Three years ago, I watched the Queen Mother unveil a statue to the memory of her friend, Sir Noël Coward. It was the centenary of his birth, and the speech that she made at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane was remarkable – not least because her voice was so seldom heard in the latter years of her life.
Hearing her speak, slowly, in measured, fluting and affectionate terms, of her friendship with and admiration for Coward, it struck me how much a part of that world she was; and how remarkable, in its own way, was her stalwart support for a man whose own official recognition – in the form of a knighthood – was delayed, according to many, by the fact of his homosexuality (and his rumoured affair with her own brother-in-law, Prince George, Duke of Kent).
The Queen Mother was an actress: that's why she got on so well with Noël Coward. She knew her lines, and played her part brilliantly; archive film reminds us just how well, just as it reminds us how far she is from us, and how difficult it is for a younger generation to understand her appeal and the frankly fawning nature of some of the tributes of recent days. Yet her relationships with other gay men – including Cecil Beaton, Benjamin Britten, and, perhaps most remarkably, the outrageous Stephen Tennant – indicate a camp sensibility that always lurked under that Establishment façade.
Isolated in her exalted position, yet able to surround herself with a self-chosen circle of friends, she felt flattered by gay men – and, indeed, was served by them, as one now-famous story goes. It is cocktail hour at Clarence House; the Queen (as she then was) is waiting for her gin and Dubonnet. She calls down to the servants' quarters: "I don't know about any of you queens down there, but this Queen up here wants a drink." Like her younger daughter Princess Margaret, and like Diana, Princess of Wales, she was, as a royal female, almost inevitably attracted by and attractive to gay men. It was a relationship of mutual convenience.
And it was Cecil Beaton, after all, who had reinvented her, in the image of the Edwardian actresses of his childhood, photographing her in Winterhalter-style scenes that distilled her romantic sense of royalty at a time when its image needed a drastic revamp. Not that Beaton had always been a fan. Seeing her wedding photographs in 1923, he had written, rather cattily, "She does look sloppy".
It was only when the couturier Norman Hartnell began to design his frothy confections for the new Queen that Beaton was inspired, and he fell fawning at her feet – even stealing one of her handkerchiefs from the session as a souvenir. And as Beaton's biographer, Hugo Vickers, notes, the Queen appreciated what Beaton had done for her image, and, indeed, for reconstructing the Windsors as a whole: "I feel that, as a family, we must be deeply grateful to you for producing us, as really quite nice and real people." Beaton's artful eye imparted a sense of style to the new Queen; he delivered the image that was to recreate the Royal Family for a new era.
To Beaton's patron, Stephen Tennant, the ultimate gay narcissist of the time, however, Elizabeth was "too royal to carve the joint". Stephen first met Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon, as she then was, when they were both children, and he was taken to stay at Glamis Castle. Later, the aesthete Stephen recalled the "hideous Danish furniture" and "spinachy green and sour yellow tapestries" of the place – but this was an opinion coloured, in retrospect, by Elizabeth's jilting of his elder brother, Christopher.
In the early Twenties, Elizabeth had become a frequent visitor to the Tennants' house, Wilsford Manor, in Wiltshire (which now boasts Sting as a neighbour). In this idyllic and lush river valley, with its sympathetic Arts and Crafts manor house built by their mother, Pamela, Christopher Tennant had pursued his suit to Elizabeth's apparent encouragement – only to find himself spurned in favour of "bigger fish", in the form of the Duke of York.
The episode underlies the equivocal attitude of English aristocracy towards the Queen Mother. Christopher's son, Colin, the current Lord Glenconner, once told me of the aristocratic reaction to the Royal Family under the Queen Mother's influence, how people such as Nancy Mitford and Diana Cooper were snobbish about "her sweet-pea suits, and so on". But there may have been darker and more specific reasons for his Uncle Stephen's antipathy: he may also have been aware, earlier than most, of the scandal in the Bowes-Lyon closet, when, in the early 1930s, he shared the same Kentish psychiatric hospital as the Queen Mother's mentally ill cousins.
In later years, however, the increasingly reclusive Stephen (who by now had painted all the statues at Wilsford pink, and had imported palm trees and tropical lizards to its English lawns) appeared to have forgiven Elizabeth, and would send frequent gifts of laxatives to Clarence House, with his personal recommendation. Doubtless, he also appreciated her outfits, too. "She likes pink for evenings," noted her wardrobe mistress, "as it gives a bit of a glow." "Oh, pink," as Stephen declared to Rosamond Lehmann, "I almost faint when I think of pink."
For her part, the Queen recalled the decorative recluse with affection: "Oh, Stephen! I'd love to see him again," said the Queen Mother, recalling his carriage rides over the Wiltshire downs, "thinking lovely thoughts or whatever one did in those days". (Stephen's attitude to royalty did not alter enough, however, to admit the Queen Mother's daughter, however. When Colin Tennant brought Princess Margaret to call, Stephen instructed his butler to tell the visitors that he was seeing only blonde-haired visitors that day.)
But it was with Noël Coward that the Queen Mother struck up her strongest relationship with a gay man. She may have criticised Wallis Simpson for her café-society commonness (and Wallis in turn called her "a fat cook"), but she was, in her own way, every bit the social operator; and in the 1920s and 1930s, a period of "emasculated" men and "masculine women", Elizabeth's social network inevitably included such people.
The historian Hywel Williams has written perceptively of this sensibility, noting that the Queen Mother "brought into the Royal Family a very 1920s style of brittle suppression, which was part of a wider culture. Embarrassed by Victorian ardour and emotion, its ancestors in literature are Oscar Wilde and Ronald Firbank. Suddenly, it was smart to be hard – Noël Coward developed the style as a clipped heartlessness that has sunk deep into the Windsor consciousness". Williams even saw the then Duchess of York as an "emasculating femme fatale", as though she were herself one of Coward's hard-bitten heroines – Amanda out of Private Lives, or the equally divorced Larita of his earlier succès de scandale, Easy Virtue.
In this guise of world-weary mondaine, then, Elizabeth cast a blind eye to Coward's much-trumpeted (within their social circle) but brief encounter with her brother-in-law. Prince George was a part of the royal set that enjoyed the hedonism of the time other members included the Mountbattens, Dickie and Edwina; and the then Prince of Wales himself, of course all of whom have long been rumoured to have had homosexual inclinations. It was the Prince of Wales who rescued his brother George from drug addiction, and helped hush up an affair that George had had with a boy in Paris, after his "fling" with Coward. The rumours about the affair between the playwright and the prince continued even after the latter's tragic death in a flying accident during the Second World War: one mutual friend told Coward, "You can't be the Dowager Duchess of Kent, you know". Yet, whatever Queen Elizabeth thought of this alleged affair, or knew of its details, played out so close to home, it did not affect her affection for Coward.
Coward's most obvious appeal to the Queen lay in his entertainment value notleast in the duets of "My Old Man" that they enjoyed singing together. But as her senior by just seven months, Coward also understood, as a contemporary, her tastes, which were ever-so-slightly common; he was, after all,a suburban boy from Teddington. And his relationship with Elizabeth was further strengthened by his unshakeable devotion to everything that she stood for, and also by his increasingly reactionary politics. For a man born in 1899, in the already fading glow of Empire, his friendship with the last Queen-Empress was one to be highly prized, and actively pursued.
Thus, the day in 1961 when the Queen Mother came to lunch at Coward's Jamaican home, "Firefly", was the social zenith of his career although the lobster mousse melted before her arrival, and she was served curry made in a coconut. (As the cuisine in her own household often consisted of Ritz crackers and cheese spread, she probably felt quite at home with Noël's efforts at cooking, which, as Sir John Gielgud told me, were "disgusting".) Elizabeth did, however, heartily approve of Noël's "Bullshots", a potent vodka-and-bouillon cocktail, two of which she downedwith delight. When she drove off, she "left behind her five gibbering worshippers".
Yet Noël Coward was ill-rewarded for his loyalty. Hehad written privately to a friend in 1955, noting that, while "the general public love me and are, I feel, proud of me... this does not apply to... the present darling royal family or, ifthey are, they haven't made it apparent". Even Elizabeth herself seemed to have reservations. When Lord Wyatt told her that he was reading a book on Oscar Wilde and his trials, she said: "They were much too strict about those things then. But now I think they've gone too far the other way." For her,the status quo and a sense of discretion if not suppression was all-important; not for nothing was she known as "the imperial ostrich".
It was not until 1970 that her friend, entertainer and loyal supporter was awarded a knighthood, just three years before he died. Summoned to Clarence House for a lunch party to celebrate the fact, at the last moment the Queen Mother had to cry off with a cold, telling the about-to-be knight, "I'm afraid you'll have to make do with my daughters". The Queen and Princess Margaret duly presented Noël Coward with two gold cigarette boxes. When they suggested that he use the extra gift as a box for toothpicks, he demurred, "Alas, darling Ma'ams, too late, too late!".
To the end, however, the Queen Mother retained her affection for her loyal, bouffant-haired male retinue, who stage-managed the appearances of this royal version of Barbara Cartland. Yet she was no pantomime dame, for all the flowers and furbelows and winsome smiles. In that almost fey, whimsical and decidedly camp figure who would appear on birthdays and ceremonial occasions garbed in chiffon and bows, there was a sense of steel; what Truman Capote called an "iron-winged butterfly". And if, as Jean Cocteau once said, camp is "the lie that tells the truth", then she was the acid Queen in a fantasy Wonderland of her own making, and her greatest creation was herself.
Philip Hoare's book, 'Spike Island', has just been published in paperback by Fourth EstateReuse content