Ivy St Helier, Noël Coward and Gertrude Lawrence at 17 Gerald Road in Belgravia c.1935
‘Work hard, do the best you can, don’t ever lose faith in yourself and take no notice of what other people say about you,’ advised the ever-sparkling Noël Coward.
Coward’s self-reliance, work ethic and talent allowed him to rise from humble origins in Teddington, Middlesex – the son of a piano salesman – to become the toast of Society, the ‘Master’ of entertainment and a long-term Belgravia resident.
He began acting at 12, taught himself several languages and turned into a fascinating balance of opposites: a sensual man promoting a chic Bohemian lifestyle (‘why do I drink Champagne for breakfast? – doesn’t everyone?’), and yet a man who worked 12-hour days. He claimed that work was ‘much more fun than fun’, but his hard work – along with the crucial ingredient he identified as ‘staying power’ – rewarded him handsomely.
Lord Mountbatten (another Belgravia resident) said on the occasion of Coward’s 70th birthday in 1970, ‘There are probably greater painters than Noël, greater novelists than Noël, greater librettists, greater composers of music, greater singers, greater dancers, greater comedians, greater tragedians, greater stage producers, greater stage directors, greater cabaret artists, greater TV stars – and so on. If there are, they are fourteen different people. Only one man combined all fourteen different talents – The Master.’
Coward found success in the Roaring ’20s with plays such as The Vortex, Easy Virtue and Hay Fever. By the age of 30, he became one of the highest paid figures in entertainment. He’d lived at an address in Belgravia’s Ebury Street, where his mother took in lodgers, but in 1930 he moved to a suitably stylish cream-stuccoed house in tranquil Gerald Road. It remained his home until 1956.
He felt strongly that his private life should remain private (homosexuality was illegal until 1967), but he didn’t deny himself pleasures, as is revealed by a remarkable photo album sold at auction in December 2020. These images show him and various male friends in Kent and in the Bahamas, some in swimwear, during the 1920s and ’30s.
At that time, the photos would have represented a considerable personal and legal risk to him had they fallen into the wrong hands – but that was unlikely to happen. The photos belonged to Joyce Carey, one of his many friends and confidantes from the screen. She was the actress perhaps best known for playing station café manageress Myrtle Bagot in Brief Encounter, for which Coward wrote the screenplay.
Carey lived in Belgravia’s Chesham Street, in a house that Coward affectionately nicknamed the ‘The Baby Grand’. She wasn’t the only notable local to form part of his social circle. In the 1930s, Ian Fleming lived 500 metres away from Coward at 22b Ebury Street. They would become neighbours of sorts again in Jamaica, where Coward died in 1973 – shortly after being knighted in 1970.
Coward’s innate optimism would have equipped him well for the Coronavirus lockdown. Speaking of the London air raids during the Second World War, he said, ‘When the warning sounds, I gather up some pillows, a pack of cards and a bottle of gin, tuck myself beneath the stairs and do very nicely with the consolations of a dink and solitaire until “all clear” sounds.’ The capital’s wartime spirit inspired his famously jaunty song London Pride.
His plays are constantly being re-run, his songs re-sung. A film reinterpretation of his ghostly domestic comedy, Blithe Spirit, starring Judi Dench and Dan Stevens, was released in January 2021. Meanwhile a new exhibition, Noël Coward: Art & Style, will open at the Guildhall Art Gallery in the City of London as soon as Coronavirus restrictions allow. It will feature personal items from the Coward Archive, for example a black and white silk foulard dressing gown with a tasselled belt, which Coward acquired in the 1950s. Today, bespoke dressing gowns are available from Tailor Made London in Eccleston Place – just around the corner from Gerald Road.
Standing six-foot-one-inch tall, Coward was always immaculately turned out, even at home. He is remembered for his lacquered suavity and good humour – ‘Wit ought to be a glorious treat like caviar,’ he once said with those clipped tones; ‘never spread about like marmalade.’ Exceptionally cosmopolitan and well-travelled for his day, he liked nothing better than retiring to bed early with ‘something eggy on a tray’.
‘Good night my darlings,’ were his last words; ‘I’ll see you tomorrow.’ And in the theatrically stuccoed streets of Belgravia, half-a-century later, his spirit does live on.
Written by Daniel Pembrey