The letters of Noe l Coward

by Noel Coward

Other authorsBarry Day (Editor)
Hardcover, 2007




New York : Alfred A. Knopf, c2007.


The first and definitive collection of savvy, witty, loving, bitchy, and often surprisingly moving letters (most previously unpublished) from and to the incomparable Noël Coward, a unique and irresistible portrait of a society and age. The range, charm, and vitality of his talents--playwright, actor, composer, librettist, lyricist, director, painter, writer, cabaret singer, wit--brought him into close encounters, and often close friendships, with the great and the gifted. He knew everybody who was anybody in the theater and motion pictures, in literature and politics, on both sides of the Atlantic (he was even a spy for the Britishduring World War II, along with Cary Grant). Among those at his "marvelous party": George Bernard Shaw, T. E. Lawrence, Virginia Woolf, the Churchills, Daphne du Maurier, Greta Garbo, Ian Fleming, W. Somerset Maugham, Marlene Dietrich, Tallulah Bankhead, Edith Sitwell, FDR, Gertrude Lawrence, and many more.--From publisher description.… (more)

User reviews

LibraryThing member NarratorLady
I have a crush on Noel Coward. It's hard to encapsulate why and it's also hard to review a tome that runs 750 pages and contains letters from 1913 to 1971. Editor Day argues that the letters reveal more about the man, simply because they were not written, (as his diaries and two published autobiographies were), with an eye to posterity. The art and practice of letter writing has disappeared, which means that this opportunity of getting a glimpse of the true quirks and personality of a famous person is also lost. What a shame.

Coward was a child actor with a pushy mother to whom he was devoted and who was his weekly correspondent until her death in 1953. By his early twenties he was England's most celebrated actor, playwright and composer. He befriended actors, writers, politicians, the aristocracy and royalty. Many confided in him and their letters are also included in this book which is an amazing history of life in the fast lane in the 20th century. While others drowned in the headiness of their own success, Coward was made of different stuff. He collected a staff whom he called his family and who remained with him all his life. They called him "Master", a title he accepted in a tongue-in-cheek way, but it obviously tickled his understandably large ego. (He was, after all, a completely self-made star.) Until the mid-forties, every song and play he wrote was a hit. After World War II, when he found that his particular brand of sophisticated humor and song was suddenly out of date, he re-made himself as a cabaret performer, continued to write, and ultimately directed revivals of his earlier works. Unlike his childhood friend and frequent muse, Gertrude Lawrence, he refused to bend to despair.

There are surprises here that reveal as much about his correspondents as they do about Coward. His dear friend Marlene Dietrich wrote reams about her disastrous love affair with Yul Brynner, sounding like a love-sick school girl ("As long as I don't know what he feels I will have no rest.") to which he responded with great patience and sympathy. Mary Martin's complaints while rehearsing an ill-fated play ("I have never been permitted to say so little or express myself so little"), resulted in a caustic reprimand to the young woman, reminding her that while it was her fifth professional production, it was his 47th: "It seems to me, dear Mary, that you are placing too much emphasis on the word 'star' and too little on the famous theatrical word 'trouper' ".

If Coward's work was derided and considered hopelessly old fashioned after the war, it has earned a permanent place in British and American theater since. The witty dialogue goes perfectly with the costumes and art nouveau settings of "Private Lives", "Hay Fever", and "Present Laughter", which are endlessly produced by professional companies. "Design for Living" closed in London's West End a couple of months ago and a production of "Blithe Spirit" opens there in March. His film "Brief Encounter" has been re-imagined in an innovative stage version that moved recently from London to Broadway and garnered rave reviews. More than thirty-five years after his death, the Master still has the Touch.

His accomplishments have been chronicled elsewhere, most often by Noel himself who was an ardent self promoter. His letters show something more important and personal: how highly he valued friendship. After the Mary Martin debacle, he made sure their friendship survived, and appeared with her a decade later in an American TV special. He was fond of sending rhymes to friends to cheer them up and he was quick to commiserate. His humanity and his wit are summed up in this ditty he sent to his friend, writer Clement Dane (real name: Winifred Ashton) when he heard that the old lady had fallen in the street. I have to copy it here because it is so delightful and perfectly captures the famous charm of its author:

Why did you fall, Winnie?
Why did you fall?
Were you just drunk, dear,
Or not drunk at all?
Were you preoccupied?
Were you in doubt?
Or were you merely
Just bashing about?
Were you too early,
Or were you too late?
Were you in full
Conversational Spate?
Where was dear Olwen (Davies, her secretary),
And what was she at?
Letting you hiccup
And stumble like that!
What were you thinking of,
Was it a plot?
Was it a painting,
A sculpture, or what?
Was that which caused you
To fall in the street
Something unpleasant
Or charming or sweet?
What was the cause of this fall down the drain?
Was it some quirk
In your functional brain?
Was it your strange
Intellectual strength
Leading you sadly
To measure your length?
Once and for all, darling,
Once and for all
Why did you fall, Winnie?
Why did you fall?

(My guess is that Winnie had a pretty big crush on him too.)
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LibraryThing member yooperprof
Sorry not sorry for the "low rating" - but this is not the way that the correspondence of a major cultural figure should be published. There's too much of the editor - and too much "editing" of some of the letters, and not enough editing out and separating of what's really important from what is not.

Look at the index, too:

Noel Coward, homosexuality of: 6-7, 730.

Two mentions of NC's homosexuality in a 750 page tome? This book was published in 2007, 34 years after Coward's death, and 40 years after homosexual acts between consenting adults ceased being a criminal act in the United Kingdom. The editor, Barry Day, explains his perspective in the text: "To the end of his life, even when the social climate had become more permissive - he remained firmly private in his private life, a decision that one wishes today's gay community would honor." Well, EXCUUUUUSE me! Barry Day has published a 750 book of Noel Coward's private correspondence, so it seems to me that that the "privacy" horse left the barn a long time ago.
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