Noel Coward biography: a gift of understatement

July 28, 1996|By Elizabeth Teachout | Elizabeth Teachout,Special to the Sun

"Noel Coward: A Biography," by Philip Hoare. Simon & Schuster, 544 pages, $30.

"A Talent to Amuse" is the epitaph inscribed on Noel Coward's memorial stone in Westminster Abbey. It's a line from one of Coward's songs, "If Love Were All," and it sums up his claim to fame: He was the most amusing man of his generation.

He wrote, directed and starred in such witty plays as "Private Lives" and "Hay Fever," which made him the world's highest-paid author by the end of 1931; his songs quickly became mainstays of the cabaret repertoire. As for Coward the performer, he was a journalist's dream, a largely uneducated aesthete turned dapper, ironic icon who reinvented himself as the times required - including a well-paid stint as headliner in the casinos of Las Vegas.

Add to this a heady mixture of sexual shenanigans and famous friends from circles theatrical, political and literary, and Philip Hoare's "Noel Coward," the first full-length account of Coward's life by someone not personally associated with him, could easily have been one of those books that leaves no zipper unzipped. Instead, Hoare has produced a book worthy of its subject: a comprehensive, scholarly biography which is also one hell of a good read.

Hoare's great gift is that of understatement. He is self-assured enough to let the well-chosen quote stand without comment, and packs his book with minute detail which speaks volumes about the man, his works and his era. (The composer of such sophisticated songs as "Mad Dogs and Englishmen" and "I'll See You Again," for instance, turns out to have been a self-taught pianist capable of playing only in three keys.)

Typical supporting characters include the polyglot lesbian neighbor whose daughter dies from a heroin dose, or the footnoted princess who, looking for cocaine, inadvertently sniffs a photographer's cremated wife.

Those readers who pick up "Noel Coward" seeking celebrity dirt will not come away disappointed. Laurence Olivier can be found in search of marijuana; Marlene Dietrich is enlisted to monitor Coward's "butchness." But even the most lurid revelations (and there are plenty of them) are made with elegance and restraint.

Indeed, one of the strongest things about this book is Hoare's judicious discussion of Coward's homosexuality. The cliches of a gay boyhood are all here - the groping clergyman, the barbaric boarding school, the cloying maternal relationship - but are set forth straightforwardly and sympathetically, without the endless amateur psychologizing customary in biographies of this kind.

Instead, Hoare shows us a dignified, self-accepting man who refused to hide behind the made-for-media pseudo-heterosexual romantic cover stories so common in Coward's time (and ours), but who at the same time believed in keeping his bedroom door firmly closed to the public.

"I have always been of the opinion that a large group of queer men was unattractive. On Fire Island, it is more than unattractive, it's macabre, sinister, irritating and somehow tragic." To some this protestation seemed self-hating: Coward as a homosexual unable to come to terms with his sexuality, and disliking its flagrant display in others. Noel would argue that it was all "a matter of taste." Philip Hoare's biography is written with the same good taste - which is part of what makes it so superbly readable.

Elizabeth Teachout, a pianist, opera coach and student of Martin Katz, has played for the Metropolitan Opera's Young Artists Program and Lincoln Center's New Directors Workshop.

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