Noel Coward & friends

You have between now and 20 May to catch the theatrical happening of the year.   At London's Jermyn Street Theatre, Penny Horner and her Artistic Director Tom Littler are presenting nine of Noel Coward's Tonight at 8.30 one-act plays - the first time all nine have been seen together in the West End since they were written in 1935/36.  You can see the plays over one long day (as I did on Sunday) or over three nights and I defy you not to be amused, moved, and ultimately blown away by Coward's genius and the Jermyn Street company's stunning versatility.  The actors (nine of them, including my friend Stefan Bednarczyk who is also the musical director) take on 73 roles in 97 costumes, and convince from start to finish, giving us nine aspects of love, life, and laughter.  Go see, if you can.  You won't be disappointed.

I've been thinking about Coward again, not only because of Tonight at 8.30 (and because Present Laughter has just opened at Chichester), but because yesterday would have been the one hundredth birthday of Graham Payn, Coward's sometime lover and long-term companion and friend.  Graham was born on 25 April 1918 and died on 4 November 2005.  Coward was born on 16 December 1899 and died on 26 March 1973.  In 1999, to mark the centenary of Coward’s birth I went to Switzerland, to the mountains above Montreux, to meet Graham.  This is my record of that encounter.

I’ve been to a marvellous party.  They were all there - Marlene, Tallullah, Nureyev and Fonteyn, Dickie Mountbatten, Larry and Viv - a star-studded array, in silver frames on top of the piano.   And across the room, on the mantelpiece, on her own, in pride of place, looking lovelier than ever, the dear, darling Queen Mother.

I am standing in the drawing room of Chalet Coward, the Swiss home of the Sir Noel Coward, the self-styled Master, playboy of the West End world, the twentieth century’s foremost theatrical entertainer.   And I’m gobsmacked.   Signed photographs apart, it is all so - well - ordinary.   Yes, the house is half-way up a mountain, with breathtaking views across Lake Montreux, and cow bells are clinking in the distance, and Dame Joan Sutherland lives next door, so the setting is theatrical enough, but the house - and its architecture, furnishings, feel - are (dare I say it?) positively mundane.   

I am here to meet Graham Payn, Coward’s lover, companion and friend, the last living link with the legend.   Graham is 81, spry, bright-eyed, charmingly self-deprecating, and, like the house, quite unexpected: cosy, comfortable, friendly, unpretentious, as ungrand as you can imagine.

‘We weren’t grand, not in the least.  It’s hard for people to believe what a simple life we led.  Some people don’t want to believe there was a domestic side to Noel Coward, but there you are.  I am sorry to shatter the illusion, but the cigarette holder and the Sulka dressing gowns were just props.  Noel’s standard wardrobe was modest, off the peg.   All that brittle, sophisticated stuff was just a cover.   Professionally, he was tough as old boots.  Personally, he was quite vulnerable.’

When did Graham and Noel first meet?

‘At some ungodly hour one winter morning early in 1932 on the stage of the Adelphi Theatre, London.    Noel, of course, was enormously famous.  He’d already done Hay Fever, Private Lives, Cavalcade.  He was auditioning for his new revue, Words and Music.   I was fourteen.  I had come over from South Africa with my mother.’

‘Destined to be a child star?’

‘Not quite.  I was a boy soprano in an Eton suit.  My mother knew I wouldn’t get very long to show my paces, so she said “You’d better sing and dance at the same time,” so I did.  I sang “Nearer My God to Thee” while doing a tap dance.  And when I’d finished I saw this elegant figure in the stalls get to his feet, turn to his colleagues and say, in those unmistakable clipped tones, “We have to have that kid in the show.”  And that’s how I met Noel Coward.   Wasn’t I lucky?’   Graham sits back and beams.  ‘My first job, £ 5 a week, in the show that launched “Mad Dogs and Englishmen” and “Mad About the Boy.”’

‘Did you have a lot to do?’

‘Not very much - and less by the time Noel had finished with me.   I played a beggar boy singing to a cinema queue and I really threw myself into it.  I did a wonderful dance, I was a miniature whirling dervish, until after a few rehearsals Noel came up, wagging his finger at me, and said, “Graham, we know what a good little artist you are, but this boy, the character you’re playing, he wouldn’t know what you know.  He’d stand quite still and just sing.”  So stand still I did.  Like a rock.  Noel was a great finger wagger, all his life.’

‘After Words and Music I didn’t see him again until towards the end of the war.   I was in my mid-twenties and beginning to make a bit of a name for myself.  I rather thought I was hitting my stride so I sent him a couple of first-night tickets for a revival of The Lilac Domino.  After the show, he came storming into my dressing room, finger already raised, “I have never seen anybody learn so many bad tricks in so short a time.  It’s disgraceful.’   He was probably right, but he must have seen something in me because, not long after, he asked me to be in his new revue, Sigh No More.  That’s when he wrote “Matelot” for me.  Wasn’t I lucky?’

He is still beaming.  ‘That was 1945.  And it was during Sigh No More that Noel invited me to move in.  There was a spare room.  It seemed the most natural thing in the world.  I somehow never moved out.  I joined the family.’

Understanding ‘the family’ is key to understanding the domestic life of Noel Coward.   In public he consorted with the stars.  In private, he surrounded himself with a small coterie of like-minded souls - not courtiers, chums, friends between whom there were ‘no pretences and lots of laughs’.   At the family’s heart were four women - Lorn Loraine (Lornie, Coward’s personal asistant), Gladys Calthrop (designer), Joyce Carey (actress), Clemence Dane (novelist, playwright, artist, sculptress) - and two men: Cole Lesley (Coley; initially, in 1936, Coward’s dresser, ultimately his secretary and right-hand man) and Graham.   ‘Neither Coley nor I ever had a real family.  Gladys and Lornie were widows, and Joycie never married.   The “family” was our support system.   And we were family.  Not your conventional Victorian family, granted, but in many respects something better, more alive, because we chose each other.  We got together and stayed together because we wanted to be together.  Each of us was vulnerable in our own way.  We’d had to pick ourselves up early in life and make what we could of the hand we’d been dealt.  We sensed that quality in each other.  It brought us together and kept us together in a cocoon that kept the world out.’

I can’t help noticing, as Graham escorts me to the lunch table, that there appear to be rather more pictures of the Royal Family than Noel’s “family” on display.  ‘Ah, yes, well, I’m afraid where royalty was concerned, Noel was a snob.   It was his one weakness, but remember he was an ordinary boy from Teddington and then, when he became a big star in the twenties, he found himself mixing in this exalted company.   I think we can forgive him.  And he always preferred the Yorks, long before there was any thought they might be King and Queen.  He used to visit them quite often, much to the irritation of Queen Mary who felt her eldest [the Prince of Wales, later Edward VIII and Duke of Windsor] was being upstaged.  Let’s face it, the Windsors were not exactly joy unconfined.  The Duchess was a lot quicker and wittier than her husband.  The Duke, to be honest, was an extremely dull man.  Noel said he even danced a boring Charleston, which is no mean feat.

‘One evening Wallis said to Noel, “You know I don’t understand why the British dislike me so much.”  There was a terrible pause before Noel replied, “Well, because you stole their Prince Charming.”  She rather liked that.  On social occasions, the Duke rarely spoke, not because his mind was preoccuppied, but simply because he had nothing to say.  Noel used to say, “he had the charm of the world with nothing to back it up.”’

‘What about the younger brother, the Duke of Kent?’

‘The one who died in the war?’

‘Yes.  Wasn’t Noel supposed to have had a fling with him?’  Even as I make the suggestion, I feel a little ashamed.  My host is 81, I only met him an hour ago, and here I am tucking into the caviar and sour cream starter while prying pruriently into the private life of the man I’ve come to celebrate.  I need not have worried.

‘Oh no.  That story about Noel and the Duke of Kent, it wasn’t true.  We can put the record straight on that.   I asked Noel about it and he was quite clear.  “We did not get over-friendly.”’

Coward was discreet about his homosexuality.  ‘He was neither proud nor ashamed of it.  He firmly believed that his private business was not for public discussion.’   Twenty-six years after his friend’s death, Graham can be more open.  ‘I loved the man totally.  At first I only saw the public Noel, fascinating but distant.  But I grew to love him as I got to know him, saw the compassion behind the wit, sensed the vulnerability . . . I realised I wanted nothing more than to share my life with this remarkable man, to help protect him as best I could.’

Was Coward promiscuous?

‘He was vulnerable to the temptations of a brief infatuation, but his pleasure was always outweighed by the irritation he felt at losing control of his emotions.  It didn’t happen often, and it made no difference to our relationship, that’s really all there is to say.’

In one of his last interviews, Coward told the New York Times, ‘One’s real inside self is a private place and should always stay like that . . . I have taken a lot of trouble with my public face.’   To his diary, he admitted, ‘I am no good at love.’  Being ‘in love’ bothered him.  ‘How idiotic people are when they are in love.   What an age-old devastating disease . . . To me, passionate love has always been like a tight shoe rubbing blisters on my Achilles heel.’

Coward’s grand passion in the late 1920s and 1930s was a handsome young American, Jack Wilson.  Rather to my surprise, Graham mentions his name before I do.  ‘Now Jack was promiscuous.  He hurt Noel with his affairs.  He hurt Noel a good deal.   For a while they were inseparable, but they parted when Jack got married, long before I came on the scene.   Jack carried on looking after Noel’s interests in America, but, I’m afraid, he couldn’t be trusted.  Jack loathed me on sight.  He saw in me a younger version of himself.  Noel was very trusting.  He wanted to believe the best in people he loved, but Jack really was a hopeless case.  He was a self-destructive alcoholic.  Booze destroyed him before the Great Producer finally stepped in.’

Graham gave up alcohol three years ago.   Coward was not especially abstemious (‘A gin and tonic before lunch, a dry martini before dinner; in later years he’d nurse a diluted brandy and ginger’) but he detested the idea of ‘losing control’ himself and was appalled to see friends consumed by alcohol.   Hugh ‘Binkie’ Beaumont, the impresario, who, between the 1930s and the 1960s, was the undisputed ruler of the West End, died not long before Noel in 1973.  ‘During Noel’s last days, the most difficult task Coley and I had was to distract Noel from the fact of Binkie’s death.  Noel kept saying, “I can’t get Binkie out of my mind.”   Poor Binkie.  At his own parties in the later years he would have a couple of young men waiting in the wings.  When he was too drunk to stand, they’d pick him up and cart him off to bed.  My last sight of him was being carried unconscious from the room.’

Self-control and discipline were important to Coward.  ‘Once he’d set to work, he was totally single-minded.  His routine never varied: an early morning start, a light breakfast, and no interruptions except coffee until lunchtime.  In the afternoon he might revise the morning’s work and, if the mood was right, he’d keep going.  If not, he’d put the work aside and do some painting.   He was never idle.  He wasn’t traditionally well-educated, but he had this amazing vocabulary.  He soaked up information like a sponge.  Trollope, Dickens, Polynesian circumcision rites, you name it, Noel knew about it.  He was a voracious reader.  E. Nesbit was his all-time favourite.’

Noel admired talent and hard work.  ‘He longed for me to be a success.   He kept hoping I’d break through, that I’d become a star.  I had a number of near-misses, but I didn’t make it because, let’s face it, I wasn’t a star.  I didn’t have “it”, whatever it is.  I remember once in Jamaica [Coward acquired his homes in Jamaica and Switzerland when he went into tax exile in the 1950s], we were messing around by the swimming pool, and I was feeling rather pleased with life so I did a little song-and-dance routine, which prompted some crack from Noel.   I said, rather grandly, “I’ll have you know, people have paid good money to see me sing and dance.”  Noel shot back at once, “Yes, but not very many and not for very long!”  And with that he plunged into the pool.’

‘Could he be cruel?’

‘Oh no, never.   He was sharp.  He was intolerant over little things.  “Has this whisky enjoyed more than a tentative flirtation with soda?”  “Must we have this Alpine tornado raging through the room?”   But I never saw him - ever - try to destroy anyone with a crack.  He was a kind and generous man.  And very funny.  A lot of his humour simply involved using an unexpected word: “There is less to this than meets the eye . . . Let me be the eighth to congratulate you.’  And, of course, it was his extraordinary clipped way of speaking, and the way he bared his teeth, that made whatever he said seem amusing.’  

Lunch is being served by Jean-René, who came to Chalet Coward thirty-one years ago as Noel’s masseur.  ‘It turned out his real forte was as a chef.  We’ve eaten wonderfully ever since.  Jean-Rene looks after everything.  And what he doesn’t do, his wife does.’  As the fillet of beef makes way for the homemade strawberry and raspberry ice cream, I ask Graham if he has a favourite ‘Noel Coward story’.

He looks quite thrown.  ‘Oh goodness, I’m not sure that I do.’   He is anxious to please.  I can see he is racking his brain to come up with a gem.  Feeling guilty, I offer one of my own.  1955, the first night of Titus Andronicus at Stratford.  Olivier in the title role, Vivien Leigh as Lavinia.  She has been cruelly ravished, her hands cut off and her tongue cut out so she cannot name her attackers.  She enters and, holding a stick between her wrists, scrawls the names of her assailants in the sand.  Unfortunately, as she comes on, the stick slips and clatters noisily onto the stage.  After the performance, Noel sweeps into Vivien’s dressing room, finger wagging, “Tut-tut, butter-stumps!”’

‘Oh, that’s wonderful,’  Graham is chortling courteously, ‘That’s lovely, I’ve never heard that.  And you do the voice.  Oh, do another.’

This is aburd.  I am sitting at Noel Coward’s dining table with Noel Coward’s lover telling Noel Coward stories in a Noel Coward voice - and my charming host is chuckling and nodding and assuring me he hasn’t heard any of them.

Graham, of course, is drinking water.  Jean-Rene keeps refilling my glass with the delicious local wine.   I say, ‘Now this one you will know and you can tell me if it’s true or not.   Noel goes to a clinic, a sort of health farm for the stars, where their most famous treatment is a rejuvinating serum taken from sheep’s glands.  As Noel drives up to the clinic, he passes a field full of sheep and, right in the middle of the flock, he spies a single black sheep.  Noel points to it and says, “Ah, I see Paul Robeson is here already.”’

‘Oh, that’s wonderful.  I’ve never heard that one, I really haven’t.  But Noel certainly went to the clinic.  It’s over at Vevey.   He didn’t like getting older, he didn’t like looking older.   They all went to that clinic, Marlene, Vivien . . .  I’m not sure about Paul Robeson.  It cost a bomb.’   A little giggle.  ‘I don’t think it did much good.’

Coward found no consolation in the ageing process.    He had always prided himself on being word-perfect from the first rehearsal.   The only time I saw him on stage, in his final West End appearance in 1966, he was having trouble with his lines.  ‘I have been increasingly worried lately about my memory,’ he wrote at the time, ‘Not my far-away memory.  I can still remember accurately plays and events of 1909.  But my immediate memory, which has been behaving in a disconcerting manner.  A sort of curtain descends in my mind veiling what happened last week.’   In 1969 he stopped keeping his diary.   He was diagnosed as having a form of arterio-sclerosis, but the recommended exercise routine was not to his taste and giving up his beloved cigarettes (two packs a day, usually Player’s tipped) out of the question.   ‘When [in 1970] he knelt to receive his knighthood,’ Graham remembers, ‘there was no question of going down on one knee.  It was both or nothing.’

Coward died in Jamaica on 26 March 1973.  ‘His last evening was like any other, with Coley and me, drinks and chat and lots of laughs.  As we took our leave, he said, “Goodnight, my darlings.  See you in the morning.”  We left him sitting in his chair on the terrace, his wire-rimmed glasses perched on the end of his nose and a copy of E Nesbit’s The Enchanted Castle propped up in front of him, with The Would-Be-Goods close by.

‘After he died they came to take his body to Kingston. But after they’d taken the coffin away, they had to come back.  There’d been some muddle, so they had to return and then set off all over again.  So Noel did two exits - absolutely typical.’

Coward is buried in Jamaica, ‘on the spot where we would sit with our drinks, gazing down on the Spanish Main.’  Graham and Coley returned to Switzerland.   ‘Coley died here in January 1980.  The family’s all gone now.  I’m the only one left.  I run the estate.  They’re performing Noel’s plays all over the world.   They have stood the test of time.  Somerset Maugham’s plays seem dated.  Noel’s don’t.  He’s very big in Norway and Sweden.  You wouldn’t think the Scandanavians would have a great sense of humour, would you?  And they do him a lot in Japan.  Can you imagine “Very flat, Norfolk” in Japanese?   I have to keep an eye on things, especially in America, stop them doing an all-male Private Lives, that sort of nonsense.   I’ve learnt to be tough.  I told one producer who wanted to haggle about royalties, “This is the Coward Estate, we’re Cartier, you know, not Berwick Street.”    I think Noel would rather have liked that.   In fact, I think he’d be quite pleased to see how busy I am: “Doing something at last, lazy little sod.”’

‘Do you miss him?’

‘All the time.   Most of all I miss the laughter.   If he’d had to write his own epitaph, Noel claimed it would read: “He was much loved because he made people laugh and cry.”   If mine reads “Friend of Noel Coward” that will suit me fine.’

POSTSCRIPT: LEADING LADIES

Graham took me on a guided tour of the house.   ‘I’ve changed very little since Noel died.  This is the guest room.  The ladies who’ve slept in this bed . . . Merle [Oberon], Marlene [Dietrich], Vivien [Leigh}.  Many of Noel’s closest friends were women.’

Graham’s manner is dapper, unflamboyant.  He is modest about his own achievements, quick to acknowledge the opportunities that came his way because of his friendship with Coward.  In 1948 he toured the US with Gertrude Lawrence in Tonight at 8.30.  ‘Working with Gertie was daunting but a privilege.  I met some extraordinary ladies through Noel.’

Gertrude Lawrence: ‘Of all the people Noel loved throughout his life, Gertie was undoubtedly first among equals.  Were they ever lovers?  Noel kept mum on the subject.  There may have been an early attempt on her part to goad Noel intro trying “it” simply for the sake of knowing what “it” was all about, but their love transcended sex.  The picture of them standing on the balcony in Private Lives, together yet apart, eternally elegant, forever sums them up for anyone who ever saw them.’

Marlene Dietrich: ‘Noel and Marlene were founding members of the Self-Invention Society.  Each of them had worked out every detail of how they wanted their public to perceive them: dress, speech, deportment, all scrupulously tailored to fit the image.  Each of them admired the elegant machinery at work in the other.  The difference between them was that Noel never took himself too seriously.  Conversation with Marlene was almost exclusively about Marlene.   It was Marlene’s phone bills after a visit to us in Switzerland that caused Noel to have the phones removed from the guest rooms.  “Doesn’t the dear girl know anybody who doesn’t live eight thousand miles away?"'

Vivien Leigh: ‘Viv?  Such ups and downs.  Sadly, the downs won out.  I adored her.  We were friends independent of the “family”.   Some people made me welcome only when I was with Noel, but Vivien wasn’t like that.   Towards the end it was sad beyond belief.   One evening we got a call from Jack Merivale [with whom she lived after her marriage to Laurence Olivier ended], begging us to come over right away.  We arrived to find Vivien standing naked over a flight of stairs, convinced she could fly.   It took all of Noel’s considerable love and skill to talk her back to safety.  It was a long way from Scarlett O’Hara.’

Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother:  ‘Of all the Royals the Queen Mother was by far his favourite.  When she came to lunch with us in Jamaica, Noel decided he would prepare the meal himself: curry in cocunuts, fish mousse and rum cream pie.  He rather overdid the garlic and the curry powder, and the fish mousse took on a rexture Noel described as “akin to an ordinary Slazenger tennis ball”.   Rising above it, Noel whipped up an iced soup, just as the royal party crossed the threshold.  Creme de Queen Mum certainly saved the day, though God knows what went into it.    Years later, when the Queen Mother unveiled the memorial stone to Noel at Westminster Abbey, I mumbled my thanks to her for coming.  She smiled that amazing smile of hers and said, “Not at all.  We were very great friends.”  She meant it.’

MASTERPIECES

‘Wit is like caviar.  It should be served in small, elegant portions and not splodged around like marmalade.’

‘You ask my advice about acting?  Speak clearly, don’t bump into the furniture and, if you must have motivation, think of your pay packet on Friday.’

‘The most important ingredients of a play are life, death, food, sex and money - but not necessarily in that order.’

‘She stopped the show, but then, the show wasn’t really travelling very fast.’

‘I have always been very fond of theatre critics.  I think it so frightfully clever of them to go night after night to the theatre and know so little about it.’

‘I love criticism, just so long as it is unqualified praise.’

 

 

 

 

Gyles Brandreth