Natacha Rambova (born Winifred Kimball Shaughnessy; January 19, 1897 – June 5, 1966) was an American film costume designer, set designer, and occasional actress who was active in Hollywood in the 1920s. She was married to Hollywood legend Rudolph Valentino for a short period of time. In her later life, she abandoned design to pursue other interests, specifically Egyptology, a subject on which she became a published scholar in the 1950s.
Rambova was born into a prominent family in Salt Lake City who were members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. She was raised in San Francisco and educated in England before beginning her career as a dancer, performing under Russian ballet choreographer Theodore Kosloff in New York City. She relocated to Los Angeles at age 19, where she became an established costume designer for Hollywood film productions. It was there she became acquainted with actor Rudolph Valentino, with whom she had a two-year marriage from 1923 to 1925. Rambova's association with Valentino afforded her a widespread celebrity typically afforded to actors. Although they shared many interests such as art, poetry and spiritualism, his colleagues felt that she exercised too much control over his work and blamed her for several expensive career flops.
After divorcing Valentino in 1925, Rambova operated her own clothing store in Manhattan before moving to Europe and marrying the aristocrat Álvaro de Urzáiz in 1932.
It was during this time that she visited Egypt and developed a fascination with the country that remained for the rest of her life. Rambova spent her later years studying Egyptology and earned two Mellon Grants to travel there and study Egyptian symbols and belief systems. She served as the editor of the first three volumes of Egyptian Religious Texts and Representations (1954–7) by Alexandre Piankoff, also contributing a chapter on symbology in the third volume. She died in 1966 in California of a heart attack while working on a manuscript examining patterns within the texts in the Pyramid of Unas.
Rambova has been noted by fashion and art historians for her unique costume designs that drew on and synthesized a variety of influences, as well as her dedication to historical accuracy in crafting them. Academics have also cited her interpretive contributions to the field of Egyptology as significant.
In popular culture, Rambova has been depicted in several films and television series, figuring significantly in the Valentino biopics The Legend of Valentino (1975), in which she was portrayed by Yvette Mimieux, and Ken Russell's Valentino (1977) by Michelle Phillips. She was also featured in a fictionalized narrative in the network series American Horror Story: Hotel (2015), portrayed by Alexandra Daddario.
Rambova was born Winifred Kimball Shaughnessy on January 19, 1897, in Salt Lake City, Utah. Her father, Michael Shaughnessy, was an Irish Catholic working in the mining industry. Her mother, Winifred Shaughnessy was the granddaughter of Heber C. Kimball, a member of the first presidency of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and was raised in a prominent Salt Lake City family. At her father's wishes, Rambova was baptized a Catholic though she later was baptized a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints at the urging of her mother at age eight.
Rambova's parents had a tumultuous relationship: Her father was an alcoholic, and often sold her mother's possessions to pay off gambling debts. This led her mother to divorce Shaughnessy in 1900 and relocate with Rambova to San Francisco.
There, she remarried to Edgar de Wolfe in 1907. During her childhood, Rambova spent summer vacations at the Villa Trianon in Le Chesnay, France with Edgar's sister, the French designer Elsie de Wolfe.
The marriage between her mother and Edgar de Wolfe was short-lived, and she again remarried, this time to millionaire perfume mogul Richard Hudnut.
Rambova was adopted by her new stepfather, making her legal name Winifred Hudnut. Rambova was given the nickname "Wink" by her aunt Teresa to distinguish her from her mother because of their shared name. She also sometimes went by Winifred de Wolfe, after her former step-aunt Elsie, with whom she maintained a relationship after her mother's divorce from Edgar.
A rebellious teenager, Rambova was sent by her mother to Leatherhead Court, a boarding school in Surrey, England. In her schooling, she became fascinated by Greek mythology, and also proved especially gifted at ballet.
After seeing Anna Pavlova in a production of Swan Lake in Paris with her former step-aunt Elsie, Rambova decided she wanted to pursue a career as a ballerina. Her family had encouraged her to study ballet purely as a social grace, and were appalled when she chose it as her career. Her aunt Teresa, however, was supportive, and took Rambova to New York City, where she studied under the Russian ballet dancer and choreographer Theodore Kosloff in his Imperial Russian Ballet Company.
While dancing under Kosloff, she adopted the Russian-inspired stage name Natacha Rambova. Standing at 5 feet 8 inches (1.73 m), Rambova was too tall to be a classical ballerina, but was given leading parts by the then-32-year-old Kosloff, who soon became her lover. Rambova's mother was outraged upon discovering the affair as Rambova was 17 years old at the time, and she tried to have Kosloff deported on statutory rape charges. Rambova retaliated against her mother by fleeing abroad, and her mother ultimately agreed to her continuing to perform with the company.
Around 1917, Kosloff was hired by Cecil B. DeMille as a performer and costume designer for DeMille's Hollywood films, after which he and Rambova relocated from New York to Los Angeles. Rambova carried out much of the creative work as well as the historical research for Kosloff, and he then stole her sketches and claimed credit for these as his own.
When Kosloff started work for fellow-Russian film producer Alla Nazimova at Metro Pictures Corporation (later MGM) in 1919, he sent Rambova to present some designs. Nazimova requested some alterations, and was impressed when Rambova was able to make these changes immediately in her own hand. Nazimova offered Rambova a position on her production staff as an art director and costume designer, proposing a wage of up to USD$5,000 per picture (equivalent to $63,812 in 2019).
Rambova immediately began working for Nazimova on the comedy film Billions (1920), for which she supplied the costumes and served as art director. She also designed the costumes for two Cecil DeMille films in 1920: Why Change Your Wife? and Something to Think About. The following year, she served as the art director on the DeMille production Forbidden Fruit (1921), in which she designed (with Mitchell Leisen) an elaborate costume for a Cinderella-inspired fantasy sequence.
While working on her second project for Nazimova--Aphrodite, which never was filmed Rambova revealed to Kosloff that she planned on leaving him. During the ensuing argument, he attempted to kill her, shooting at her with a shotgun. The gun fired into Rambova's leg, and the bullet lodged above her knee. Rambova fled the Hollywood apartment she shared with Kosloff to the set of Aphrodite, where a cameraman helped her remove the birdshot from her leg. Despite the nature of the incident, she continued to live with Kosloff for some time.
Stylistically, Rambova favored designers such as Paul Poiret, Léon Bakst, and Aubrey Beardsley. She specialized in "exotic" and "foreign" effects in both costume and stage design. For costumes she favored bright colors, baubles, bangles, shimmering draped fabrics, sparkles, and feathers. She also strived for historical accuracy in her costume and set designs.
In 1921, Rambova was introduced to actor Rudolph Valentino on the set of Nazimova's Uncharted Seas (1921). She and Valentino subsequently worked together on Camille (1921), a film which was a financial failure and resulted in Metro Pictures terminating their contract with Nazimova. While making the film, however, Rambova and Valentino became romantically involved. Although Valentino was still married to American film actress Jean Acker, he and Rambova moved in together within a year, having formed a relationship based more on friendship and shared interests than on emotional or professional rapport. They then had to pretend to separate until Valentino's divorce was finalized, and married on May 13, 1922 in Mexicali, Mexico, an event described by Rambova as "wonderful ... even though it did cause many worries and heartaches later."
However, the law required a year to pass before remarriage, and Valentino was jailed for bigamy, having to be bailed out by friends. They legally remarried on March 14, 1923 in Crown Point, Indiana.
Both Rambova and Valentino were spiritualists, and they frequently visited psychics and took part in séances and automatic writing. Valentino wrote a book of poetry, entitled Daydreams, with many poems about Rambova. When it came to domestic life, Valentino and Rambova turned out to hold very different views. Valentino cherished Old World ideals of a woman being a housewife and mother, while Rambova was intent on maintaining a career and had no intention of being a housewife. Valentino was known as an excellent cook, while Rambo a occasionally baked and was an excellent seamstress. Valentino wanted children, but Rambova did not.
While her association with Valentino lent Rambova a celebrity typically afforded to actors, their professional collaborations showed-up their differences more than their similarities, and she did not contribute to any of his successful films in spite of serving as his manager.
In The Young Rajah (1922) she designed authentic Indian costumes that tended to compromise his Latin lover image, and the film was a major flop. She also supported his one-man strike against Famous Players-Lasky, which left him temporarily banned from movie work.
Beginning in February 1924, she accompanied Valentino on a trip abroad that was profiled in twenty-six installments published in Movie Weekly over the course of six months.
Rambova's later work with Valentino was characterised by elaborate and costly preparations for films that either flopped or never manifested. These included Monsieur Beaucaire, The Sainted Devil, and The Hooded Falcon (a film that Rambova co-wrote, but was never realized). By this time, critics and the press were beginning to blame Rambova's excessive control for these failures. United Artists went so far as to offer Valentino an exclusive contract with the stipulation that Rambova had no negotiating power, and was disallowed from even visiting the sets of his films.
After this, Rambova was offered $30,000 to create a film of her choosing, which resulted in the production of What Price Beauty?, a drama which she co-produced and co-wrote.
In 1925, Natacha Rambova and Rudolph Valentino separated, and an acrimonious divorce ensued.
After the divorce proceedings began, Rambova moved on to other ventures: On March 2, 1926, she patented a doll she had designed with a "combined coverlet", and also produced and starred in her own picture, Do Clothes Make the Woman? The film, however, was not well received by critics.
After its release, Rambova never worked in film, on or offscreen, again. Three months later, Valentino died unexpectedly of peritonitis, leaving Rambova inconsolable, and she purportedly locked herself in her bedroom for three days. Though she did not attend his funeral, she sent a telegram to Valentino's business manager George Ullman, requesting he be buried in her family crypt at Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx (a request Ullman denied).
Though her work in both set and costume design has been deemed influential by film and fashion historians alike, Rambova herself claimed to "loathe fashion," adding:
"I want to dress in a way that is becoming to me, whether it is the style of the hour or not. So it should be with all women, in my opinion. All women should not wear knee-length skirts, even if that is the prevailing fashion; clothes that are becoming to the tall, languid type, would not do at all for a short girl of the staccato type, who has to have sharp clothes to express her personality."
Thus, Rambova's approach to fashion design in her post-film career was conscious of the individual, a practice which fashion historian Heather Vaughan suggests was carried over from her past designing movie costumes for "individual character types."
After Valentino's death, Rambova relocated to New York City. There, she immersed herself in several endeavors, appearing in vaudeville at the Palace Theatre and writing a semi-fictional play entitled All that Glitters, which detailed her relationship with Valentino, and concluded in a fictionalized happy reconciliation. She also published the 1926 memoir, Rudy: An Intimate Portrait by His Wife Natacha Rambova, which contains memories of her life with him. The following year, a second memoir was published entitled Rudolph Valentino Recollections (a variation of Rudy: An Intimate Portrait), in which she prefaces an addended final chapter by asking that only those "ready to accept the truth" read on; what follows is a detailed letter supposedly communicated by Valentino's spirit from an astral plane, which Rambova claimed to have received during an automatic writing session.
While residing in New York, she frequently arranged séances and claimed to have made contact with Valentino's spirit on several occasions. Rambova also appeared in supporting parts in two original 1927 Broadway productions: Set a Thief, a drama, Jr., and Creoles, a comedy.
In June 1928, she opened an elite couture shop on Fifth Avenue and West 55th street in Manhattan, which sold Russian-inspired clothing that Rambova herself designed. Her clientele included Broadway and Hollywood actresses such as Beulah Bondi and Mae Murray.
On opening the shop, she commented: "I'm in business, not exactly because I need the money, but because it enables me to give vent to an artistic urge." In addition to clothing, the shop also carried jewelry, although it is unknown if it was designed by Rambova or imported.
By late 1931, Rambova had grown uneasy about the economic situation of the United States during the Great Depression, and feared the country would experience a drastic revolution. This led her close her shop and formally retire from commercial fashion design, leaving the United States to live in Juan-les-Pins, France in 1932.
On a yacht cruise to the Balearic Islands, she met her second husband Álvaro de Urzáiz, a British-educated Spanish aristocrat, whom she married in 1932. They lived together on the island of Mallorca and restored abandoned Spanish villas for tourists, a venture financed by Rambova's inheritance from her stepfather.
It was during her marriage to Urzáiz that Rambova first toured Egypt in January 1936, visiting the ancient monuments in Memphis, Luxor, and Thebes. While there, she met archeologist Howard Carter, and became fascinated by the country and its history, which had a profound effect on her. "I felt as if I had at last returned home," she said. "The first few days I was there I couldn't stop the tears streaming from my eyes. It was not sadness, but some emotional impact from the past–a returning to a place once loved after too long a time."Upon returning to Spain, Urzáiz became a naval commander for the pro-fascist nationalist side during the Spanish Civil War. Rambova fled the country to a familial château in Nice, where she suffered a heart attack at age forty. Soon after, she and Urzáiz separated. Rambova remained in France until the Nazi invasion in June 1940, upon which she returned to New York.
Rambova's interest in the metaphysical evolved significantly during the 1940s, and she became an avid supporter of the Bollingen Foundation, through which she believed she could see a past life in Egypt. Rambova was also follower of Helena Blavatsky and George Gurdjieff, and conducted classes in her Manhattan apartment about myths, symbolism and comparative religion. She also began publishing articles on healing, astrology, yoga, post-war rehabilitation, and numerous other topics, some of which appeared in American Astrology and Harper's Bazaar.
In 1945, the Old Dominion (a predecessor to the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation) awarded Rambova a grant-in-aid of USD$500 for "making a collection of essential cosmological symbols for a proposed archive of comparative universal symbolism. " Rambova intended to use her research to generate a book, which she wanted Ananda Coomaraswamy to write, with the principal themes derived from astrology, theosophy, and Atlantis. In an undated letter to Mary Mellon, she wrote:
It is so necessary that gradually people be given the realization of a universal pattern of purpose and human growth, which the knowledge of the mysteries of initiation of the Atlantean past, as the source of our symbols of the Unconscious, gives ... Just as you said, knowledge of the meaning of the destruction of Atlantis and the present cycle of recurrence would give people an understanding of the present situation.”
Rambova's intellectual investment in Egypt also led her to undertake work deciphering ancient scarabs and tomb inscriptions, which she began researching in 1946. While researching at the Institut Français d'Archéologie Orientale in Cairo, she met the institute's director, Alexandre Piankoff, with whom she established a rapport based on their shared interest in Egyptology. Piankoff introduced her to his French translation of the Book of Caverns, a royal funerary text, which he was working on at the time.
Her interest in the Book of Caverns led her to abandon her studies of scarabs, and she began translating Piankoff's French translation into English, an endeavor she felt "was the main purpose and point" of her studies in Egypt. She secured a second two-year grant of US$50,000 through the Mellon and Bollingen Foundations to help Piankoff photograph and publish his work on the Book of Caverns.
In the spring of 1950, the group was given permission to photograph and study inscriptions on golden shrines that had once enclosed the sarcophagus of Tutankhamun, after which they toured the Pyramid of Unas at Saqqara.
After completing the expedition in Egypt, Rambova returned to the United States, where, in 1954, she donated her extensive collection of Egyptian artifacts (accumulated over years of research) to the University of Utah's Museum of Fine Arts (UMFA).
She settled in New Milford, Connecticut, where she spent the following several years working as an editor on the first three volumes of Piankoff's series Egyptian Texts and Religious Representations.
Rambova continued to write and research intensely into her sixties, often working twelve hours per day.
In the years prior to her death, she was working on a manuscript examining texts from the Pyramid of Unas for a translation by Piankoff. This manuscript, which exceeds a thousand pages, was donated to the Brooklyn Museum after her death.
In the early 1950s Rambova developed scleroderma, which significantly affected her throat, impeding her ability to swallow and speak.
She grew delusional, believing that she was being poisoned, and quit eating, resulting in malnourishment. On September 29, 1965, she was discovered going "berserk" in a hotel elevator in Manhattan. Rambova was admitted to Lenox Hill Hospital, where she was diagnosed with paranoid psychosis brought on by malnutrition.
With her health in rapid decline, Rambova's cousin, Ann Wollen, relocated her from her home in Connecticut to California, in order to help take care of her. She was then relocated to a nursing home at Las Encinas Hospital in Pasadena. She died there six months later of a heart attack on June 5, 1966 at the age of 69. At her wishes, Rambova was cremated, and her ashes were scattered in a forest in northern Arizona.
Rambova was one of the few women in Hollywood during the 1920s to serve as a head art designer in film productions. At the time, her costume and set designs were considered "highly stylized," and divided opinion among critics. Rambova's sets incorporated shimmering shades of silver and white against sharp "moderne" lines, and blended elements of Bauhaus and Asian-inspired geometries.
Rambova's clothing designs drew on various influences, described by fashion critics as blending and re-working elements of Renaissance, 18th-century, Oriental, Grecian, Russian, and Victorian fashion. Common preferences in her work included the dolman sleeve, long skirts with high waists, premium velvets, and intricate embroidery, as well as incorporation of geometric shapes and use of "vivid colors ... that are violent and definite. Scarlets, vermilions, strong blues, [and] blazoning purples." She was cited as influential by several designers with whom she worked, including Norman Norell, Adrian, and Irene Sharaff.
Rambova typically dressed in the style of her designs, and thus her personal style was also influential: She often wore her hair in coiled "ballerina style" braids, sometimes covered in a headscarf or turban, with dangling earrings and calf-length velvet or brocade skirts. Actress Myrna Loy once proclaimed Rambova the "most beautiful woman she'd ever seen."
In 2003, Rambova was posthumously inducted into the Costume Designers' Guild Hall of Fame.
Rambova's scholarly work has been regarded as significant by contemporary academics in the fields of Egyptology and history.
In the 1950s, Rambova donated her extensive collection of Egyptian artifacts to the University of Utah, displayed in the Utah Museum of Fine Arts's Natacha Rambova Collection of Egyptian Antiquities. Both Rambova and her mother were credited as "vital" to the establishment of the museum through their donations of paintings, furniture, and artifacts.
Sir Noël Peirce Coward (16 December 1899 – 26 March 1973) was an English playwright, composer, director, actor and singer, known for his wit, flamboyance, and what Time magazine called "a sense of personal style, a combination of cheek and chic, pose and poise".
Coward attended a dance academy in London as a child, making his professional stage début at the age of eleven. As a teenager he was introduced into the high society in which most of his plays would be set. Coward achieved enduring success as a playwright, publishing more than 50 plays from his teens onwards. Many of his works, such as Hay Fever, Private Lives, Design for Living, Present Laughter and Blithe Spirit, have remained in the regular theatre repertoire. He composed hundreds of songs, in addition to well over a dozen musical theatre works (including the operetta Bitter Sweet and comic revues), screenplays, poetry, several volumes of short stories, the novel Pomp and Circumstance, and a three-volume autobiography. Coward's stage and film acting and directing career spanned six decades, during which he starred in many of his own works, as well as those of others.
At the outbreak of the Second World War Coward volunteered for war work, running the British propaganda office in Paris. He also worked with the Secret Service, seeking to use his influence to persuade the American public and government to help Britain. Coward won an Academy Honorary Award in 1943 for his naval film drama In Which We Serve and was knighted in 1969. In the 1950s he achieved fresh success as a cabaret performer, performing his own songs, such as "Mad Dogs and Englishmen", "London Pride" and "I Went to a Marvellous Party".
Coward's plays and songs achieved new popularity in the 1960s and 1970s, and his work and style continue to influence popular culture. He did not publicly acknowledge his homosexuality, but it was discussed candidly after his death by biographers including Graham Payn, his long-time partner, and in Coward's diaries and letters, published posthumously. The former Albery Theatre (originally the New Theatre) in London was renamed the Noël Coward Theatre in his honour in 2006.
Noel Coward was born in 1899 in Teddington, Middlesex, a south-western suburb of London. His parents were Arthur Sabin Coward (1856–1937), a piano salesman, and Violet Agnes Coward (1863–1954), daughter of Henry Gordon Veitch, a captain and surveyor in the Royal Navy. Noël Coward was the second of their three sons. Coward's father lacked ambition and industry, and family finances were often poor. Coward was bitten by the performing bug early and appeared in amateur concerts by the age of seven. He attended the Chapel Royal Choir School as a young child. He had little formal schooling but was a voracious reader.
Encouraged by his ambitious mother, who sent him to a dance academy in London, Coward's first professional engagement was in January 1911 as Prince Mussel in the children's play The Goldfish.
In 1912 Coward was cast as the Lost Boy Slightly in Peter Pan. He reappeared in Peter Pan the following year. He worked with other child actors in this period, including Gertrude Lawrence who, Coward wrote in his memoirs, "gave me an orange and told me a few mildly dirty stories, and I loved her from then onwards."
In 1914, when Coward was fourteen, he became the protégé and probably the lover of Philip Streatfeild, a society painter. Streatfeild introduced him to Mrs Astley Cooper and her high society friends. Streatfeild died from tuberculosis in 1915, but Mrs Astley Cooper continued to encourage her late friend's protégé, who remained a frequent guest at her estate, Hambleton Hall in Rutland.
Coward continued to perform during most of the First World War. In 1918, Coward was conscripted into the Artists Rifles but was assessed as unfit for active service because of a tubercular tendency, and he was discharged on health grounds after nine months. That year he appeared in the D. W. Griffith film Hearts of the World in an uncredited role. He sold short stories to several magazines to help his family financially. He also began writing plays. His first solo effort as a playwright was The Rat Trap (1918) which was eventually produced at the Everyman Theatre, Hampstead, in October 1926. During these years, he met Lorn McNaughtan, who became his private secretary and served in that capacity for more than forty years, until her death.
In 1920, at the age of 20, Coward starred in his own play, the light comedy I'll Leave It to You. After a three-week run in Manchester it opened in London at the New Theatre (renamed the Noël Coward Theatre in 2006), his first full-length play in the West End.
The play ran for a month after which Coward returned to acting in works by other writers.
In 1921, Coward made his first trip to America, hoping to interest producers there in his plays. Although he had little luck, he found the Broadway theatre stimulating. He absorbed its smartness and pace into his own work, which brought him his first real success as a playwright with The Young Idea. The play opened in London in 1923, after a provincial tour, with Coward in one of the leading roles. The play ran in London from 1 February to 24 March 1923, after which Coward turned to revue.
In 1924, Coward achieved his first great critical and financial success as a playwright with The Vortex. The story is about a nymphomaniac socialite and her cocaine-addicted son (played by Coward).
The Vortex was considered shocking in its day for its depiction of sexual vanity and drug abuse among the upper classes. Its notoriety and fiery performances attracted large audiences, justifying a move from a small suburban theatre to a larger one in the West End. Coward, still having trouble finding producers, raised the money to produce the play himself. During the run of The Vortex, Coward met Jack Wilson, an American stockbroker (later a director and producer), who became his business manager and lover. Wilson abused his position to steal from Coward, but the playwright was in love and accepted both the larceny and Wilson's heavy drinking.
The success of The Vortex in both London and America caused a great demand for new Coward plays.
Hay Fever, the first of Coward's plays to gain an enduring place in the mainstream theatrical repertoire, appeared in 1925. It is a comedy about four egocentric members of an artistic family who casually invite acquaintances to their country house for the weekend and bemuse and enrage each other's guests. By the 1970s the play was recognised as a classic.
By June 1925 Coward had four shows running in the West End: The Vortex, Fallen Angels, Hay Fever and On with the Dance. Coward was turning out numerous plays and acting in his own works and others'. Soon, his frantic pace caught up with him, and he collapsed on stage in 1926 while starring in a stage adaptation of The Constant Nymph and had to take an extended rest, recuperating in Hawaii.
Other Coward works produced in the mid-to-late 1920s included the plays such as Easy Virtue (1926), a drama about a divorcée's clash with her snobbish in-laws; The Marquise (1927), an eighteenth-century costume drama; His biggest failure in this period was the play Sirocco (1927), which concerns free love among the wealthy.
In 1926, Coward acquired Goldenhurst Farm, in Aldington, Kent, making it his home for most of the next thirty years, except when the military used it during the Second World War. It is a Grade II listed building.
By 1929 Coward was one of the world's highest-earning writers, with an annual income of £50,000, more than £2,800,000 in terms of 2018 values. Coward thrived during the Great Depression, writing a succession of popular hits. They ranged from large-scale spectaculars to intimate comedies. His historical extravaganza Cavalcade (1931) about thirty years in the lives of two families, was adapted into a film and won the Academy Award for best picture in 1933. Coward's intimate-scale hits of the period included Private Lives (1930) and Design for Living (1932). In Private Lives, Coward starred alongside his most famous stage partner, Gertrude Lawrence, together with the young Laurence Olivier. It was a highlight of both Coward's and Lawrence's career, selling out in both London and New York. Coward disliked long runs, and after this he made a rule of starring in a play for no more than three months at any venue.
Design for Living, written for Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne, was so risqué, with its theme of bisexuality and a ménage à trois, that Coward premiered it in New York, knowing that it would not survive the censor in London.
In 1936 Coward wrote, directed and co-starred with Lawrence in Tonight at 8.30 (1936), a cycle of ten short plays. One of these plays, Still Life, was expanded into the 1945 David Lean film Brief Encounter. Coward's last pre-war plays were This Happy Breed, a drama about a working-class family, and Present Laughter, a comic self-caricature with an egomaniac actor as the central character. These were first performed in 1942, although they were both written in 1939.
With the outbreak of the Second World War Coward abandoned the theatre and sought official war work. After running the British propaganda office in Paris, he worked on behalf of British intelligence. His task was to use his celebrity to influence American public and political opinion in favour of helping Britain. He was frustrated by British press criticism of his foreign travel while his countrymen suffered at home, but he was unable to reveal that he was acting on behalf of the Secret Service. In 1942 George VI wished to award Coward a knighthood for his efforts, but was dissuaded by Winston Churchill.
Coward then followed advice of Churchill of entertaining the troops and the home front instead of continuing his intelligence work. He toured, acted and sang indefatigably in Europe, Africa, Asia and America. His London home was wrecked by German bombs in 1941, and he took up temporary residence at the Savoy Hotel. Another of Coward's wartime projects, as writer, star, composer and co-director (alongside David Lean), was the naval film drama In Which We Serve. The film was popular on both sides of the Atlantic, and he was awarded an honorary certificate of merit at the 1943 Academy Awards ceremony. Coward played a naval captain, basing the character on his friend Lord Louis Mountbatten. David Lean went on to direct and adapt film versions of several Coward plays.
Coward's most enduring work from the war years was the hugely successful black comedy Blithe Spirit (1941), about a novelist who researches the occult and hires a medium. A séance brings back the ghost of his first wife, causing havoc for the novelist and his second wife. With 1,997 consecutive performances, it broke box-office records for the run of a West End comedy, and was also produced on Broadway, where its original run was 650 performances. The play was adapted into a 1945 film, directed by Lean.
Coward's new plays after the war were moderately successful but failed to match the popularity of his pre-war hits. Relative Values (1951) addresses the culture clash between an aristocratic English family and a Hollywood actress with matrimonial ambitions; South Sea Bubble (1951) is a political comedy set in a British colony; Quadrille (1952) is a drama about Victorian love and elopement; Further blows in this period were the deaths of Coward's friends Charles Cochran and Gertrude Lawrence, in 1951 and 1952 respectively. Despite his disappointments, Coward maintained a high public profile.
In 1955 Coward's cabaret act at Las Vegas, recorded live for the gramophone, and released as Noël Coward at Las Vegas, was so successful that CBS engaged him to write and direct a series of three 90-minute television specials for the 1955–56 season. including productions of Blithe Spirit in which he starred with Claudette Colbert and Lauren Bacall.
In the 1950s, Coward left the UK for tax reasons, receiving harsh criticism in the press. He first settled in Bermuda but later bought houses in Jamaica and Switzerland (in the village of Les Avants, near Montreux), which remained his homes for the rest of his life. His expatriate neighbours and friends included Joan Sutherland, David Niven, Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, and Julie Andrews and Blake Edwards in Switzerland and Ian Fleming and his wife Ann in Jamaica. Coward was a witness at the Flemings' wedding, but his diaries record his exasperation with their constant bickering.
During the 1950s and 1960s Coward continued to write musicals and plays. Sail Away (1961), set on a luxury cruise liner, was Coward's most successful post-war musical, with productions in America, Britain and Australia. He directed the successful 1964 Broadway musical adaptation of Blithe Spirit, called High Spirits.
Coward's final stage success came with Suite in Three Keys (1966), a trilogy set in a hotel penthouse suite. He wrote it as his swan song as a stage actor. In one of the three plays, A Song at Twilight, Coward abandoned his customary reticence on the subject and played an explicitly homosexual character. The daring piece earned Coward new critical praise.
Coward won new popularity in several notable films later in his career, such as Around the World in 80 Days (1956), Our Man in Havana (1959), Bunny Lake Is Missing (1965), Boom! (1968) and The Italian Job (1969). He refused to play the title role in the 1962 film Dr. No, and the role of Colonel Nicholson in the film The Bridge on the River Kwai, as well as the role of the king in the original stage production of The King and I. He also refused to compose a musical version of Pygmalion (two years before My Fair Lady was written).
By the end of the 1960s, Coward suffered from arteriosclerosis and, during the run of Suite in Three Keys, he struggled with bouts of memory loss. This also affected his work in The Italian Job, and he retired from acting immediately afterwards.
Coward was knighted in 1970, and was elected a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature. That same year he also received a Tony Award for lifetime achievement.
Coward died at his home, Firefly Estate, in Jamaica on 26 March 1973 of heart failure and was buried three days later on the brow of Firefly Hill, overlooking the north coast of the island. A memorial service was held in St Martin-in-the-Fields in London on 29 May 1973. John Gielgud and Laurence Olivier read verse and Yehudi Menuhin played Bach.
There are probably greater painters than Noël, greater novelists than Noël, greater librettists, greater composers of music, greater singers, greater dancers, greater comedians, greater tragedians, greater stage producers, greater film directors, greater cabaret artists, greater TV stars. If there are, they are fourteen different people. Only one man combined all fourteen different labels – The Master."
Coward was homosexual but, following the convention of his times, this was never publicly mentioned. Even in the 1960s, Coward refused to acknowledge his sexual orientation publicly. Despite this reticence, he encouraged his secretary Cole Lesley to write a frank biography once Coward was safely dead.
Coward's most important relationship, which began in the mid-1940s and lasted until his death, was with the South African stage and film actor Graham Payn. Coward featured Payn in several of his London productions. Payn later co-edited with Sheridan Morley a collection of Coward's diaries, published in 1982. Coward's other relationships included the playwright Keith Winter, actors Louis Hayward and Alan Webb, his manager Jack Wilson and the composer Ned Rorem, who published details of their relationship in his diaries. Coward had a 19-year friendship with Prince George, Duke of Kent, but biographers differ on whether it was platonic. Payn believed that it was, although Coward reportedly admitted to the historian Michael Thornton that there had been "a little dalliance".
Coward maintained close friendships with many women, including the actress and author Esmé Wynne-Tyson, his first collaborator and constant correspondent; Gladys Calthrop, who designed sets and costumes for many of his works; his secretary and close confidante Lorn Loraine; the actresses Gertrude Lawrence, Joyce Carey and Judy Campbell; and "his loyal and lifelong amitié amoureuse", Marlene Dietrich.
In his profession, Coward was widely admired and loved for his generosity and kindness to those who fell on hard times. Stories are told of the unobtrusive way in which he relieved the needs or paid the debts of old theatrical acquaintances who had no claim on him.
As soon as he achieved success he began polishing the Coward image: an early press photograph showed him sitting up in bed holding a cigarette holder: "I looked like an advanced Chinese decadent in the last phases of dope." Soon after that, Coward wrote, "I took to wearing coloured turtle-necked jerseys, actually more for comfort than for effect, and soon I was informed by my evening paper that I had started a fashion. I believe that to a certain extent this was true; at any rate, during the ensuing months I noticed more and more of our seedier West-End chorus boys parading about London in them." He soon became more cautious about overdoing the flamboyance, advising Cecil Beaton to tone down his outfits: "It is important not to let the public have a loophole to lampoon you." However, Coward was happy to generate publicity from his lifestyle. In 1969 he told Time magazine, "I acted up like crazy. I did everything that was expected of me. Part of the job." Time concluded, "Coward's greatest single gift has not been writing or composing, not acting or directing, but projecting a sense of personal style, a combination of cheek and chic, pose and poise."
A symposium published in 1999 to mark the centenary of Coward's birth listed some of his major productions scheduled for the year in Britain and North America, including Ace of Clubs, After the Ball, Blithe Spirit, Cavalcade, Easy Virtue, Hay Fever, Present Laughter, Private Lives, Sail Away, A Song at Twilight, The Young Idea and Waiting in the Wings.
In another tribute, Tim Rice said of Coward's songs: "The wit and wisdom of Noël Coward's lyrics will be as lively and contemporary in 100 years' time as they are today".
Coward's music, writings, characteristic voice and style have been widely parodied and imitated. Coward has frequently been depicted as a character in plays, films, television and radio shows.
The Noël Coward Theatre in St Martin's Lane, originally opened in 1903 as the New Theatre and later called the Albery, was renamed in his honour after extensive refurbishment, re-opening on 1 June 2006. In 2008 an exhibition devoted to Coward was mounted at the National Theatre in London.
“Isn’t it awful to love clothes as much as I do, you know, I am not vain at all.¨
Profile of Nancy Mitford
Nancy Freeman-Mitford CBE (28 November 1904 – 30 June 1973), known as Nancy Mitford, was an English novelist, biographer and journalist. One of the Mitford sisters, she was regarded as one of the "Bright Young People" on the London social scene in the inter-war years. She wrote several novels about upper-class life in England and France and was considered a sharp and often provocative wit. She also established a reputation for herself as a writer of popular historical biographies.
Mitford enjoyed a privileged childhood as the eldest daughter of the Hon. David Freeman-Mitford, later 2nd Baron Redesdale. Educated privately, she had no training as a writer before publishing her first novel in 1931. This early effort and the three that followed it created little stir; it was her two semi-autobiographical postwar novels, The Pursuit of Love (1945) and Love in a Cold Climate (1949), that established her reputation.
Nancy Mitford married Peter Rodd in 1933 and they divorced in 1957 after a lengthy separation. During the Second World War she formed a liaison with a Free French officer, Gaston Palewski who became the love of her life, although he was never her formal lover. After the war Mitford settled in France and lived there until her death, maintaining social contact with her many English friends through letters and regular visits.
During the 1950s Nancy Mitford was identified with the concept of "U" (upper) and "non-U" language, whereby social origins and standing were identified by words used in everyday speech. She had intended this as a joke, but many took it seriously, and Mitford was considered an authority on manners and breeding—possibly her most recognised legacy. Her later years were bitter-sweet, the success of her biographical studies of Madame de Pompadour, Voltaire and King Louis XIV contrasting with the ultimate failure of her relationship with Palewski. From the late 1960s her health deteriorated, and she endured several years of painful illness before her death in 1973.
Biography of Nancy Mitford
Nancy Mitford's father, David Bertram Ogilvy Freeman-Mitford was a tea planter in Ceylon he who fought in the Boer War of 1899–1902 and was severely wounded, and her mother Sydney Bowles was the elder daughter of Thomas Gibson Bowles, a journalist, editor and magazine proprietor whose publications included Vanity Fair and The Lady.
Nancy Mitford´s father worked as business manager of The Lady magazine, a post provided by her maternal grandfather, although he remained in this position for ten years, he had little interest in reading and knew nothing of business.
Nancy Mitford´s parents married on 16 February 1904, and she was born on 28 November the same year, her day-to-day upbringing was delegated to her nanny and nursemaid, within the framework of her mother´s short-lived belief that children should never be corrected or be spoken to in anger. Before this experiment was discontinued, Nancy had become self-centred and uncontrollable.
In summer of 1910 Nancy attended the nearby Francis Holland School and the few months she spent there represented almost the whole of her formal schooling; in the autumn the family moved to a larger house in Victoria Road, Kensington, after which Nancy was educated at home by successive governesses. Summers were spent at the family's cottage near High Wycombe, in Buckinghamshire, or with the children's Redesdale grandparents at Batsford Park.
In 1921, after years of pleading for proper schooling, Nancy was allowed a year's boarding at Hatherop Castle, an informal private establishment for young ladies of good family. Here Nancy learned French and other subjects, played organised games and joined a Girl Guide troop. It was her first extended experience of life away from home, and she enjoyed it.The following year she was allowed to accompany four sisters on a cultural trip to Paris, Florence and Venice; her letters home are full of expressions of wonder at the sights and treasures: "I had no idea I was so fond of pictures ... if only I had a room of my own I would make it a regular picture gallery".
Nancy's eighteenth birthday in November 1922 was the occasion for a grand "coming-out" ball, marking the beginning of her entry into Society. This was followed in June 1923 by her presentation at Court—a formal introduction to King George V at Buckingham Palace—after which she was officially "out" and could attend the balls and parties that constituted the London Season. She spent much of the next few years in a round of social events, making new friends and mixing with the "Bright Young People" of 1920s London. Nancy declared that "we hardly saw the light of day, except at dawn".
In 1926 Asthall Manor was finally sold. While the new house at Swinbrook was made ready, the female members of the family were sent for three months to Paris, a period which began Nancy's "lifelong love affair" with France.
Although she was now of age, her father maintained an aggressive hostility towards most of her male friends, these tended towards the frivolous, the aesthetic and the effeminate. Among them was Hamish St Clair Erskine, the second son of the 5th Earl of Rosslyn, an Oxford undergraduate four years Nancy's junior, who met her in 1928 and they became unofficially engaged, despite his homosexuality (of which Nancy may not have been aware).
As a means of augmenting the meagre allowance provided by her father, Nancy Mitford began writing, encouraged by Evelyn Waugh, whom she met via her friend Evelyn Gardner. Her first efforts, anonymous contributions to gossip columns in society magazines, led to occasional signed articles, and in 1930 The Lady engaged her to write a regular column. That winter, she embarked on a full-length novel, Highland Fling, in which various characters—mostly identifiable among her friends, acquaintances and family—attend a Scottish house-party which develops chaotically. The book made little impact when it was published in March 1931, and she immediately began work on another, Christmas Pudding, Like the earlier novel, the plot centres on a clash between the "Bright Young People" and the older generation. Hamish Erskine is clearly identifiable in the character of "Bobby Bobbin" in the novel.
Against a backdrop of negativity from family and friends the affair between Nancy Mitford and Hamish Erskine endured sporadically for several years until 1933 when Hamish Erskine ended it abruptly, annoucing to Nancy Mitford he was going to marry someone else. After their parting, Nancy wrote to him: "I thought in your soul you loved me & that in the end we should have children & look back on life together when we are old".
Within a month of Erskine's departure, however, Nancy Mitford announced her engagement to Peter Rodd, the second son of Sir Rennell Rodd, a diplomat and politician who was ennobled that year as Baron Rennell.
They were married on 4 December 1933, after which they settled into a cottage at Strand-on-the-Green on the western edges of London. Mitford's initial delight in the marriage was soon tempered by money worries, Rodd's fecklessness and her dislike of his family.
By 1936 Mitford's marriage was largely a sham. Early in 1939 Rodd left for the South of France, to work with the relief organisations assisting the thousands of Spanish refugees who had fled from General Franco's armies in the final stages of the civil war.
In 1932 Nancy Mitford's life was overshadowed by a family scandal involving her younger sister Diana Mitford, who had married Bryan Guinness in 1928 bur deserted her husband and their two children to become the mistress of Sir Oswald Mosley, the leader of the British Union of Fascists, himself married with three children. Nancy was the only one who offered her sister support, regularly visiting her and keeping her up to date with family news and social gossip.
In September 1942 Nancy Mitford met Gaston Palewski, a French colonel attached to General Charles de Gaulle's London staff. She found him fascinating, and he became the love of her life—though her feelings were never fully reciprocated—and an inspiration for much of her future writing.
In 1944, with Evelyn Waugh's encouragement, Nancy Mitford began planning a new novel. In March 1945 she was given three months' leave from the shop to write it. The Pursuit of Love is a heavily autobiographical romantic comedy in which many of her family and acquaintances appear in thin disguises. The book sold 200,000 copies within a year of publication, and firmly established Mitford as a best-selling author.
Mitford’s most enduringly popular novel, The Pursuit of Love is a classic comedy about growing up and falling in love among the privileged and eccentric.
Mitford modeled her characters on her own famously unconventional family. We are introduced to the Radletts through the eyes of their cousin Fanny, who stays with them at Alconleigh, their Gloucestershire estate. Uncle Matthew is the blustering patriarch, known to hunt his children when foxes are scarce; Aunt Sadie is the vague but doting mother; and the seven Radlett children, despite the delights of their unusual childhood, are recklessly eager to grow up. The first of three novels featuring these characters, The Pursuit of Love follows the travails of Linda, the most beautiful and wayward Radlett daughter, who falls first for a stuffy Tory politician, then an ardent Communist, and finally a French duke named Fabrice.
At the end of the war Peter Rodd returned to Nancy from the war, but their marriage was essentially over; although remaining on friendly terms, the couple led separate lives, and in April 1946, Nancy left London to make her permanent home in Paris and never lived in England again.
During her first 18 months in Paris Mitford lived in several short-term lodgings while enjoying a hectic social life, the hub of which was the British Embassy under the regime of the ambassador, Duff Cooper, and his socialite wife Lady Diana Cooper. Eventually Mitford found a comfortable apartment, with a maid, at No. 7 rue Monsieur on the Left Bank, close to Palewski's residence.
Settled there in comfort, she established a pattern to her life that she mostly followed for the next 20 years, her precise timetable determined by Palewski's varying availability. Her socialising, entertaining and working were interspersed with regular short visits to family and friends in England and summers generally spent in Venice.
In 1948 Nancy Mitford completed a new novel, a sequel to The Pursuit of Love she called Love in a Cold Climate, with the same country house ambience as the earlier book and many of the same characters. The novel's reception was even warmer than that of its predecessor; In 1950 she translated and adapted André Roussin's play La petite hutte ("The Little Hut"), in preparation for its successful West End début in August, and the play ran for 1,261 performances, and provided Mitford with a steady £300 per month in royalties. The same year The Sunday Times asked her to contribute a regular column, which she did for four years. This busy period in her writing life continued in 1951 with her third postwar novel, The Blessing, another semi-autobiographical romance this time set in Paris, in which an aristocratic young Englishwoman is married to a libidinous French marquis. Evelyn Waugh (to whom the book was dedicated) found the book "admirable, deliciously funny, consistent and complete, by far the best of your writings".
Mitford then began her first serious non-fiction work, a biography of Madame de Pompadour, and in 1957, she published Voltaire in Love, an account of the love affair between Voltaire and the Marquise du Châtelet, which she considered it her first truly grown-up work, and her best.
In October 1960 Nancy Mitford published Don't Tell Alfred, in which she revived Fanny Wincham, the narrator of The Pursuit of Love and Love in a Cold Climate, and placed her in a Paris setting as wife of the British ambassador. The book was popular with the public, but received indifferent reviews, and she decided she would write no more fiction
In this delightful comedy, Fanny—the quietly observant narrator of Nancy Mitford’s two most famous novels—finally takes center stage.
Fanny Wincham—last seen as a young woman in The Pursuit of Love and Love in a Cold Climate—has lived contentedly for years as housewife to an absent-minded Oxford don, Alfred. But her life changes overnight when her beloved Alfred is appointed English Ambassador to Paris. Soon she finds herself mixing with royalty and Rothschilds while battling her hysterical predecessor, Lady Leone, who refuses to leave the premises. When Fanny’s tender-hearted secretary begins filling the embassy with rescued animals and her teenage sons run away from Eton and show up with a rock star in tow, things get entirely out of hand. Gleefully sending up the antics of mid-century high society, Don’t Tell Alfred is classic Mitford.
In 1964 Nancy began work on The Sun King, a biography of King Louis XIV and it was published in August 1966, among the many tributes to the book was that of President de Gaulle, who recommended it to every member of his cabinet.
As her landlord on 7 rue Monsieur increased her rent, Nancy decided to leave Paris and buy herself a house in Versailles and moved to No. 4 rue d'Artois, Versailles, in January 1967.
The modest house had a half-acre (0.2 hectare) garden, which soon became one of her chief delights. In 1968 she began work on her final book, a biography of Frederick the Great. After a series of illnesses she learned from a newspaper announcement that Palewski had married the Duchesse de Sagan, a rich divorcée. Shortly after, she entered hospital for the removal of a tumour. After the operation she continued to suffer pain, although she was able to continue working on her book Frederick the Great which was published later in 1970 to a muted reception.
Mitford's remaining years were dominated by her illness, although for a time she enjoyed visits from her sisters and friends, and working in her garden. In April 1972 the French government made her a Chevalier of the Légion d'Honneur, and later that year the British government appointed her a Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE). She was delighted by the former honour, and amused by the latter
At the end of 1972 she entered the Nuffield Clinic in London, where she was diagnosed with Hodgkin's lymphoma, a cancer of the blood. She lived for another six months, unable to look after herself and in almost constant pain, struggling to keep her spirits up. She wrote to her friend James Lees-Milne: "It's very curious, dying, and would have many a drôle amusing & charming side were it not for the pain". She died on 30 June 1973 at her home in the rue d'Artois and was cremated in Versailles.