Noel Coward: A Biography

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To several generations, Noel Coward was the very personification of wit, glamor, and elegance. There seemed to be nothing he couldn't do, and - as Philip Hoare shows in this definitive biography - he seems to have tried it all. The most remarkable thing, however, was that whatever it was that Coward undertook, it was done with supreme style and class. Coward was a master playwright: consider 'Blithe Spirit', 'Private Lives, and 'Design for Living'; the composer/lyricist of songs such as "Mad Dogs and Englishmen,"...
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Noel Coward: A Biography of Noel Coward

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Overview

To several generations, Noel Coward was the very personification of wit, glamor, and elegance. There seemed to be nothing he couldn't do, and - as Philip Hoare shows in this definitive biography - he seems to have tried it all. The most remarkable thing, however, was that whatever it was that Coward undertook, it was done with supreme style and class. Coward was a master playwright: consider 'Blithe Spirit', 'Private Lives, and 'Design for Living'; the composer/lyricist of songs such as "Mad Dogs and Englishmen," "If Love Were All," and "Mad About the Boy," from musicals and operettas such as 'Bitter Sweet', 'Conversation Piece', and 'High Spirits'; he was a filmmaker: 'Cavalcade', 'In Which We Serve', and Brief Encounter'; a novelist and diarist: Pomp and Circumstance, Present Indicative; and a talented actor and performer. In researching the book, Philip Hoare traveled far and wide, and interviewed dozens of Coward's surviving contemporaries - friends, as well as enemies. Most significant, however, was the cooperation he received from the Coward Estate. Given unprecedented access to the private papers and correspondence of Coward and of members of his family, as well as his many compatriots and numerous lovers, Hoare has produced what has been hailed widely as "the definitive book" about Noel Coward. One especially noteworthy aspect to Hoare's treatment of Coward's life is the fact that this book is the first to deal openly with Coward's homosexuality. It was, of course, a reality in his life, but despite the fact that it imbued his work, it was a subject Coward remained, to his death, wary of discussing publicly. But while Hoare deals frankly with the subject, he never oversteps the bounds of discretion and good taste. The result of all Philip Hoare's meticulous research and careful assessment is a biography that is both wideranging and intimate, a record of the public profile and private life of one of the 20th century's most celebrated - and still controversial - figures.
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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Like his life of Stephen Tennant, Serious Pleasures, Hoare's substantial biography of Coward is fastidiously researched and documented. The author traces Coward's colorful family history back to the early 17th century and shows how his middle-class upbringing only fueled his passion for success, a yearning that remained with Coward throughout his life. In painstaking detail, Hoare chronicles Coward's devotion to his mother, his homosexual affairs and his travels within the beau monde. Particularly insightful are the accounts of how, in bursts of creativity, Coward translated real-life encounters and experiences into written art, though often to the extreme displeasure of the friends he wrote about, like Edith Sitwell. While Hoare pays homage to Coward's numerous plays, revues, songs and stories, he doesn't ignore the failures. Nor does Hoare hide Coward's personal shortcomings, his financial mismanagement, temper and quarrels with England, which show the ring around his Eton-collared image. The author's prose can be stilted, and his prolix plot summaries of Coward's plays could be tighter. Nonetheless, Hoare has profiled vividly and in depth a complex legend who had a talent for creating and re-creating both himself and his works.
Library Journal
Hoare has written a fascinating, in-depth biography of the great English playwright and songwriter. While earlier biographies (and Coward's own autobiographies) only hint at the darker side of Coward's personality and life, Hoare, perhaps given greater freedom as well as greater access to previously unavailable material, shows Coward as not only the witty charmer but also the ruthless self-made man. Coward craved success and lets little stand in his way, rising out of genteel poverty to become a style icon of the Twenties and Thirties. Hoare also provides details of the sex lives of the rich and famous in Coward's circle of friends and acquaintances, as well as his longer-lasting personal and professional relationships. The behind-the-scenes look at each of Coward's theatrical productions is invaluable.-- Susan L. Peters, Emory Univ., Atlanta
Library Journal
Hoare has written a fascinating, in-depth biography of the great English playwright and songwriter. While earlier biographies (and Coward's own autobiographies) only hint at the darker side of Coward's personality and life, Hoare, perhaps given greater freedom as well as greater access to previously unavailable material, shows Coward as not only the witty charmer but also the ruthless self-made man. Coward craved success and lets little stand in his way, rising out of genteel poverty to become a style icon of the Twenties and Thirties. Hoare also provides details of the sex lives of the rich and famous in Coward's circle of friends and acquaintances, as well as his longer-lasting personal and professional relationships. The behind-the-scenes look at each of Coward's theatrical productions is invaluable.-- Susan L. Peters, Emory Univ., Atlanta
Jack Helbig
Packed tight with facts, Hoare's exhaustive biography is a boon to scholars, both formal and informal. For while Hoare takes special pains to describe theater in Britain before World War I and during the interwar period, he also dishes the dirt about the always clever, always charming, frequently childish Coward (who threw temper tantrums until well into his fifties). Searchers for gossip about the high-flying, high-society playwright and his many friendships and liaisons will therefore be pleased; meanwhile, students of gay life in Britain from the 1910s through the 1930s will be informed by the invaluable glimpse provided by Hoare. Those looking for a biographer who exposes the deep structures of an artist's life and work and the connections between them may, however, find Hoare unsatisfying. He is strongest on Coward's early work (e.g., "Vortex", "Bittersweet", "Private Lives"), but when he wades into the middle and late career, he mostly shovels in lots and lots of information--listing famous people in Coward's life, describing his professional and personal wanderings, but rarely revealing the man beneath the persona.
Kirkus Reviews
A full-scale life of the towering English songwriter and playwright. Writing about Coward in 1977, Kenneth Tynan wrote, "The successful homosexual is answerable to nobody," and this could serve as the epigraph for this biography. Sprung from a suburban British background of lapsed wealth (his family tree includes ambassadors, professors, and composers), Coward invented his own self-contained reality from an early age. He knew he was gay at the age of 12—although, as Hoare delicately but definitively points out, he shied away from penetrative sex all his life. A perpetual outsider, Coward wouldn't be a member of any club but his own: He shunned his Catholic upbringing (he belonged to a circle of gay aesthetes who wrestled with their Catholicism, including Proust translator C.K. Scott Moncrieff), highbrow culture, and Hollywood alike. But money started talking, and by 1930, when he was declared the world's highest paid writer, his absolutist stance softened. He knew that his marketable strength was a cool xenophobia, and he laced it through such successful stage plays and films as 'Present Laughter', 'Blithe Spirit', and 'Fallen Angels.' But Hoare (whose 1990 book, "Serious Pleasures", was a life of the superdandy Stephen Tennant) paints Coward not so much as a crowd-pleaser as a gay subversive, insinuating homosexual notions into the mainstream. Because Hoare talked to Coward's friends and lovers, and shores up speculation with detailed sources, this is a believable position. The final stages of Coward's life seem especially sad: The '60s had no use for his mannered vitriol, reducing him to his most hateful tendencies ("Why should we keep inferior beings in the world?" hetold a reporter, asked for his views on the death penalty). Seems too often to scavenge for any stories remotely scandalous or naughty—but for all that, sharp and credible. Serious scholarship also serves here as an act of cultural restitution for a gay hero.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780684809373
  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster
  • Publication date: 7/2/1996
  • Pages: 605
  • Product dimensions: 6.48 (w) x 9.57 (h) x 1.80 (d)

Table of Contents

List of Illustrations Coward Family Tree Veitch Family Tree
1. Family Album
2. A Talented Boy
3. Podge and Stodge
4. Rising Star
5. The Young Idea
6. Lord of a Day
7. Bright Young Thing
8. The Vortex
9. Society's Hero
10. On with the Dance
11. Home Chat
12. Bitter Sweet
13. Private Lives
14. Cavalcade
15. Design for Living
16. Tonight at 8.30
17. To Step Aside
18. Present Laughter
19. Could You Please Oblige Us with a Bren Gun?
20. Play Parade
21. Don't Let's Be Beastly
22. Peace in Our Time
23. Island Fling
24. A Bouquet of Violets
25. Live in Las Vegas
26. Pomp and Circumstance
27. Prisoner of a Legend
28. Sail Away
29. Dad's Renaissance
30. A Song at Twilight
31. The Party's Over Now Acknowledgments Source Notes Index

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  • Posted May 3, 2010

    A Glowing Recounting of a Brilliant Life

    Noel Coward is much loved and lauded for his plays but as a person his charm and wit cast its glow on all who know him. Most of what we know of him comes from his very entertaining memoirs. Now, Phillip Hoare has done a marvelous job of bringing Coward into perspective. This is the most
    indepth overview of his life thus presented and it brings to light Coward's professionalism and discipline. From his struggles as a child to his triumphs as a man, Hoare's research and his lucid presentation give us the whole man. This is by no means a dry, scholarly read. There are charming and hilarious anecdotes aplenty to inform you of Coward's light-heartedness and his towering wit. This is a book to savor and to share.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
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