The Sunday Telegraph
How Churchill blocked Coward’s war knighthood
SIR WINS TON Churchill personally block ed a knighthood for Noël Coward even though the play wright spied for Britain during the war, according to previously unseen letters.
In 1942, the wartime leader urged King George VI to abandon his plans to bestow the honour on Coward, who was a friend of the monarch.
Churchill, who is known to have disapproved of the playwright’s flamboyant lifestyle and possibly his homosexuality, used the excuse of a relatively minor court case to block the knighthood.
Two months earlier, Coward had been fined a token £200 for inadvertently breaching wartime currency exchange laws by spending £11,000 on a trip to America.
On December 29, 1942, Churchill wrote to the king: “Since our conversation at luncheon today, I have examined in consultation with the Chancellor of the Exchequer, the details of the case against Mr Noël Coward.
“The Chancellor and Sir Richard Hopkins [permanent secretary to the Treasury] contend that it was one of substance and that the conferment of a Knighthood upon Mr Coward so soon afterwards would give rise to unfavourable comment.
“With considerable per - sonal reluctance I have therefore come to the conclusion that I could not advise Your Majesty to proceed with this proposal on the present occasion.”
Churchill’s disapproval was not shared by the public, who continued to flockto Coward’s propaganda film, In Which We Serve, released months earlier.
Nor was it shared by government officials who were sending the writer on covert intelligence-gathering missions.
The correspondence, which is to be published in a new book, The Letters of Noël Coward, reveals that Coward had been recruited in 1938 by Sir Robert Vansittart, a F oreign Office mandarin,who dis - patched him to various European capitals.
Coward later wrote: “Russia was filthy and smelly. Exactly like a whole world composed of the Whitechapel Road on August Bank Holiday.
“I was spied upon and followed because it was known I had something to do with the Embassy… T he Russians turned out all of my clothes on to the platform. What they hoped to find I don’tknow. I had any papers of importance in my hip pocket.”
In 1 940, Coward was recruited by Sir William Stephenson, the head of British Security Co-ordination in New York, who asked him to cultivate key American opinion-formers. His handler was Cary Grant, the British-born Hollywood actor.
The playwright, who worked in strict secrecy, was vilified by the British press, which assumed he was in America to escape the war. Ironi cally, he was also being monitored by the FBI, which disapproved of British agents operating in a neutral country.
In a letter to Vansittart dated August 21, 1940, a frustrated but naiv e Coward writes: “I should be only too delighted to register as a government agent and I think it would do away with a lot of the false rumour and wild surmise. I am most definitely not over here on personal business.”
He later wrote: “If I ran away and refused to have anything to do with the war and lived comfortably in Holly- wood, as so man y of m y friends have done, I would be ashamed to the end of m y days.”
Coward, whose hits included Brief Encounter and Private Lives, was ev entually knighted in 1 970 and died three years later.