Noel Coward, playwright, composer… and spy? That’s just one of the facets revealed in a new exhibit by the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center. The show opened Monday (Feb. 12).
Aptly called “Star Quality: The World of Noel Coward,” the exhibit includes memorabilia and artifacts that capture the golden era of 20th-Century performing arts and reflects the impact Cowardm had on music, literature and theater during his lifetime.
But there’s more. Coward actually worked as a spy during World War II… against the United States!
He was hired by Britain’s chief spy William Stephenson to keep tabs on American sentiment in the years before the nation entered the war against Germany and Japan.
“His history goes so far beyond the drawing room.” curator Brad Rosenstein told Reuters. “He was a man who maintained incredible friendships over decades.”
“All kinds of new material has surfaced from his homes in Switzerland and Jamaica in just the last year,” he added. “You think of his world as being a black-and-white world.”
Coward is best known as a composer and performer who wrote stage and film classics like “Private Lives,” “Brief Encounter” and time-honored standards such as “Mad About the Boy” and “Mad Dogs and Englishmen.”
He also set standards of style and erudition for the chattering classes that made up mid-20th Century society.
The multi-media show, billed as the most comprehensive ever, also features things from everyday life, such as paint brushes, hairbrushes, clothing and
a collection of engraved cigarette cases, many of from friends such as Elsa Maxwell and Elaine Stritch.
A trove of letters includes correspondence with some of the era’s biggest names in entertainment. They include Vivien Leigh and Laurence Olivier, Florenz Ziegfeld, Harold Pinter and Edward Albee.
A telegram from Ziegfeld proclaims: “The theater cannot die as long as I have a genius like you.”
The exhibit is divided into 11 sections, each reflecting part of his life from his childhood through his work as a playwright, composer, film star and Broadway actor.
Coward died in 1973 at age 73. The exhibit is part of a citywide festival celebrating Coward. For details go to: Noel Coward in New York. The exhibit runs through Aug. 10.