I won’t have to prowl for wit or sophistication in London or Paris cafes or country houses this summer. I’ll find insouciance, urbanity and sophistication in iconic gay playwright Noel Coward’s comic masterpiece “Private Lives” – now playing at the Shakespeare Theatre Company in Washington, D.C.
Few have delighted so many as Coward, a self-confessed “royal snob,” whose many bon mots include, “I love criticism just as long as it’s unqualified praise” and “Success took me to her bosom like a boa constrictor.” Yet, it’s little known that Coward, along with being an actor, lyricist, diarist, cabaret singer and writer, was a spy for the United Kingdom during World War II.
Today, serving as a spy for a war effort seems to many of us, at best creepy, or, worse, deplorable. Though we supported our troops, some questioned the Iraq war and worry now about being drawn again into conflict in that country.
But, World War II was different. Looking back, it’s hard to imagine how bad things would have been if the United States, the U.K. and other allies had stayed out of the Second World War or if Hitler had won the war. Before the war, though, isolationism and appeasement filled the air. “The pre-war past died,” Coward said after Neville Chamberlain signed the Munich agreement, a so-called “non-aggression pact” with Hitler, on Sept. 29, 1938.
“We have nothing to worry about but the destruction of civilization,” Coward wrote then with foreboding irony to the gay humorist and writer Alexander Woollcott.”
“Paris is beautifully ‘war gay,’” Coward wrote to Gladys Calthrop in the tense days before France fell to the Germans. “Nobody ever dresses and everybody collects at Maxim’s.’”
Coward became part of a group of celebrities who worked with the U.K. government. Throughout the war, Coward traveled the world as a spy – reporting what he’d learned to the U.K. foreign office, Winston Churchill and Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt. Yet, because the United Kingdom’s Official Secrets Act kept information about intelligence activities during World War II classified for decades after the war, “it was only in 1973, in the month before his death [at age 73] that Noel felt able to give any real account of his wartime activities [to an interviewer],” writes Barry Day, editor of “The Letters of Noel Coward.” “As his interviewer remarked afterward, ‘It was as though he felt the need to get it on the record.’”
Though known as a celebrity, and not as a politician or spy, the Germans put Coward, along with other notable writers and celebs, on a “blacklist” of people who would be killed if the Nazis had won World War II. “My dear, the people we should have been seen dead with,” the writer Rebecca West, who was also on the list, telegraphed to Coward after the war.
Few, if any, Coward knew, would suspect him of being a spy. Hearing him sing of “Mad Dogs and Englishmen” or enjoying his light-hearted comedy “Blithe Spirit,” who would have suspected that he, working undercover, was engaged in espionage? “My disguise would be my own reputation as a bit of an idiot — a merry playboy,” Coward wrote.
Hiding under the cover of fame and wit came naturally to him. As Day notes, Coward was one of the first to be “famous for being famous.”
“The most I’ve had is just a talent to amuse,” humble-bragged Coward, known as the Master, for his many varied talents.
Secrecy was second nature to him. Coming of age before the modern gay rights movement when being queer was illegal in the U.K., Coward wasn’t open about his sexuality. Coward’s sexual life, West said, was “reticent but untainted by pretence.”
Now, that the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” era has ended, let’s celebrate not only Coward’s legendary genius, but his admirable wartime service to his country.
Kathi Wolfe, a writer and poet, is a regular contributor to the Blade.