Noël Coward led a fabulous life in the literal sense: like a fable. Although he had multitudinous ups and downs, both the ups and downs were often observed internationally and shared with many of the most important theatre, film, publishing, and government figures of the 20th century.
A convincing argument can be made that Coward was the pre-eminent theatre man of his time, and the point is subtly implied in Barry Day's tribute, The Letters of Noël Coward. No one will insist that Coward wrote the most outstanding plays of the period, although Hay Fever, Private Lives, and Blithe Spirit are likely to be revived long after others' contemporaneous works aren't. But no one else came by as many hyphens as this playwright-composer-lyricist-scenarist-actor-director–cabaret entertainer–novelist–short story writer–raconteur.
Each aspect of those endeavors is covered in Day's volume, the title of which is somewhat misleading, as it contains not only the darling boy's letters to everyone he ever knew, including many heads of state, but also letters to him from everyone he ever knew. (There are even letters from people he knew to other people he knew.) The pages also tingle with verses he wrote without setting to music.
Thanks in part to his mother, Violet, Coward knew from an early age what he wanted to do with his life and set about doing it. Every bit is covered, from his earliest days as a barely schooled child touring the English provinces to his final days at Firefly, his beloved Jamaica retreat. Day's tome—annoying only for his sometimes strange sense of chronology—may actually be more informative than either of Coward's memoirs, Present Indicative and Future Indefinite.
One eye-opening chapter recalls Coward's war years and the time he spent as a spy. Publicly quiet about this during his later life, he's explicit about his news- and gossip-gathering duties in his letters. He's also explicit about his extremely negative and prescient feelings toward Neville Chamberlain and Edward VIII and his ambivalent feelings toward Winston Churchill.
Day's enterprise may be most valuable to Back Stage readers for Coward's astute comments on the theatre. His insights on the subject, involving the likes of Lynn Fontanne and Alfred Lunt, Mary Martin, Gertrude Lawrence, Laurence Olivier, Vivien Leigh, and countless other colleagues, make the book an absolute must.
> Reviewed by David Finkle