Noel Coward: A Brief Biography
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 attraction.
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.
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.
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 formal employment, 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.
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 Coward's songs 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 life forever.