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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.