Men About TownAl Hirschfeld Draws Noël Coward

In Al Hirschfeld’s house on East 95th Street on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, a photograph of Noël Coward was prominently displayed in the living room. In the Noël Coward Room in Red Lion Square in London, a drawing of Noël Coward by Al Hirschfeld is prominently displayed as part of the rich repository of materials available for study.

These two beloved giants of the theater – Al Hirschfeld and Noël Coward – born four years apart, have made massive contributions that have enriched the performing arts and have left a legacy that endures for all time. Hirschfeld has a Broadway theater named in his honor, Coward has a West End theater named for him.

Nearly 40 of Al Hirschfeld’s drawings focus on Noël Coward’s life and work. In conjunction with Coward 125, an observance of Coward’s 125th birthday, the Al Hirschfeld Foundation is presenting this exhibition of selections of Hirschfeld’s extensive artwork focusing on Noël Coward and his plays, ranging from Private Lives (1931) through Waiting in the Wings (1999). Curated by Alan Pally, the exhibition honors the work of an American artist who was an icon of New York theater and a British artist who loved New York and whose work in the fields of theater, music, film, and literature earned him the title of “The Master.”

Of his first visit to New York in 1921, Noël wrote: “I remembered the beauty of New York at night, viewed not from a smart penthouse on Park Avenue, but from a crowded seat in Washington Square. And it seemed, in spite of its hardness, and irritating, noisy efficiency, a great and exciting place.”

Graham Payn, Coward’s partner, wrote in 1999: “Noël once wrote a song called “I Like America,” but I can tell you he loved New York, ever since his first visit as a poverty-stricken young writer in 1921. Easy VirtueDesign for LivingSail AwayThe Girl Who Came to Supper … many of Noël’s most fondly remembered shows were born on Broadway. And his career as a TV performer began in New York as well. Yes, Noël had every reason to love New York. And I know it would please him that the city still loves him.”

Note: Quotes attributed to Noël Coward are primarily taken from:
Present Indicative by Noël Coward
Future Indicative by Noël Coward
The Letters of Noël Coward, Barry Day, editor
The Noël Coward Diaries, Graham Payn and Sheridan Morley, editors

Alan Pally has served as a Trustee of the Noël Coward Foundation and is currently a member of the Foundation’s Grants Committee. He was for many years the producer of public programs at The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center, where he produced hundreds of public programs in the fields of theater, dance, music, and film, as well as the Library's first Noël Coward programs. Alan produced the first live audio webcast of an NYPL public program (Betty Comden and Adolph Green) and the first live video webcast (Hal Prince). Alan has served as Editor of Broadside, the quarterly newsletter of the Theatre Library Association and as a member of the Public Relations Committee of the International Council of Museums. In addition to his work for the Noël Coward Foundation, Alan currently serves as Vice President on the Board of Directors of HB Studio and the HB Playwrights Foundation.

PRIVATE LIVESReproduction of a newspaper clipping of ink on board drawing, 1931

(L to R) Noël Coward, Gertrude Lawrence, Laurence Olivier, Jill Esmond

“Sometimes in Private Lives I would look across the stage at Gertie and she would simply take my breath away.”        -- Noël Coward

When Private Lives opened in London in 1930, Tatler’s critic wondered "Was ever a premiere so crashingly soigné? Is all this sophisticated, feckless, irresponsible flippancy the stuff that will endure? Will Coward bear revival?" Only the New Statesman’s critic recognized the play’s dark side: “It’s not the least of Coward’s achievements that he has disguised the grimness of his play and that his conception of love is really desolating.”

On Broadway alone, there have been seven revivals of Private Lives, starring such luminaries as Tallulah Bankhead, Maggie Smith, John Standing, Tammy Grimes, Brian Bedford, Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton, Joan Collins, Lindsay Duncan, Alan Rickman, and Kim Cattrall. But the original, which graced the Times Square Theatre in 1931, featured “The Master” himself, in the play he wrote for himself and Gertrude Lawrence. Laurence Olivier and his wife, Jill Esmond, were also in the cast.

The idea for Private Lives came to Noël in Tokyo during an extended trip to the Far East in 1929: “The moment I switched out the lights, Gertie appeared in a white Molyneaux dress on a terrace in the South of France and refused to go again until 4 a.m., by which time Private Lives, title and all, constructed itself. In 1923 the play would have been written and typed within a few days of my thinking of it, but in 1929 I had learned the wisdom of not welcoming a new idea too ardently, so I forced it into the back of my mind, trusting to its own integrity to emerge later on, when it had become sufficiently set and matured.” A few weeks later, in Shanghai, Noël was laid low with a bout of influenza: “The ensuing convalescence was productive, for I utilized it by writing Private Lives.”

The two leads – Elyot and Amanda – were obviously to be played by Noël and Gertie. Noël offered the subordinate part of Victor to a young actor in need of a break: Laurence Olivier. Olivier accepted the part and was exhilarated by the experience: “I experienced for the first time the incredible sense of being in a West End smash success – the thronged stage door and the parties every night.” On Broadway, the play was an even greater success.

In his unfavorable review of the 1975 production directed by John Gielgud and starring Maggie Smith and John Standing, John Simon, who counts Private Lives among his favorite plays, wrote: “If Noël Coward’s Private Lives is cast properly, the rest will take care of itself. Unfortunately, the two performers of genius who, in a sense, were the play – Gertrude Lawrence and Noël Coward – are no more. What they did with it, even for someone who merely saw the photographs and heard recorded excerpts, was such perfection that no one else can quite replace it, any more.” Simon’s review of the 2002 production with Lindsay Duncan and Alan Rickman was more positive: “This Private Lives is a public benefaction: two hours that can irradiate a lifetime.”

Despite the number and variety of performances of Private Lives across the decades, the legacy of the play will forever be entwined with the relationship of Noël and Gertie. When Gertie died in 1952, Noël wrote “No one I have ever known, however brilliant and however gifted, has contributed quite what she contributed to my work. Her quality was, to me, unique and her magic imperishable.”

PRIVATE LIVESInk on board, 1983

It would have been impossible, in 1983, for a production of Private Lives starring Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton not to reflect the off-stage drama of Liz and Dick. One of Taylor’s biographers wrote that the director, Milton Katselas, told the cast: “The audience wants to see Elizabeth Taylor,” to which Taylor enquired: “Do you mean Richard and I should play Private Lives like the audience is looking into our bedroom?” “Yes,” Katselas replied.

The reviews were not kind. “It’s the Taylor & Burton Show,” “The Private Has Been Taken Out of Private Lives,” “Oh-So-Public-Lives,” screamed the headlines.

In The New York Times, Walter Kerr, in a particularly unkind review, wrote, “I’m not going to make a federal case of Miss Taylor’s present physical amplitude,” and then proceeded to do so. Douglas Watt, in The New York Daily News, also used the word “amplitude.” A few of the reviews were kinder to Burton, who had played Hamlet on that Lunt-Fontanne stage 20 years earlier.

Brendan Gill, writing in The New Yorker, was a bit more thoughtful: “Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, though obviously miscast, manage to carry out most of Coward’s intentions in a fairly creditable fashion; it is even possible to say that their age and our knowledge of their personal lives, both together and apart, add a note of pathos to lines that, as written, were expected to be batted smartly back and forth like shuttlecocks by a couple of sexually nimble, moonlight-besotted 30-year-olds.”

Despite their feelings about the production, the critics seemed unanimous in their respect for the play. John Simon wrote that “Noël Coward’s Private Lives was one of the most coruscating comedies in the English language, and will be so again starting July 18, or whenever Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor are through playing it.”


During her days as a student at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts (RADA), Joan Collins longed to play Amanda in Private Lives. The closest she came to Amanda was the role of Louise, the French maid, in a RADA production of the play. In 1991 for the BBC, she starred with ex-husband Anthony Newley in eight of the Tonight at 8:30 plays. Collins finally got to play Amanda in London in 1991, followed by an American tour, and, finally, on Broadway in 1992.

In an interview with The Advocate during the London run, Collins was asked, “Elizabeth Taylor did Private Lives, and you were once considered to star in Cleopatra. Are you rivals?”

“My choosing to do Private Lives had nothing to do with Elizabeth Taylor,” Collins responded. ”I chose it because it has sophistication and dry humor. I think Noël Coward wrote brilliant women’s roles.”

In an interview with Cindy Adams a few weeks before her Broadway debut, Collins was asked how the New York production will differ from the London version. “It’s infinitely better,” Collins replied. We’ve put in more comedy business … I’m doing a tango. I do calisthenics and splits. I go into the kitchen and throw pots and pans. We’re still rehearsing, changing the blocking. It takes working on.”

The role of Elyot in the production was played by Simon Jones, an actor with considerable Coward credentials, including Waiting in the Wings and Blithe Spirit on Broadway, as well as productions of Design for Living, Hay Fever, Long Island Sound, and Tonight at 8:30. In 2002, Jones appeared as Noël Coward in Barry Day’s Noël and Alfred and Lynn at The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center.

This work is available for Sale. Please request a price list. 

UNLIKELY CASTING: ETHEL MERMAN AND ERNEST BORGNINE IN PRIVATE LIVESReproduction of a magazine clipping of ink on board drawing, 1964

In 1964, Al Hirschfeld was invited by Playbill Magazine to create “Unlikely Casting,” a series of drawings depicting celebrities in roles that they would never actually have had the opportunity to play. A few of the actors chosen included Barbra Streisand as Saint Joan, Beatrice Lillie as Ophelia, Jimmy Durante as Henry Higgins, Walter Matthau and Nancy Walker as Romeo and Juliet, and, this being 1964, Barry Goldwater and Lyndon Johnson as Vladimir and Estragon in Waiting for Godot.

The year 1964 was also the year in which Ethel Merman and Ernest Borgnine courted, were married, and filed for divorce in a span of 38 days, inspiring Hirschfeld to draw the pair as Amanda and Elyot in Private Lives.  Noël Coward was invited to write the caption for the drawing.

“Slightly unusual casting, I’d say. Definitely different, but I wouldn’t mind it a bit. They’re both such lively – such good performers that I’m sure that it would be quite interesting. Anything Ethel Merman does – whether in my Private Lives or the lass in Romeo and Juliet – would be alright with meAs for Mr. B, he strikes me as such a versatile actor that I could certainly visualize him carrying off the light comedy of Private Lives – or even the title role in Oliver!.  The notion is beguiling. By the way, whose idea was this?”        -- Noël Coward


In October 1938, Noël boarded the S.S. Normandie for the trip to New York, where he was going to direct Set to Music, a revue for which he wrote sketches, music, and lyrics.  Beatrice Lillie (Lady Peel) was to star, and Noël already had experience with Bea’s cavalier attitude to learning lines. He sent a cable to Beatrice Lillie who was sailing on the Queen Mary:

Pretty witty Lady Peel
Never mind how sick you feel
Never mind your broken heart
Concentrate and learn your part

To which she responded:
Thanks musty dusty Noël C
For beastly wire to Lady P
To concentrate is hard I fear
So now she’s crying in her beer

Morton Eustis, writing about Set to Music in Theatre Arts Monthly, gave an in-depth account of Noël as director: “His versatility, his theater sense, is nowhere seen to better advantage than in the grind of day and night rehearsals. He is everywhere; he does everything; he knows exactly what he wants. He infuses the whole cast with a sense of his enthusiasm and craftsmanship as he drills them mercilessly, but with patience and good humor.”

The show, which introduced “I Went to a Marvelous Party,” was a great success. Brooks Atkinson writing in The New York Times, called the show “a revue that represents the quintessence of style and skill, with Noël Coward and Beatrice Lillie as the presiding geniuses.”

MILDRED NATWICK IN BLITHE SPIRIT SEES HER REFLECTION FROM CANDIDA IN HER MIRRORReproduction of a newspaper clipping of ink on board drawing, 1942

Although perhaps better known for initiating the “Vessel with the Pestle” routine in the Danny Kaye film The Court Jester, Mildred Natwick’s first love was the theater. Her long career on Broadway stretched from 1932 to 1979.

In 1937, of her performance in Candida with Katharine Cornell, Brooks Atkinson wrote, “Mildred Natwick’s Prossy discloses the distinction she always brings to a part; there is neither a flat nor an overplayed moment in it.”

When Blithe Spirit opened on Broadway to rave reviews, the highest praise was reserved for Mildred Natwick. One critic wrote, “Mr. Coward’s Madame Arcati is no less fortunate than we are to have had Miss Natwick chosen as the player to summon her from the script. Miss Natwick, of course, is one of the most accomplished of our performers. No character actress in our theater equals her; few, if any, can be said to approach her. If she has never had the full recognition which is her due, her Madame Arcati is bound to bring this to her. It is a performance of inexhaustible humor, played with an admirable sense of control, and observed with an unfailing eye for valid details.” For her performance, Natwick won the Barter Theatre Award for the best performance of the year by an American-born actress. The award was presented at the Stage Door Canteen by First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt.

In 1942, during the run of Blithe Spirit, the American Theater Wing presented matinee performances of Candida starring Katharine Cornell for the benefit of the Army Emergency Fund and the Navy Relief Society. In addition to playing eight performances a week in Blithe Spirit, Natwick played four additional matinees in Candida. In the New York World-Telegram, John Mason Brown wrote, “Mildred Natwick, who is so convulsing these nights as the medium in Blithe Spirit, is an even more hilarious Prossy than she first created in 1937. Hers is a superlative job; ludicrous without being overstrained, and as precise as it is uproarious.”

Mildred Natwick’s later years were spent in her apartment on Sutton Place on Manhattan’s East Side, although she delighted in traveling to London where she stayed at the Hyde Park Hotel, visiting friends and attending theater. She was a dedicated volunteer at The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center, where she could be seen annually working at the “Connoisseur’s Corner” section of the Library’s Giant Bazaar.


(L to R) Blythe Danner, Richard Chamberlain, Judith Ivey, Geraldine Page

Broadway had to wait until March 1987 for its first revival of Blithe Spirit. The production was troubled out of town. Director Brian Bedford quit and was replaced by Brian Murray who said, “You can’t wing Coward. You’ve got to know what you’re saying and why you’re saying it, and then you’ve got to know how to say it. When Coward clicks, it results in a feeling like no other. It’s an absolute joy, like surfing on an endless set of waves or driving a Porsche. It’s a thrilling, exhilarating experience.”

Before the show opened, as a publicity stunt, the producers hired a medium to have a séance at the Neil Simon Theatre in order to predict the show’s future. The medium went into a trance and said that the stars would win Tony awards and that the play would be a hit. Unfortunately, he was mistaken. Frank Rich wrote in The New York Times that, apart from Blythe Danner, the actors were miscast. Chamberlain, who struggled with the text, discovered that Coward is more difficult than Shakespeare.

The medium did not predict that, on June 13, Geraldine Page, who was indeed nominated for a Tony, would not show up for either the matinee or evening performance and that on June 18, the Neil Simon Theatre would be filled to overflowing for her memorial service. Blithe Spirit closed on June 28.


QUADRILLEInk on board, 1954

(L to R) Brian Aherne, Lynn Fontanne, Edna Best, Alfred Lunt

On May 18, 1951, Noël wrote in his diary, “I want to do a Victorian comedy for Alfred and Lynn, if only I can get a good enough idea. We discussed it ad nauseum.” He later wrote, “Quadrille … is a romantic Victorian comedy which the critics detested and the public liked well enough to fill London’s Phoenix Theatre for a year.”

Although the London critics were cruel, the American reviews were a bit kinder. One critic wrote, “This may not be Mr. Coward’s best play, but it is better than most of our other dramatists could contrive.” Another wrote, “This is Mr. Coward in a gentle mood, nostalgic and romantic. Although the play is peppered with brittle cowardisms, it is never caustic or sophisticated. It is a gentle joke, quiet and warm, and most of the time, very amusing.” Alfred Lunt was particularly complimented on the scene in which his character, an American railwayman, explains with passion the beauty of the vast reaches of America. A Boston critic wrote, “It is the kind of scene you wouldn’t expect an Englishman to be able to write.”

Noël’s letters are filled with the enthusiasm of Coward, the Lunts, and designer Cecil Beaton for the play, although later letters from the Lunts express concerns.

From Cecil Beaton (1952): “I am utterly enchanted by Quadrille.  It has the charm, the wit and frivolity of The Importance of Being Earnest and is more mature and tender than anything you have ever written.”

From Noël to the Lunts (1954): “I have tried, hard, to think of ways of improving it and, so help me God, I can’t really think of anything.”

From Lynn (1954): “We love you and believe your honesty and know if you say so that it is impossible to re-write or improve the first scene.”

Alfred Lunt won the 1955 Tony Award for Best Actor in a Play for his performance in Quadrille, which he also directed. It was the last time the Lunts would appear in a Noël Coward play.

Fifteen years later, at the 1970 Tony Awards, the Lunts were presented with a Lifetime Achievement Award by Maggie Smith and Robert Stephens. Noël Coward was presented with a Lifetime Achievement Award by Cary Grant. Appropriately, Tammy Grimes won the Best Actress in a Play Award for her performance in a revival of Private Lives.

DESIGN FOR LIVINGInk on board, 1984

(L to R) Jill Clayburgh, Raul Julia, Frank Langella

The seeds of Design for Living were sown in 1921, the year of Noël’s first visit to New York, in a theatrical boarding house at 130 West 70th Street, where Lynn Fontanne and Alfred Lunt, not yet married, were staying in separate rooms. In her biography of the Lunts, Margot Peters wrote, “Into that boarding house that June – and into their lives – burst a young Brit with $75 and a suitcase of play scripts. Noël Coward had remembered Lynn from dance parties in London; he hoped a fellow Brit might introduce him around and lend him the odd quid. Lynn introduced Noël to Alfred. The three-way attraction was instant. Gay himself, Noël found Alfred ‘extremely attractive,’ but noted also that Alfred and Lynn were courting.”

In his autobiography, Noël wrote, “From these shabby, congenial rooms, we projected ourselves into future eminence. The three of us discussed, over delicatessen potato salad and dill pickles, our most secret dreams of success. Lynn and Alfred were to be married. That was the first plan. Then they were to become definitely idols of the public. That was the second plan. Then, all this being successfully accomplished, they were to act exclusively together. That was the third plan. It remained for me to supply the fourth, which was that when all three of us had become stars of sufficient magnitude, then, poised serenely upon that enviable plane of achievement, we would meet and act triumphantly together.”  Eleven years later, when many of those conditions had been achieved, Noël received a telegram from the Lunts: “CONTRACT WITH THEATRE GUILD WILL BE UP IN JUNE WE SHALL BE FREE. WHAT ABOUT IT?” Noël was vacationing as the sole passenger on a freighter. He wrote Design for Living on board.

Design for Living opened on January 24, 1933. It was supposed to run for three months, the length of time Noël felt comfortable in appearing in any play; but due to public demand, he agreed to play a few extra months. The play was an immediate success.

The play lends itself to numerous interpretations. In 1991, in The Times Literary Supplement, Patrick O’Connor wrote about the gender-fluid play: “As an argument for the joys and woes of free and bisexual love, Design for Living must have been a very shocking play in 1933. That Coward managed to depict so successfully the homosexuality of Leo and Otto, and skate past the censors, must be logged as one of his nimblest achievements.” Noël chose to premiere the play on Broadway partly because he felt that the subject matter was too risqué for London and might not receive a license from the Lord Chamberlain, who was the official censor.

The first Broadway revival took place in 1984, at Circle in the Square, directed by George C. Scott. Frank Rich, critic for The New York Times, wrote: Noël Coward’s Design for Living, an uninhibited account of a pansexual love triangle, was considered somewhat shocking stuff when it first opened in New York in 1933. To see the comedy now in its first Broadway revival is to realize that Coward’s capacity to provoke, like his talent to amuse, has not at all faded with time.” Of the characters Rich wrote: “These people don’t look before they leap; they must keep moving, no matter what. It’s part of Coward’s theatrical genius – and part of his play’s continuing relevance – that any pause in the unexamined lives of Design for Living would be death.” 


Mrs. John Felt, Somerset Maugham, Clare Booth Luce, Prince Aly Kahn, Elsa Maxwell, Lord Astor, Jacqueline Kennedy, Noël Coward, Mrs. David Bruce, Duke di Verdura, Duchess of Devonshire, Cole Porter

Born in Keokuk, Iowa, Elsa Maxwell was a renowned gossip columnist, song writer, radio and television personality, and, perhaps most famously, a professional hostess famed for her parties for high society and royalty. She was not humble. She wrote: “I am recognized as the arbiter of international society and the most famous hostess in the world.”  Hirschfeld drew her seven times, twice with Noël Coward.

Noël met Elsa in 1922: “I loved her at once. I loved her round friendly face, with its little shrewd eyes darting about like animated currents in a Bath bun. I loved her high spirits and her loud infectious laugh. It was before the days when she became the Queen of Paris and curdled her own personality with too much crème de la crème. In 1922 she was still a roistering buccaneer, and with all her boastfulness and noise and assertiveness, intelligent and immensely lovable.”

Early in their friendship, Elsa took Noël to Venice, as a sort of chaperone for her and a friend. The three of them fell in love with the city. In 1933, after one of the final performances of Design for Living, Noël took Elsa to the top of the Empire State Building, for a panoramic view of another city he loved. There was a bit of an incident, involving police and guns, but Noël ultimately forgave Elsa for turning the evening into a publicity stunt.

One of Noël’s best-known songs was inspired by one of Elsa’s parties:

“During the summer of 1937 or 1938, I forget which, Elsa Maxwell gave a party in the South of France. It was a “Beach” party and when she invited Grace Moore, Beatrice Lillie and me she explained that it would be “just ourselves.” When we arrived (as we were) we discovered that “just ourselves” meant about a hundred of us, all in the last stages of evening dress. We also discovered that one of the objects of the party was for us to entertain. As we were on holiday and had no accompanist and were not in any way prepared to perform, we refused. Elsa was perfectly understanding, but the other guests were a trifle disgruntled. The whole glittering episode was my inspiration for “I Went to a Marvelous Party.”

Noël was to attend many parties and dinners hosted by Maxwell over the years. When she died in 1963, Noël wrote in his diary: “A great sadness. Poor old Elsa Maxwell died. Another old friend gone. How glad I am that I went to see her a couple of weeks ago and made her laugh. I had a feeling that she was on her way, poor old duck.”


(L to R) Roddy McDowall, George Baker, Tammy Grimes, Kurt Kasznar

In 1958, Noël undertook to write an adaptation of Occupe-toi d’Amélie, a Feydeau farce. He wrote in his diary, “M. Feydeau is a very untidy playwright. He leaves characters about all over the place and disposes of them without explanation.” When Look After Lulu was finished Noël wrote, “To my surprise, it’s very funny indeed, and Vivien Leigh is mad about it.”

The play was to open in New York, directed by Cyril Ritchard with sets and costumes by Cecil Beaton. Noël wanted Shirley MacLaine to play the title role, but she had film commitments. His second choice was Carol Channing, who turned it down because she didn’t want to play a prostitute. At the suggestion of Ritchard and Roddy McDowall, Noël went to see a nightclub performance by a little-known Tammy Grimes. “She really has star quality,” Noël wrote in his diary.  He knew it would be a risk to cast her but felt that “If she gets away with it, and I think she will, the critics will ‘discover’ her, she’ll make an overnight success, and we will have a hit. If not, we shall fall flat on our collective faces and close within a few days.”

Lulu was not a success in New York, though it did indeed make a star out of Tammy Grimes. Years later, a friend of Tammy’s wrote, “She was discovered by Noël, put on Broadway by him, directed by him, and she won her second Tony Award in one of his shows.”

Look After Lulu fared better in London, where Vivien Leigh played the title role. The director was Tony Richardson.

The work is available for sale. Please request a price list. 

HIGH SPIRITSInk on board, 1964

(L to R) Edward Woodward, Louise Troy, Tammy Grimes, Beatrice Lillie

High Spirits opened in April 1964. Despite the fact that Hello, Dolly! had opened three months earlier (and Funny Girl opened two weeks earlier), the UPI critic wrote: “High Spirits is, by all odds, the best musical show of the season – the funniest, the most melodious, the most enchanting and the most literate … The musical is based, and with respect and imagination, on Noël Coward’s Blithe Spirit, one of the finest of modern comedies.” The show, with book, music and lyrics by Hugh Martin and Timothy Gray, was directed by Noël Coward.

In directing Bea Lillie, Noël was exasperated, as he had been in the past. He was a stickler for learning lines; Bea was the opposite. Noël wrote, “Beattie is AGONY but, of course, has moments of brilliance. … She can’t act at all and yet – and yet – she is a great star. Eventually she will be wonderful as Beatrice Arcati.” Bea’s view of the rehearsal period is documented in her autobiography. She seems jealous of Tammy Grimes, calling her “overly ambitious.”  In defending herself against Noël’s criticisms, she wrote that “Noël and I had always enjoyed a screaming fight together.”

Noël continued to be impressed with Tammy Grimes: “She is going to be brilliant.” As the Hirschfeld drawing depicts, Tammy as Elvira is aloft for much of her performance. “I fly in and out of the scenes. And I sing a couple of songs while 20 feet in the air. It isn’t difficult doing that, once you get the hang of it.”

Despite the UPI review, and a glowing notice in The New York Times, it was hard to compete in a season chock-a-block with great musicals. High Spirits closed on February 27, 1965.

SAIL AWAYReproduction of a newspaper clipping of ink on board drawing, 1961

(L to R) Patricia Harty, Grover Dale, Elaine Stritch, Alice Pearce, James Hurst, Paul O’Keefe

In 1999, Andre Bishop, Artistic Director of Lincoln Center Theater, who has become a Patron of the Noël Coward Foundation, had the idea that there should be a revival of Sail Away, Noël Coward’s 1961 musical starring Elaine Stritch. Bishop had seen the closing night of Sail Away, and said that Stritch gave “the single greatest musical comedy performance I have ever seen in my life – and I never forgot it.”

A concert version of the show was revived for two weeks at Carnegie Hall’s Weill Hall in November 1999, as part of Noël Coward’s centennial celebrations. New York Times critic Ben Brantley wrote: “When Elaine Stritch sings Mimi's baffled ode to the surprising powers of passion, the lovely ‘Something Very Strange,’ it is with a sea-breeze-fresh vulnerability that should melt the iciest hearts. When she performed the same number 38 years ago, Coward wrote in his diary that Ms. Stritch sang ‘so movingly that I almost cried.’ He went on to say about making her the show's star: ‘There is no doubt about it. I made the right decision.’ The years have not proved him a liar.”

The show that became Sail Away went through many transformations. Initially conceived as a film for Noël and Marlene Dietrich, it was later modified as a possible vehicle for Kay Thompson or Rosalind Russell. Even when, as Sail Away, it finally opened on tour, it was to undergo further surgery. It was the last musical for which Noël Coward would have almost total responsibility, as author, composer, lyricist, and director. Though critical reaction was mixed, it made a huge star of Elaine Stritch and featured a score graced by many of Noël’s best songs, including “Why Do the Wrong People Travel?”

In Elaine Stritch at Liberty, her one-woman show, Stritch talked about her friendship with Noël Coward: “On the opening night of Sail Away, just before the curtain went up, Mr. Coward came to my dressing room. ‘Stritchie, Alfred and Lynn want us for a weekend in the Berkshires.’ I suddenly thought to myself, not only is this kid from Michigan about to open on Broadway in a Noël Coward musical, she has also just been invited by Noël Coward to weekend in the country with the Lunts. Another thought suddenly grabbed me: ‘Mr. Coward, if I don’t get good notices tomorrow can I still go to the Lunts?’ (Elaine as Coward): ‘No.’”

GIRL WHO CAME TO SUPPERInk on board, 1963

(L to R) Tessie O’Shea, Florence Henderson, Irene Brown, José Ferrer, Sean Scully

The Girl Who Came to Supper was the last musical with a Coward score and the only one of Noël’s musicals never produced in London.

In 1962, Herman Levin, who had produced My Fair Lady, phoned Noël Coward and asked him to write the score for The Sleeping Prince, which was being turned into a musical. Noël was reluctant at first, but as he loved the Terence Rattigan play, he agreed.

Geoffrey Johnson, an assistant stage manager on the show, said that during the pre-Broadway tour, too many changes were made that weren’t improvements. The show was a smash in Boston, less so in Toronto, and the tinkering began. According to Geoffrey, everyone believed that it was getting better, but it wasn’t. Then tragedy struck. During the Philadelphia run, President Kennedy was assassinated. The cast was devastated. The song “Long Live the King (If He Can),” about royal assassins, was pulled from the show. Girl began previews on Broadway two weeks after the assassination.

Despite the show’s rocky road to Broadway, it had a gala opening night. Noël wrote, “The opening night was the most fabulous evening I can ever remember in the theater. The glittering, star-spangled audience was wonderful from the very beginning. José Ferrer was better than he had ever been, and although that is not good enough for me, he made a great success and nearly stopped the show. Florence Henderson was excellent, not a fault, an efficient, perfectly timed performance which only lacked the essential: heart. She was too sure, too competent and had lost the charm she had in Boston. The star of the evening was Tessie O’Shea, whose ovation during and after “London” held up proceedings for almost five minutes. I have never heard such cheering. She fully earned it because she was warm, friendly, and gave a perfect performance. It was thrilling to see that rumbustious, bouncing old-timer, after some years of limbo, come back and tear the place up. The whole evening was quite extraordinary.”

Tessie O’Shea appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show a few weeks after Girl opened, performing selections from her “London” number. While Girl was still running, Tessie returned to appear on the most famous of all of Sullivan’s shows: “Meet the Beatles.” For her performance as fish-and-chips monger Ada Cockle, Tessie O’Shea won the Tony Award for Best Featured Actress in a Musical.

This work is available for sale. Please request a price list. 

DANIEL MASSEY IN STAR!Ink on board, 1968

Massey’s connections to Noël Coward pre-date his birth. His father, Raymond Massey, appeared with Coward in the London production of S.N. Berhman’s play The Second Man in 1928. His mother Adrianne Allen originated the role of Sibyl in Private Lives in 1930. When Daniel was born in 1933, Noël Coward was named his godfather.

In 1942, Noël cast nine-year-old Daniel in the role of his son in In Which We Serve. Twenty-five years later, when director Robert Wise was casting the role of Noël Coward in Star!, a biopic about Gertrude Lawrence starring Julie Andrews, Coward told him to get someone “stylish, handsome, and skinny.”

Massey was shocked that he got the part. “When they called me, I nearly fell out of my chair. Why me? I was told that it was because Noël had said ‘I think he’s right.’ Noël was marvelous during the filming. He never came near the set. He never said ‘Do this or that,’ and when I asked him, he just said ‘You know me very well.’”

The film was not a success, although Massey’s reviews were excellent. The New York Times critic wrote, “Daniel Massey acts beautifully… and the film, which gets richer and better as it goes along, has a nice scene from Private Lives.” (Star! also features a lengthy scene from Red Peppers.) For his performance as his own godfather, Massey won a Golden Globe Award for Best Supporting Actor and was nominated for an Oscar.

After seeing the film, Noël wrote in his diary: “Julie Andrews was talented, charming, efficient and very pretty but not very like Gertie. Danny Massey was excellent as me and had the sense to give an impression of me rather than try to imitate me. He was tactless enough to sing better than I do, but of course without my special matchless charm!”

In a 1996 interview, Massey said of Coward, “Underneath the legend, there was a real fella. He wasn’t just a glitter person. We instinctively got on. He came to see everything I did. He’d be wonderfully helpful. I’ve never seen him bested in conversation by anybody. I don’t think I’ve met anybody with a quicker mind. And funny, too. His home was very comfortable. Big chairs, good food, wonderful talk. Noely was a mensch!”

This is work is available for sale. Please request a price list.

NOËL COWARD'S SWEET POTATOReproduction of a magazine clipping of ink on board drawing, 1968

In 1968, Roderick Cook, an actor who had played a supporting role in The Girl Who Came to Supper, conceived the idea of a revue featuring songs by Noël Coward and brief scenes from his plays. The show was called Noël Coward’s Sweet Potato. Despite a top-notch cast, including Dorothy Loudon, George Grizzard, Carole Shelley, and Arthur Mitchell, who would go on to found the Dance Theatre of Harlem the following year, Sweet Potato was not a success. Critics did not appreciate that the balcony scene from Private Lives featured Amanda and Elyot on roller skates. The show was directed by choreographer Lee Theodore.

The Boston Globe critic, visiting New York, found the revue to be “smart, scintillating, ultra-sophisticated, a small-scale revue of infinite charm and nearly endless wit.” But he was in the minority. A few years later, Cook re-shaped and expanded Sweet Potato into the much more successful Oh, Coward!. Without the roller skates.

RODERICK COOK IN OH, COWARD!Ink on board, 1987

When Oh, Coward! opened on Broadway in 1987, Roderick Cook, who devised, directed, and starred in the show, was nominated for a Tony Award for Best Actor in a Musical. Mel Gussow wrote in The New York Times, “The performance is determinedly low-key and genteel, in keeping with its source. Neither in the selection of material nor in the performances does the show overstep into self-parody, as is often the case in other musical anthologies. As before, Mr. Cook lets Coward speak and sing for himself, which he does, trippingly.”

But the production, featuring many of the best loved songs of Noël Coward, had a deeper, more bittersweet significance, when it premiered off-Broadway on October 4, 1972, at the New Theatre on East 54th Street. It was three months later, on January 14, 1973, that one of the great gatherings in New York theater history took place there. On that evening, the great and the good in the entertainment world gathered at the New Theatre to pay homage to Sir Noël Coward at a gala black-tie invitational performance of Oh, Coward!. Guests included Betty Comden and Adolph Green, Lena Horne, Douglas Fairbanks Jr., Sir John Gielgud, Helen Hayes, Myrna Loy, Ethel Merman, and countless others. Noël’s date was Marlene Dietrich who, with assistance from Geoffrey Johnson, led Noël up the stairs to the orchestra level.

At the intermission, Noël proclaimed the cast “so bloody good. I’ve never seen such a talented cast.” Cole Lesley, Noël’s long- time secretary and dear friend wrote: “None of us could know that Noël was making his last public appearance that evening. Both the gala itself and the large party afterwards were extremely happy occasions for him; his personal invitations had been based on his American Christmas-card list and so, as had happened in London, every single friend whom Noël cared for was there to see him for the last time.”

After spending a week in New York, Noël returned to Firefly, his beloved home in Jamaica. Graham Payn, Cole Lesley, and Geoffrey Johnson were with him, and it was to them he said “Goodnight my darlings” on the evening of March 25, 1973. He died early the next morning.

HAY FEVERReproduction of a newspaper clipping of ink on board drawing, 1985

Rosemary Harris and Roy Dotrice

In 1924, Noël visited Laurette Taylor and Hartley Manners at their home on Riverside Drive. He found Hartley to be “a charming man, but his spirit seemed to be shut up permanently in a sort of ‘iron virgin’ of moral principles. Laurette, on the other hand, was frequently blunt to the point of embarrassment. She was naïve, intolerant, loveable, and entirely devoid of tact. It was inevitable that someone should eventually use portions of this eccentricity in a play, and I am only grateful to Fate that no guest of the Hartley Manners thought of writing Hay Fever before I did.” According to Noël Coward’s first biographer, Sheridan Morley, “Hay Fever is the only one of Coward’s major comedies to stem from direct and personal experience.”

The premiere London production met with some success, but it was the 1964 National Theatre revival that represented a watershed in Coward’s career. Laurence Olivier invited Noël to direct a production of Hay Fever with an all-star cast, including Edith Evans, Maggie Smith, Derek Jacobi, Robert Stephens, and Lynn Redgrave. The play opened to stunning reviews and re-established Coward’s preeminence in the theater.

Until the 1985 production of Hay Fever opened on Broadway directed by Brian Murray, the play had not been successful New York. In the four Broadway productions of the play, Judith Bliss was played by Laura Hope Crews, Constance Collier, Shirley Booth, and Rosemary Harris. John Tillinger, who played Sandy in the 1970 production, said that it was disastrous, mainly because Shirley Booth, although a great actress, was totally wrong for the part. A critic wrote “Shirley Booth is still the Hazel of television instead of the over-romantic Judith Bliss.”

When the 1985 production opened, Clive Barnes wrote: “Rosemary Harris is a joy forever. Her joyfulness is being spread like some heady scent at the Music Box, where last night Hay Fever, Noël Coward’s lightly mordant comedy about that ‘beastly family’ the Blisses, returned to New York in an always inventive and often stylish staging by Brian Murray.”

Years earlier, Coward wrote: “Hay Fever is far and away one of the most difficult plays to perform that I ever encountered.” But with the 1985 production, Broadway finally got it right.


Present Laughter has been presented on Broadway six times. The lead role of Gary Essendine has been played by Clifton Webb, Noël Coward, George C. Scott, Frank Langella, Victor Garber, and Kevin Kline.

In 1982, when Circle in the Square producers Paul Libin and Theodore Mann took George C. Scott to lunch and made him an offer, they were surprised at his response. They were planning a production of Present Laughter with Frank Langella, but Langella had to drop out due to a film commitment. They wanted Scott for the role of Garry Essendine. Scott responded by quoting lines from the play – he had played Essendine in summer stock in Ohio! He said he loved Coward and would accept their invitation if he could also direct. They agreed. The cast was rounded out with Nathan Lane (his Broadway debut), Dana Ivey (her second Broadway role), Christine Lahti, and Kate Burton, right out of Yale Drama School. (Kate’s most recent role on Broadway was also in Present Laughter, in 2017, with Kevin Kline.)

The cast enjoyed working with the man who was best known for his Oscar-winning role as General Patton. He had a strong work ethic, knew his lines, and was always on time. Dana Ivey recalls his wonderfully generous spirit and that he relied on the actors and respected what they brought to the table. Dana also remembered that Scott had a great sense of humor.

The critics felt that it was a wonderful stroke of miscasting, which worked. Headlines read “Bull Scott triumphs in Coward china shop;” and “When miscasting pays off handsomely.”

Frank Rich’s review in The New York Times began “For about 10 minutes, it may bother you that George C. Scott is in some ways totally miscast as the hero of Noël Coward's Present Laughter. After that, you may well say: who cares? Mr. Scott is pickled with high spirits in this play. He's not just terrifically funny - he's actually having fun on stage.” Rex Reed wrote “What a shame Scott doesn’t do more comedy. When he works himself into such a lather that there is nothing left to do but fall face down on the beige carpet, and kick his heels in a tantrum, the audience collapses with laughter. There is no way that you can be in the same theater when Scott’s having fun and not be happy to be invited to the party.”


Dana Ivey played Monica Reed in George C. Scott’s production of Present Laughter. It was her second role on Broadway. In his favorable review of the play, Frank Rich wrote, “Miss Ivey, who speaks with acid irony and looks as if she were drawn by Peter Arno, is the production’s best exemplar of the true Coward style.” Dana has fond memories of the production and was exhilarated to be part of it.

Though she loved Present Laughter, Dana’s favorite Coward role is Madame Arcati in Blithe Spirit. “I had a ball doing that.” Steeped in Theosophy, Dana loves the metaphysical overtones of Blithe Spirit. She has been to a psychic and has been aware of the work of psychics and mediums most of her life.

Dana’s many Coward credits include the role of Sylvia Archibald in the Broadway premiere of  Waiting in the Wings, presented during the Noël Coward centennial year; Curtain Up on Noël Coward at the Kravis Center in Palm Beach; Amanda in Private Lives in Calgary, Alberta; Elvira in Blithe Spirit in Vancouver; and, for The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center, a reading of Star Quality directed by Roger Rees; and Private Lives Recalled: The Letters of Noël Coward, in celebration of the publication of Barry Day’s edition of Coward’s letters.

Dana has said that Coward’s speech has to be pristine and pure, beautifully spoken and completely enunciated.

This work is available for sale. Please request a price list. 

PRESENT LAUGHTERReproduction of a newspaper clipping of ink on board drawing, 1996

Frank Langella and Steve Ross

Reviewing Scott Elliott’s production of Present Laughter, Ben Brantley wrote that “the ever-magnetic Frank Langella, in a role he was born for, is having an infectiously fine time as Coward's alter ego, Garry Essendine, a famous, self-dramatizing actor who never met a mirror he didn't like.” The production, which features Langella’s bare midriff and full-frontal nudity (not from Langella), suggests that “beneath the sleek surfaces of all those dressing gowns and evening clothes lies a very human host for carnal appetites and moral decay.”

The scene that caused a bit of controversy featured Tim Hopper who, playing the young playwright Roland Maule, is infatuated with Garry Essendine. He throws off his overcoat, stands nude before Essendine, and plants a big kiss on him. Director Elliott told William Grimes of The New York Times: “I read the play, and to me it’s very apparent, what Coward had in mind with the character, but in 1939 he couldn’t say it the way he wanted to say it. The reality of the situation is the guy’s obsessed with him.” Some purists felt that Coward would have been appalled, but Graham Payn, Coward’s companion for many years, disagreed. “I’ll tell you something right now. Noël wouldn’t have bothered about the nude scene at all. The whole show is more sexual, which I think is right, because Noël would have moved with the times.”

Steve Ross, who played Fred, also enhanced the play with a mini piano recital of period songs, before each act. Dubbed the “Crown Prince of Cabaret,” Steve’s love for Noël Coward has been reflected in countless performances over the years. He served as Music Director and curated the opening program in A Marvelous Party: Noël Coward at 100, The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts’ series marking the Coward centennial.

waiting in the wings, 1999