Today in Literary History – December 16, 1899 – Noel Coward is born

Sir Noel Coward was born on December 16, 1899. He was a playwright, composer and actor famous for his wit and elegance.

In 1969, in a feature celebrating Coward’s 70th birthday, Time magazine declared that “Coward’s greatest single gift has not been writing or composing, not acting or directing, but projecting a sense of personal style, a combination of cheek and chic, pose and poise.”

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He was a prolific playwright who wrote many hits that are still staged frequently today — Hay Fever, Private Lives, Design for Living, Present Laughter and Blithe Spirits among them.

He also wrote many comic songs, often with tongue-twisting lyrics, that he sang in his cabaret shows, such as “Mad Dogs and Englishmen” (see below), “London Pride” and “I Went to a Marvellous Party.”

Coward cultivated his public image (what we would today call his “brand”) very carefully. He often appeared on stage in a silk dressing gown and a cigarette in a long holder. He also popularized a craze for colourful turtleneck sweaters.

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Coward cultivated an upper class persona, setting most of his plays in that world and mixing with posh and aristocratic friends and admirers in real life. In fact he came from a relatively modest background.

His mother was convinced of his talent from his earliest years and enrolled him in dancing school, from which he went on to be a child actor. He fell completely in love with the theatre where his taste for flamboyance and his sexual attraction to older men (and his attractiveness to them) could be rewarded.

When he died in 1973 the Poet Laureate, John Betjeman, wrote a verse in his honour and in 1984 the Queen Mother dedicated a memorial to him at Poets’ Corner in Westminster Abbey.

Here’s Coward singing “Mad Dogs and Englishmen”:

 

 

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