The Letters of Noel Coward: A huge, lavish tome for fans

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"The Nance" scene from he play

book review.

Noel Coward was a famous playwright, composer, comedian, actor and social climber who counted Somerset Maugham, the Alfred and Lynn (Fontanne) Lunt, Marlene Dietrich, Beatrice Lillie, John Gielgud, Alec Guinness, Robert Montgomery, Douglas Fairbanks, Edna Ferber and a host of other luminaries as his friends. And he wrote them letters – lots of letters. And they wrote letters to him.

The Letters of Noel Coward is a huge book.

Perhaps the most poignant letters are the ones written by Coward to his mother in which he shares his hope, fears, health problems and confidences. He loved to travel, and he loved to sunbathe in the nude. He loved long, exotic ocean travels. He loved to write scathing letters telling his friends exactly what he thought was wrong with their play, their book or their acting. He loved finding and having the perfect home, lavishing money and time in getting each place just right. This is a wonderful compendium collected by editor Barry Day.

Coward also paid great attention to getting each of his own plays just right. He enjoyed telling people that he finished one play in a week, another in three days. What Coward didn’t admit, however, was that he labored over the dialogue, casting the right actor to play each part, and cared very much how the lines were delivered. He often felt that his dialogue was delivered too slowly. The letters are proof of his complex and demanding personality. When World War II cast a pall over most theater productions, he turned to films. Few people could say to have had several successful careers, but Coward was a successful playwright for over 20 years, from the mid-1920s to the late 1940s, with occasional hits along the way for decades to come. He also starred in films, had a Las Vegas act and appeared on television. Only the Beatles and Madonna could tie him in his quest to remain fresh and visible to the public throughout his career.

As for his homosexuality, Rebecca West said, “He was a very dignified man…There was an impeccable dignity in his sexual life, which was reticent but untainted by pretence.”

Ask a group of adults the simple question, “Who is Noel Coward?” and you will get a variety of answers. Some may say he was a famous author of plays. Others will say he starred in a few offbeat films, or that he wrote some strange, offbeat songs. Maybe a few would say they never heard of him. All these answers help to explain the complex, multi-talented man because he was all of these and more.

As his close friend Lord Louis Mountbatten said of him at Coward’s 70th birthday party, “There are probably greater painters than Noel, greater novelists than Noel, greater librettists, greater composers of music, greater singers, greater dancers….If there are, they are twelve different people. Only one man combined all twelve labels – The Master.”

Thanked by Coward’s partner, Graham Payn, for attending, the Queen Mother replied, “I came because he was my friend.”

The Letters of Noel Coward, edited and with commentary by Barry Day (Vintage, 2009), 780 pages.

book review.

Noel Coward was a famous playwright, composer, comedian, actor and social climber who counted Somerset Maugham, the Alfred and Lynn (Fontanne) Lunt, Marlene Dietrich, Beatrice Lillie, John Gielgud, Alec Guinness, Robert Montgomery, Douglas Fairbanks, Edna Ferber and a host of other luminaries as his friends. And he wrote them letters – lots of letters. And they wrote letters to him.