Wild life of young Noel Coward at orgies of playboy earl

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The young Noel Coward indulged in "orgiastic" parties at an English country mansion with a wealthy earl and some of the biggest theatrical stars of his day, a new investigation has revealed.

The young Noel Coward indulged in "orgiastic" parties at an English country mansion with a wealthy earl and some of the biggest theatrical stars of his day, a new investigation has revealed.

The host was Ned Lathom - or Edward William Bootle-Abraham, the third and last Earl of Lathom and Baron of Skelmersdale - who used his money to transform Coward's career and may have been his lover.

The earl has never received the credit he deserves for helping to turn a struggling actor into one of the most prominent British writers of the 20th century, says the expert who has uncovered details of his hedonistic lifestyle.

After achieving fame Sir Noel grew reticent about the private life he had led in the years leading up to The Vortex in 1924, his first major success as an actor and author. Now it has emerged that he was helping his close friend and theatrical angel blow a fortune.

Ned Lathom died young and penniless after lavishing his entire inheritance on the theatre, by funding productions and throwing expensive parties at his ancestral home, Blythe Hall in Lancashire.

"The evidence is that he was part of a coterie of men from the theatre, including Coward and Ivor Novello," says John Knowles, a prominent member of the Noel Coward Society who plans to publish his discoveries about the life of the earl next year. Life at the hall was described as "orgiastic" by those who saw it, he says. "Locals recount stories of seeing the three of them dancing down the street together, well oiled."

Ned Lathom's set was "the very definition of hedonistic 1920s society," says Philip Hoare, author of the definitive biography of Coward. "The pale, tubercular, stage-struck earl entertained on a lavish scale. He held fancy dress parties at the Tower of London; 'come-as-the-person-you'd-most-like-to-sleep with' parties at Cliveden; and nursery parties where the guests dressed as babies and were wheeled about in prams. In the middle of it all was the Firbankian figure of Lathom himself, overseeing these orgies of the Bright Young Things. It was perhaps no coincidence that victims of tuberculosis were also said to be highly sexed."

Sir John Gielgud told Hoare that Lathom had been "a delightful friend". "He recalled 'the first expensive gift I ever received': a silver clock from Asprey. The wealthy aristocrat liked to surround himself with such decorous youths; not for nothing had he created his own scent called Suivez Moi, Jeune Homme - 'a dangerous phrase, on his lips', remarked [the novelist] Beverley Nichols, who was likewise captivated by a man who might have stepped out of The Picture of Dorian Gray."

Most importantly, says John Knowles, the earl was Coward's first benefactor. "He bought his songs and provided opportunities to meet the right people at a time when nobody else was interested. Lathom funded early productions, when Coward was still a struggling young actor, and he lent him money to go to America, the most important trip of his life."

In the States Coward met influential figures including Fred Astaire, who later choreographed a West End show for him, and he developed a new style of theatre. "He came back with a faster-paced, more dramatic style which was quite a shock to the ponderous British theatre, and which made his name," says Mr Knowles.

The earl was mentioned in the first volume of Coward's autobiography, Present Indicative, published in 1937 - but to date nobody has known how crucial their relationship was.

When the earl was in Lancashire he sent Rolls-Royce limousines to fetch the theatrical stars of the day from Liverpool Lime Street station for "opulent and extravagant" house parties, says Mr Knowles. Lathom's own plays, which were too risqué for the Lord Chancellor to allow in London, were performed at a hall in the grounds which is now a Scout hut.

Beverley Nichols described being "dazzled and a little sickened" by the luxury on offer. Footmen welcomed the stars by pouring perfume into heated spoons to fill the entrance of the Hall with a thick scent. "It seemed to me unnecessary to engage a sleeping car to send a footman down to London merely that he might return by noon with a special brand of chocolate almonds."

Nichols had arrived at Blythe Hall to find Coward sitting at a piano with Gertrude Lawrence, the legendary actress, who said: "Noel has made up the most divine song." It was "Parisian Pierrot", the highlight of Coward's breakthrough revue London Calling, which opened in 1923.

The show itself was born at the resort of Davos the previous Christmas, when Coward went to visit Lathom as he attempted to recover from tuberculosis. The playboy summoned the theatrical entrepreneur Andre Charlot from London to hear his friend's new songs, which were then fashioned into a show.

Unfortunately, as Coward's fame grew his benefactor's life began to fall apart. In 1924 he was forced to sell most of his estate, provoking a bitterness in the area that has yet to dissipate. He had run up impossible debts by spending huge amounts of money refurbishing Blythe Hall with cut-glass pillars, a Greek-style swimming pool and a bowling alley.