How Noel Coward turned around the lives of abandoned orphans
PUBLISHED: 12:43 05 November 2020 | UPDATED: 13:58 05 November 2020
A new book by Kentish Town author Elliot James reveals the touching tale of Coward’s philanthropic years as President of the actor’s orphanage
Noel Coward’s career was book-ended by two landmark Hampstead productions.
In November 1924, the staging of his risque debut The Vortex at the Everyman launched his rise to fame. Within a year, he had four plays running in the West End.
But by 1963, his upper class comedies had fallen from favour amid the angry young men and kitchen sink dramas, and it was a production of Private Lives at Hampstead Theatre that spearheaded a Coward revival.
In between, a little known aspect of the great playwright is illuminated in a new book by Kentish Town actor and author Elliot James.
While researching an article on the Brief Encounter and Hayfever writer he uncovered letters and records for The Actors’ Orphanage, a home for the abandoned children of struggling thespians.
Coward took over as President in 1934 and over 22 years turned it from a harsh institution into a place of love and laughter, drafting famous actors onto the committee and visiting with stars like Marlene Dietrich and Mary Pickford.
“I’ve always been a Noel Coward aficionado but this part of his extraordinary life has been forgotten,” says James, who has appeared in several Coward plays.
“Doing some research I came across a picture of Coward walking along with these children and realised no-one knew this story. I got huge boxes of paperwork, letters and discovered many of the orphans are still alive in their 80s and 90s. When I interviewed them they said ‘no-one’s ever asked us about this’. Two have since died so I felt I had to get this out for them.
“There’s a bit of scandal but mostly it’s a story of altruism and genuine celebrity philanthropy.”
The Orphanage was founded by Kittie Carson the actress wife of The Stage editor.
“She knew there was a problem. As you can imagine, actors - some famous - have affairs and can’t have the scandal of an illegitimate baby. There are actors touring week to week who couldn’t take a child with them, some struggled financially or were killed or shellshocked during the war - one was stabbed and killed on stage by MacDuff while playing Macbeth.”
The first home opened in Croydon in 1906. It later moved to Buckinghamshire, then the “rural idyll” of Silverlands Surrey before evacuating to New York during World War II.
James says the original headmaster ran an austere Dickensian regime and would cane the children.
“Some were there for a little while, others until they were 17. Some remember it fondly while others were embarrassed and wanted to forget. Generally there were issues of abandonment, some knew who their parents were but some had no idea. They all saw each other as siblings.”
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Funds would be raised at glamorous garden parties in Regent’s Park attended by Laurence Olivier, Vivien Leigh, and the Duke of Duchess of Kent.
There were fairground rides, performances and an auction, raising up to £10,000.
Coward also organised matinees at the Palladium, cabaret at the Cafe de Paris and charity galas at West End theatres. But he also fixed serious practical problems.
“Previous presidents didn’t really know what was going on but Coward showed up visiting regularly and wanting to know everything. He definitely turned the place around and improved their lives. All the orphans enjoyed his visits and said he was kindly and benevolent.
“He used to bring a theatre or movie star and walk around the gardens. When one pupil was about to be expelled, he went in person and walked the boy around the garden saying ‘Peter why don’t you try being a good little boy and I will pay you 10 shillings’.”
The boy remained “a bit of a handful” but Coward got him a backstage theatre job and introductions into the film industry.
“He must have thought fondly of Coward for believing in him because when Peter Collinson directed the Italian Job he cast Coward in his last film role and insisted everyone call him The Master.”
In New York the children put on a Broadway show and met Charlie Chaplin.
“They were so excited to be in America, a lot didn’t want to come back to post war England which was pretty grim.”
Post-war Coward strived to make the orphanage solvent again before handing over the Presidency to his protégé, Richard Attenborough in 1956.
The fund continues today as ACT, handing out grants to actors’ children.
“Coward achieved so much so young,” says James. “By 24 he was a phenomenon with four plays in the West End and was the highest paid playwright of the 30s. On a ship to New York he said there was nothing else to do except jump over the side. As a gay man in that era he was never going to get married, the orphanage enriched his life and was a way to have children in his life.”
Initially dismissed as flippant, Coward’s plays have endured adds James: “Critics gave him a terrible time, accusing him of having no depth or heart, but there’s something universal about a play like Private Lives, this couple who can’t be together and can’t be apart, walking a fine line between social convention and liberal freedom - a line Coward walked all his life.
“He was a man of his time, pro-Empire, conservative, but beneath the waspish demeanour he was a decent person, a good man. His presidency of the orphanage shows he did have a heart.”
The Importance of Happiness is published by Matador £12.99.
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