Unbuttoning the master

Philip Hoare's intimate life of Noel Coward is out this week. Here, he describes the joys and frustrations of separating the man from the legend

It is a presumptious matter to announce one's intention to write the definitive biography of a legend. Had I known, five years ago, that the road ahead was strewn with quite as many eggshells, I might have thought twice about the prospect of producing a life of Noel Coward.

My first obstacle was a substantial one, in the shape of Sheridan Morley, author of the first serious biography of Coward, published in 1969, four years before Coward died. What would he make of an upstart like me? To my relief, he not only didn't mind, he was positively encouraging. But with the rest of the theatrical fraternity, the stock reaction to my request for interviews was depressing. "Hasn't he been done enough already?" - rather as though Noel were a sausage on the barbecue. It was difficult to argue my case without bringing up the great bugbear of modern biography: sex. When Morley wrote his book, he had been asked by Coward not to mention his homosexuality for fear of offending the blue-rinsed ladies of East Grinstead. But Noel added, "After my death, it's another matter". I took this as my cue. Yes, I was going to talk about sex - how else could you discuss a homosexual playwright's work, especially one still living in the shadow of Wilde? But no, it wasn't going to be a catalogue of one- night stands - as extensive as that might be, in Coward's case.

It was also difficult to contend that no one had written comprehensively about Coward, without appearing to disrespect Morley's work or Cole Lesley's book. The latter - Coward's manservant and secretary - had taken up the challenge after the gory fate of the would-be authorised biographer, James Pope-Hennessey, who had announced the sizeable advance he had received to the Evening Standard "Londoner's Diary", only to be found soon after strangled by one of the "rough trade" he was wont to pick up. When the Standard breezily printed the amount of my own advance, I made sure the chain was on the door.

Things didn't seem to be going so well. I heard that a writer called Clive Fisher was about to publish his own account of Coward's life. I considered throwing it all in. But an appalling sense of schadenfreude overcame me when I learned that Coward's estate had taken against Fisher and were refusing him access to or permission to quote from Coward's unpublished work. They didn't like Fisher's emphasis on Noel's homosexuality; conversely, I would have to deal yet more delicately with the subject. I approached Joan Hirst, keeper of Noel's flame in this country (his heir, Graham Payn, lives in Chalet Coward in Switzerland). Over tea, I was vetted. She'd read my biography of the aesthete Stephen Tennant, and approved.

Soon I was being summoned to the deluxe environs of Montreux, and to be met at the station by Mr Payn. He was much too nice, and drove an exceedingly modern electric blue customised sports car. I warmed to him immediately. That night, after dinner, we talked until the small hours. There was no question, no matter how personal, which he would not answer. "Mum's Suitcase" - Violet Coward's battered attache case stuffed with letters and much unpublished material - was pulled down from a top shelf.

Thereafter the doors of Belgravia and Mayfair opened as if by magic. Sir John Gielgud returned my calls; Sir Dirk Bogarde wrote three-page letters. Requests to see manuscripts which had never seen the limelight were met with assent. I also met some enemies, people whom Coward had annoyed, or apparently treated badly. I was faced with a new difficulty: what to include. Certain facts would prove to be scandalous, shocking even. Intimate details of sexual encounters do not translate easily into even-handed prose. The American composer, Ned Rorem, gave me an, er, blow- by-blow account of his affair with Coward (Rorem confessed that the Master wasn't very G.I.B.). Research disinterred other tales: it became clear that Noel's first serious relationship was with a painter old enough to be his father; Noel had been 14. This artist, I discovered, had very definite links with the Uranians, a paedophiliac group of the 1890s. Such prickly material required kid-glove treatment.

One major bonus for the biographer of an inveterate traveller is the excuse to follow in his footsteps. Jamaica? I went of my own accord. I also worked up a reason to tour pre-election South Africa, getting perilously lost and interviewing an elderly Wimbledon champion in Cape Town whose husband was rumoured to have been Coward's boyfriend. America provided plenty of leads. One afternoon I returned to the Gramercy Park Hotel in downtown Manhattan and asked if there were any messages. The young chap on the desk - who looked like an American footballer - answered in abject admiration, "Katharine Hepburn called for you".

I tried to appear nonchalant, just as I did the next day when I arrived at Miss Hepburn's townhouse on the Upper East Side. I was shown into the kitchen, where her black chauffeur was eating breakfast. Upstairs, her feet up on a sofa, was K.H. Over iced water and in her characteristic vibrato, she talked Noel. How frustrating it was that he would never play tennis when she visited him in Jamaica, preferring to lie around the pool, usually naked. How Noel's life in the country was the same as Noel's in the town, "only a different temperature". And a veiled criticism - unusual, for this famously reserved woman - of Coward's lover and manager, Jack Wilson: he was "not of his calibre". (In fact Wilson had exploited and embezzled money from his boyfriend and almost managed to get him locked up for currency irregularities during the Second World War). Then Miss Hepburn insisted I eat. Taking a tin of crab meat from a Fifties fridge (her kitchen was straight out of Driving Miss Daisy), she tasted it, saying, "If I don't die, you'll be OK". I passed on this early lunch (it was 11am), and left. What a woman.

It was in Jamaica that Coward seemed closest. Here, I gleaned information on his expatriate life. His old friend Morris Cargill told me how annoyed Noel was when Larry Olivier came to stay and insisted on smoking dope.I heard about the sticky menages of the Flemings (Ian with Blanche Blackwell; Ann with Hugh Gaitskell), which so fascinated Noel that he wrote an (unpublished) play about them, Volcano. At Coward's house, Firefly, I sneakily tried on his Hawaiian shirts, and felt a genuine frisson when I found the black- tiled shower room where the Master collapsed and died, on 26 March 1973. Sitting on Noel's tombstone on the brow of Firefly Hill, I watched a tropical storm gather in the bay and sweep up, sending us running for cover. I hoped it wasn't some sort of omen.

Back in England, there was one surprise yet to come. Until then, I had found no first-hand evidence of Coward's wartime espionage work. The text had already been edited and was ready for proofing when I was told of certain documents which I shouldn't have seen but did, and which required the rewriting of an entire chapter. It was a suitably dramatic note on which to end. Even to the last, Noel was determined to deliver a final twist to the plot.

'Noel Coward: A Biography' by Philip Hoare is published by Sinclair- Stevenson at pounds 25

Arts and Entertainment
On The Apprentice, “serious” left the room many moons ago and yet still we watch

TV
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from David Ayer's 'Fury'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift performs at the 2014 iHeart Radio Music Festival
music review
Arts and Entertainment
Paul Anderson plays Arthur Shelby in Peaky Blinders series two
tvReview: Arthur Shelby Jr seems to be losing his mind as his younger brother lets him run riot in London
Arts and Entertainment
Miranda Hart has called time on her award-winning BBC sitcom, Miranda
tv
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Boy George performing with Culture Club at Heaven

musicReview: Culture Club performs live for first time in 12 years

Arts and Entertainment
Laura Wood, winner of the Montegrappa Scholastic Prize for New Children’s Writing
books

Children's bookseller wins The Independent's new author search

Arts and Entertainment
Pulling the strings: Spira Mirabilis

music
Arts and Entertainment
Neville's Island at Duke of York's theatre
musicReview: The production has been cleverly cast with a quartet of comic performers best known for the work on television
Arts and Entertainment
Banksy's 'The Girl with the Pierced Eardrum' in Bristol

art
Arts and Entertainment
Lynda Bellingham stars in her last Oxo advert with on-screen husband Michael Redfern

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman

film
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Minchin portrait
For a no-holds-barred performer who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, Tim Minchin is surprisingly gentle
Arts and Entertainment
Clara takes the lead in 'Flatline' while the Doctor remains in the Tardis
tvReview: The 'Impossible Girl' earns some companion stripes... but she’s still annoying in 'Dr Who, Flatline'
Arts and Entertainment
Joy Division photographed around Waterloo Road, Stockport, near Strawberry Studios. The band are Bernard Sumner (guitar and keyboards), Stephen Morris (drums and percussion), Ian Curtis (vocals and occasional guitar), Peter Hook (bass guitar and backing vocals).
books
Arts and Entertainment
Sean Harris in 'The Goob' film photocall, at the Venice International Film Festival 2014
filmThe Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Streisand is his true inspiration
Arts and Entertainment
X Factor contestant Fleur East
tvReview: Some lacklustre performances - but the usual frontrunners continue to excel
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Tuttle's installation in the Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern
artAs two major London galleries put textiles in the spotlight, the poor relation of the creative world is getting recognition it deserves
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman
film
Arts and Entertainment
On top of the world: Actress Cate Blanchett and author Richard Flanagan
artsRichard Flanagan's Man Booker win has put paid to the myth that antipodean artists lack culture
Arts and Entertainment
The Everyman, revamped by Haworth Tompkins
architectureIt beats strong shortlist that included the Shard, the Library of Birmingham, and the London Aquatics Centre
Arts and Entertainment
Justice is served: Robert Downey Jr, Vincent D’Onofrio, Jeremy Strong and Robert Duvall in ‘The Judge’

Film

Arts and Entertainment
Clive Owen (centre) in 'The Knick'

TV

Arts and Entertainment
J.K. Simmons , left, and Miles Teller in a scene from

Film

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

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

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

    Wilko Johnson, now the bad news: musician splits with manager after police investigate assault claims

    Wilko Johnson, now the bad news

    Former Dr Feelgood splits with manager after police investigate assault claims
    Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands ahead of the US midterm elections

    Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands

    The Senator for Colorado is for gay rights, for abortion rights – and in the Republicans’ sights as they threaten to take control of the Senate next month
    New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

    New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

    Evidence found of contact between Easter Islanders and South America
    Cerys Matthews reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of Dylan Thomas

    Cerys Matthews on Dylan Thomas

    The singer reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of the famous Welsh poet
    DIY is not fun and we've finally realised this as a nation

    Homebase closures: 'DIY is not fun'

    Homebase has announced the closure of one in four of its stores. Nick Harding, who never did know his awl from his elbow, is glad to see the back of DIY
    The Battle of the Five Armies: Air New Zealand releases new Hobbit-inspired in-flight video

    Air New Zealand's wizard in-flight video

    The airline has released a new Hobbit-inspired clip dubbed "The most epic safety video ever made"
    Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month - but can you stomach the sweetness?

    Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month

    The combination of cinnamon, clove, nutmeg (and no actual pumpkin), now flavours everything from lattes to cream cheese in the US
    11 best sonic skincare brushes

    11 best sonic skincare brushes

    Forget the flannel - take skincare to the next level by using your favourite cleanser with a sonic facial brush
    Paul Scholes column: I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Phil Jones and Marcos Rojo

    Paul Scholes column

    I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Jones and Rojo
    Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

    Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

    While other sports are stalked by corruption, we are an easy target for the critics
    Jamie Roberts exclusive interview: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

    Jamie Roberts: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

    Wales centre says he’s not coming home but is looking to establish himself at Racing Métro
    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

    A crime that reveals London's dark heart

    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
    Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

    Lost in translation: Western monikers

    Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
    Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

    Handy hacks that make life easier

    New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
    KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

    KidZania: It's a small world

    The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker