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on 26th March 1973, Noël Coward died at his home in Jamaica. For OutUK Liz Highleyman looks back at Coward's work which has been compared to the greatest ever created by a British writer.
A magazine poll of the greatest theatre and film personalities of all time ranked Noël Coward second only to William Shakespeare. Known for his wit and elegance, Coward defined the post-World War I era. Although regarded as a gay icon today, Coward was never open about his homosexuality during his lifetime.

Coward was born to a musical family in December 1899 in Teddington, a London suburb. Smitten with the theatre as a young boy, he began acting at age 12, encouraged by his ambitious mother.


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Coward had his first sexual experience - with another boy actor - at age 13, but his closest friends were girls, including child actresses Gertrude Lawrence and Esme Wyne. Coward and Wyne reportedly exchanged clothes on occasion and strolled through London in drag.

By 15, Coward was already a well-known actor and had begun writing and composing. He produced and starred in his first full-length play, I Leave It To You, at age 21. Four years later The Vortex, his controversial work about sexual shenanigans and drug abuse among the upper class, was a smash hit and made its young writer a celebrity. By his mid-thirties Coward had written and produced some of his best-known plays, including Hay Fever, Private Lives, and Cavalcade.

Unlike the aristocrats he often chronicled, Coward was from a lower-middle-class background, but his talent won him entry into fashionable circles. Dubbed one of the postwar era's "bright young things," Coward - who often wore a silk dressing gown and carried a cigarette holder - was known as much for his panache as for his wit. Although he enjoyed his portrayal as a playboy in the popular press, Coward was in fact a workaholic. In 1926 he collapsed onstage in one of several nervous breakdowns.


Noel Coward "Mad Dogs and Englishmen"

From the 1930's on, he limited his performances to three-month runs, but he never ceased to churn out new material. During the course of his career he wrote more than 50 plays and 300 songs and starred in 25 films. Coward once said that to create successful work, an artist must "consider the public. Coax it, charm it, interest it, shock it now and then if you must, make it laugh, make it cry, make it think, but above all never, never, never bore the living hell out of it."

World War II brought major changes in Coward's life. He briefly worked as an undercover intelligence agent, a job for which he proved to be too well-known. He then devoted himself to entertaining troops around the globe. After the war, he continued to write and perform, but his style fell out of favour and his work was criticized as frivolous and outdated. In the 1950s he became a cabaret performer, achieving popular acclaim in Las Vegas. Escaping England's high taxes, Coward lived in Jamaica and Switzerland. He was friends with many famous artists, including Laurence Olivier, Errol Flynn, Daphne du Maurier, Spencer Tracy, and Katharine Hepburn.

Coward had sexual and romantic relationships with men throughout his life. Jack Wilson, an American stockbroker, was his lover and business manager for a decade beginning in the mid-1920s, until Wilson's excessive drinking drove the men apart. After World War II Coward fell in love with South African actor Graham Payne; the two men were together until Coward's death. But Coward was always circumspect about his same-sex relationships, as were many other gay men of that era - a time when homosexuality was still illegal in Britain.


The original trailer of Brief Encounter directed by David Lean from a screenplay written by NoŽl Coward, based on his 1936 one-act play Still Life. It starred Celia Johnson, Trevor Howard, Stanley Holloway and Joyce Carey.

Although never publicly adopting a gay identity, Coward sometimes addressed homosexuality metaphorically in his work, which often dealt with hidden longing, societal hypocrisy, and the battle against conventional moral restrictions. Design For Living, depicting a bisexual menage a trois between two men and a woman (and starring the famous "lavender couple" Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontaine), sold out every night of its Broadway run. In 1966 Coward wrote and starred in Song At Twilight, the story of an ageing gay author who fears he will be exposed - his only work to deal explicitly with homosexuality. "Coward paved the way for the growing cultural acceptance of homosexuality that marked the past hundred years," claims theatre critic Charles Isherwood. "He gave audiences a taste for the irreverence and artifice of camp that couldn't be erased when its link to gay experience was finally acknowledged."

Coward was knighted by The Queen 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 would be his last public appearance - he died at his home in Jamaica in March of that year. In 1984 a memorial stone was unveiled in Westminster Abbey bearing words from one of his songs: "I believe that since my life began, the most I've had is just a talent to amuse."

 

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