Role models of greatness.

Here you will discover the back stories of kings, titans of industry, stellar athletes, giants of the entertainment field, scientists, politicians, artists and heroes – all of them gay or bisexual men. If their lives can serve as role models to young men who have been bullied or taught to think less of themselves for their sexual orientation, all the better. The sexual orientation of those featured here did not stand in the way of their achievements.

Friday, July 8, 2011

Sir Noel Coward

Noel Coward (1899-1973)
Gay actor, playwright & composer

Noel Coward was a gay English actor, raconteur, playwright, director, painter, cabaret singer and composer of popular songs and stage music. His plays were adored by audiences, often reviled by critics, and his personal life was littered with scandal (he had a British royal boyfriend, Prince George, the Duke of Kent). His name became synonymous with sophistication, wit, and a world-weary sentimentality. The characters in his plays are usually wealthy, somewhat snobbish couples who express themselves with witty and brittle badinage. He was a public figure with whom every gay man should be familiar.

Note: Coward spelled his first name with the diaeresis (two dots) over the second vowel: Noël, but the press and many book publishers failed to follow suit; his name was printed as 'Noel' in The Times, The Observer and other contemporary newspapers and books, and that is the form I am using in this post.

To escape the crippling income taxes in post-war England, in 1948 Coward bought “Blue Harbour,” an eleven acre estate overlooking Port Maria on the north coast of Jamaica, near the home of Ian Fleming (of James Bond books fame). Coward enlarged the main house at Blue Harbour, added three guest cottages and a swimming pool and went on to host the first generation of jet-setting celebrities, including Sir Laurence Olivier, Sophia Loren, Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton, Alec Guinness, Joan Sutherland, Katherine Hepburn, Sean Connery, Mary Martin, Patricia Neal and Peter O'Toole, as well as his neighbors Errol Flynn and Ian Fleming. He knew everybody worth knowing.

In this photograph Coward is shown at home at Blue Harbour, Jamaica. He was an Olympic-class smoker all his life, and one of his affectations was the frequent use of a cigarette holder (in each of the four photographs in this post he is holding a cigarette; click to enlarge).

However, Coward needed the income from work, and he soon found he required isolation from his guests in order to write. Coward bought a 4-acre hilltop site high on a hill above Blue Harbour for $150 and built a simple white stucco structure with a swimming pool. The land originally belonged to the legendary Welsh privateer pirate Sir Henry Morgan, who looked after British interests in the Caribbean; Morgan was knighted and became Governor of Jamaica. Coward used Morgan's extant primitive 17th-century structure as servant quarters. The views from the hilltop were stunning (see photo below). His guests stayed at Blue Harbour down at the ocean, while Coward worked 1,200 feet above them at “Firefly,” the name of his private retreat. Today the three Blue Harbour villas are rented out as tourist accommodations.

I had a dramatic introduction to Firefly in the early 1980s. Five years after Coward’s death, his partner Graham Payn donated Firefly to the Jamaican Heritage Trust (Payn preferred living in Coward's home in Switzerland, "Les Avants", near Montreux, above Lake Geneva). A single laned, twisty and often derelict driveway led up the hills to the entrance to Firefly. I parked the rental car but saw no one out and about. I walked around a bit, noticing that the swimming pool had been covered over. Finally someone spotted me and my traveling companion. In a few minutes a lovely, shy island woman began to lead us through Coward’s home. I did not realize until the tour was over that she was Imogene, who, along with her husband, had been Coward’s servant. It was her husband (later murdered by the Jamaican Mafia in 1992), who had discovered Coward’s body in the bedroom at Firefly after his death from a heart attack. The entire experience was eerie.

The house was presented as if Coward had left to go on an errand, and nothing was roped off. His clothes still hung in the closets. Cigarette lighters lay on table tops. Pens, pencils and personal books and photographs sat on the desk. A 1960s era record player was in one corner of the living room, with Coward’s private vinyl record collection intact. Everything remained the way it was displayed and arranged during Coward's lifetime. It was on this visit to Firefly that I learned Coward was an amateur painter, and his canvases adorned the walls of these simply-furnished rooms. His paint brushes and sketch books sat on top of shelves in his studio (the ground level room shown in the photo above). The guide did not stop me as I leafed through those sketch books. Nearly every pencil drawing and watercolor was of a naked man.

Below is one of Coward's paintings, titled "Purple Interior". Coward's signature is plainly visible in the lower right hand corner. The subject matter needs no explanation.

There was no glass in the windows (just awnings, shutters or shades), and the house had the oddest floor plan imaginable. Upstairs there were no hallways, so one had to traipse through each room to get to the next, beginning with the kitchen, living room, writing room/study and ending with the sole bedroom and bath. The room used for dining was on the lower floor adjacent to the garage (one wall was completely open to the outside; the room had just three walls), yet the kitchen was upstairs. Our guide told us that the Queen Mother dined here as Coward's guest during a visit to Jamaica. I wondered how her chauffeur managed to get a Daimler up that road.

The smallish living room was swallowed up by two nested grand pianos and a large white stone fireplace, but the center of the house was the writing room/study, which had an enormous window opening (no glass!) overlooking the swimming pool. The view from that window across the lawn and down the hillside made one's jaw drop. I wondered how anyone could work in a room with a view like that. Near where the lawn drops offs precipitously is the simple flat marble gravestone that marks the spot where Coward is buried. I'm glad to have had the opportunity to visit Firefly as it was furnished less than ten years after Coward's death, because mildew and rot eventually destroyed most of the clothing and books and severely damaged the photographs and paintings. Multimillionaire Chris Blackwell, who today runs the nearby Ian Fleming estate as a luxury hotel, took out a 25-year lease on Firefly in 1993 and restored it, so visitors can once again enjoy a tour of the interiors.

A young Sean Connery with smoking buddy Noel Coward in Jamaica, where Connery was filming the very first of 23 James Bond films, Dr. No (1962). Some of the movie's scenes were shot just a few yards from Ian Fleming's Jamaica estate.

Sean Connery was not the first choice for the role of James Bond; they wanted Cary Grant.

During the twenty years Coward wintered in Jamaica, his constant companion was Graham Payn, nearly 20 years his junior. Sir Noel had sexual relationships with men throughout his life, but was coy about it publicly. Jack Wilson, an American stockbroker, had been his lover and business manager in the 1920s. After World War II Coward fell in love with South African singer/actor Graham Payn, and the two were together until Coward's death in March, 1973.

Even while living with long-term partners, Coward was unable even to spell "fidelity." He was constantly on the make, propositioning younger men indiscriminately. His keen, stinging wit is exemplified by this account of sexual voracity:

The billboard outside the Odeon cinema said: "Michael Redgrave and Dirk Bogarde in 'The Sea Shall Not Have Them' ". Passing by, Noel Coward said: "I don't see why not. Everyone else has."

He should talk. In addition to those mentioned elsewhere in this post, Coward shacked up with actors Louis Hayward, Alan Webb and playwright Keith Winter. More to the point, he lavished money and attention on unknowns – the handsome rent boys available, who would receive first-class plane tickets to Jamaica, where they would provide essential “services” for a few all-expenses-paid weeks during the winter.

Some of Coward's works explored alternate sexuality. “Design For Living” (1932), one of Coward’s more scandalous plays, depicts a bisexual ménage-à-trois between two men and a woman. It sold out every night of its Broadway run. In 1966 Coward wrote and starred in “Song at Twilight,” the story of an aging gay author who fears his sexual orientation will be exposed. Also from the 1960s, the extraordinary, long poem "Not Yet the Dodo", is a work in which a couple of upper middle-class parents have to come to terms with their son's homosexuality.

Much of Coward's best work came in the late 1920s and early 1930s. Enormous and hugely popular productions such as the full-length operetta "Bitter Sweet" (1929) and "Cavalcade" (1931), a large-scale extravaganza requiring a large cast, gargantuan sets and a complex hydraulic stage, were interspersed with finely-wrought comedies such as "Blithe Spirit" (1941) and "Private Lives" (1930), in which Coward himself starred alongside his most famous stage partner Gertrude Lawrence. Some of his lyrics could be quite risqué. A song he wrote for Beatrice Lillie, “A Bar on the Piccola Marina” (Capri), contains the phrase,  “Funiculi, funicula, funic-yourself.”

Coward did not handle his celebrity well. Surrounded by an ever-present sycophantic crowd, he was anything but the charming gentlemen possessed of a sparkling wit, as he was generally perceived by the public.

Coward was reckless in his pursuit of young male lovers (most of them half his age or even younger), constantly risking scandal and exposure. At age 60 Coward was recovering from a devastating nervous breakdown brought on by an obsession with a little-known 27-year-old American actor, William Traylor, a straight man who played a supporting role opposite Sir Noel in the Broadway production of Coward's play, “Nude With Violin.” During the post-Broadway tour of the play, Traylor was found unconscious, having attempted suicide with a drug overdose, and was rushed to a hospital in a straitjacket. Sir Noel’s publicist worked to make sure the story stayed out of the press, but the suicide attempt nevertheless made the American papers; Coward's name, however, was not referenced. Coward, heartbroken by Traylor's rejection of him, suffered a complete breakdown, from which he took many months to recover. Coward was a vain man with a penchant for young man flesh, so he had a face lift in 1966, hoping to be found more attractive by his prey.

Coward's first serious gay affair had also ended in tragedy. This was with the present Queen Elizabeth’s uncle, Prince George, the Duke of Kent (portrait at right), the brother of King George VI, who became known to millions in the recent award-winning film, “The King’s Speech”. The Duke was movie-star handsome and glamorous, and notoriously bisexual. Although two of his brothers would become kings, the Duke of Kent was by far the most interesting, intelligent and cultivated member of his generation of the royal family. He took a strong interest in the arts, especially interior decoration and the theater.

Coward’s relationship with the Duke began in 1923 and lasted nearly twenty years, until the Duke's death in an air crash in 1942. It was almost certainly Coward's affair with the Duke of Kent that finished off his career as a secret agent, which came to an abrupt end in 1942 at the insistence of Prime Minister Winston Churchill, who disapproved of the amount of salacious publicity Coward was attracting. Coward's increasingly high-risk relationship during the war with King George VI's brother had caused him to be placed under surveillance by the security services. They reported that Coward and Kent had been seen parading together through the streets of London, dressed and made up as women, and had once been arrested by the police for suspected prostitution.

One member of Churchill's wartime cabinet was newspaper magnate Lord Beaverbrook, who organized the theft from Sir Noel's Belgravia home of the Duke of Kent's passionate love letters to Coward, one of which began, "My dearest darling Noel", and another, "Noelie, my own sweet love". Beaverbrook's daughter revealed that she had seen the Duke's love letters in her father's safe after the war, but that they were nowhere to be found when Beaverbrook died in 1964. The Duke of Kent, regarded by some as an increasing security risk during wartime, was killed in a mysterious air crash in Scotland on August 23, 1942, all official records of which appear to have vanished. Interesting.

In 1945 the arrival of the struggling singer/actor Graham Payn, 19 years his junior, into Coward’s life initiated Sir Noel's post-war decline. Payn was a dull, lackluster man and a heavy drinker who possessed no star quality, and Coward’s constant attempts to turn Payn into a star damaged Coward’s reputation. In the 1950s, as Coward's vehicles for Payn flopped repeatedly, his passion for Graham waned, and both turned to other men (although they lived together until Coward’s death). Sir Noel, on the strength of his celebrity, wasted no time in bedding the Hollywood beefcake actor/writer Tom Tryon.

Coward morphed into a bewildering mixture of kindness and cruelty. Years of alcoholism and megalomania had contributed to an often heartless demeanor. He treated his male secretary sadistically, kicking him so hard his shins bled. Coward had been turned into a sacred monster by his intimate circle of friends, who deferred to his every whim and told him what he wanted to hear. Young male actors, however, were warned to avoid the aging Coward, since a dalliance with him could be a detriment to their careers.

Coward was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II in 1970. In January 1973 he appeared with longtime friend Marlene Dietrich at a performance of the off-Broadway revue of his work, “Oh Coward!” It was his last public appearance, and two months later he was dead.

At the age of 73, Coward died from a heart attack at his hilltop home in Jamaica. Coward is buried on the grounds, 20 miles east of Ocho Rios. Payn died in 2005, at the age of 85, at the home in Switzerland he had shared with Coward.

In 1984 the Queen Mother unveiled a memorial stone in Poet's Corner of Westminster Abbey, bearing words from one of his songs: "A talent to amuse."

Nina from Argentina
(video from the 1955 live TV appearance: Together with Music)
Written in South Africa in 1944, the song was used in Coward’s 1945 musical review “Sigh No More.” The song is about a South American beauty who hates Latin American dancing and falls in love with a sailor with a wooden leg (because he couldn’t dance!). The lyrics are beyond clever and typical of Coward’s sparkling wit.

Señorita Nina, from Argentina, knew all the answers
Though her relatives and friends were perfect dancers
She swore she'd never dance a step until she died.

She said, "I've seen too many movies, and all they prove is too idiotic.
They all insist that South America's exotic
Whereas it couldn't be more boring if it tried."

She added firmly that she hated
The sound of soft guitars beside a still lagoon
She also positively stated
That she could not abide a Southern moon

She said "I hate to be pedantic but I'm driven nearly frantic
When I see that unromantic, sycophantic lot of sluts
Forever wriggling their guts.
It drives me absolutely nuts."

She refused to Begin The Beguine when they requested it
And she made an embarrassing scene if anyone suggested it
For she detested it.

Though no-one ever could be keener than little Nina
On quite a number of very eligible men who did the rhumba
When they proposed to her she simply left them flat.
She said that love should be impulsive, but not convulsive
And syncopation had a discouraging effect on procreation
And that she'd rather read a book and that was that.

Señorita Nina, from Argentina, despised the Tango
Although she never was a girl to let a man go
She wouldn't sacrifice her principles for sex.

She looked with scorn on the gyrations
Of her relations who danced the conga
And swore that if she had to stand it any longer
She'd lose all dignity and wring their silly necks.

She said that frankly she was blinded
To all the over advertised romantic charms
And then she got more bloody minded
And told them where to put their tropic palms.

And she could not refrain from saying that their idiotic swaying
And those damned guitarras playing were an insult to her race
And that she really couldn't face
Such international disgrace

She declined to Begin The Beguine when they besought her to
And with language profane and obscene she cursed the man who taught her to
She cursed Cole Porter too.

From this its fairly clear that Nina, in her demeanour
Was so offensive that when the hatred of her friends grew too intensive
She thought she'd better beat it while she had the chance

After some trial and tribulation, she reached the station
And met a sailor, who had acquired a wooden leg in Venezuela
And so he married him, because he couldn't dance.

There surely never could've been a more irritating girl than Nina
They never speak in Argentina, of this degenerate bambina
Who had the luck to find romance, but resolutely wouldn't dance.


  1. One of my favorite quotes, which I think should be better known, is this one by Sir Noel.

    Noel Coward played King Magnus in George Bernard Shaw's The Apple Cart. When the company played in Brighton, Picture Post photographer Dan Farson was backstage when Coward was "fussing with the back of his wig. 'His dresser tut-tutted, "It doesn't matter. It's only the behind." "I'll have you know," Coward retorted crisply, "that in its day my behind has been much admired and much sought after."

    Noel Coward: A Biography by Philip Hoare. University of Chicago Press.

  2. Re Louis Hayward. I knew him, and his family well. He was aware of stories floating around about himself and Noel -- and resented them while despising Noel. In his signature part, The Man In The Iron Mask, while playing the wicked king, he burlesques Noel's voice. Next time you watch, close your eyes and just listen. In any case, he found Coward disgusting,; and always trying to goose him. So, the picture you paint of 'the master' may be right' but Louis should be excluded.

  3. From your blogger:
    When Hayward decided on a career as an actor, Noel Coward became his patron. Coward seldom did something for nothing, and there are dozens of reports in biographies about a sexual relationship between the two. As Coward got older and less palatable, many actors tried to distance themselves from him. So often actors' relationships with Coward were an asset in their youth and a liability in their mature years. Many, as in the case of Hayward, went on to deny that there had ever been any involvement.