Noël Coward

December 16, 1899 - March 26, 1973

Noël Coward Artistfacts

  • Noël Coward was the quintessential, slightly eccentric, upper class English gentleman, especially to Americans. In reality though, he was not University educated, did not attend a public school, and was not to the manor born. And, amazingly, although he literally dominated the English theatre and musical in the 1930s and remained a force in music long after, he had no formal musical training.

    Noël Peirce Coward hailed from Teddington on the fringes of London; born into "genteel poverty" on December 16, 1899, he started life as a child actor, training at the Italia Conti Academy, which in spite of its name is in London rather than Italy.
  • "Forbidden Fruit", his first "completely integrated song" was written in 1916, but his first published song was the simply awful ditty "The Baseball Rag", which he co-wrote with Doris Joel three years later.
  • In 1918, Coward failed a medical board for active service in what was then known as the Great War. In May 1921, he sailed to New York on the S.S. Aquitania, hoping like so many others before and after to make his fortune in the Promised Land. Although songwriting and later performing, were a mainstay of his career, it was as a playwright that he first really hit the headlines.

    In 1924, The Vortex - sensational and controversial at the time - scored on both sides of the Atlantic. In 1926, years of hard work caught up with him, and after the failure of This Was A Man he spent some time in Hawaii, recovering from mental exhaustion and a serious illness. While lying dozing on the beach, the song "A Room With A View" came into his head, and he returned with a vengeance.

    His 1927 production Sirocco - which he wrote in 1921 - was greeted with boos and jeers, and was savaged by the critics, but it was followed by the revue This Year Of Grace!, which Coward said was the best of all his revues. Shortly he produced Bitter-Sweet, a full scale musical.
    Coward also recorded many of his own songs, including "Don't Put Your Daughter On The Stage, Mrs. Worthington", written at the height of his powers to deter adoring mothers, and his signature tune "Mad Dogs And Englishmen", which resulted from his travels in the Orient.
  • A friend and rival of American composer Cole Porter, their names were often linked as Noël and Cole; Coward took a swipe a Porter is his song "Nina" and paid homage to him in Porter's own "Let's Do It", which the Englishman reworked many times.
  • During the Second World War, Coward served as a British agent; although on the surface living the life of the playboy, he gathered intelligence to assist the war effort, mixing with influential people on both sides of the Atlantic and reporting back to British Intelligence. He also entertained the troops, and wrote three very fine songs inspired by that senseless conflict: "Don't Let's Be Beastly To The Germans" (which was misunderstood by the gullible), "Could You Please Oblige Us With A Bren Gun?" (a satire on the Home Guard), and his finest, indeed one of his very finest, "London Pride", a defiant riposte to a bombing raid on the capital.
    After the War, he enjoyed a Renaissance, Coward himself wrote: "In 'The Fifties' I emerged, to my own and every one else's astonishment, as a highly successful cabaret entertainer." This included four seasons at the Café de Paris and a season on "a rather excessive salary" at the Desert Inn, Las Vegas, where he performed two shows a night at 9.15 and 12.15 for nearly fifty minutes. In Noël Coward: The Complete Lyrics, this salary is given as $35,000 a week, and in Sheridan Morley's biography as $40,000. Whatever, the fifties were a fabulous time for a man who although not yet in his twilight years was now past his prime. Although he had first appeared on the stage as long ago as 1911, had starred in his own productions, and had long sung on the radio, it was not until 1955 that Coward made his TV debut as a performer, in a CBS special with Mary Martin, in the wake of his Desert Inn triumph.

    His last complete musical was the 1961 production Sail Away, though the following year he wrote the score for The Girl Who Came To Supper.
  • A tax exile since 1956, Coward retired to Jamaica, and was knighted in the 1970 New Year's Honours List, though perhaps the greatest honour bestowed on him came after his death, a memorial at Poet's Corner in Westminster Abbey. Coward made his last public appearance at a gala performance of the play Oh Coward! on Broadway in 1973. He died in Jamaica on March 26 of that year, and was buried in the garden of his home, Firefly.
  • Coward never married, being, as was once diplomatically said of his friend and contemporary Ivor Novello, not the marrying kind, but although he never acknowledged his homosexuality publicly, numerous hints can be found in many of his works. It may be unwise to read too much into this, as most of his love songs are unambiguously heterosexual, but "Mad About The Boy" and the reference to "cutest little German parachutist" in "Could You Please Oblige Us With A Bren Gun?" leave little to the imagination.

    It should be remembered though that homosexual acts between consenting adults were illegal in Britain up until the Wolfenden reforms of the late sixties, but even though homosexuality was tolerated, the mere insinuation could be the kiss of death for a public figure on either side of the Atlantic, so much so that in 1956, Liberace sued the London Daily Mirror over such insinuations, and "cried all the way to the bank" after the verdict.

    For Coward though, his sexuality was a private matter, he despised the gay scene as much as what he alluded to as the new kitchen sink dramas; he also had a number of close women friends including his private secretary, and fellow thespian and singer Gertrude Lawrence.
  • Although Coward wrote and co-wrote literally hundreds of songs, these have to some extent been eclipsed by his other talents, and he is probably best remembered as a playwright. The man who has been called the first English rapper was inducted into the Songwriters Hall Of Fame in 1988. The Noël Coward Society was formed to perpetuate his legacy, and his life and work have been documented in hundreds, perhaps thousands of articles, and in dozens of books, including several dedicated biographies, among them Coward's own reminiscences and anthologies. >>
    Suggestion credit:
    Alexander Baron - London, England, for all above

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