rambling reporter

Coward's double life as secret agent man

The late, much-celebrated Noel Coward was a playwright, screenwriter, actor, singer, composer, director, cabaret star, racounteur, world traveler, society darling, social gadabout and a genius to many while a nuisance to others. But who would have guessed he'd also spent much of World War II as a spy? He was doing undercover work before and during WWII for the Brits at the request of Lord Dickie Mountbatten, the cousin of England's King George V, which is but one of the many fascinating things revealed in the constantly intriguing "Letters to Noel Coward," just published by Knopf, edited and with additional commentary by Coward historian Barry Day. Not only was Coward a man who wrote works as diverse as "Private Lives," "Cavalcade" (which was turned into an Oscar-winning best picture), "Blithe Spirit," the song "Mad Dogs and Englishmen" and "Brief Encounter" — as well as one of the great, muscular war stories to come out of the war, 1942's "In Which We Serve" — but he apparently also was knee-deep in political intrigue before and during that war, which required him to keep so mum about it that even his closest family members and friends didn't know. Furthermore, as correspondence with Mountbatten in the book reveals, Coward was asked to behave in the superficial manner of his public image at all times, in order to keep anyone from suspecting his true motives. That behavior, in turn, led to heavy criticism of Coward for behaving like an uncaring, out-of-touch fop at a time when his country was being bombarded and blitzed by the Nazis. How little they knew. The book is a gold mine of information, encompassing letters Coward both wrote and received between 1912, when he was 13, and 1973, the year of his death. The addressees are a virtual who's who of world leaders and theatrical icons including Winston Churchill (who always was a bit leery of Coward, which Day suspects was the result of homophobia), Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne (Coward's closest chums, though they did go through periods of chilly silences), Marlene Dietrich (who writes him harrowing letters during a time she was besotted with Yul Brynner), Vivien Leigh and Laurence Olivier, Lauren Bacall, Gertrude Lawrence, John Osborne, Terence Rattigan, Mary Martin and Britain's Queen Mother, just for starters. This book is such an entertaining read that I encourage you to buy it and selfishly wallow in it, being of the opinion we each deserve to give ourselves a personal treat at this time of the season, if only to get us through this time of the year. … Something on the same basic subject and also recommended, if you can find a copy: Day's "Coward on Film: The Cinema of Noel Coward," from the Scarecrow Press in 2005, which covers the entire Coward filmography from all angles, from films based on Coward plays to those he personally wrote. It also includes those in which his one contribution was as an actor; his first was "Hearts of the World" at age 17, in which he appeared with Lillian and Dorothy Gish, and his last was 1969's "The Italian Job," co-starring with Michael Caine. Day also lists some of the roles Coward famously turned down: Harry Lime in "The Third Man," which went to Orson Welles; Col. Nicholson in "The Bridge on the River Kwai," accepted by Alec Guinness; Humbert Humbert in Stanley Kubrick's "Lolita," played by James Mason; and the title role in the first James Bond caper, "Dr. No." But as Coward once wrote to his mother: "I'm not very keen on Hollywood. I'd rather have a nice cup of cocoa, really."
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