Monday, March 19, 2012

Star Quality: The World of Noël Coward

If you miss the exhibit on Noël Coward at the New York Public Library at Lincoln Center that just opened on March 12th and runs until August 18th, you are a fool. Do you hear me? A complete and utter fool.

I stopped in at the library at Lincoln Center to do some writing and was ambushed by Coward for more than an hour. I knew this exhibition was going to be mounted the last time I was there, but somehow forgot about it until I reentered the building. Writing be damned. I had to see it. So I did. It was an hour spent in theatre heaven. The kind of heaven where everyone is smartly dressed, engaging in witty conversation and singing lyrics that dazzle. That's the thing really: Coward was all about style and urbane glamour.

This exhibit has everything I love about a great show; ample information, wonderful visuals and music. Yes. Music. Coward's music is playing in the background the whole time, which made me feel that I should have a cigarette in one hand and a martini in another. I wanted to throw my head back and start singing but did manage to restrained myself. (I did hum along however.) 

The exhibit cannily divides Coward's life into ten rich yet digestible and delectable bites: The Boy Actor, The Revue-er, The Renaissance Man, The Blithe Celebrity, The Dear Friend, The Broadway Baby, The Movie Maker, The Rejected Icon, The Reinvented Star and The Master. 

Coward in the Twenties. I love his outfit: high waisted pants (can we bring those back please), wide belt, tapered cotton pants, white bucks and full shirt.

Coward with Gertrude Lawrence.

With Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne for whom he wrote the provocative play Design for Living

Not lost on me in this photo of the set is the Chinoiserie chest used as side table amidst the deco-ish interior. (Apologies for refection on the glass which was difficult to work around.) 

The movie version, which, according to Coward, used all of three lines from the play. 

Coward's London living room. Notice the raised platform with two pianos. 

Graham Payne, Coward's longtime partner. Coward was never publicly open about his sexuality during his lifetime. This exhibit, however, presents Coward's relationships with men without apology, three being highlighted. (Thank you curator Brad Rosenstein.)

Coward with the indomitable Mae West and Cary Grant. He was friends with everyone, included the Queen Mother and Lawrence of Arabia. The exhibit fairly gushes with photos and includes Coward's piano, original music and and an array of interesting items, none the least of which is Oscar.

Dame Maggie Smith, who appeared in Coward's play Hay Fever. The autographed photo credits Coward with teaching Smith how to play comedy.

Coward's polyester and silk chocolate brown tuxedo. Yes. Polyester, which rather surprised me. But then, it was a new fabric with a subtle shine, perfect for a sartorially inclined gentleman.

Called 'The Master' for most of his life, Coward sang, acted, directed and composed with consummate skill, giving life to his deamon on the stage when he was eleven. We should all grow our own wings and fly. 

See the NYPL's promo here and don't miss the show! 


  1. We'll visit this exhibit in May when we are back in the city. I just finished
    William Shawcross' biography of Queen Elizabeth and the friendship she had with Coward is mentioned in that. Also mentioned at length is her friendship with Ted Hughes, but that is altogether another conversation.

  2. So fun to see the old photo of Dame Maggie Smith. Thanks for the post.

  3. oh dear god. why do i have to live
    in the hinterlands?
    nobody wrote dialogue like noel coward.
    the wit. the grace. the elegance.
    have you noticed... even in the few fine
    movies of today... nobody "talks."
    and nobody has a "face" anymore. or a "voice."
    they all sound alike. with very few exceptions.
    i loved his era. and he could do it all.

  4. Wonderful. I've been to the exhibit and to one of the 'Events'. "Coward & Co." at the Drama Bookshop which I thoroughly enjoyed. They are supposed to be doing "A Song At Twilight" tomorrow, but I can't find it scheduled anywhere. Looking for it I wondered onto your blog. Great photos.
    Thank you.

    1. Thanks for your comment Jim. I've been back twice now, and plan on going again. It's a wonderful exhibit, and everyone under 40 should set it! Coward needs to be rediscovered. Regards - Daniel


I welcome your comments.