I know it's stupid to be mad about the boy
I'm so ashamed of it
But must admit
The sleepless nights I've had about the boy
In a 1999 article marking the 100th anniversary of the birth of Noël Coward, TIME magazine noted that “no other 20th century figure approached Coward’s creative breadth: playwright, actor, composer, lyricist, novelist, stage director, film producer, Vegas entertainer.” Audiences adored Coward’s plays, his stage musicals, his wit and his often-cutting repartee. Between the two World Wars, Coward dominated the theatrical profession on both sides of the Atlantic as no one else has done before or since. As TIME added, he did so with “a combination of cheek and chic, pose and poise.”
Few of his plays have stood the test of time, and it is relatively rare to see them programmed today. Perhaps he is now best known for one song: “Mad Dogs and Englishmen go out in the Midday Sun.” First performed in New York in 1931, according to his biographer Sheridan Morley he wrote it whilst driving from Hanoi to Saigon “without pen, paper or piano!” The song poking fun at English colonials was penned during an extensive tour of Asia Coward made in 1930. Whilst in Shanghai he fell ill and was forced to spend several weeks convalescing in the art deco Cathay Hotel on the Bund, now the Fairmont Peace Hotel. To pass the time, he wrote what was to become his most famous comedy, “Private Lives”.
Coward’s visits to Asia are variously commemorated in several of its top hotels. There is a Coward Suite in Raffles Hotel in Singapore. In Bangkok’s Mandarin Oriental, of the four suites in the old Author’s Wing, one is named after Coward, decorated perhaps appropriately in plush magenta and gold. But Asia always seemed to have a negative effect on Coward’s health. Visiting Bangkok in 1923 he was nearly turned away as he was suffering from malaria!
“Mad About The Boy” was originally written for a 1932 satirical review. Three ladies and, daringly for the times, a man in a cinema queue sing about the hero they will soon see up on the silver screen. In the 1950s he slightly opened a window on his own sexuality by adapting it to be sung by a male character exhibiting definite homosexual feelings. It was always thought that the original was written also to be sung by a man, in this case Coward himself who had been smitten by the actor Douglas Fairbanks Jnr. Noël’s feelings were unrequited. It certainly makes more sense than the 1932 version.
Behind his assured, high society mask, by all accounts Coward was frequently a deeply unhappy man. In his last play “Song at Twilight”, written before the change in the law and illustrating much of what Coward must have felt throughout his life, he finally reveals the terrible price to be paid for living in the closet. The lead character whom Coward acted at its premiere is believed to have been based on the gay author Somerset Maugham.
TIME axknowledges that Coward was gay. He was also from a lower middle-class background. He himself described it as “genteel poverty”. Born in the suburbs of London, at 14 he became the protégé and almost certainly the lover of a society painter, Philip Streatfield. Although Streatfield was to die a year later, Coward was taken under the wing of one of his close lady friends. He was soon introduced into the high society of the times and quickly adopted its clipped upper crust accent and snobbish manners.
Privately Coward could be as vulgar as they come. When he invited the gay British musicals’ composer Lionel Bart (“Oliver”) to spend a weekend at his Swiss home, Bart thought it was a friend playing a joke. “Noël who?” he flippantly asked. “Coward, you Cockney cunt”, came the reply!
By his teens, pushed by his ambitious mother Coward had started work as a child actor. He had always been interested in the theatre and by age 20 he was writing his own plays. Soon he was to be a huge success in virtually all areas of society entertainment. It was at a performance in 1923 of his wildly successful musical revue “London Calling” that he met one of his early and most passionate lovers.
Prince George, Duke of Kent, was the dashing fourth son of Britain’s King George V (and thus uncle to the present Queen). He and Coward began a clandestine affair. During the Roaring Twenties, the scandals surrounding the very bisexual, drug-taking Prince George were legendary. Even after his marriage, one commentator at the time noted, “he is not safe in a taxi with either sex.”
Prince George, Duke of Kent
The British Security Service once reported that George and Coward had been seen cavorting through the streets of London “dressed and made up as women!” Their on-going relationship was to last for 19 years even though George was also indulging in a string of other affairs at the same time. Only death parted George from “dearest, darling Noël”. In 1942 George was killed in an air crash in Scotland. A deeply distressed Coward wrote in his diary, “The thought that I shall never see him again is terribly painful.”
In public Coward was a master of the one-line quip, often cutting and always trotted out spontaneously. One evening walking across London’s Leicester Square, a friend drew his attention to the huge advertising hoarding above the Odeon Cinema –
Michael Redgrave and Dirk Bogarde
The Sea Shall Not Have Them
Bemused, Coward turned to his friend and exclaimed,
“I can’t think why ever not, dear boy. Everyone else has!”
In theatrical circles Redgrave was known to be bisexual and Bogarde homosexual, although neither came out during their lives.
In another famous Coward quip he was standing on a balcony overlooking the procession of carriages passing en route to the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II. Beside him was his young nephew. In one carriage was a monstrously overweight woman. Noël’s nephew was curious.
“Uncle Noël! Who is in that carriage?”
“That, dear boy, is Queen Sālote of Tonga.”
Pointing to her tiny slim Prime Minster sitting opposite, the nephew was equally curious.
“And who is the little man with her?”
“That, dear boy, is her lunch!”
Given his enormous success in the years between the two World Wars (in one year alone he had no less than four plays running in London’s West End), the patriotic 1942 film he wrote as part of the national war effort “In Which We Serve”, and the later revelation that he had been a spy for his country during that war (in America his “handler” was the actor Cary Grant who had close links to intelligence services in the US and UK), it was assumed that Coward would be awarded a knighthood. He was not. He was on friendly terms with Winston Churchill, but the Prime Minister and other top members of the government were aware of the relationship with Prince George and anxious that it be totally covered up, to the extent that George’s letters to Coward were stolen from his London home – allegedly with Churchill’s approval. Apart from the scandal if the public were to hear of the affair, homosexual relations between two men were strictly illegal, and would remain so in England until 1967. Coward would finally be given a knighthood in 1970. Perhaps somewhat extraordinarily, George’s sister-in-law, the mother of Queen Elizabeth II, remained a lifelong friend.
After the war, Coward started a relationship with South African actor, Graham Payn, who was 19 years younger and to remain with him for the rest of his life. Soon Coward and Payn took a long lease on a house in Jamaica named Goldeneye, owned by Ian Fleming, the creator of the James Bond novels. Despite his love, Coward considered the younger man “a born drifter.”
"He sleeps and sleeps and the days go by. I love him dearly and forever, but this lack of drive in any direction is a bad augury for the future. I am willing and happy to look after him for the rest of my life but he must do something. If only he would take up some occupation and stick to it.”
Later they built their own house on the island and it was here that Coward died in 1973. Thereafter Payn was frequently questioned about a relationship with Prince George. He refused to confirm any had taken place. Indeed throughout his life Coward had never openly revealed his sexuality.
Coward’s contribution to his country is now marked by a memorial stone in Poet’s Corner in Westminster Abbey and the re-naming in 2006 of one of London’s theatres as the Noël Coward Theatre.