Life of the “Marvellous Party”

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Letters of Noël CowardThe Letters of Noël Coward
Edited by Barry Day
Knopf. 780 pages, $37.50

 

NOT MANY PEOPLE write real letters now, so those of us who like to read them—for their informal tone, their jokes, their opinions, their gossip—have to go to collections like this one. It’s an omnium-gatherum of hundreds of letters (and a sampling of light verse), written not only by the celebrated playwright, actor, stage producer, film director, songwriter, and singer of the title but also by some of his famous correspondents: G. B. Shaw, T. E. Lawrence, Virginia Woolf, Marlene Dietrich, Greta Garbo, Alfred Lunt and Lynne Fontanne, Somerset Maugham, Michael Redgrave, and Irene Worth. Add to these dozens of letters to and from theatrical or literary figures well known during Coward’s lifespan though now obscure, plus correspondence with his adored mother, his lover Jack Wilson, and other close friends. Add to that a circumstantial haze of news about fellow travelers whose letters are not included—Laurence Olivier, Vivien Leigh, Tallulah Bankhead, Beatrice Lillie (“Lady Peel” to her friends)—plus dozens of photographs, and you have a well-rounded portrait of one of the 20th century’s most discussed gay artists.

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