Thursday, April 17, 2014

The Connecticut/Coward Connection

by Barry Day (OBE)
Editor of The Letters of Noël Coward, Trustee of The Noël Coward Foundation

Noël Coward is no stranger to the Playhouse. Most of his major plays have been seen here with such stars as Jane Cowl (1939’s Easy Virtue), Tallulah Bankhead (1947’s Private Lives), Joan Fontaine (Private Lives in 1968) and Louis Jourdan (1979’s Present Laughter).

In the 1940s and early 50s the theatre was managed by John C. ("Jack") Wilson, Noël’s longtime manager and sometime lover. He and his wife, Natasha Paley were living in nearby Fairfield at the time. By now Jack was also a successful Broadway producer/director (Kiss Me, Kate and Gentlemen Prefer Blondes). This success caused him to devote less and less time and attention to Noël's interests and matters came to a head here in Westport.

WCP Founders Lawrence Langner and Armina Marshall, with "Jack" Wilson. 

In 1951 Noël had written a play poking gentle fun at British colonial manners and mores. He called it Island Fling, and Jack offered to direct its original production at the Playhouse. Claudette Colbert agreed to take time off from Hollywood to star.

Noël had commitments that made it difficult for him to come to the US to see the tryout. Everything was going just fine, Jack assured him early on, which caused Noël to begin discussing a possible London West End production. Perhaps he SHOULD make time after all. This prompted a long cable from Jack beseeching Noël not to come. "He has obviously bitched the play by bad direction and doesn't want me to see for myself," Noël wrote in his diary. "He is behaving like an abject fool."

Their personal and professional relationship had been under strain for some time, and this was the last straw. In 1957 Noël finally terminated it. By this time Jack had become a serious alcoholic, and he died in 1961. Again in his diary Noël reflected, "Of course I am sad...but not nearly as much as I might have been. To me he died years ago."

As for Island Fling, Ms. Colbert returned to the womb called Hollywood. She would later work with Noël on live TV. Noël rewrote the play as South Sea Bubble. It enjoyed a modest success in the West End in 1956 starring Vivien Leigh.

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