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Tales from the cottage: George Michael, John Gielgud and Noël Coward behind the Masquerade 

In commemoration of the fiftieth anniversary of his passing, an exclusive extract from Masquerade: The Lives of Noël Coward, Oliver Soden’s sparkling, story-packed new biography of the man they called The Master, now available via Orion Books.

Silk smoking jacket and fancy cigarette holder? That’ll do nicely, sir. 

Born in a modest terrace in suburban Teddington and knighted on his 70th birthday, Sir Noël Pierce Coward was the ultimate social climber par excellence, and in some ways as famous for his debonair, effortlessly effete image as he was for his flamboyant wit, and his immense catalogue of work, which stretched back to the 1910s.

Louis Mountbatten’s famous tribute argued that, while there were greater actors, directors, singers, painters and so on, only Noël Coward had combined fourteen talents in one. A prolific playwright and songwriter, Coward wrote some fifty plays and nine musicals, as well as numerous revues, screenplays, short stories, poetry, an operetta, a ballet score and even a novel.

With famous fans including Bryan Ferry and Neil Tennant, he was both composer and lyricist for around 675 songs, recorded by myriad music notables such as Frank SinatraPaul McCartney and Robbie Williams to Judy Garland and Elton John, and, notching several Coward covers under her belt over the years (including 20th Century Blues, performed on David Bowie‘s Midnight Special show, below), Miss Marianne Faithfull.

Arguably most famous of all, though is the exquisite Mad About The Boy, tackled by everyone from Eartha Kitt and Adam Lambert to Tom Robinson and Dinah Washington, whose 1961 jazz arrangement with Quincy Jones gained a whole new audience in nineties Britain after being used as the soundtrack to one of the Levi’s jeans shirtless hunk television commercials. 

Coward’s pervasive influence could be felt in more opaque ways too, guiding everything from the smoky nostalgia of Roxy Music’s Chance Meeting to the gallows humour of Queen’s I’m Going Slightly Mad, and the camp kick-ass cabaret in the middle of Space’s Avenging Angels. 

A friend and neighbour of James Bond creator Ian Fleming at Goldeneye, Noël said No to playing Dr No but yes Mr Bridger in The Italian Job. While in terms of his first love, the theatre, rarely a week goes by when Private Lives, Blithe Spirit, Hay Fever or Brief Encounter is not in production somewhere in the world. Indeed, like that other great wit Oscar Wilde, such is Coward’s impact on British culture that any account of his career is also a history of the British stage. 

Coward died exactly three months before my fourth birthday, passing in his sleep on 26 March 1973, at his Firefly Estate on the north east coast of Jamaica. It’s freaky to think of it now, but despite my infancy I can remember hearing of his death through the British media. I was far too young to know who he was and the lack of any visual identification leads me to assume it was via BBC Radio — my father being a Radio 4 listener and my mother either Radio 1 or 2 depending on her mood. 

I recall hearing the name Coward and thinking it was an unusual name, especially with the “wimpy” “chicken” connotations it implies. Coupled with the fact that my hairdresser uncle had a mysterious friendship with a boy called Noel around this time subconsciously led me to profile Noël Coward as, in 1970s Brits parlance, probably “one of them”, without really understanding what it meant.

Of course, bad times being forever round the corner, Coward never explicitly commented on his sexuality, to camera, at least, preferring his work to say it for him: 1924’s The Vortex, which he wrote and starred in, was seen by most as a metaphor for his proclivities, featuring repressed homosexuality, nymphomania, cocaine addiction and a sense of incest. It was, inevitably, described as un peu shocking. 

Moreover, so daring was Coward’s unorthdoxy in his relationships, obliquely reflected throughout his writing, that in some ways the multitude of inferences and in-jokes could be considered a history of sexual liberation in the twentieth century. 

I only really became an ardent admirer of Coward after catching the Beeb’s three-part Arena special, which was screened over the Easter holiday in 1998. Yes, I enjoyed the cover version I’d bought by Pet Shop Boys back in 1994 — as well as the double A-side tribute single by Shola Ama and The Divine Comedy which entered the charts, with precision timing, the same April week as the programme.

But I never really ‘got’ Noël Coward until the documentary’s transmission on BBC2 that mid-April long weekend, and realised he probably had the greatest claim to being the first renaissance man, in Britain at least.

The news story dominating the headlines that week? The fall out from George Michael being arrested for “engaging in a lewd act” in a public toilet in Beverly Hills just five days earlier. It was the most famous “cottaging” incident since a certain knight of the realm waved his willy about at an undercover cop 45 years earlier, which resulted in him being fined the princely sum of £10 for “persistently importuning men for immoral purposes” at a loo in Chelsea.

Indeed, I’ve pulled out a section of Soden’s book, the chapter entitled The Desert, which goes into detail over Noël Coward’s diary entries concerning homosexuality, glory holes, and that “lewd act” in October 1953: the entrapment and arrest of the eminent actor Sir John Gielgud, which appalled him. 

Then again, as Amanda, the star of The Master’s most famous play, said herself: “I think very few people are completely normal really, deep down in their private lives.”

We pick up the story on page 451.

Newfound success in America had arrived partly because Noël had embraced and heightened the incongruity of his wry British manner amid the glitz of Las Vegas and Hollywood. But his world of camp and innuendo, although a tonic to worldly audiences at expensive casinos, had been a risk in McCarthyite America. He had fought with television producers who asked for certain double entendres to be cut. His rewriting of Cole Porter’s Let’s Do It, mentioning the Kinsey Report, was especially risqué: “In Texas some of the men do it | Others drill a hole and then do it.”

But he never included the line “I believe the more you love a man…” when singing If Love Were All.

Homosexuality was perceived by many American psychiatrists as a mental illness, and at a time of communist witch ­hunts gay men were thought a likely target for Marxist blackmail and were being fired in their droves from government. Eisenhower had made it illegal for the State Department to employ homosexuals and Gore Vidal’s novel The City And The Pillar, about a homosexual coming of age, had led to scandal and blacklisting.

“To regard homosexuality either as a disease or a vice”, Noël thought, was “archaic and ignorant”; he was certain that objec­tions to its legalisation by groups of “bigoted old gentlemen” were nothing but “uninformed prejudice” that “will cause irremediable suffering”. But he was steadfast in his belief that discretion was paramount and that flagrantly expressed sexuality did nothing but harm. Even his increasing dislike of Oscar Wilde may have resulted not only from political disagreement – his own philosophy was poles apart from Wilde’s socialist worldview – but from a sense that Wilde had set back the homosexual cause.

He wrote in his diary: 

The police are empowered to frame private individuals, to extort terrified and probably inaccurate confessions and betrayals from scared young men. What is to prevent a stranger to whom I have given a lift in my car from going to the police? Any sexual activities when over-­advertised are tasteless, and for as long as these barbarous laws exist it should be remembered that homosexuality is a penal offence and should be considered as such socially, although not morally. 

This places on the natural homo a burden of responsibility to himself, his friends and society which he is too prone to forget. The human urge to persecute is always at the ready. When there isn’t a major war in progress to satisfy man’s inherent sadism, the Jews must be hounded, or the Negroes, or any nonconforming minority anywhere.

His fear, if uncharitable, was genuine and not without reason. The Evening Standard’s theatre critic had attacked “bachelors” such as Noël and Terence Rattigan who had never known the fulfilment of a wife and children.

An American magazine called Rave published an article titled Las Vegas’ Queerist Hit, in which it claimed that Noël was the highest ­paid British “tulip” and had been seen wooing young RAF officers. In Las Vegas he had met the bisexual singer (and heart­throb) Johnnie Ray, who visited him in Jamaica. Top Secret, another gossip magazine, dropped heavy hints: “Johnnie Ray’s Caribbean Caper”.

To be outed in public now threatened fearful consequences. It may be no coincidence that the atmosphere of persecution had led to a decline in the reception and the daring of his work. James Agate had been blackmailed by a young guardsman, and Cecil Beaton had been interviewed by Scotland Yard. In 1953 Noël’s friend the writer Rupert Croft­Cooke had been imprisoned for indecency, and John Gielgud was arrested for cottaging. Noël had written to Gielgud in support and sympathy, but privately he was frustrated. 

A day of horror. This imbecile behaviour of John’s has let us all down with a crash. He was only knighted a few months ago. I am torn between bitter rage at his self-indulgent idiocy and desperate pity for what he must be suffering. If only John had been caught decently in bed with someone, then there would have been a sympathetic reaction and people might have been forced to think seriously about the injustice of the anti­ homosexual laws, but this descent into dirt and slime can only do harm from every point of view. The lack of dignity, the utter squalor and the contemptible lack of self control are really too horrible to contemplate. How could he, how could he, have been so silly.

This tirade of mine seems terribly self-righteous but I have worked myself into a fury. Poor wretched John, so kind and humble and sensitive and what a bloody, bloody fool.

Steve Pafford

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