Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Letters from The Master

Just finished devouring The Letters of Noel Coward, edited by Barry Day; easily the most enjoyable read I've had in years. Not only do we get a life's worth of The Master's private correspondence to friends and colleagues, but in many cases we get letters these extraordinary people wrote to Noel. The result is a literal -- and literary -- treasure trove. What Coward fan could fail to enjoy an inside look at his relationships with Marlene Dietrich, Lunt & Fontanne, Gertrude Lawrence, Clifton Webb, and more? I for one reveled in getting the long-awaited scoop on his infamous feud with Mary Martin, which began when she starred in Coward's 1946 London production of Pacific 1860 and ended in time for the duo to co-star in the landmark 1955 American television special Together With Music.

More than one friend of mine has commented on Coward's frequent use of politically incorrect obscenities in these letters. Frankly, this didn't bother me. These letters were never intended for public reading. Noel used strong language, partly to make his letters more amusing, and partly because it can take strong language to express strong feelings.

I think the real issue for some readers is Noel's affection for "the C Word," the one that rhymes with "runt," "stunt" and "bunt"? He uses it rather freely, but not in a particularly misogynistic way. Yes, on occasion it refers to difficult women (such as Beatrice Lillie) but it is also used to refer to men, situations and places, including in one unlikely instance Mexico City. Of course it is one of the rudest words in the language, one my mother condems. I fully understand why many women find this word unacceptable under any circumstances, but truth be told, I have heard more women use that word than men -- and usually in reference to other women. That may not "justify" Coward's use of it, but then who says he needs justification? A rapier tongue was part of the Coward persona; those who don't like it are welcome to read something less potentially controversial. But if you can stand the vocabulary, this book is a rare joy ride.

Actually, I reveled in seeing fresh examples of Coward's linguistic dexterity. He describes the often troublesome Tallulah Bankhead as a "conceited slut" -- a phrase I have never seen before, and one that fits a frightening number of people (of all sexes) that I've contended with over the decades.

Noel's fans and scholars will delight in The Letters of Noel Coward, but I won't be the least surprised if a sequel eventually appears. We get the Master at his best and worst in this book. My one regret is that no correspondence with his longtime companion Graham Payne is included. Mr. Day explains that certain aspects of Noel's private life should remain private. While I certainly respect that position, I can't help hoping that time will lead to the publication of more of Coward's letters, including the occasional love note.


roundknittles said...

The blog is fun. And I like the beard.

John Kenrick said...

Thanks -- on both counts! The beard has come and gone over the years. This time is looks like it will stay for a while.

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