A full-scale life of the towering English songwriter and playwright. Writing about Coward in 1977, Kenneth Tynan wrote, ""The successful homosexual is answerable to nobody,"" and this could serve as the epigraph for this biography. Sprung from a suburban British background of lapsed wealth (his family tree includes ambassadors, professors, and composers), Coward invented his own self-contained reality from an early age. He knew he was gay at the age of 12--although, as Hoare delicately but definitively points out, he shied away from penetrative sex all his life. A perpetual outsider, Coward wouldn't be a member of any club but his own: He shunned his Catholic upbringing (he belonged to a circle of gay aesthetes who wrestled with their Catholicism, including Proust translator C.K. Scott Moncrieff), highbrow culture, and Hollywood alike. But money started talking, and by 1930, when he was declared the world's highest paid writer, his absolutist stance softened. He knew that his marketable strength was a cool xenophobia, and he laced it through such successful stage plays and films as Present Laughter, Blithe Spirit, and Fallen Angels. But Hoare (whose 1990 book, Serious Pleasures, was a life of the superdandy Stephen Tennant) paints Coward not so much as a crowd-pleaser as a gay subversive, insinuating homosexual notions into the mainstream. Because Hoare talked to Coward's friends and lovers, and shores up speculation with detailed sources, this is a believable position. The final stages of Coward's life seem especially sad: The '60s had no use for his mannered vitriol, reducing him to his most hateful tendencies (""Why should we keep inferior beings in the world?"" he told a reporter, asked for his views on the death penalty). Seems too often to scavenge for any stories remotely scandalous or naughty--but for all that, sharp and credible. Serious scholarship also serves here as an act of cultural restitution for a gay hero.