Sunday, April 13, 2008

Noël Coward: The Playboy Was a Spy

New York Times
April 13, 2008
The Playboy Was a Spy

“Celebrity was wonderful cover,” Noël Coward said near the end of his life. “My disguise would be my own reputation as a bit of an idiot ... a merry playboy.”

In 1973, a month before he died, the epitome of flippant British sophistication decided to permit himself a few clipped words about one last secret. In a filmed interview with the biographer of Sir William Stephenson, the spymaster code-named “Intrepid,” Coward made his sole public statement about his wartime espionage work. A scrupulous public servant, he got clearance before discussing how he had been a spy for England, trained (with his friend Ian Fleming) in covert action in the secret headquarters of Bletchley Park, which, as he tossed off with characteristic offhandedness, “I should have thought would be fairly easy to find by any German agent with the faintest enterprise.” Working with Stephenson (among others), he had toured three continents singing, being amusing, acting as a courier, filing eyes-only reports on influential people and probably meeting covert British contacts. “I learned a lot from the technical people,” Coward said, and “could have made a career in espionage” — except, he sighed, “my life’s been full enough of intrigue as it is.”

The revelation did not come as a total surprise. In his autobiography, “Future Indefinite” (1954), Coward had written in a vague way about his war work. The surprise in 1973 was how serious and official it had been. Yet until the recent publication of “The Letters of Noël Coward,” edited by Barry Day, few have had a firm grip on what the man really did as a spy. Now, Coward’s letters and Day’s excellent commentary have pulled a fair amount of the covert nitty-gritty out of the archival murk.

Coward’s spycraft had a Scarlet Pimpernel side. The idea was to use his public personality — the merry playboy, the “don’t ask/don’t tell” gay celebrity — as a mask for his passionate antifascism. By 1936, Coward’s unchic loathing of appeasement and Neville Chamberlain (“that bloody conceited old sod”) was turning him into something of a Churchill bore. In 1938, when his old friend Ivor Novello shed “tears of relief” over Chamberlain’s let’s-pretend peace, Coward threw a punch that nearly decked him. “We have nothing to worry about,” he wrote to another friend, “but the destruction of civilization.” His intense patriotism could get a little thick — “It’s still a pretty exciting thing to be English,” he declared in a 1931 curtain call — but he knew how to give it a comic glow. Perhaps a lifetime of concealing his own private life gave him a knack for the clandestine. In any case, he said, “I wanted to prove my integrity to myself.”

So he played the fool. “I was the perfect silly ass,” he said. “Nobody ... considered I had a sensible thought in my head, and they would say all kinds of things that I’d pass along.”

It was a senior diplomat named Robert Vansittart, routinely dismissed in the Foreign Office as an anti-Nazi Cassandra, who in late 1937 or 1938 spotted how to use Coward’s flamboyance, intelligence and flawless memory to help tend an unofficial, off-the-books anti-Nazi intelligence network he had set up across Europe. Vansittart dispatched Coward on tour in such un-Cowardy places as Warsaw, Moscow and Helsinki, where he sang songs, gauged Nazi influence among star-struck V.I.P.’s and (very likely) contacted sources on the ground. If he fooled the V.I.P.’s, Coward failed to fool the Nazis. He was soon on the Gestapo’s list of people to be “liquidated” when Britain fell.

When war came, Coward was sent to Paris as a figurehead in a propaganda office, where he made it part of his cover to mock intelligence work as childish games carried out by inept duffers. When someone proposed leafleting the enemy with speeches from Chamberlain and Lord Halifax, he recalled, “I wrote in a memorandum that if the policy of His Majesty’s Government was to bore the Germans to death I didn’t think we had enough time.”

Being Noël Coward, he also partied — notably with the recently abdicated pro-Nazi Duke of Windsor and his more intelligent and even more pro-Nazi wife. The Windsors may have looked like Coward’s type, but Coward had always privately despised the former king. In 1936, he wrote, “I’ve known for years that he had a common mind and liked second-rate people, and I am sure it is a good thing for England that he abdicated.”

By 1940, the Windsors had graduated from mediocrity into real menace. One factor in the abdication had been that the prime minister had been told, reliably, that the woman inflaming the king’s already fascistic sentiments was a friend of Ribbentrop and the next thing to a Nazi agent. After the abdication, the Windsors were married in the residence of a Nazi collaborator. As the Battle of Britain approached, British intelligence believed — correctly — that Hitler, assisted by Ribbentrop, planned to restore the duke to the throne as a quisling monarch. Worst of all, intelligence suspected that the couple may have been complicit in this treachery.

Here was a man Coward had mistrusted even before he became an enemy of his country. And yet — hi ho! Off to another Windsor soiree! We can only speculate whether Coward was keeping unofficial tabs on the couple. When the facts started surfacing in the ’60s, his sole comment was two dry lines about the duke in his diary: “Secret papers have disclosed his pro-Nazi perfidy, which, of course, I was perfectly aware of at the time. ... What a monumental ass he has always been!”

Coward’s contacts were at the top. Visiting America in the spring of 1940, he received a surprise invitation to the White House, where he kept the dinner party in stitches singing “Mad Dogs and Englishmen” straight through, very fast, twice. Then, over a private nightcap, Roosevelt discussed his desire to “manage” the march of events toward aid for Britain.

A month later, Coward was invited back. There were no more songs. It was just after Dunkirk, and the talk was grim. Back in London a month later, Churchill’s secretary handed him this memo: “Mr. Noël Coward ... would like to see you tonight if you can spare the time, as he has been staying with the president.” But Churchill had a mixed response to Coward as intermediary. “I had a gnawing suspicion that there was something about me that he didn’t like,” Coward wrote.

Still, Coward’s involvement in secret work deepened. Sometime during that same visit, on an unmarked floor in a gloomy building near Victoria Station, he had his first meeting with Intrepid, who immediately sent him back to the Americas, with a stop in Hollywood. Guided by a fellow celebrity-spy, Cary Grant (!), he was to assess pro- and anti-British opinion. On the right, a minority of stars — Errol Flynn, for example — were suspected of being pro-Nazi. On the left, Stalinists were using fronts like the Yanks Are Not Coming Committee to rationalize Stalin’s alliance with Hitler and the defeat of Britain, while the American Communist Party began a campaign denouncing Coward as an agent of British warmongers.

How important was Coward’s work? We still don’t know the details, but in 1941, Intrepid was sufficiently impressed to propose Coward for a still-mysterious job requiring approval from the top. On April 2, word descended almost certainly from Churchill himself, and the word was “no.” Coward was too conspicuous. He called it the “forbiddance.”

The star was only briefly crushed. “With me,” he said, “everything always turns out for the best, because I am bloody well determined that it shall!!” Looking for another way to fight, he vowed to compose the best patriotic song; make the best patriotic movie; and write the best play. The song was “London Pride.” The movie was “In Which We Serve.” And a week after the “forbiddance,” Coward packed off to a resort on the Welsh coast, where he sat down and wrote “Blithe Spirit” in five days flat. A bit of froth about a man haunted by the ghost of his dead wife, “Blithe Spirit” ran just shy of 2,000 performances. It kept Londoners laughing for the rest of the war.

Stephen Koch’s most recent book is “The Breaking Point: Hemingway, Dos Passos, and the Murder of José Robles.”

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