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Noël Peirce Coward (December 16, 1899 – March 26, 1973) was an English actor, playwright and composer. He received an honorary Oscar at the Óscar 1943 Awards ceremony for his work in the film In Which We Serve.
He was born in Teddington, Middlesex, England. His father was Arthur Sabin Coward (1856-1937), an employee, and his mother Violet Agnes (1863-1954), daughter of Henry Gordon Veitch, captain in the Royal Navy. He was the second of three brothers, the oldest of whom had died in 1898 at six years of age. He started acting in London’s West End theater at an early age. He was a youth friend of the actress Hermione Gingold.
Student at the Italia Conti Academy theater school, Coward’s first professional engagement arrived on January 27, 1911, in the children’s play The Goldfish. After his performance, he made other children’s roles for other professional theaters. He was selected to work in the 1913 production of Peter Pan.
At age 14 she became a lover of Philip Streatfeild, a painter and bohemian who introduced him to high society. Streatfeild died of tuberculosis in 1915.
He worked in several works with Sir Charles Hawtrey, an actor and Victorian comedian, whom he idealized and who was his model until he was 20 years old. From Hawtrey Coward learned the techniques of comic interpretation and the composition of plays. He was briefly drafted into the British Army during World War I but was discharged due to ill health. In 1918 Coward starred in the film by D. W. Griffith Hearts of the World, in uncertified paper.
He participated in 1920, with 20 years of age, in one of his comedies, I’ll Leave It To You. The following year he completed a satire in one act, The Better Half, on the relationship of a man with two women, which was shortly on the line at the Little Theater in London. The work was considered lost until in 2007 it was rediscovered in the file of the Lord Chamberlain’s Office, which at that time authorized the works that were represented in the United Kingdom, imposing cuts or total censorship.
After enjoying a moderate success in 1923 with the play The Young Idea, similar to George Bernard Shaw, the controversy about another work of his, The Vortex (1924), in which there were veiled references to abuse of drugs and homosexuality, all of which earned him immediate fame on both sides of the Atlantic. Later he had three great successes with Hay Fever (Hay Fever, also known as Weekend and The Lovely Bliss Family), Fallen Angels (both of 1925) and Easy Virtue (1926).
Much of Coward’s best work came in the late 1920s and early 1930s. Immense (and immensely popular) productions, such as the long Bitter Sweet operetta (1929) and Cavalcade (1931), a great show that required a very broad cast, immense sets and an excessively complex hydraulic scenario, alternated with elegant comedies such as Private Lives (1930), in which Coward himself acted alongside his most famous partner on stage, Gertrude Lawrence . Another of these works was the black comedy Design for Living (1932), written for Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne and the operetta Conversation Piece, premiered in 1934 with the great French Yvonne Printemps and whose theme “I’ll follow my secret heart” was recorded by the same Printemps, Lily Pons, Maggie Teyte, Joan Sutherland and others. The latter, together with Bitter Sweet, possibly its best scores
Coward participated, again with Lawrence, in Tonight at 8:30 (1936), an ambitious cycle of ten short works that were randomly “shuffled” to form a different program of three works each night. One of them, Still Life, was expanded in the 1945 film by David Lean Brief encounter. Coward was also a prolific writer of popular songs, and a lucrative recording contract with HMV allowed him to release numerous albums, several of which were reissued on CD. Coward’s most popular recordings include the romantic I’ll See You Again and Dear Little Café; and the comic Mad Dogs and Englishmen, The Stately Homes of England and (Do not Put Your Daughter on the Stage) Mrs Worthington
World War II
The start of World War II in 1939 saw Coward with more work than ever. He had just left Paris, and he devoted free time to acting for the troops. In addition to these actions, he also cooperated with the British Secret Service (MI5), for which reason he found it frustrating to be criticized for his glamorous lifestyle while his countrymen suffered, and Coward was unable to defend himself in order not to reveal your work to the secret service.
If the Nazis had invaded the United Kingdom, Coward would have been arrested and killed, because his name appeared in the Black Book along with those of other characters such as, for example, the writer H. G. Wells. Before Coward’s work for the Secret Service was known, it was assumed that the Nazis had him in the Black Book because he was homosexual. Jorge VI, a personal friend, asked the government to reward Coward with his appointment as Knight for his services in 1942. The appointment was blocked by Winston Churchill, who disapproved of the writer’s lifestyle.
Coward wrote and premiered some extraordinarily popular songs during the war, the most famous of which were London Pride and Do not Let’s Be Beastly To The Germans. In order to collaborate more in the war effort, he shot a film based on the career of Louis Mountbatten, the naval drama In Which We Serve, in which Coward was a screenwriter, actor, composer and co-director (along with David Lean) . The film was very popular on both sides of the Atlantic, and Coward was rewarded with an honorary Oscar at the Oscar 1943 Awards ceremony.
In the 1940s, Coward wrote his best works. The social This Happy Breed and the intricate and semi-autobiographical dramatic comedy Present Laughter (both from 1939) were later combined with the highly successful black comedy Blithe Spirit (1941) to form a triplet in the West End, starring Coward. Blithe Spirit achieved blockbusters in the West End that were not beat until the 1970s, and was moved to the movies by David Lean.
Coward’s popularity as a dramatist declined in the 1950s, with works such as Quadrille, Relative Values, Nude with Violin and South Sea Bubble that failed to win the favor of critics and the public. Despite this he maintained an outstanding popularity, and continued writing (and occasionally interpreting) works of moderate success in the West End as well as musicals, and acting in films such as Bunny Lake is Missing, Around the World in Eighty Days, Our Man in Havana, Boom! and The Italian Job (A job in Italy).
After participating in several American television programs in the late 1950s with Mary Martin, Coward left the UK for tax-related reasons. He first settled in Bermuda, but later moved to Jamaica, where he lived the rest of his life. His work Waiting in the Wings (1960) marked a change in his career, achieving critical applause. The late sixties saw the return of his popularity, with several reruns of his works of the twenties.
Coward’s last theatrical work was Suite in Three Keys (1966), a trilogy in which he played the lead roles. The trilogy got excellent reviews and good support from the British public. Coward wanted to play Suite in Three Keys on Broadway but was unable to travel due to illness. Only two of the works premiered in New York, with the new title of Noël Coward in Two Keys, and interpreted by Hume Cronyn.
Suffering severe arthritis and memory loss, which affected his work at The Italian Job, Coward retired from the theater. He was named Sir in 1970, and died in Jamaica in March 1973 because of heart failure. He was buried three days later in Firefly Hill, Jamaica, on the north coast of the island.
In addition to his plays and songs, Coward wrote comic journals, poetry, several volumes of short stories, the novel Pomp and Circumstance (1960) and three autobiographical volumes. They have also published books with the lyrics of their songs, diaries and letters. He was also a painter, and a volume with reproductions of some of his works is published.
Coward was homosexual and never married, but he maintained a great friendship with many women. These include the writer and actress Esmé Wynne-Tyson, her collaborator; the designer Gladys Calthrop; the secretary and confidant Lorn Loraine; his muse, the gifted musical actress Gertrude Lawrence; the actress Joyce Carey; his compatriot and also actress Judy Campbell; and, finally, the film star Marlene Dietrich (in 1954 he introduced her to the London public as a cabaret star at the Cafe de Paris venue).
His friends include Laurence Olivier, Vivien Leigh, Gene Tierney, Judy Garland, Elaine Stritch, Princess Margaret, Countess of Snowdon and Queen Mother Elizabeth. He was also a close friend of Ivor Novello and Winston Churchill.
Coward enjoyed a 19-year friendship with Prince George, Duke of Kent and a decades-long relationship with theatrical and film actor Graham Payn, which lasted until Coward’s death. He also had an affair with the composer Ned Rorem.
He was president of The Actors’ Orphanage, an orphanage maintained by the theater industry. In that position he met the director Peter Collinson, who was in charge of the care of the orphanage, and which he sponsored and helped start in the show business. When Collinson became a successful director, he invited Coward to play a role in the movie The Italian Job; in which Graham Payn also had a small role.
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