BOOKS : BIOGRAPHY : Wild about me

NOEL COWARD: A Biography by Philip Hoare, Sinclair-Stevenson pounds 25

JUST over a quarter of a century ago, on his 70th birthday in 1969, I published the first biography of Noel Coward, which was also my first book. Since then there have been a couple of others, plus excellent personal memoirs by the two men who most closely shared his life, and a powerful critical study by John Lahr. I've also, with Graham Payn, edited the Coward Diaries and Autobiographies and collections of his paintings and photographs. Another ten volumes of his plays, short stories, poems and lyrics remain in print: is there, you could be forgiven for wondering, much need for anything else on the play-boy of the West End world ?

Definitely and defiantly, yes. Having written the first, I'd like to be the first to acknowledge that we now have the definitive Coward biography. It comes from an author who must have been about ten when Noel died, and who has just one other book to his credit. Philip Hoare belongs to the Hugo Vickers school of biography, which believes that God is in the details, but only among much else that has somehow been overlooked elsewhere; had Noel ever had the time to get around to compiling his own laundry lists, these too would have found their way in here.

It may perhaps be argued that Hoare does not bring us anything breathtaking on Noel that was not already available; yet by going back not just to the very beginning but the pre-beginning, so that we get to know the parents and grandparents in more detail than I suspect Noel ever did, this Coward biography sets him in the full context of the century into which he was born (on 16 December 1899), as well as the one that his family was just leaving.

In a manner that neither Noel nor the biographic conventions of the 1960s would allow me, Hoare chronicles all Coward's homosexual encounters, from childhood struggles with gay vicars across half a century to a disastrous late-life passion for an American actor so traumatised by Noel's approaches that he tried, maybe none too seriously, to take his own life. Attempting to convince Noel, even in 1969, that his homosexuality was important to his biography, I took him the newly published memoirs of a distinguished critic of the period, T C Worsley, perhaps the first member of the Garrick and the MCC to "come out" in his own autobiography. This, I suggested to Noel, surely opened the way for us. "Not at all," retorted Coward. "You forget that the great British public would not care if Cuthbert Worsley had slept with mice. My old ladies do care about me and I am not about to lose their favour, dear boy, not even for the sake of the truth, which has always been very over-rated in my view, as indeed has sex itself."

Noel had always been as blithely, bitchily funny about his sex life as about everything else, if only in private. His jokes extended to others, too: passing a Leicester Square movie poster which proclaimed "Michael Redgrave and Dirk Bogarde in The Sea Shall Not Have Them", he murmured "I don't see why not: everyone else has". And, as so often, his line only really gets its kick when you recall the subtext - Redgrave had spent his last night of shore leave in World War Two sleeping with Noel rather than his wife.

This is one of the rare connections Hoare fails to make; elsewhere he is both triumphant and meticulous in joining up the dots, while maintaining just the right mix of acid and admiration. For those of us who have always believed - and it is a case that regularly has to be fought against the prevailing fashion of the time - that Coward was not only (as Osborne always noted) his own invention and contribution to the 20th century but also its greatest and most important theatrical figure, Hoare's 600-page epic forms the perfect brief for the defence.

Here it all is, from the preposterously precocious schoolchild falling in love with Gertrude Lawrence on Euston Station in 1910 to the wonderfully wicked old wizard living in a kind of personal and professional exile on the beaches of Jamaica and the snow-slopes of Switzerland, casting an increasingly cynical backward glance at the England which was only beginning to realise that he had been for most of the century its stage- manager, composer, set-designer and social historian.

Coward's genius, which is exactly what it was, lay in understanding the mood of the times before the times themselves got around to acknowledging it. For the 1920s he was the country-houseparty entertainer, desperately hiding his homosexual and workaholic tendencies under a veneer of insouciance; for the 1930s he was the critical lyric poet, weary already of cocktails and laughter but sharp enough to note, way ahead of the national game, that Munich would lead to disaster; for the 1940s, undeterred, he was the fervent patriot of In Which We Serve; in the 1950s he discovered Las Vegas ("Not so much Cafe Society as NesCafe Society"), and by the 1960s he was back home on a visit to claim his knighthood and direct the first- ever revival at the National Theatre of work by a living dramatist.

Maintaining a wary, critical distance while I was writing my A Talent to Amuse, I only really came to know and love Noel in the five years after it came out and before he died. "I am absolutely wild about me," he had cabled in response to the first copy. If I have any reservation about Hoare's book, it is that these closing years are taken at too rapid a gallop, perhaps because none of us got around to explaining to him just how magical Noel was at this, the only period in his life when he had time for reflection and, sometimes, even regret.

It is in the lyrics and poems of Coward that you find more of him than in his own plays or diaries or memoirs. Lines like "Free from love's illusion, My heart is my own, I travel alone" or "I am no good at love" or the last lines he ever wrote, about friends now dead, "How happy they are I cannot know, But happy am I who loved them so" tell you more about the real, first Noel than even a biography of this immense ambition and distinction.

Hoare has pulled it all together, focused on the dedicated enemies as well as the loving friends, and although there may still be a couple of old stage-door queens out there regretting that their brief encounters with "Master" have not been given adequate footnotes, I doubt that anyone else is going to find much fault.

Arts and Entertainment

Great British Bake Off
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Refugee crisis: David Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia - will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi?

    Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia...

    But will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi, asks Robert Fisk
    Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

    Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

    Humanity must be at the heart of politics, says Jeremy Corbyn
    Joe Biden's 'tease tour': Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?

    Joe Biden's 'tease tour'

    Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?
    Britain's 24-hour culture: With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever

    Britain's 24-hour culture

    With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever
    Diplomacy board game: Treachery is the way to win - which makes it just like the real thing

    The addictive nature of Diplomacy

    Bullying, betrayal, aggression – it may be just a board game, but the family that plays Diplomacy may never look at each other in the same way again
    Lady Chatterley's Lover: Racy underwear for fans of DH Lawrence's equally racy tome

    Fashion: Ooh, Lady Chatterley!

    Take inspiration from DH Lawrence's racy tome with equally racy underwear
    8 best children's clocks

    Tick-tock: 8 best children's clocks

    Whether you’re teaching them to tell the time or putting the finishing touches to a nursery, there’s a ticker for that
    Charlie Austin: Queens Park Rangers striker says ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

    Charlie Austin: ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

    After hitting 18 goals in the Premier League last season, the QPR striker was the great non-deal of transfer deadline day. But he says he'd preferred another shot at promotion
    Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

    How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

    Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
    Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

    'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

    In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea
    Tunisia fears its Arab Spring could be reversed as the new regime becomes as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor

    The Arab Spring reversed

    Tunisian protesters fear that a new law will whitewash corrupt businessmen and officials, but they are finding that the new regime is becoming as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor
    King Arthur: Legendary figure was real and lived most of his life in Strathclyde, academic claims

    Academic claims King Arthur was real - and reveals where he lived

    Dr Andrew Breeze says the legendary figure did exist – but was a general, not a king
    Who is Oliver Bonas and how has he captured middle-class hearts?

    Who is Oliver Bonas?

    It's the first high-street store to pay its staff the living wage, and it saw out the recession in style
    Earth has 'lost more than half its trees' since humans first started cutting them down

    Axe-wielding Man fells half the world’s trees – leaving us just 422 each

    However, the number of trees may be eight times higher than previously thought
    60 years of Scalextric: Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones

    60 years of Scalextric

    Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones