Lashings of Coward
Coward’ s Noel letters reveal a talent to abuse, Diana Simmonds writes
BARRY Day has spent many years on the writings and life of Noel Coward and one is tempted to make ( and fails to resist) the observation that the master ’ s waspish demeanour has rather rubbed off on him. As has Coward ’s penchant for an occasional silly pronouncement. On the opening page of the introduction to his new collection of Coward ’ s correspondence, for instance, Day writes that the great man was an
‘‘ early role model for that 20th- century phenomenon the celebrity ’, someone well
‘ ‘ known for being famous and famous for being well known ’ ’ ’ .
This is, in the Cowardian vernacular, utter rot. One need not be a Coward fan to accept he was famous because he was awfully good at what he did. And what he did was write heaps of plays, including such corkers as
Blithe Spirit , Hay , Present Laughter , Private Lives , The Fever Vortex and Waiting in the Wings .
He also wrote, appeared in and co- produced the 1942 classic of the high seas, In Which We Serve ( David Lean directed). Then there are some of the most memorable popular songs of the early 20th century: London Pride , I ll See
’ You Again , The Stately Homes of England and ( Don t Put Your Daughter on the Stage) Mrs
’ Worthington among dozens of greater and lesser ditties. He also wrote reams of fiction, copious diaries, two well- received volumes of autobiography and, of course, hundreds of letters. From this brief resume it’ s clear Coward ’ s
´ fame had nothing to do with empty celebrity, and Day is a chump for saying so.
Coward could also be a chump and was also a frightful snob, an indefatigable social climber and able to come up with such pensees as the infamous diary entry: Gandhi has been assassi-
‘‘ nated. In my humble opinion, a bloody good thing but far too late. ’’ To offer some sort of ( admittedly convoluted) context: Coward ’s close friend and sister- in- the- closet was Lord Louis
Dickie ’’ Mountbatten, last viceroy of India, ‘‘ who was cuckolded by his wife, Edwina, with India ’ s first post- independence prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru. And Nehru was Gandhi ’s very stylish protege. Six degrees of separation, perhaps, but Coward was an acid queen who could make Tina Turner look more Julie Andrews than hydrochloric.
Although Andrews appears to have been one of those rare thespians with whom Coward did not share correspondence, it ’ s worth noting that, even peripherally, she did not escape the Coward lash. When the movie
Star was announced, with Andrews to play Coward ’s long- time muse Gertrude Lawrence, he wrote: Julie . . . is about
‘‘ as much like Gertie as I am Edna Ferber ’ s twin, but what can one do? I liked her athletic, careening, whilom nun in
The Sound of Music . She is a bright, talented actress and quite attractive since she dealt with her monstrous English overbite. It will be . . . more interesting, I hope, than dear Gertie ’ s actual life. ’’
What he thought of Daniel Massey ’s performance as Coward in the 1968 epic fails to get a mention here; Massey ’ s father Raymond rates an entry in the index. On the other hand, his insouciant use of the archaic whilom ’’ ( former)
‘‘ is somehow typical of the playful yet always ambitious show- off from the wrong end of the champagne cork.
What is more remarkable about the letters is that they fill 782 pages, including index, editor ’s notes and linking narrative. Consequently the book weighs in at 1.875kg. Having now lugged the wretched volume about for the past couple of weeks, it has to be said that its weight has become the most significant thing about it, far outweighing ( beg pardon) the brilliance and scope of Coward ’ s circle. Irritation at his endless and twee correspondence with mummy — and her and daddy ’s nicknames of Poj’’ and Stoj ’’ — was
‘‘ ‘‘ quickly displaced by exasperation at the physical difficulty of grappling with the doorstop.
It is somehow unamusing that a book devoted to a man who made a virtue of the lightness of being is virtually impossible to read in bed, unless one is sitting up, and is equally exhausting even in an armchair, hammock or on a sofa. It ’s a beastly burden to carry on a train or bus and unless one is flying first class ( with unlimited luggage allowance and a flunkey to deal with it), it is the last book one would dream of taking on a plane.
To read it in the bath would require an unusually sturdy sponge and plastic duck rack, and great care in avoiding contact with bubbles ( you absolutely do not want to get it wet and make it any heavier). Because of the dippinginto- at- random factor, loo reading is a possibility but in this instance is again hampered by simple poundage. And standing at a lectern is not an option, as one would feel ridiculously biblical.
This leads to the question: what were Methuen ’s marketing people thinking of? These days publishers and editors are well out- pecked in the new order of deciding whether or not a book will be published. And the reasons for publishing are not so much the talent or reputation of the author, or the unusual brilliance of the text, but such factors as the marketability of the cover image and three- line blurb. Perhaps they all are weightlifters and gym bunnies at Methuen or, alternatively, they have never tried hefting a 2kg book for longer than it takes to pass it around the conference table.
In less economically uncertain times Coward ’ s letters would undoubtedly have been divided into successive volumes: such as those of Vita Sackville- West to Virginia Woolf, for instance, or Sylvia Townsend Warner ’s letters to William Maxwell ( one volume) and to Valentine Ackland ( in another). The chances of such books finding a publisher today would be minimal: the trade has changed beyond recognition and this collection is, quite possibly, an anachronistic last gasp of the old order.
Perhaps the marketing bods thought they could front- end load it into the British marketplace in time for Christmas ( God help the stockings) and then pallet it up for the colonies and away.
This is a pity, because as well as the precocious boy ’s affected efforts in his early years — including many, many descriptions of weeping and homesickness while employed as an ingenue in endless repertory tours of grey Britain — the Coward wit and guile gradually grows. As he becomes more successful, confident and mellow and as his circle of name acquaintances widens, the tone and style of the letters move beyond arch and into real substance. Not ordinary substance, of course: his long letter of reprimand to Margaret Leighton is a scorcher. No wonder she apologised for wanting to vet the new play on offer before accepting.
Although obviously writing with posterity in mind, Coward wrote freely and outrageously long before the concept of political correctness had taken hold. He had no hesitation in describing Mumbai exactly as he found it ( ‘‘ having gained independence the Indians had not bothered to clean the place ever again ’’ ) and he was not fond of the Seychelles either.
In essence, Coward ’ s letters will be of most interest to luvvies ( Australian and otherwise), theatre buffs ( historical and social), as well as amateur detectives and gossips ( often one and the same). For instance, a little light sleuthing will be hilariously, wickedly rewarding in the matter of the letter Coward wrote when he visited Australia in 1963.
Sail Away was to be staged His Broadway hit by J. C. Williamson and he wrote of its initial stages: The whole Australian business was
‘‘ highly successful . . . I was belle of the ball. Some of the minor performances leave a good deal to be desired. The lady who plays Dorothy Reynolds ’s part turned out to be a lesbian robot who has had a skin disease for three years and was insecure in every area. I watched her with dismay at the first run- through and said to Coley, This is my biggest challenge since
Cavalcade ’, so I took her aside, told her she was obviously unhappy and that she must change her characterisation . . . In one afternoon I had her in slacks, drill coats, and slapping her thighs and smoking a cigar! She was tearfully grateful and got rounds of applause and good notices! Oh dear!
The lady who plays Mrs Van Mier is a cross between an ageing Jewish Princess Margaret and George Cukor. She is unable to act. Mrs Lush is like a very squat bulldog wearing a red fright wig. She also barks. Maggie F ( Fitzgbbon) is really excellent. A good belting voice, a warm personality and the audience love her; she isn ’t s o good as ( Elaine) Stritch and there ’ s n o good pretending she is. The girl who plays Nancy is quite remarkable. She can neither sing, dance nor act, has a lisp and no top to her head! I left terse orders for her to be replaced. ’’
Someone somewhere must program that will identify the master ’s wicked eye. have the victims of old the Letters of Noel Coward, edited by Barry Day, ( Methuen, 782pp, $ 65)
Mad about the boy:
Noel Coward meets fans during a visit to Sydney in 1940, left; and leaves Buckingham Palace in 1970 after being knighted by the Queen, bottom