REMEMBERED LAUGHTER: The Life of Noel Coward by Cole Lesley
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REMEMBERED LAUGHTER: The Life of Noel Coward

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The Master's live-in secretary, nanny, and occasional collaborator enjoys a biographer's headstart--access to letters, diaries, journals, and a thirty-five-year memory bank--and exploits it shamelessly. ""Mum's suitcase,"" unpacked for the first time, yields child-actor Noel's on-the-road correspondence to Mrs. C., the unique persona in full quip at 14. Later excerpted jottings celebrate books devoured (E. Nesbit to Anne Morrow Lindbergh), houses hunted, menus studied (a weight problem), islands discovered, and friendships tended--as well as the more familiar juggling of multiple theatrical careers. These Coward originals are knowingly chosen and displayed (bracketed annotations instead of footnotes; he loathed the latter), but Lesley does more than cut and paste. With an appropriate blend of crisp restraint, nostalgic high spirits, and uncloying loyalty, he manages a Life of authenticity and breadth and deftly directs traffic while an anyone-who-was-anyone cast (royalty, Lunts, Churchills, Roosevelts, T. E. and Gertrude Lawrence, Dick and Liz) gathers chez Noel. The first-name dropping remains inoffensive and the recreated party scenes, usually frenetic and flat in memoirs, do come alive, with hilarious four-letter locutions issuing from the unlikeliest lips. If the clothes-buying and decorating or the inner-circle's baby-talk turn a few pages puce, the effect is surely faithful to the subject. Also in the spirit: forthrightness about sex (unapologetically homosexual) but tasteful reticence where other parties are concerned. Specific liaisons are buried between the lines, but an empathetic, generalized portrait of Coward in love guides us to the heart of the man, as does a quiet emphasis on the Master's kindness, generosity, and steadfast attachment to comrades of early years. Probably no biography can capture all of Coward--this one wisely steers clear of literary criticism--but no other volume so richly deserves the spot on the shelf next to Present Indicative and Future Indefinite.

Pub Date: Oct. 28th, 1976
Publisher: Knopf