Partner Graham Payn
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Sir Noël Peirce Coward (16 December 1899 – 26 March 1973) was an English playwright, composer, director, actor and singer, known for his wit, flamboyance, and what Time magazine called "a sense of personal style, a combination of cheek and chic, pose and poise". Hollywood is an American drama web television miniseries about a group of aspiring actors and filmmakers during the Hollywood Golden Age in the post-World War II era trying to make their dreams come true. Billy Boyd as Noël Coward, a fictionalized version of the playwright, composer, director, and actor, portraing him as one of the usual guests of George Cukor's infamous parties.
Born in Teddington, south-west London, Coward attended a dance academy in London as a child, making his professional stage début at the age of eleven. As a teenager he was introduced into the high society in which most of his plays would be set. Coward achieved enduring success as a playwright, publishing more than 50 plays from his teens onwards. Many of his works, such as Hay Fever, Private Lives, Design for Living, Present Laughter and Blithe Spirit, have remained in the regular theatre repertoire. He composed hundreds of songs, in addition to well over a dozen musical theatre works (including the operetta Bitter Sweet and comic revues), screenplays, poetry, several volumes of short stories, the novel Pomp and Circumstance, and a three-volume autobiography. Coward's stage and film acting and directing career spanned six decades, during which he starred in many of his own works.
At the outbreak of the Second World War Coward volunteered for war work, running the British propaganda office in Paris. He also worked with the Secret Service, seeking to use his influence to persuade the American public and government to help Britain. Coward won an Academy Honorary Award in 1943 for his naval film drama, In Which We Serve, and was knighted in 1969. In the 1950s he achieved fresh success as a cabaret performer, performing his own songs, such as "Mad Dogs and Englishmen", "London Pride" and "I Went to a Marvellous Party".
His plays and songs achieved new popularity in the 1960s and 1970s, and his work and style continue to influence popular culture. Coward did not publicly acknowledge his homosexuality, but it was discussed candidly after his death by biographers including Graham Payn, his long-time partner, and in Coward's diaries and letters, published posthumously. The former Albery Theatre (originally the New Theatre) in London was renamed the Noël Coward Theatre in his honour in 2006.
Coward was homosexual but, following the convention of his times, this was never publicly mentioned. The critic Kenneth Tynan's description in 1953 was close to an acknowledgment of Coward's sexuality: "Forty years ago he was Slightly in Peter Pan, and you might say that he has been wholly in Peter Pan ever since. No private considerations have been allowed to deflect the drive of his career; like Gielgud and Terence Rattigan, like the late Ivor Novello, he is a congenital bachelor." Coward firmly believed his private business was not for public discussion, considering "any sexual activities when over-advertised" to be tasteless. Even in the 1960s, Coward refused to acknowledge his sexual orientation publicly, wryly observing, "There are still a few old ladies in Worthing who don't know." Despite this reticence, he encouraged his secretary Cole Lesley to write a frank biography once Coward was safely dead.
Coward's most important relationship, which began in the mid-1940s and lasted until his death, was with the South African stage and film actor Graham Payn. Coward featured Payn in several of his London productions. Payn later co-edited with Sheridan Morley a collection of Coward's diaries, published in 1982. Coward's other relationships included the playwright Keith Winter, actors Louis Hayward and Alan Webb, his manager Jack Wilson and the composer Ned Rorem, who published details of their relationship in his diaries. Coward had a 19-year friendship with Prince George, Duke of Kent, but biographers differ on whether it was platonic. Payn believed that it was, although Coward reportedly admitted to the historian Michael Thornton that there had been "a little dalliance". Coward said, on the duke's death, "I suddenly find that I loved him more than I knew."
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Coward maintained close friendships with many women, including the actress and author Esmé Wynne-Tyson, his first collaborator and constant correspondent; Gladys Calthrop, who designed sets and costumes for many of his works; his secretary and close confidante Lorn Loraine; the actresses Gertrude Lawrence, Joyce Carey and Judy Campbell; and "his loyal and lifelong amitié amoureuse", Marlene Dietrich.
In his profession, Coward was widely admired and loved for his generosity and kindness to those who fell on hard times. Stories are told of the unobtrusive way in which he relieved the needs or paid the debts of old theatrical acquaintances who had no claim on him. From 1934 until 1956, Coward was the president of the Actors Orphanage, which was supported by the theatrical industry. In that capacity, he befriended the young Peter Collinson, who was in the care of the orphanage. He became Collinson's godfather and helped him to get started in show business. When Collinson was a successful director, he invited Coward to play a role in The Italian Job. Graham Payn also played a small role in the film.
In 1926, Coward acquired Goldenhurst Farm, in Aldington, Kent, making it his home for most of the next thirty years, except when the military used it during the Second World War. It is a Grade II listed building. In the 1950s, Coward left the UK for tax reasons, receiving harsh criticism in the press. He first settled in Bermuda but later bought houses in Jamaica and Switzerland (in the village of Les Avants, near Montreux), which remained his homes for the rest of his life. His expatriate neighbours and friends included Joan Sutherland, David Niven, Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, and Julie Andrews and Blake Edwards in Switzerland and Ian Fleming and his wife Ann in Jamaica. Coward was a witness at the Flemings' wedding, but his diaries record his exasperation with their constant bickering.
Coward's political views were conservative, but not unswervingly so: he despised the government of Neville Chamberlain for its policy of appeasing Nazi Germany, and he differed sharply with Winston Churchill over the abdication crisis of 1936. Whereas Churchill supported Edward VIII's wish to marry "his cutie", Wallis Simpson, Coward thought the king irresponsible, telling Churchill, "England doesn't wish for a Queen Cutie." Coward disliked propaganda in plays; "The theatre is a wonderful place, a house of strange enchantment, a temple of illusion. What it most emphatically is not and never will be is a scruffy, ill-lit, fumed-oak drill hall serving as a temporary soap box for political propaganda." Nevertheless, his own views sometimes surfaced in his plays: both Cavalcade and This Happy Breed are, in the words of the playwright David Edgar, "overtly Conservative political plays written in the Brechtian epic manner." In religion, Coward was agnostic. He wrote of his views, "Do I believe in God? I can't say No and I can't say Yes, To me it's anybody's guess."[n 10]
Coward spelled his first name with the diæresis ("I didn't put the dots over the 'e' in Noël. The language did. Otherwise it's not Noël but Nool!"). The press and many book publishers failed to follow suit, and his name was printed as 'Noel' in The Times, The Observer and other contemporary newspapers and books.[n 11] The papers of Noël Coward are held in the University of Birmingham.[n 12]
By the end of the 1960s, Coward suffered from arteriosclerosis and, during the run of Suite in Three Keys, he struggled with bouts of memory loss. This also affected his work in The Italian Job, and he retired from acting immediately afterwards. Coward was knighted in 1969 and was elected a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature. He received a Tony Award for lifetime achievement. In 1972, he was awarded an honorary Doctor of Letters degree by the University of Sussex.
Coward died at his home, Firefly Estate, in Jamaica on 26 March 1973 of heart failure and was buried three days later on the brow of Firefly Hill, overlooking the north coast of the island. A memorial service was held in St Martin-in-the-Fields in London on 29 May 1973, for which the Poet Laureate, John Betjeman, wrote and delivered a poem in Coward's honour, [n 9] John Gielgud and Laurence Olivier read verse and Yehudi Menuhin played Bach. On 28 March 1984 a memorial stone was unveiled by the Queen Mother in Poets' Corner, Westminster Abbey. Thanked by Coward's partner, Graham Payn, for attending, the Queen Mother replied, "I came because he was my friend."
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The Noël Coward Theatre in St. Martin's Lane, originally opened in 1903 as the New Theatre and later called the Albery, was renamed in his honour after extensive refurbishment, re-opening on 1 June 2006. A statue of Coward by Angela Conner was unveiled by the Queen Mother in the foyer of the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane in 1998. There are also sculptures of Coward displayed in New York and Jamaica, and a bust of him in the library in Teddington, near where he was born. In 2008 an exhibition devoted to Coward was mounted at the National Theatre in London. The exhibition was later hosted by the Museum of Performance & Design in San Francisco and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in Beverly Hills, California.
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