Noel Pierce Coward was born on 16 December 1899, the second of three sons of Arthur Sabin Coward, clerk, and Violet Agnes, daughter of Henry Gordon Veitch, captain and surveyor in the Royal Navy. His education was interrupted by his pursuit of a stage career, although he attended the Chapel Royal School in Clapham between 1908 and 1909. He also took lessons at Janet Thomas' Dancing Academy in Hanover Square. He made his first professional stage appearance in 1911 in The Goldfish, in which he played the part of Prince Mussel. This led to an audition for The Great Name later that year, given to Charles Hawtrey. He then appeared in Hawtrey's production of 'Where the Rainbow Ends' at the Savoy during the winter of 1911-1912, along with Esme Wynne, who became his friend and co-writer. Two of their short plays, Woman and Whisky, and Ida Collaborates, were produced in 1917. Engaged by Italia Conti, Coward appeared in Gerhardt Hauptmann's 'Hannele' at the Liverpool Repertory Theatre in 1913 where he met Gertrude Lawrence, and also appeared in 'War in the Air', before playing the part of Slightly in 'Peter Pan' for two years. He continued to perform during the First World War in 'The Happy Family' at the Prince of Wales Theatre in 1916 and on tour with Amy Brandon Thomas' company in 'Charley's Aunt'. In 1917 he appeared in 'The Saving Grace' produced by Charles Hawtrey.
Coward met the artist Philip Streatfield in 1913, and became his protege, accompanying him on a painting holiday to Cornwall in the summer of 1914 and meeting his friends including Mrs Astley Cooper and her social circle. Streatfield died in 1917, but Coward became an unofficial mascot to Streatfield's regiment, the Sherwood Foresters, and was a frequent guest at the Astley Cooper's estate, Hambleton Hall, Rutland. Coward was conscripted to the Artists Rifles in 1918 but was assessed as unfit for active service, having previously suffered from tuberculosis. Possibly in response to being called up, he also developed severe headaches and spent time being treated at the First London General Hospital in Camberwell in a ward containing victims of shellshock.
Coward appeared in three productions during 1919: the musical 'Oh Joy!', the drama 'Scandal', and 'Knight of the Burning Pestle', and in 1920 starred in his own play, a comedy entitled 'I'll Leave it to You', produced by Charles Hawtrey in London and Manchester. He also travelled to the Mediterranean, through Mrs Astley Cooper's influence, where he met Gladys Calthrop, and to New York in 1921. The influence of Broadway can be seen in his first real dramatic success, 'The Young Idea' which opened at the Savoy in 1923 after a provincial tour the year before. In 1924 he received his first critical and financial success with 'The Vortex'. This was followed with musical theatre productions 'London Calling', This Year of Grace', 'Bitter Sweet' and 'Words and Music', and plays 'Hayfever', 'Fallen Angels' and 'Easy Virtue' which, together with Coward's own persona and sense of style, established him firmly in 1920s popular culture. His prolific output contributed to his enormous success in both Britain and America, and by the late 1920s he had achieved international recognition. As well as appearing in his own plays, he also appeared in Margaret Kennedy's 'The Constant Nymph in 1926 and S. N. Berman's 'The Second Man' in 1928.
By the early 1930s, the critical and popular success of Coward's increasingly mature work ensured his position as one of the most important dramatists of the period. His plays of this period included the classic 'Private Lives' (1930) in which he starred with Gertrude Lawrence, which established him as one of the world's highest-earning authors. Other successes were 'Design for Living' produced in New York in 1933 but not in London until 1939, the patriotic 'Cavalcade (1931), the cycle of playlets 'Tonight at 8.30' (1936) and 'Present Laughter (1939). Coward also recorded some of his best-known songs between 1929 and 1936. However, his health was affected by his self-imposed workload, the pressures of public fame and his private life, and he had another psychological breakdown in 1926 and had to take an extended holiday to recover. He was in a relationship during the 1920s with John (Jack) C. Wilson, who had also become his manager, and had a series of brief affairs during the 1930s, but, at a time when homosexual relationships were illegal, had to be circumspect about this large area of his personal life.
When the Second World War broke out in 1939, Coward persuaded Churchill's government to give him official war work. His biographer, Philip Hoare, has suggested that this might have been an attempt to atone for having evaded service in the First World War. Coward worked briefly at the Paris office of the bureau of propaganda, and then carried out information gathering and other undefined work for the British secret service in America, attempting to foster support for the war. However, questions were asked in parliament about his suitability as a representative of Britain, and a proposed trip to South America was cancelled. Coward turned his attention to entertaining British troops both at home and abroad, undertaking a number of tours in Europe, Africa, Asia and America. He wrote and recorded a number of popular songs with a war theme, including 'London Pride' and 'Don't Lets Be Beastly to the Germans'. He produced, with David Lean, a series of films relating to the war: 'In Which We Serve' (1942), 'This Happy Breed' (1943), 'Brief Encounter' (1945), and the film of his 1941 play 'Blithe Spirit', and undertook a tour of this play, along with 'This Happy Breed' and 'Present Laughter' for a nationwide tour in 1942-43 to try to boost public morale.
After the war, Coward's growing sense of dissatisfaction with England, exacerbated by the election of the Labour government in 1945 and subsequent tax rises, led him to spend the majority of the rest of his life abroad. After the death of his mother in 1954, he increasingly felt that there were no ties keeping him in England. He settled in Ocho Rios, Jamaica in the late 1940s, where he built the houses Blue Harbour and Firefly, and where he spent his time writing and painting in the company of Graham Payn, the South African born actor with whom he spent the rest of his life. His post-war musicals including 'Pacific 1860' (1946), 'Ace of Clubs' (1950), 'After the Ball' (1953), 'Sail Away' (1959-1961), and plays 'Relative Values' (1951) and 'Quadrille' (1952) were moderately well received, but did not match the success of his earlier works. However, Coward's continuing ability to re-invent himself saw him resume a sporadic film career in cameo parts in 'Around the World in Eighty Days' (1955), 'Our Man in Havana' (1960), and 'The Italian Job' (1968). He was also praised for his cabaret performances at London's Cabaret de Paris and The Desert Inn, Las Vegas.
Coward's works fell out of favour in with the advent of new styles of drama in the 1960s, and he was distressed by other political and social changes, including the disintegration of the British Empire. He spent even more time in Jamaica or in his other home in Switzerland, attacking kitchen sink drama in a series of lectures in the 'Sunday Times' in 1961, and writing short stories and a series of autobiographical works. In the mid 1960s his works enjoyed a small scale revival, with successful productions of some of his 1920s and 1930s plays and new revues celebrating his music, including 'Oh Coward!' on Broadway and 'Cowardy Custard' in London. His last cycle of plays was 'A Suite in Three Keys' (1965), including 'A Song at Twlight', and in 1969 there was a series of celebrations for his seventieth birthday, culminating in the offer of a knighthood, which he accepted. Coward died of heart failure on 26 March 1973 at Firefly in Jamaica, where he was buried. A memorial stone in Poet's Corner in Westminster Abbey was unveiled in 1984.
Sources: Oxford Dictionary of National Biography; Philip Hoare, Noel Coward: a biography 1995