One of my favorite things about living near Los Angeles is all of the fun events and screenings that are put on by the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences. Currently, they’re hosting an exhibition about the “Master,” called “Star Quality: The World of Noel Coward.” Noel Coward is one of many people who’s work I became familiar with through my fascination with the Oliviers, as he was a long-time friend of both Vivien Leigh and Laurence Olivier. He was a famous playwright and teamed up with director David Lean in the 1940s to produce what have become two of my favorite films, Brief Encounter and Blithe Spirit. Laurence Olivier’s stage career was practically launched by Noel, who gave him the part of Victor Prynne in Private Lives in 1932, and Vivien Leigh worked with him in the 1956 production of South Sea Bubble and again in the 1959 play Look After Lulu.
I’ve been on quite a Noel Coward kick for a couple of years now. Just this Christmas I received The Noel Coward Diaries, and saw a fabulous documentary called The Noel Coward Trilogy, in which Noel’s partner, Graham Payne, said Laurence Olivier liked to smoke a bowl whenever he and Vivien visited Noel at Blue Harbor in Jamaica, which I thought was hilarious. Though Noel had a lot to say about the Oliviers in his diaries, it is quite hard to find longer passages of people, especially Vivien Leigh, talking about Noel. Luckily for your reading pleasure, I’ve found a terrific story by Vivien. This is from a collection of remembrances about Noel called The Pleasure of His Company: Noel Coward Remembered by William Marchant. I think this story really shows something of Vivien’s friendly character.
Vivien Leigh was full of stories about Noel and had an uncanny knack for reproducing his unusual verbal rythms with deadly accuracy. He had at the time begun work on a novel, and I wondered about what kind of novel it would be and what sort of story he would tell in it.
“I only know it was set in Samolo,” she said. “You know about Samolo, of course?”
I nodded. Samolo had been the setting for Noel’s ill-fated operetta Pacific 1860 which introduced Mary Martin to London audiences shortly after World War II. It was produced during the coldest winter London had seen in a decade in the unheated Drury Lane Theatre, whose program contained a geography-cum-history lesson in the form of a few paragraphs under the heading “extract from a GUIDE TO SAMOLO.” Evidently the tropical island that was the setting for the operetta was so insignificant a part of the Empire that it needed an introduction. The theatregoers learned, while their teeth chattered and their skins turned mauve in their orchestra seats, that it was of volcanic origin and had beaches of the finest white coral sand beside limpid lagoons and palm-fringed inlets. The program notes provided more pain than pleasure for the austerity-ridden Londoners, in whom southern longings are constant in the best of times. Under Aneurin Bevan’s government all forms of foreign travel other than for official reasons were denied them..
Vivien said that she had been deeply seized by southern longings that winter. Then the wife of Laurence Olivier, who was about to undertake an American tour with the Old Vic Theatre Company, she desperately wanted to get away somewhere that spring while Olivier was in New York, and after seeing an early performance of Pacific 1960 with all of Gladys Calthrops beguiling scenery, she knew exactly where she wanted to go. She she invited Noel to lunch at the Ivy, the continuing magnet among restaurants for the London theatrical world, and it was at the same table where they lunched together that, thirteen years later, she told me all about it over a late supper.
“I knew Aneurin Bevan slightly, but Noel knew him better than I did, and I planned for him to speak to Bevan for me and say that I had been plagued all winter with this fearful cough and that my doctor would happily say I needed to be somewhere that was warm for a time.
“Noel and I picked over omelets made out of powdered eggs and dried fines herbes and he agreed to see what he could do. I wanted him to tell me more about Samolo, and, really, his enthusiasm for the place was so intense that it made it seem almost tropical in here, warmer than it is this evening, certainly.
“He kept trying to tell me about a play he was thinking of writing. He wanted to do it first in America, because he hadn’t been represented there by anything new in such a long while, and he wanted me to consider whether I would be willing to commit myself to a long Broadway engagement with a subsequent London one and so on, and I was so tired and rheumy that for the moment I didn’t want to think about work or plays or anything of the kind, and only with some persuasion did I manage to get him back on the subject of Samolo.
“Pendarla was where he thought I should stay, and he would give me a letter to the Governor’s lady, who would look after me, but on no account to stay at the Government House, which was uncomfortable and overrun with American visitors, and was unequivocally hideous anyway. I remember he said it looked like a gargantuan lilac blancmange. He knew a kind of villa set in a grove of poincianas that was sometimes for rent on a short-term basis. It had a verandah with banana-mesh tables and chairs and was overhung with jacaranda blossoms.
“Lady Alexandra Shotter was the name of the Governor’s lady, and she was an absolute darling and a beauty to boot. I must on no account get into political discussions with an important native called Hali Alani, whose surname was the word for ‘stars’ in the Samolan language, because he had decidedly imperialist views but was sane on most other subjects. he was very handsome and fancied all Caucasian women, and so I had to watch my step. There was a chatterbox gossip called Mrs. Honey whom I could not possibly avoid at luncheons and dinners, but I must not encourage her. I was warned off the drinking water unless it had been boiled first. A certain fish whose name I forget was strongly recommended. I was ready to weep with anticipation and began dreaming of linen dresses and filmy chiffon gowns and pametto fans.
“He would speak to Bevan first, of course, but knew it would be alright, and suggested flying to New York and from there to San Fancisco, where I could book a passage on a P. & O. liner for–I think Borneo, but I’m not sure. Once I had secured passage and all that, he would write ahead to Pendarla, make inquiries about the villa and so on, and impress upon lady Shotter that I didn’t want to be treated as a great celebrity and the less publicity about me the better.
“After lunch I went directly home–we lived in Chelsea near the Royal Hospital then–and rather dispiritedly looked through my wardrobe to see if there was anything wearable for the tropics, and of course there wasn’t, but I soon remembered New York and my spirits rose again. I remembered all the marvelous shopping in New York and what the Americans call ‘cruise clothes,’ so I thought, well, not to worry, I’d spend a week there before going on to San Francisco. We had a well-stocked library in that house and I wandered downstairs and went directly for an old atlas. Search and search as I might, I couldn’t find Pendarla anywhere, or even the Samolan group of islands on the map. But then I’ve always been hazy about longitudes and latitudes and the International Date Line and things like that, so I rang up the British Travel Association on an impulse, thinking perhaps they’d send me some literature. The man I talked to there was very sympathetic but he regretted to inform me that the island of Samolo was a figment of Noel Coward’s imagination!”
Her porcelain features crinkled with merriment an she moved her head continuously from side to side as she described her reaction to having been “sent up within an inch of my life.” I said I hadn’t realized the extent to which Noel’s fertile imagination might lead him.
“Oh, he can be a terrible tease,” she said.
“It sounds like a rather cruel practical joke to me, and oddly very much out of character, at least as I know him.”
“But don’t you see what he was doing? The play he wanted to tell me about was to have Samolo as its setting. The people he mentioned were the characters who were going to be in it.”
“This was–South Sea Bubble?”
“Yes. But it was called Island Fling then. When he talked about Lady Alexandra Shotter, the Governor’s wife, that was the character he had in mind for me, although Gertie Lawrence said he had talked to her about it even before that. I was contracted elsewhere with a film or something and Claudette Colbert played her first in America, but I finally did play her, and for a long time, ten years later.”
“Of course, you let him know that you’d found him out?”
“Of course. I rang him up in a fury and he merely chuckled in that maddening way he has, and that was that. As it happened, my doctor met Bevan at a dinner party and told him about my walking pneumonia and two weeks later I was in Jamaica, which was every bit as nice, really.”
I told her about my special affection for Noel and something of its history, of the kind of parental authority he continued to assume with me whenever we were together.
“Yes, he sometimes does that with young people, because he takes such a great interest in everything, you see,” Vivien said.
“He’s always telling me to get out of New York and see people who have never heard of the theatre, and he doesn’t at all approve of my staying at Claridge’s here.”
“Oh, you have to stay at Claridge’s at least once. That’s a part of life, too. God knows, Noel has lived a life of the greatest luxury, but he has always managed to remain an essentially simple man.”
“Yes, that’s true, isn’t it?” It was such a curious way of putting it that the truth struck me with full force.
“If he urges simplicity on you, or the simple life, rest assured he knows what he’s doing. His advice is not given idly.”
The Noel Coward exhibit at the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences in Beverly Hills runs through April 18, 2010. I have plans to go up on Thursday and see it. Who knows what sort of treasures it holds!
“Star Quality: I don’t know what it is, but I’ve got it,” said Noël Coward in his inimitable style, cigarette in hand and a twinkle in his eye. The Academy celebrates this extraordinary figure with a touring exhibition, following its runs at Ten Chimneys (the Wisconsin home of Coward’s friends Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne), London’s National Theatre, and the Museum of Performance & Design in San Francisco.
For many, Coward is known primarily as a playwright, creator of such classics as Hay Fever, Private Lives, Cavalcade, Design for Living and Blithe Spirit, many of which were adapted for film, or as the composer of such timeless songs as “I’ll See You Again,” “Mad About the Boy” and “Mad Dogs and Englishmen.” “Star Quality” is the first exhibition to show the full extent of his prodigious talents as a director of plays and movies, a stage and film actor, songwriter, cabaret artist, wartime patriot, painter and patron of charitable causes.
With unparalleled access to the Coward Archives, and drawing on public and private collections in Europe and the U.S. as well as the Academy’s own Margaret Herrick Library, the exhibition brings together dozens of rare photographs, drawings, paintings, original manuscripts, letters, sheet music, posters, playbills, set and costume designs, personal memorabilia, audio and video clips, and original costumes including several of the silk dressing gowns that became Coward’s trademark. Coward’s warm and enduring friendships with many of the 20th century’s leading artists and film personalities are documented throughout the exhibition, as are his contributions to the film world through his onscreen appearances and the numerous film adaptations of his stage work.