A solid, comprehensive look at the famous Coward

November 01, 1992|By Roger Dettmer

NOEL COWARD.

Clive Fisher.

St. Martin's.

` 289 pages. $24.95.

Amateur actors somewhere are rehearsing Noel Coward's antique farce, "Hay Fever," even as we speak. A high school director favors "Bittersweet" (1929) for his next senior operetta. Veteran televixens who've lost their prime-time soaps to more hip shows with ZIP-code titles talk of touring in "Private Lives" (1930), prior to Broadway of course, or the West End. And dinner theaters by the gross stage "Blithe Spirit" (1943), even if the ghost thing can't be lit right, or a suitable quartet of actors rounded up.

Of 37 plays by Coward produced between 1922 and 1966, these alone are the survivors as his birth centenary looms, along with cable reruns of three British films he wrote and/or starred in during the '40s. The prewar bowdlerizations of his comedies by various Hollywood studios he collectively disowned, and only near the end of his life did he agree to act in movies made by others -- the lot of them second-rate or worse.

In his heyday between World Wars, this protean entertainer (from the age of 12 on) was a trans-Atlantic matinee idol. His brittle wit was compared by critics -- too generously -- with Sheridan's, Wilde's and even Shaw's. His signature cigarette-holder and silk lounging robe were as copied as the A-shirt Clark Gable wore in "It Happened One Night." All the while, in addition to acting in and directing his own plays, Coward sang, danced, composed music, wrote short stories, articles, a few novels, poetry, three volumes of autobiography and expurgated diaries by the shelf ++ until his death in 1973, a few months after his 73rd birthday.

Several others have written books about him as well, starting in 1933 -- most notably Sheridan Morley in "A Talent to Amuse." Now Clive Fisher weighs in, the best stylist of all, an incisive biographer who considers the whole man and even names lovers. Although famously gay in private theatrical circles, the public Coward was a closet homosexual who pretended on stage and off to be a --ing and epigrammatic cad.

But he didn't receive a knighthood till 1970 because, Mr. Fisher sensibly concludes, one of his early boyfriends was the bisexual Duke of Kent, third son of King George V. Another was the handsome but alcoholic American broker who mismanaged Coward's earnings for many years.

Last and longest (until death) was a white South African singing actor; undetected, he was singled out for rare praise by William Randolph Hearst's longtime hatchet man on the aisle, George Jean Nathan, who chronically detested Coward's work and person.

In one 1948 review, Nathan granted that Coward was "a shrewd and clever artisan." But he decried "his trick of passing off a calculated impertinence for wit by lodging it in the mouths of glossily dressed characters . . . Mr. Coward, when it comes to what our French friends call ton, is as high-toned as a calliope."

Clive Fisher would not, I think, disagree in substance, although his ton makes Nathan's sound as low-down as a heckelphone. If the subject interests you, this is a solid and comprehensive book, despite the Coward estate's refusal to cooperate. If Morley offered more anecdotes, he fudged the truth about his subject, just like a paid publictor, and thereby perpetuated a fulsome fiction.

Mr. Dettmer is a writer living in Annapolis.

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