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The Most Charming 20th Century Man

April 10, 2013

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“It is discouraging to think how many people are shocked by honesty and how few by deceit.”  Noel Coward

England’s Noel Coward, all by himself, was for the Twenties what it took four Beatles to be for the Sixties.

Coward, too, became the over-publicized essence of Youth. “Jagged with sophistication,” four plays he wrote running at once in the West End by 1925, Coward’s clipped wit and bright jazzy songs embodied the sped-up post-World War I generation’s “smart” and disillusioned sense of life: All causes lost, all heroes dead. Let’s get tight and laugh at people.

“Destiny’s tot,” as Alexander Woollcott dubbed Coward, was an actor, playwright, composer, theatrical- and motion-picture producer and director, singer/songwriter, revue and cabaret superstar, author of a best-selling novel, books of short stories, three volumes of autobiography, and one slim volume of verse he was too modest to describe as poetry.

Coward was a genius, unforgivably so. Part of his affront to the envious and less-talented was how quickly he wrote his four best plays. Hay Fever in five days; Private Lives, four; Present Laughter and Blithe Spirit, six days. In his 1982 book Coward: The Playwright, critic John Lahr argues that his greatest plays are essentially about “the politics of charm.”

Right up until Sixties British drama critics were forced, tight-lipped and slightly stunned, to admit that Coward, yes, that Coward! was a playwright of genius, they’d spent the previous thirty years writing him off as the has-been relic of an insufficiently socialistic time. These were the Labor government years when “kitchen sink” dramas such as John Osborne’s Look Back In Anger were putting working class blokes at center stage where the cocktails, long cigarette holders, and gorgeous Sulka dressing gowns used to reign supreme.

The British Left have never, to this day, forgiven Noel Coward for loving his country and befriending its Royalty. Read essayist Malcolm Muggeridge on the Thirties, for example. The political class despised Cavalcade, Coward’s epic theatrical valentine to all things English, appearing, as it did, on the verge of the Second World War.

But Coward’s worst offense came during the Forties. He put aside everything which being Noel Coward had stood for up until then and wrote, produced, co-directed (with David Lean, whom he discovered), and starred in the best English war movie of World War II, In Which We Serve. Although nosed out by Casablanca for the 1942 Academy Award as Best Picture, Coward received an honorary Oscar for his gritty and patriotic production.

In 1955, Noel Coward brought to Las Vegas a cabaret act he had perfected on endless tours entertaining thousands of soldiers and sailors during the War, sometimes within spitting distance of corpses, always in discomfort and some danger. Vegas was easier.

Hollywood turned out in force, led by its then-greatest star, Frank Sinatra. Every night at the Sands, after Sammy Davis, Jr. finished his smash-hit performance, he’d yell at the applauding audiences: “Now go across the Strip and see the Master do it like it’s supposed to be done!”

Coward’s star turn at Wilbur Clark’s Desert Inn became one of the century’s most celebrated live appearances. His career revived. And the live recording of this night club act has never been out of print since its original release.

Coward’s lifelong keynote came from a famous lyric he sang a snatch of for the Vegas gamblers and gangsters — “If Love Were All” from his operetta Bitter Sweet: “For I believe/ That since my life began/ The most I’ve had is just/ A talent to amuse.”

“First I was the enfant terrible. Then the Bright Young Thing. Now I’m a tradition,” he wrote contentedly in later years.

President Roosevelt, after their first private meeting, had invited Coward to sleep over at The White House. It was not just a matter of Coward having known everybody, intimately, including Lord and Lady Mountbatten, Winston Churchill, and the entire Royal Family. Famous entertainers are often picked up and cultivated by high society. But when Graham Payne, his longtime lover, thanked the Queen Mother for attending the instillation of Coward’s plague (“A Talent To Amuse”) near the Poet’s Corner of Westminster Abby, she replied, “He was my friend.”

A delightful entertainer’s remarkable career, yes, but… the most charming man of the last century? How to substantiate the ultimate power of Noel Coward’s glamor? Would you take the blushing word of the century’s greatest stage actor?

Noel Coward gave Laurence Olivier an important career break, in 1930, by casting the handsome young actor in a small but show-case role in Coward’s Private Lives, which he and Gertrude Lawrence were starring in. In Olivier’s 1982 autobiography appears one of the bravest confessions this candid artist ever made. Writing of those days and of Coward…

“I had got over like a spendthrift sigh my nearly passionate involvement with the one male with whom some sexual dalliance had not been loathsome for me to contemplate. I had felt it desperately necessary to warn him that, dustily old-fashioned as it must seem, I had ideals which must not be trodden underfoot and destroyed, or I would not be able to answer for the consequences and neither would he.

“…I felt that the homosexual act would be a step darkly destructive to my soul; I was firm in my conviction that heterosexuality was romantically beautiful, immensely pleasurable, and rewarding in contentment.

“It is surprising that this faith should have withstood an onslaught of such passionate interest, and that this, together with the disillusionment that followed the initial experience of my early marriage, did not throw me off course or even make we waver — well, perhaps I must allow it did do that.”

The charmed charmer’s secret was not whom he loved but what it was worth. Noel Coward wrote a poem called “I’m No Good at Love” in 1967, when the Beatles were riding high and Love! was a battle-cry…

I’m no good at love

I betray it with little sins

For I feel the misery of the end

In the moment that it begins

And the bitterness of the last good-bye

Is the bitterness that wins.

Astringent, yes, but, reading his private Diaries, none of Coward’s self-knowledge was ever self-pitying. To achieve, from day to day, such an amazing life was always its own reward. In 1963, the Master observed: “The only way to enjoy life is to work. Work is much more fun than fun.”

More amusing, being talented.

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