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that Coward's estate had taken against Fisher and were refusing him access to or permission to quote from Coward's unpublished work.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

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