The Letters of Noel Coward

coward1The Bright Young Things are just as determined to be bright as were their fathers and mothers; parapets are still walked at midnight it seems, and dinner-jacketed young men are still falling or being pushed into swimming pools or the river to round off successful parties.

Everyone has an idea, or a stereotype, of what Noel Coward was; to me he conjures up a vision of The Fast Show’s 13th Duke of Wybourne: ‘With my reputation… what were they thinking of?’ Despite Saki, others will think of all pre-1960s gay men as repressed, hunted, miserable creatures: supporters of the 1967 legislation tended to argue ‘that homosexuals were pitiful and in need of Christian compassion.’ But like Saki, Coward was happy and active and according to Rebecca West, conducted his sex life with ‘impeccable dignity’.

Still others see Coward as a ‘trilling ferret’ which is true but only a surface truth, for in his collection of letters Barry Day reveals Coward to be, like many relentless extroverts, a man of deep steel.

The Letters of Noel Coward is, as Martin Amis would say, ‘the size of a Harlem boombox,’ but despite knowing almost nothing about Coward or drama I found the collection engaging and entertaining. Day puts the letters in context, organises them thematically, concentrating on each of Coward’s innumerable relationships in turn. He includes biographical notes, photographs and letters to Coward as well as from him. The decoration makes for an easy, slippery read.

There’s some particularly good stuff in the late fifties and early sixties when Coward is confronted by John Osborne and the Look Back in Anger generation: angry young men with plays of fiery realism that stood in opposition to Coward’s witty, intricate and apolitical comedies. In a 1961 article for the Sunday Times Coward declared that the theatre was ‘a temple of dreams’ and not ‘a scruffy, illiterate drill-hall serving as a temporary soap-box for propaganda.’ He went on to say this:

It is dull to write incessantly about tramps and prostitutes as it is to write incessantly about dukes and duchesses and even suburban maters and paters, and it is bigoted and stupid to believe that tramps and prostitutes and under-privileged housewives frying onions and using ironing boards are automatically the salt of the earth and that nobody else is worth bothering about.

You can see his point, but Coward’s rage is still that of a dying generation as it is succeeded by another.

Yet for all the deep steel, The Letters of Noel Coward is a hilarious book that showcase the subject’s talent for wicked invention. Coward delighted in the telegraph form, using it to criticise his actors (‘TENOR INCAPABLE OF SPEECH EVEN IN ITALIAN’), or to congratulate his friend Gertie Laurence on her engagement (‘HOORAY HOORAY AT LAST YOU ARE DEFLOWERED’). Probably the best and most revealing anecdote is of Coward trying to sign a telegram as the Mayor of New York:

Being fond of signing both his letters and cables with fanciful names, he dictated as his signature ‘Fiorello La Guardia.’

There was a moment of outraged silence on the line. Then…

‘Are you really Mayor La Guardia?’

‘No.’

‘Then you can’t sign it ‘Fiorello La Guardia.’ What is your real name?’

‘Noel Coward.’

‘Are you really Noel Coward?’

‘Yes.’

‘Then you may sign it ‘Fiorello La Guardia.’

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One Response to “The Letters of Noel Coward”

  1. Print versus screen « Max Dunbar Says:

    […] as to what will happen to correspondence collections now that the epistolary age is dead. Editing Noel Coward’s letters, Barry Day sniffs ‘One wonders what history will make of the present illiterate email […]

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