Friday, December 16, 2016

Birthday: "Television is for appearing on - not for looking at."

Coward in Vegas: Only mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday sun

Noel Pierce Coward (1899-1973)
Playwright, actor, songwriter, novelist, director

He came from an unpromising London suburb, but had an ambitious mother who saw something in her precocious boy. His education was sketchy, but after a stint in a dancing academy, Noel Coward made his stage debut at eleven.

He chose his patrons and mentors well and by his teens was moving in country house society. His first starring role-in a play he wrote for himself- came at 21; in 1924 he had his first scandalous success in The Vortex, the tale tale of a nymphomaniac sociate and her cokehead son.

Hay Fever- his first lasting success- came in 1925. Between his songs, plays and directing, he was earning several million pounds a year in today’s money, and was the highest-paid artist in Britain.

Coward opened Private Lives- which features a bisexual love triangle- on Broadway in 1930. British censors would have left it in tatters. Design For Living came in 1932. Coward thrived through the Depression years; his sharp, satirical comedies provided an evening’s relief from the drear and gloom of real life.

When the war came, Coward campaigned for some form of active service. He won some intelligence assignments, using his celebrity to tour out of the way places and weigh pro-and anti-Nazi sentiment; his work won him unstinting press criticism for living high on the hog as Britain suffered the Blitz. Still, his work was of sufficient value that King George VI proposed him for a knighthood in 1942; Winston Churchill vetoed his, considering Coward a louche popinjay best used entertaining the troops.

Coward did as directed, traveling endlessly around the world through the war years. He played himself to the hilt, producing witty morale-boosting songs with titles like “London Pride” and “Don’t Let’s Be Beastly to the Germans.” In an about-face, he played a stern Royal Navy captain in a film he wrote and directed, In Which We Serve, which won a special Oscar in 1943. One of his most popular plays, Blithe Spirit, hit the boards in 1941 and went on tour several times with Coward. He was surprised and amused to find himself on a Nazi death list- those the Germans intended executing first after invading Britain.

After the war, Coward found himself becoming bit of yesterday’s news. In the post-war rationing and general bleakness of the United Kingdom,  his dressing gowns and cigarette holders seemed too precious by half. Undeterred, he kept producing plays, and, drawing on his wartime experiences, developed a cabaret act that was stupendously successful, first in Paris, then in Las Vegas. He embraced television and movies, playing supporting, but vivid characters, in Around the World in 80 Days, Our Man in Havana, Bunny Lake Is Missing, The Italian Job, and the truly dreadful Burton-Taylor trainwreck, Boom!

Coward retreated, in tax exile, to Switzerland and Jamaica. In the 1960s, he found his reputation turning a new corner. He was now the grand old man of British theater, and he played it to the hilt. His knighthood finally came in 1969; he was inducted into the Royal Society of Literature.

Coward died in Jamaica in 1973. A stone was erected in his honor at Poet’s Corner in Westminster Abbey. Memoirs by his longtime secretary, Cole Leslie, and partner, Graham Payn, revealed the man behind the act, whose sexual orientation could be teased before audiences, but never revealed.

In Leslie’s book, he describes the exhausting demands of being around someone who did not know how to stop being clever. He tells the story of presenting Coward with a proposed dinner menu and asking, “What would you say to a little fish?”

“I should say, ‘Hello, little fish,’” Coward replied.

#HenryBemisBooks  #LiteraryBirthdays #NoelCoward

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