Esme Wynne and Noel Coward Collection

Archive Collection

Scope and Content

This collection contains materials relating to the friendship between Esme Wynne and Noel Coward, collected by Wynne. The materials comprise mainly of original correspondence between the two as well as letters to and from other relevant individuals. Also featured are theatrical programmes, photographs, news clippings, a play-text and copies of scripts and songs written collaboratively by Wynne and Coward.

Administrative / Biographical History

Dorothy Ripper was born in 1989 in Stockwell. Educated first by governesses, then at an English boarding school and finally at a Belgian convent, she became a child-actress in 1909, taking the stage name Esme Wynne.

Noel Peirce Coward was born in Teddington in 1899, the second of three sons. He was educated briefly at a choir school and later received dance lessons, but was otherwise lacking in formal schooling. Precocious and excelling in local amateur talent shows, Coward's mother steered him into a career on the stage. His first professional engagement came in 1911 at the age of 14, where he appeared in the children's play The Goldfish in London.

Later that year they both appeared in the first production of Clifford Mills' Where the Rainbow Ends . Soon after Wynne attended Coward's 12th birthday party and their friendship was cemented. In 1912 Wynne had her first writing success at the age of 13 when her first play The Princes Bride was put on for one night by Charles Hawtree at the Savoy, including Coward in the cast.

From here on in they were inseperable, spending time together whenever possible and otherwise writing to each other constantly. In 1915 they embarked on a lengthy British tour playing Charles and Amy in Brandon Thomas's Charley's Aunt.

Between acting appointments they would find time to create and collaborate persistently, writing sketches and songs together and also a number of one-act plays under the joint pen-name of Esnomel; Ida Collaborates (The Last Chapter) (staged 1917), To Have and to Hold (not staged), and Women and Whisky (staged 1918).

After this time their lives diverged sharply, and their collaborations ended although their friendship continued through their letter-writing and occassional visits. Unfortunately a fire at Wynne's holiday home destroyed most of the letters and scripts they had written.

Coward continued to perform as a child star in the West End, and worked all the way through World War I in film ( Hearts of the World with Lillian Gish) and on stage. In 1918 he was honourably discharged from the army on health grounds and began writing plays and short stories and composing music, often selling stories to magazines to help his family financially. At this time he became aquainted with Lorn McNaughton who would later become his personal secretary.

His first full-length play put on a West End stage was I Leave it to You in 1920 at the New Theatre. In 1924 The Vortex was put on at the Everyman Theatre and became a controversial success. During the run he met an American stockbroker Jack Wilson, who became his lover and business partner. The success of The Vortex rocketed Coward into fame and saw an increase in demand for his work.

Coward revelled in his stardom; befriending the rich and famous, travelling far and wide and living a lavish and fashionable lifestyle. By the end of the 1920s he had become one of the world's highest earning writers. He continued to write, compose and act successfully in Britain and in the US. The year 1930 saw the opening of what would be his crowning achivement: Private Lives stared himself, Laurence Olivier and Gertrude Lawrence (his muse) and played in the West End as well as on Broadway. The years 1941-2 were also particularly notable, seeing the release of This Happy Breed, Present Laughter, Blithe Spirit and the war film he wrote, co-directed and starred in, In Which We Serve .

Meanwhile Wynne continued to act. Her final stage appearance came in 1920 when she played Faith in Coward's comedy I'll Leave it to You, after which she retired into married life with her husband Lynden Tyson, an officer of the Royal Flying Corps.

In 1924 Wynne became a Christian Scientist, despite having in her youth drawn up a 'Palship Act' with Coward which forbade either to speak of religion due to the arguments it caused. Her first and only child Jon was born in 1924 and went on to become an author and publisher. Wynne's marriage to Tyson broke up in 1929.

In the years after her marriage Wynne went on to write non-fiction journalism, children's stories and novels including Security (1927) and Momus (1928). Towards the end of her writing career her subject-matter veered into philosophical and metaphysical concerns.

Coward's post-war efforts never matched his pre-war successes. His last stage hit was Suite in Three Keys at the Queen's Theatre in 1966. At this time suffering from various health complaints and avoiding stringent UK tax laws Coward retired from public life and bought houses in Bermuda, Switzerland and Jamaica. He died at 'Firefly', his Jamaican home in 1973 following a stroke. Wynne had died a year earlier in Chichester.

Arrangement

This collection is arranged into the following series:

  • THM/287/1 - Correspondence between Wynne and Coward
  • THM/287/2 - Other correspondence
  • THM/287/3 - Photographs
  • THM/287/4 - Theatre Programmes
  • THM/287/5 - Newspaper and Periodical cuttings
  • THM/287/6 - Wynne and Cowards scripts
  • THM/287/7 - Marvellous Party Play-Text
  • THM/287/8 - Wynne and Coward Song Collaborations

Conditions Governing Access

This archive collection is available for consultation in the V&A Blythe House Archive and Library Study Room by appointment only.Full details of access arrangements may be found here: http://www.vam.ac.uk/content/articles/a/archives/ .

Access to some of the material may be restricted. These are noted in the catalogue where relevant.

Conditions Governing Use

Information on copying and commercial reproduction may be found here: http://www.vam.ac.uk/content/articles/a/archives/ .

Accruals

No further accruals are expected.

Related Material

See also the core collections of the V&A Theatre and Performance Department. Material relating to Noel Coward may be found in several collections, including the biographical, productions and photographs files.

Please ask for details.