March 13, 2012 / 12:15 AM / 8 years ago

Noel Coward: playwright, performer, spy

NEW YORK (Reuters) - For many, the name Noel Coward conjures the image a smoking jacket-clad bon vivant, tickling the ivories and tossing off bons mots between sips of a cocktail.

Actor Noel Coward is shown in this 1950s photograph, as he surveys the view over the Spanish Main, once a lookout spot for pirate Henry Morgan, which would become the site of Coward’s second Jamaican home and eventually his final resting place in this photograph released to Reuters March 12, 2012. REUTERS/Cole Lesley/Courtesy of Noel Coward Estate/Handout

But a new exhibit that opened on Monday at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center takes a comprehensive look at the many, sometimes lesser-known lives of Coward the celebrated playwright. He was, for instance, a spy.

“Star Quality: The World of Noel Coward” offers a wealth of his memorabilia and artifacts in an exhibit that is a primer in 20th-Century arts and letters, as well as style and fame.

Coward, a composer and performer who wrote stage and film classics like “Private Lives,” “Brief Encounter” and time-honored standards such as “Mad About the Boy” and “Mad Dogs and Englishmen,” was equally known as the personification of erudite sophistication — a penthouse-dwelling raconteur.

But the show, which is billed as the most comprehensive Coward exhibit ever assembled and which runs through August 18, also offers glimpses of Coward the artist, Coward the boy and even Coward, the World War Two spy.

“His history goes so far beyond the drawing room.” said curator Brad Rosenstein. “He was a painter, he was a spy, and he was a man who maintained incredible friendships over decades.”

“All kinds of new material has surfaced from his homes in Switzerland and Jamaica in just the last year,” he noted, pointing to a color slideshow of images from the homes.

“You think of his world as being a black-and-white world,” the curator reflected.

The multi-media show, an expansion of earlier Coward exhibits in London and Los Angeles, also features personal items from paint brushes to hairbrushes, clothing — including those trademark silk dressing gowns — and correspondence with the likes of everyone from Vivien Leigh and Laurence Olivier to Florenz Ziegfeld, Harold Pinter and Edward Albee.

Coward’s guestbooks read like a “who’s who” of 20th-century achievement, ranging from Charlie Chaplin and Winston Churchill to the very private Greta Garbo, who signed only under duress.

One display holds a collection of cigarette cases, most of them engraved from friends ranging from Elsa Maxwell to Elaine Stritch, the latter having graced the exhibit on Sunday night.

Coward’s baby book is on display, alongside inscribed suspenders given to him by his frequent co-star, muse and great friend, Gertrude Lawrence.

The show’s 11 sections reflect Coward’s many worlds, both in the spotlight and behind the scenes: “the boy actor,” “the daring playwright,” “the music man,” “the reinvented star,” “the Broadway baby,” “the traveling man.”

IN THE LIMELIGHT

Coward was smitten with the limelight at an early age, 11, when he uttered his first line on-stage: “Hello, darling,” a remark that introduced his image for the next seven decades.

Around the same time he was an extra in a D.W. Griffith film that starred Lillian Gish, who became a friend to his dying day.

Original notebooks show costume designs Coward created when he was just 15. Later, telegrams from Ziegfeld proclaim: “the theater cannot die as long as I have a genius like you.”

As to his covert wartime activities, Coward was dispatched to the United States before it entered the war to gauge local sentiment, reporting to British Security Coordination chief William Stephenson about what he’d seen and heard. Later in life Coward reflected that he could have made a career in espionage, “except my life’s been full enough of intrigue as it is.”

Audio files play bits from “Private Lives” and Coward’s 70th birthday tribute in 1969, while film clips shot by Coward provide rare glimpses of early stage pieces. Coward’s later productions remain popular today, including the ménage-a-trois comedy “Design for Living,” “Blithe Spirit” and “Hay Fever,” the latter playing to great acclaim in a current West End revival.

“Coward’s plays have survived because there’s so much of the truth, so much of himself in them,” Rosenstein noted.

Dozens of photographs are displayed, including many from Coward’s performances in idiosyncratic films such as “Bunny Lake is Missing” and the Elizabeth Taylor Richard Burton bomb, “Boom!” The exhibit also features an Oscar from Coward’s “Calvacade,” which won best picture in 1933, as well as the special Tony award he won in 1970. He was knighted in 1969.

Among the more poignant items is a landscape of the Jamaican countryside painted by Coward. “Paintings became very important to him later in life,” Rosenstein said, adding that his ideas for plays often came to fruition while he was painting.

Slideshow (2 Images)

“Jamaica,” where Coward entertained his world-class friends, “was a place where he could let his guard down.”

The landscape is unfinished. Coward was working on it on it on the day in 1973 when he died of heart failure at age 73.

The exhibition is just one component of a citywide festival celebrating Coward, including screenings, readings, performances and discussions. Details can be found at www.noelcowardinnewyork.com.

Reporting by Chris Michaud; Editing by Bob Tourtellotte

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