Noel Coward was one of the 20th Century’s greatest artist’s in every sense of the word. He was also one of Ian Fleming’s closest friends and each played an important role in each other’s lives.
While outwardly different in many ways, they shared much in common and such as a love of Empire, music, art, a sense of humour, Jamaican weather and even spying.
While he avoids any mention of SIS in his memoirs, Coward worked for the SIS during the war and was put into ‘D’ section (the dirty tricks department); Guy Burgess was already there, and Kim Philby was soon to join. It wasn’t Coward’s cup of tea, and he moved to the Political Warfare Executive to work on black propaganda.
Mad Dogs and Englishmen
As one of Fleming’s closest friends and sometime proofreader, he was asked to be a witness at the marriage of Ian and Ann in Jamaica in 1952. However, it was an uneasy triangle and it was Fleming’s marriage to his aristocratic wife Ann that provided the central theme for his play ‘Volcano’.
“Graham Payn, who was Coward’s lover, sent it to me. I looked at this yellowing script typed on old imperial foolscap and thought this is a very odd piece of writing. Then I read it more and thought, “Mmmm… this is very good.”
Volcano is about the fag end of British colonialism and the massive insecurity of these people who spend the whole play talking about fidelity, love and lust. When I read it now I don’t see anything particularly upsetting about it. Those sex figures, like Guy in the play, when they walk into a room, everyone turns to watch them. That’s apparently what Fleming was like. He had an incredible aura. The whole play dances around him.
Volcano isn’t Coward’s greatest play by any means but I do think it says a great deal about him at a particular moment in his life.
Coward, of course, fancied Fleming like mad. Coward himself never admitted to being homosexual — he always said there were still one or two widows left in Worthing who didn’t know. Binkie never admitted to his sexuality.
He had this very close relationship with Lord Reith and that community and they all saw themselves as inviolable. Nobody today gives a fart about anyone’s sexuality — it’s the lying people don’t like. But gay men back then tended to get married and have children, and then spent a lot of time, miserably, in dingy clubs in the arse end of Ebury Street. That’s what it was like.”
Trouble in Paradise
Coward also stood as godfather to their son, Caspar. Ann wrote to Cecil Beaton: “I dare hardly admit it but Noël is a godfather, an act of treachery on my part as we thought he would be offended if not asked as he considers himself responsible for the whole thing.
Ann felt that Coward “should be used as a cabaret and not as a guest, he does not understand the give-and-take of talk and the deserts of pomposity between the oases of wit are too vast.”
Coward felt “Annie is such a darling when she is alone with Ian but when surrounded by her own set she changes completely and becomes shrill and strident. I am really surprised that Ian doesn’t sock her in the chops and tell her to shut up.”
Ann even suspected Coward of coveting her husband sexually. In 1961, when Fleming was confined to bed with a high fever at Goldeneye, their Jamaican home, she told Evelyn Waugh: “Noël has always found T-B (Thunderball) fearfully attractive and jumped at the opportunity to handle him…T-B’s language was something horrible. He blamed me for exposing him to homosexual approaches”.
Coward observed: “Their connubial situation is rocky. Annie hates Jamaica and wants him to sell Goldeneye. He loves Jamaica and doesn’t want to. My opinion is that although he is still fond of Annie, the physical side of it, in him, has worn away.”
On the long beach of St. Margaret’s Bay there were then only four houses and White Cliffs were the closest to the sea. Coward wanted to purchase them all in order to secure his privacy, but in the post-war days of 1945 there was a housing shortage in South East England and thus Coward was forbidden to purchase more than his one house. To ensure Coward’s privacy, two of the other houses were bought by Coward’s friends, novelist Eric Ambler and Cole Lesley, and the third by Coward’s mother and Auntie Vida.
Ian Fleming purchased White Cliffs from Noel Coward in 1951 and he lived there until 1957. He could play gold nearby at Royal St. Georges.
Kent would be the setting for the 1955 Bond novel Moonraker, which was the only Bond novel to take place solely in Britain and Fleming enjoyed using his beloved Dover as a location. The villain of the novel, Hugo Drax, has built his Moonraker rocket just outside of Dover, near the seaside town of Deal. Coward considered Moonraker, the third of Fleming’s Bond sagas, “the best he has done yet… I would so love him to triumph over the sneers of Annie’s intellectual friends”.
Later on upon reading the novel Dr. No in 1958 , Coward sent a letter to Fleming:
“This is just to inform you that I have read Dr No from cover to cover and thoroughly enjoyed every moment. But as the gentleman in Oklahoma! sings about Kansas City: “You’ve gone about as fur as you ken go.” I am willing to accept the centipede, the tarantulas, the land crabs, the giant squid. I am even willing to forgive your reckless use of invented verbs—“I inch, Thou inch, He snakes, I snake, We palp, They palp, etc. But what I will neither accept nor forgive is the highly inaccurate statement that when it is 11am in Jamaica, it is 6am in dear old England.
This, dear boy, not to put too fine a point on it, is a fucking lie. When it is 11am in Jamaica, it is 4pm in dear old England and it is carelessness of this kind that makes my eyes steel slits of blue. I was also slightly shocked by the lascivious announcement that Honeychile’s bottom was like a boy’s! I know that we are all becoming progressively more broadminded nowadays, but really old chap, what could you have been thinking of?”
He was famously offered the part of Dr. No in the eponymous film and remarked, “No, no, no!” Nevertheless, he still enjoyed being around production, naturally taking a shine to Sean Connery.
Coward, disillusioned with Jamaica, died from a heart attack at Firefly on March 26, 1973, at the age of 73. Lord Mountbatten described Coward as 14 men in one.