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The letters of noel coward

Description: The letters of noel coward
File name: The letters of noel coward
About the Author:

Barry Day was born in England and received his M.A. from Balliol College, Oxford. In addition to his seven previous books on Noël Coward, Day has written about Dorothy Parker, Oscar Wilde, Johnny Mercer, and Rodgers and Hart. He has written and produced plays and musical revues showcasing the work of Coward, the Lunts, Oscar Wilde, Dorothy Parker, and others. He is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts and a Trustee of the Noël Coward Foundation and was awarded the Order of the British Empire. He lives in New York, London, and Palm Beach.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:



A star danced . . . and under it you were born.


The three most important women in Noël’s life were undoubtedly his mother, Violet (who gave him his drive), Esmé Wynne (who inspired him to write), and Gertrude Lawrence (who was often his Muse and always his perfect complement as an actor). Noël and Gertie first met in 1913 on the train to Liverpool. With ten other children, they had been hired by director/producer Basil Dean to appear for a three-week run of Hauptmann’s Hannele. She was, Noël recalled, “a vivacious child with ringlets . . . her face was far from pretty, but tremendously alive . . . She confided to me that her name was Gertrude Lawrence, but that I was to call her Gert because everyone else did . . . I loved her from then onwards.”

It would be ten years before they performed together again–in his 1923 revue for producer André Charlot, London Calling!–and then only briefly. She introduced the song “Parisian Pierrot,” which Cecil Beaton considered “the signature tune of the . . . 1920s.” The show seemed set for a long run when, to Noël’s horror, Charlot decided to put together a compilation of highlights from several of his previous revues and take it to Broadway as André Charlot’s Revue of 1924. The stars were to be Jack Buchanan, Beatrice Lillie (whom Gertie had several times understudied), and Gertrude Lawrence.

Dissolve to 1929 . . . Both of them are well-established now in their own right. Leaving revue behind her, Gertie opens in a straight play, Candle Light. Noël sends her one of what would be a string of teasing cables:


Then, that same year, on a tour of the Far East, Noël found himself waiting in the Imperial Hotel, Tokyo, for his friend and traveling companion, Jeffrey Amherst. On the night before Jeffrey was due to arrive, Noël went to bed early, but as soon as he had turned off the light, the idea for Private Lives came to him. By the turn of the year he was in Shanghai and, when a bout of fever confined him to bed at the Cathay Hotel, he used the time to actually write the play.

That turned out to be the easy part. The hard part was pinning down Gertie’s butterfly mind. Noël cabled her immediately he put his pen down:


He then sent her a copy and she replied:



There then followed an avalanche of cables in which confusion soon became worse confounded. She’d committed herself to André Charlot for a new revue. Could they open in the following January instead of this September? Why didn’t Noël appear in the revue with her to fill in the time? Why didn’t Noël cable and ask Charlot to release her from the contract? Well, actually it wasn’t so much of a contract as a moral obligation . . . Come to think of it, it probably was a contract of a sort and her lawyers were trying to get her out of it . . . She’d rather do Private Lives than anything. . . No, she couldn’t do it at all . . .

Noël had finally had enough. When–forty pounds’ worth of telegrams later–she finally remembered to give him her cable address, he wired her that he now planned to do the play with someone else anyway. He heard nothing more until he arrived back in England in May, by which time Gertie’s lawyer, the redoubtable Fanny Holtzmann, had pried her free of the Charlot contract.

“La Capponcina
Cap d’Ail
Alpes Maritimes
Thursday or Friday?


Am I wrong or did I hear you mention something about a play we were going to do in London first then in America after?

Please let me know, because at present me ’ouse is full as a pig– and I would like to do something about putting up with you–sorry–I mean–well, you know–should you wish to visit me here to discuss ways and means.

Love Gert”

“Dear Miss Lawrence,
With regard to your illiterate scrawl of 14th inst., Mr. Coward asks me to say that there was talk of you playing a small part in a play of his on condition that you tour and find your own clothes (same to be of reasonable quality) and understudy Jessie Matthews whom you have always imitated. [In fact, it was Matthews who had understudied and carbon-copied Gertie in the New York production of the 1924 Charlot Revue.] Mr. Coward will be visiting some rather important people in the South of France in mid-July and he will appear at Cap d’Ail [the location of Edward Molyneux’s house, which Gertie was renting], whether you like it or not, with Mr. Wilson, on the 20th. If by chance there is no room in the rather squalid lodgings you have taken, would you be so kind as to engage several suites for Mr. W [Jack Wilson] and Mr. C [Noël] at the Hotel Mont Fleury, which will enable same Mr. W and Mr. C. to have every conceivable meal with you and use all your toilets for their own advantage. Several complicated contracts are being sent to you by Mr. C. on the terms you agreed upon–i.e., £6.10s. a week and understudy.”

With Private Lives, “Noël and Gertie” were to become a single entity in the public mind, creating an impression that–like the Lunts–they invariably acted together. In point of fact, they co-starred in only three original productions, of which Private Lives was the second and the one that defined the partnership.

Elyot Chase and Amanda Prynne are a divorced couple who meet up at the same hotel in Deauville while each is on honeymoon with a second spouse, only to discover that they are fated to be together, no matter the emotional cost to themselves or the people around them. The fictional relationship in many respects mirrored the real-life relationship between Noël and Gertie, two people deeply fond of each other but constantly bickering and testing the limits of that friendship in the certain knowledge that it is unbreakable.

Noël was both challenged and frustrated by Gertie’s mercurial nature, quite opposite but somehow complementary to his own more ordered approach.

“On stage,” he wrote a few years later, “she is potentially capable of anything and everything. She can be gay, sad, witty, tragic, funny and touching. . . She has, in abundance, every theatrical essential but one; critical faculty . . . But for this tantalizing lack of discrimination she could, I believe, be the greatest actress alive in the theatre today.”

On October 13, 1931, Cavalcade opened at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, and Gertie was in the first-night audience.

“Theatre Royal

Noël, my darling,

Here I am down on my knees to you in humble admiration and complete adoration.

I didn’t wire you last night because I felt too near you to mix my stupid pence worth of good wishes with those many who couldn’t have been feeling as deeply as I was; but please believe me when I tell you that I spent the whole evening from eight ’til eleven with my hand tightly clasped in yours –anything just to feel that I might perhaps be of some subconscious support to you. As you say it’s “pretty exciting to be English”. But also it’s pretty exciting to love you as I do!

It’s horrid how I miss you but deep down it’s rather grand; though not awfully satisfying!!

This you may be surprised to see is from

“Ole Gert””

“Dear old Gert,

Among all the outpourings from the great and the good and the Would-Be-Goods (as my beloved E. Nesbit might put it) nothing pleased me more than your barely decipherable scrawl!

You know me well enough to know that when I stammered about it being pretty exciting to be English, I meant every naïve word. We’re a strange race and we persist in getting a lot of things wrong but we do have our hearts in the right place–and that’s what matters.

When I looked down at the stage–and when I’d got over worrying about what else might go wrong with the mechanics–a great many things went through my mind and you were in so many of them.

I could see you on that stage at the Phoenix standing there in that damned deceptive moonlight night after night and I would make my entrance, never knowing which Gertie I would find on any particular evening. You do know, my darling, that you are a chameleon–an elegant one but still a chameleon. You never play a part the same way two nights running but it certainly keeps whoever you’re playing with–in this case your author–on his tippy tip toes. And I must also admit–it’s pretty exciting to be playing opposite Miss Gertrud Dagmar Lawrence-Klasen and I can’t wait until the next time. And I can just hear you saying–“Well, darling, that’s up to you.”

I also found myself thinking back to that first time we played together. Do you remember Liverpool, Manchester and that tedious German play Basil was so keen on? And when we two budding thespians stuffed ourselves with peppermints and the curtain rose on the sight of two little angels being spectacularly sick! I do believe, my darling, we can do bet...

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