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How Noël Coward became the archetypal English success

A new biography shows how he began life as a revolutionary and ended it hosting the Queen Mother.

By Tanya Gold

Oliver Soden divides his life – or “lives” – of Noël Coward into nine parts: “Each section is loosely structured as one of the varied genres in which he wrote: plays, musicals, revues, screenplays, short stories.” Some passages are in dialogue, and he ends with a section written as a play script, which he sees as “a natural conclusion to an enacted life, which was conducted either side of a disconcertingly permeable barrier between theatre and reality”.

From less gifted writers this would be whimsical, maddening, but here it allows the reader to drift into a Noëlscape, where he is multiple, and infinite. I imagine him dead at six, like his elder brother, Russell, or dead at 27 like his younger brother, Erik, both buried in Teddington, in the sullen churchyard I would walk past as a child. Or I imagine him trapped in some dead-end job like his father, Arthur, who sold sheet music and pianos. (In reality, Coward must have seemed an Oedipal nightmare: every piece of sheet music his father looked at was by him, and every piano he sold was played by him.)

The book opens with a scene in which the 13-year-old Noël, playing Slightly, a Lost Boy, in Peter Pan, says: “My mother was fonder of me than your mothers were of you.” Violet Coward doted on her son, Soden writes: “He was blond-haired, blue-eyed, disarmingly bright, and he showed signs of being musical.” But this wasn’t Noël, who was born in 1899, “permitted a fortnight’s glimpse of the dying century”. It was Russell, who contracted meningitis. Soden’s misdirection speaks to the masks Coward wore throughout his life: Soden calls his book Masquerade.

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It was Violet, whose family had declined from aristocratic to Teddington, who put him on the stage. He began as a mussel in The Goldfish and was promoted to a mushroom in An Autumn Idyll. He was bullied at school, responded by pretending to faint, and abandoned formal schooling with Violet’s collusion. Instead, he would ride the trains across London wearing a wig. When he did not win a prize, he lay on the sofa and howled. He practised his signature and shoplifted. He mostly stole comics: the ageing thief is another Noël I follow in my mind.

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Each year, theatrical children were measured to see if they had grown too tall for Peter Pan. The critic Kenneth Tynan thought Coward never outgrew Peter Pan, but Soden debunks him early. Coward was many things, but he was principally a workaholic. To confuse him with a dilettante is to confuse him with the age he chronicled – the traumatised postwar youth – and the class he sought: the aristocracy. His juvenilia, Soden writes, filled more than 40 notebooks. Coward was not a sprite. He was closer to a nerd.

The Great War ended his childhood. He lost two close male friends in two years and arrived at the theatre to find Piccadilly Circus a crater. In March 1918 he was enlisted, but he did not see active service (Here is another possible future, or anti-future. His regiment – the Artists Rifles – was annihilated. It had 200 fatalities in the last two months of the war). He had his first breakdown: they occurred throughout his life. He tried to work in intelligence in the next war – he pleaded with Winston Churchill personally – and entered Paris when everyone else was running in the opposite direction. But he was too famous to be a spy. Following Churchill’s suggestion, he toured the world instead, performing to troops.

He insinuated his way into aristocratic and artistic lives, first in Britain, and then in the US, where he picked up the cadences of the future, and brought them home. Soden has the testimony of every writer Coward courted. He irritated Siegfried Sassoon, who had a headache, and reported Coward “too gushing” as he “rattled brightly on”. Aldous Huxley thought him “much nicer and more intelligent when he’s by himself than when he’s being the brilliant young actor-dramatist in front of a crowd of people”. Others were aghast, like the audience ofSpringtime for Hitler”: “WH Auden had sat through The Queen Was in the Parlour (not, perhaps, the best introduction) in abject disbelief,” Soden writes. “Is it like this,” Auden wrote to a friend, quoting Eliot, “in Death’s other Kingdom?”

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Young Noël is irritating – he hums with need – but no matter. The Vortex (1924), which Soden calls a “coded commentary on homosexuality” (“our lives are built up of pretences all the time”) made him famous. Soon he had four plays running in the West End and was estimated to be the highest-paid writer in the world. His skill was to write about modernity – adultery, drug abuse, bisexuality, homosexuality, women’s rights, despair – without seeming to personally endorse it.

He made masterpieces: Hay Fever (1924), Private Lives (1930), Blithe Spirit (1941); invented the war film with In Which We Serve (1942); and wrote Britain’s Casablanca with Brief Encounter (1945). Soden quotes Beverley Nichols: “Any artist who catches the exact echo of any period will hear his work echoed and echoed down the centuries.” He was also a superb actor: his Mr Bridger in The Italian Job (1974) plausibly frightened Michael Caine.

Coward was not at odds with the Bloomsbury Group, who simply made fewer jokes, and less money. Soden quotes Robert Graves and Alan Hodge’s social history of interwar Britain, The Long Week-End: “Coward was the dramatist of disillusion, as Eliot was its tragic poet, Aldous Huxley its novelist, and James Joyce its prose epic-writer.”

It didn’t stop them sniping. Dora Carrington thought Coward “gloomy and fascinating, with a face that shone like Bronze. I expect he uses a Pink-Brown powder.” Virginia Woolf took refuge in snobbery: “He can sing, dance, write plays, act, compose, and I daresay paint – he rescued his whole family who kept boarding houses in Surbiton [she meant Battersea] and they are now affluent, but on the verge of bankruptcy, because he spends so much on cocktails.”

He sang, she adds, “like a tipsy crow – quite without self-consciousness”.

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Coward never wrote explicitly about his personal life, but there are fragments in his works. Quinn in Point Valaine calls his “role in life… clearly marked. Cynical, detached, unscrupulous, an ironic observer and recorder of other people’s passions. It is a nice facade to sit behind, but a trifle bleak.” Even so, success soothed him. He got kinder, though not happier, and it’s hard to dislike a man whose mother writes notes like: “How much better to have [died] while you still loved me, and no crowds of grand friends and success had come between us! You think a lot of my making you unhappy but nothing at all of your making me unhappy.” But he was her child, and skilled in tormenting her back: “By the way there is a dreadfully dangerous lift in this apartment several people are killed daily just getting in and out… But don’t worry.”

There is a character study in his lover Keith Winter’s novel Impassioned Pygmies, a title I hope Coward laughed at: “The real Andrew Jordan [Coward] was not the witty playboy known to the world, nor the odd mixture of sympathy and brutality, spectacular generosity and incredible meanness known to his friends, but a pathetic being who wandered desolately through the empty hills of his life, crying, begging, pleading for one thing… to be loved… The love that he desired so passionately was the one thing he would never find, for the simple reason that he would have been quite incapable of recognising it, even if he had met it, so drastically had he poisoned himself with suspicion and disbelief.”

His desire to control was absurd: he insisted on being called “the Master”, and that a gofer called Leonard Cole be renamed Cole Lesley. Insanely, Cole agreed. The pianist Norman Hackforth called Coward “the easiest person in the world to get on with, always provided that he was surrounded by unflagging devotion, unswerving loyalty, and absolute total perfection”.

Despite a postwar slump – no one can define two consecutive generations – Coward saw his renaissance in the 1960s. In many ways he is the archetypal English success: he began as a revolutionary and ended hosting the Queen Mother. One of his last plays was A Song at Twilight, in which the character Hugo is told: “You would prefer to be regarded as cynical, mean and unforgiving, rather than as a vulnerable human being capable of tenderness… how surprising it would be for posterity to discover you had a heart after all.”

If Soden’s life feels definitive, he is enough like his subject to know it, and to taunt those who came before – slightly. In Soden’s closing playscript, Coward’s biographers appear. “Philip Hoare’s biography came out in 1995,” Soden says. “On the dust jacket of my copy are several quotations saying it was so good we’d never need another. I took the dust jacket off and threw it away.” It is impossible to know if he means it. If he is anything like Coward, he does. He signs off: “Hoare hasn’t written another cradle-to-grave biography since, which may be a salutary lesson. He writes about whales now.”

Masquerade:The Lives of Noël Coward
Oliver Soden
Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 656pp, £30

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This article appears in the 22 Mar 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Banks on the brink