Born on the outskirts of London in 1899, Coward was the second son of Arthur, a piano salesman, and Violet, daughter of a naval captain. His older brother died the year before he was born. Despite the fact the family often struggled for money, Coward’s interest in performing was indulged from an early age: by seven he was regularly appearing in amateur productions, and attended the Chapel Royal Choir School, although otherwise his education was sparse and largely informal.
His mother was his biggest supporter, enrolling him in a dance academy after Choir School. By twelve, Coward had his first professional engagement in the children’s play, The Goldfish. From there, Coward secured influential contacts in the theatrical world who ensured he was never without work, and he joined the circuit with a number of notably child actors of the day.
At fourteen he caught the attention of the painter Philip Streatfeild, who as a noted society figure introduced Coward to a variety of his upper class friends. Coward became Streatfeild’s protege and probable lover, and the two were often seen together until Streatfeild’s death from TB the following year. After Streatfeild died, his friend and society lady Mrs. Astley Cooper took Coward under her wing and continued his association with the class of people he would eventually come to represent.
Through the First World War, Coward toured with a number of theatre productions. He wasn’t called up for service until 1918, when he was conscripted to the Artists Rifles; however he was found to have a tubercular deficiency and was discharged on grounds of ill health after nine months, having never seen active service. That year he made his first appearance on film (an uncredited role in Hearts of the World), and he began selling short stories to magazines to help supplement his father’s income and support the family. He also began to write plays: the first from this period, The Rat Trap, was produced at the Everyman Theatre in 1926.
In the meantime, Coward continued to write other plays, the first of which to be produced was I’ll Leave it to You, in which Coward also starred in 1920. After an introductory run in Manchester, it moved to London and became his West End debut as a writer before moving to America.
In 1921 Coward took a trip to the States, where his work was met with little enthusiasm, but he was inspired by the Broadway productions, the style of which heavily influenced his subsequent work. Upon his return to London, his new plays met with critical and commercial success.
Coward’s big break came in 1924 with The Vortex, a play about a nymphomaniac socialite and her cocaine-addicted son. Its depiction of sex and drugs among the upper classes was shocking enough to secure his success, although he had to raise the money to produce the play himself. During its running Coward met Jack Wilson, an American who was to become his business manager and lover. The relationship was not a healthy one — Wilson was a drunk who used his knowledge of Coward’s finances to steal from him — but Coward was young and in love and turned a blind eye to Wilson’s faults.
1925 saw the opening of the first of Coward’s plays to have true longevity: Hay Fever was described by The Times as “dazzling achievement; like The Importance of Being Earnest, it is pure comedy with no mission but to delight, and it depends purely on the interplay of characters, not on elaborate comic machinery.” By June of that year, Coward had four plays running consecutively in the West End, and was still writing more as well as acting in others.
The following year, Coward’s hectic schedule caught up with him, and he collapsed on stage. He travelled to Hawaii for a long recuperation before returning to London and theatre life. A flurry of his plays were produced through the latter half of the 1920s, with only one failure: Sirocco, which starred Ivor Novello at opening. It was so disliked the theatregoers spat at Coward as he left the theatre after the show, and he later confessed to have considered leaving England as a result of the harsh criticism he received, “but this seemed too craven a move, and also too gratifying to my enemies”.
By 1929, Coward was one of the world’s most successful writers, with an annual income of around £50,000 (around £3million / $4.5mil in today’s money). Through the Great Depression, Coward’s success continued to rise. The 1933 film adaptation of his play Cavalcade won an Academy Award for Best Picture, and Coward wrote and acted in plays performed on both sides of the Atlantic. During the same period, Coward also brokered a deal with His Master’s Voice (HMV) to record the songs from his musical productions.
When war was declared against Germany in 1939, Coward volunteered for official war work. He was first stationed as head of the British propaganda office in Paris (he said of this, “if the policy of His Majesty’s Government is to bore the Germans to death I don’t think we have time”), and afterwards moved to Intelligence, where the Secret Service put his celebrity status to use by sending him to America in order to sway public opinion towards joining the war effort. Coward was disheartened to see himself lambasted in the British press for holidaying abroad during a time of national crisis, when he was unable to set the record straight on why he was there. Nonetheless, some noticed and appreciated his efforts. George VI wished to confer a knighthood upon him in 1942, but was dissuaded by Winston Churchill, who didn’t want to upset a public unhappy with Coward’s flamboyant image and lifestyle.
Churchill moved Coward out of Intelligence, telling him personally that he would be of more use entertaining the troops — “Go and sing to them when the guns are firing – that’s your job!” Coward followed his advice and toured extensively through Europe, Africa, Asia, and America, and wrote and recorded a number of patriotic songs which proved very popular. In 1941 Coward’s London house was damaged by a bomb during the Blitz and he took up temporary residence at the Savoy. During his time there he entertained guests during air raids by putting on impromptu cabaret shows.
During the war, Coward also wrote, starred in, composed, and co-produced a naval drama, In Which We Serve, which was awarded an honourary certificate of merit at the 1943 Academy Awards. Still, Coward’s career wasn’t without scandal. In his Middle East Diary Coward published a number of critical statements about the American troops which many in their homeland found offensive. After protests from The New York Times and Washington Post, the Foreign Office warned Coward not to visit America. He didn’t return again until after the war.
Post-war, Coward continued to write, act in, and produce plays, but with never the same success as in the inter-war years. Coward left Britain for tax reasons in the middle of the decade, purchasing homes in Bermuda, Jamaica, and Switzerland, for which he was resoundingly criticised by the British press. In 1955 Coward moved a cabaret act in which he’d starred in London and Paris to Las Vegas, where it met with great success. The act was recorded live and released on record, and subsequently CBS commissioned him to write and direct a series of short television plays, although they were met with only middling viewing figures. Through the 1960s, Coward’s forte remained the theatre.
By the end of the decade, Coward’s health was failing and after he began to struggle with memory loss he gave up acting for good. He was finally knighted in 1969, and elected as a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, and received a Tony Lifetime Achievement Award. Coward died at his home in Jamaica in 1973, and was buried on the island. The Poet Laureate John Betjeman wrote and delivered a poem in Coward’s honour at a memorial service in London, and in 1984 a commemorative stone was unveiled at Poet’s Corner, Westminster Abbey, by the Queen Mother.
Thanked by Coward’s partner, Graham Payn, for attending, the Queen Mother replied, “I came because he was my friend.” Coward and Payn had been together since the mid-1940s.