 1899, in Middlesex, England, to a theater-addicted mother determined to make him a star, and a musically oriented father who was a sometime piano tuner, Coward fancied himself a professional actor by age 12, when he was already effectively chewing scenery. His education was sacrificed early for his career, but he grew up to be adored, respected and admired by millions on both sides of the Atlantic, for the distinctive elegance of his performances, for his contagious melodies and inimitable lyrics (in some 300 songs), for his polished and sophisticated wit, and for his unprecedented versatility and indisputable genius.
Much of his personal charm sprang from the disparaging tone he took toward his legend. He insisted that he drank Ovaltine after dinner and retired early every night, eschewing the all-night carousing he was professed to prefer.
The Coward who stood behind the colorful legend, though actually extremely disciplined and rigorously professional, actively contributed to the growth of the myth. As a young man, he would lead cheers for his own plays from the back of the house, although in public, he was carefully self-deprecating (“The most I’ve had is just a talent to amuse”). For a time, he had a pet snake Eugénie, whom he carried in his breast pocket at cocktail parties. He loved making scenes — the more dramatic the better. Whimsically (perhaps), he encouraged his friends and associates to address him as “Master.”
As his long-time companion and biographer, Cole Lesley, put it, “he was difficult, demanding, selfish, temperamental and made awful scenes, ranging from histrionic bravura — captured in the tirade near the end of the third act of ‘Present Laughter’ — to suicidal despair. The former he consciously enjoyed as he went on, until the cause was forgotten, torrents of rapid and brilliantly chosen words pouring out to his and our admiration until we would all collapse in laughter. The despairing scenes could be equally funny once I had learned, which took me a long while, not to take them too seriously.”
After the success of “The Vortex,” Coward set a new style in seal-sleek heads, tailored satiny suits, crewneck sweaters, bowties and silk socks. The clear, clipped speech that he had acquired for the benefit of his slightly deaf mother became the smart, new cocktail chatter of the day.
It was ironic that his homosexuality, clearly suggested in his campy mannerisms, was never acknowledged; in fact, he made many homophobic comments (for example, calling New York’s Fire Island crowd, “sick, sick, sick”). But this also helps to explain his bevy of female friends and admirers (including the rich and famous: Rebecca West, the Queen Mother, Elsa Maxwell and longtime costar, Gertrude Lawrence), and the frequently sharp, asexual love matches in his plays.
There is no question in the minds of any Coward aficionados or historians that “Present Laughter,” written in 1939, was forged from elements of Coward’s life.
Garry Essendine, a successful actor with a penchant for dressing gowns, entourage and histrionics, was clearly The Master himself. But it’s also clear that the play was not just a self-serving autobiographical impulse. Coward was writing about what he knew best and what was always his best comic subject: the theatrical temperament. Garry Essendine is irrepressibly theatrical, a man who treats the whole world as his stage, the sort of person who cannot resist a dramatically effective line, regardless of the repercussions. He concedes that he is always acting, always watching himself go by. This is in sharp contrast to some of the other characters, who refuse to recognize their self-deceptions and public deceits. It is The Master’s meditation on an actor’s need to believe and yet disbelieve his own illusions.
Garry Essendine is a larger-than-life portrait of Noel Coward, which does give a good, if exaggerated, idea of what he was like to live and be with. It is in some ways the sad story of a writer/actor who has given himself up so entirely to role playing that he represses the man he really is.
Despite enormous peaks of success, Coward wasn’t an unwavering sensation. Fourteen of his 50 plays were adapted for the screen during his lifetime, and he won an Academy Award in 1943 for his performance in “In Which We Serve,” but his reputation as a playwright went into decline after World War II. The postwar mood of the theater turned conservative, and Coward’s camp taste and stage aristocrats were out of fashion.
Toward the end of the forties, he started a new life in Jamaica, and reinvented himself as a Las Vegas cabaret star. In the sixties, there was a veritable “Noel Coward renaissance” (his own words), and he was knighted in 1970. The American Theatre Wing honored him with a special Tony Award for Distinguished Achievement in the Theatre, and hit revues on both sides of the Atlantic anthologized scenes and songs from his plays. In 1972, he was enjoying three smash-hit productions at once: the revues “Oh! Coward” in New York and “Cowardy Custard” in London, as well as John Gielgud’s revival of “Private Lives.” As he aged, he became, as he often joked, “A National Treasure.” He still is.
In his later years, arteriosclerosis exacted a toll from the phenomenal memory that had allowed him to sing “Mad Dogs and Englishmen” at triple speed. The last volume of his tripartite autobiography was abandoned incomplete, and he even discontinued his diary, spending his time instead painting brightly colored canvases. He died of a heart attack on March 26, 1973, at the age of 74.
His journals reflect the wit and the sadness of living a dual existence, masking the inner life with a contrived outer persona. “The only thing that saddens me over my demise,” Coward wrote, “is that I shall not be here to read the nonsense that will be written about me and my works and my motives. There will be detailed and inaccurate analyses of my motives for writing this or that and of my character. There will be lists of apocryphal jokes I never made and gleeful misquotations of words I never said. What a pity I shan’t be here to enjoy them!”
After re-reading his journals, he said, “Really my life has been one long extravaganza.” Spoken like a true Man of the Theater.
Pat Launer is resident theater critic for KPBS radio and Microsoft’s online info’zine, San Diego Sidewalk.
©1998 Patté Productions Inc.