Noel Coward: Biographical Sketch
by John Kenrick
(All the photos on this page are thumbnail images
click on them to see larger versions.)
His birthplace still stands, a rather common attached brick house in Teddington, a
quiet suburban village near London, England. One look at this building would convince
you that great things can start in the most unassuming places.
Noel Peirce Coward was born on December 16, 1899, receiving his first
name because Christmas was just days away. He was the son of Arthur and
Violet Veitch Coward. Arthur was an unsuccessful piano salesman with little
personal drive, so family finances were often shaky. Violet's first son
had died as an infant, so she showed amazing devotion to Noel and
did her best to gloss over the family's genteel poverty. Noel's younger brother
Eric suffered from chronic poor health that kept him in the background
for most of his short life. Noel was the family's star
Noel survived several childhood accidents. Once while playing on a beach,
a broken bottle severed an artery in his foot. The only person in sight had
just completed first aid training and was able to save the little boy's life. Such
early strokes of luck later led to Noel being nicknamed "Destiny's Tot."
From an early age, Noel was intelligent, temperamental, and an instinctive performer,
making his first stage appearances in amateur concerts at age seven. He loved to
sing and dance at any excuse and threw frightful tantrums if he was not summoned to
perform for guests. His formal education consisted of a few years at the Chapel Royal
Choir School (which he despised) and some dance lessons (which he enjoyed). A lifetime
of voracious reading and a keen sense of observation made up for
his lack of schooling.
his professional West End debut as a page boy in The Great Name (1911) with
Lydia Bilbrooke and Charles Hawtrey.
Coward excelled in amateur talent shows. With his mother's encouragement,
he launched his professional acting career at the age of 12, making
his London debut as Prince Mussel in a children's show called The Goldfish. He
appeared in several West End productions with the popular comic actor-manager
Charles Hawtrey, and played the "lost boy" Slightly in two
West End editions of Peter Pan.
The precocious Coward later admitted to having his first sexual experience
at age 13 with fellow child actor Philip Tonge. However, his closest
adolescent friendship was with aspiring actress and author Esme Wynne.
They shared such intense conversations that they sometimes bathed together so as not
to interrupt a line of thought. Coward and Wynne exchanged clothes on
occasion, strolling through London in reversed gender. In time, their friendship
faded, but their pranks and witty banter would inspire material in
many of Coward's future plays.
Meeting High Society
In the early 1900s, England was a very class-conscious society. A boy actor born to
poor parents would have have been snubbed by the upper classes. However, Coward's
extraordinary determination and charm won him an entree into the chicest circles. His
professional and social ambitions were insatiable.
Noel's social ascendancy began thanks to his teenage friendship with
adult artist Philip Streatfield. We know they were close and that
Streatfield had a taste for young men the rest is anyone's guess. Before
wartime illness drove Streatfield to an early death, he asked wealthy socialite
Mrs. Astley Cooper to take Coward under her wing. Young Noel became a frequent
guest at her country estate. Butlers and maids, formal meals, riding and hunting
Coward thrived in this sophisticated environment, his first taste of the elegant
world he would one day immortalize in many of his comedies.
During his weekends at the Cooper estate, Coward encountered the writings of
Saki, the pen name of Hector Hugh Munro. These witty short stories often
centered on the sort of wealthy, cynical young men who's world would be pulverized
by World War I. Coward would pick up where Saki (who died in the war) left off.
Lillian Gish and Coward in D.W. Griffith's
Hearts of the World (1917).
Coward was too young to be drafted when the war broke out in 1914, so he continued
to appear in plays, building his professional reputation. His first screen role
was in D.W. Griffith's silent film Hearts of the World (1917), where he appeared
in several scenes following Lillian Gish around with a wheel barrow. Just as
Noel's acting career was showing real promise, he was called-up
for military duty in 1918. He used his connections to get an assignment to light
duty in the Artists Rifles corps, but military life made the self-centered young
actor thoroughly miserable.
A minor head injury incurred during a training drill sent Coward into a complete
nervous collapse. After nine months of service spent mostly in hospital,
a sympathetic doctor helped him obtain an honorable medical discharge. Although
relieved to be a civilian again, Noel found that the demand for his acting talents
had evaporated. He continued to audition, but with little to do he put an
increasing amount of energy into playwriting and
composing. He also sold short stories to several magazines to help his
family make ends meet. His ever-supportive mother turned the
family's London home into a boarding house, where she worked tirelessly so
Noel could pursue his theatrical dreams. Noel's father, no longer attempting
seemed contented to let his wife take charge.
Noel Coward's remarkable self possession saw him through
many a sticky situation, even at this early stage. When he arrived
at a party in full evening attire and found that the other guests were in casual
clothes, he paused barely a moment before saying, "Now, I don't want
anybody to be embarrassed." It was during these years of struggle that
Coward first met Lorn McNaughtan, a woman who's sense of organization and
salty language made her the perfect choice to be Noel's private secretary
a role she would fill until her death more than forty years later.
I Leave It To You (1920) was Cowards first full length play
produced in the West End, with Noel playing a leading role quite an accomplishment
for a lad of 21. The brief run brought encouraging reviews, whetting Coward's appetite
for more. However, most London producers were unwilling to gamble on such a
young playwright. So Noel looked across the Atlantic for possible salvation.
In the summer of 1921, he scraped together enough money for steamship passage to
New York City, convinced that America would embrace his work. No such luck! He spent
a steamy summer roaming Manhattan, scraping by with the income from a few short
stories, living on bacon that he bought on credit, and wondering why he had
ever left England. Coward made a slew of valuable
new friends, including the then-unknown actors Alfred Lunt and
Lynn Fontanne. The three of them made a pact to appear in
one of Noel's plays after they had all earned full stardom an agreement that
would bring profitable results in years to come.
That summer, Coward witnessed firsthand the American theater's fast-paced
performing style, a refreshing change from the slower approach of most
British productions. He also spent many evening's in the Manhattan
home of playwright Hartley Manners and his wife,
the eccentric actress Laurette Taylor. Years later, their over-the-top theatrical
lifestyle would inspire Coward's comic hit Hay Fever.
Andre Charlot, the Frenchman who produced a dazzling series of intimate revues that
provided and important early showcase for Noel Coward and his songs, both in London and New
A sympathetic friend arranged for Coward to return to England, where his
luck took a turn for the better. The London production of his play
The Young Idea (1923) was a mild success, with Noel playing one
of the lead roles. That same year, producer
Andre Charlot featured several of
in the hit revue London Calling. While all this was happening, Noel put the
finishing touches on a daring drama that would change his career and his
Click here for Part II
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