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Tuesday, June 11, 2013

My American Diary

Guest Blogger Dept.: Here’s a curio by Noël Coward, the first chapter of Terribly Intimate Portraits, published in the U.S. in 1922, reworking material from A Withered Nosegay, published earlier that year in the U.K., and adding what’s below. I won’t annotate the references because you should do your own damn research.



Noël Coward, author of My American Diary
Drawing by Lorn MacNaughtan
I felt that some sort of scene was necessary in order to celebrate my first entrance into America, so I said “Little lamb, who made thee?” to a customs official. A fracas ensued far exceeding my wildest dreams, during which he delved down – with malice aforethought – to the bottom of my trunk and discovered the oddest things in my sponge bag. I think I'm going to like America.

I have very good letters to Daniel Blood, Dolores Hoofer, Senator Pinchbeck, Violet Curzon-Meyer, and Julia Pescod, so I ought to get along all right socially at any rate.

It would be quite impossible to give an adequate description of one’s first glimpse of Broadway at night – I should like to have a little pocket memory of it to take out and look at whenever I feel depressed. I shall feel awfully offended for Piccadilly Circus when I get back.

God! How I love frosted chocolate!


For a really jolly evening, recommend me to the Times Square subway station. You get into any train with that delicious sensation of breathless uncertainty as to where exactly you are going to be conveyed. To approach an official is sheer folly, as any tentative question is quickly calculated to work him up into a frenzy of rage and violence, while to ask your fellow passengers is equally useless as they are generally as dazed as you are. The great thing is to keep calm and at all costs avoid expresses.

As another means of locomotion, the Elevated possesses a rugged charm which is all its own, the serene pleasure of gazing into frowsy bedroom windows at elderly coloured ladies in bust bodices and flannel petticoats, being only equalled by the sudden thrill you experience when the two front carriages hurtle down into the street in flames.

I took three of my plays to Fred Latham at the Globe Theatre. He didn’t accept them for immediate production, but he told me of two delightful bus rides, one going up Riverside Drive, and the other coming down Riverside Drive. I was very grateful as the buses, though slow moving, are more or less tranquil and filled with the wittiest advertisements – especially the little notices about official civility, which made everyone rock with laughter.


Met Alexander Woollcott and Heywood Broun at a first night – we were roguish together for hours – Alexander Woollcott says that each new play is a fresh joy to him, but the question is whether he’s a fresh joy to each new play! – I wonder.


Spent all last night at Coney Island – I’ve never known such an atmosphere of genuine carnival. We went on “The Whip,” the sudden convulsions of which drove the metal clasp of my braces sharply into my back, I think scarring me for life. Then we went into “The Haunted House” where a board gave way beneath my feet and ricked my ankle, the “Giant Dipper” was comparatively tame as I only bruised my side and cut my cheek. After this we had “hot dog” and stout, which the others seemed to enjoy immensely, then – laughing gaily – we all ran through a revolving wooden wheel, at least the others did, I inadvertently caught my foot and fell, which caused a lot of amusement. I shall not go out again with a sharp edged cigarette case in my pocket.


Went down to Chinatown with a jolly party all in deep evening dress which I thought was rather inappropriate. Mrs. Vernon Bale dropped her side comb into the chop suey which occasioned much laughter – Jeffery was very tiresome and refused to be impressed, saying repeatedly that he’d seen it all before in “Aladdin!”

We all went to “Montmartre” afterwards. Ina Claire was there looking lovely as usual. Marie Prune was sitting at the next table squinting dreadfully and, I think, rather drunk and obviously upset about her sister running away with a Chinaman – poor dear, she’s had a lot of trouble but still even that’s no excuse for looking like a blanc mange slipping off the dish, she should cultivate a little more vitality and never wear pink.


Just back from a week-end at Southampton with Mrs. Vernon Bale. Apart from coming down to breakfast she’s a perfect hostess. We played the most peculiar games on Sunday evening and she and Florrie Wick did a Nautch dance which was most entertaining and bizarre! How hospitable Americans are, I’ve fixed up heaps of luncheon engagements for next week – Edgar Peopthatch was particularly kind – he offered to introduce me to Carl Van Vechten and Sophie Tucker, both of whom I’ve been longing to meet.


Such a busy day! Had plays refused by Edgar Selwyn and William Harris, and this book turned down by Scribner’s. I also fell off a bus, being unused to getting out on the right-hand side. I just love America.


Went with Lester to hear Tom Burke sing at the Hippodrome. His voice is better than it’s ever been and he sang exceedingly good stuff. Poor John MacCormack with his winsome Irish ballads.


Lunched at the Coffee House – what an atmosphere – even the veal and ham pie tasted of the best American literature, and there was a lovely signed photograph of Hugh Walpole. I do hope I shall be taken again.

The “Vanity Fair” offices impressed me a lot, they’re so comfortable, artistic, and full of deathless endeavour. They took the proofs of this book in order to publish one or two extracts from it and sent it back full of the loveliest corrections. I was duly grateful as Mr. Bishop had told me a lot about burlesque during the afternoon.


Lynn Fontanne took me to tea at Neysa McMein’s studio which was most attractive, she is a charming hostess and there was an air of pleasing bohemianism about the whole affair which went far towards making me take another cake – in more formal surroundings I should naturally have refrained. After tea I played and sang and everybody talked. It was all great fun. I liked F. P. A. enormously, he really ought to write for the papers.


If I had money I should buy the English rights of “Dulcy” and drag Lynn back to England by sheer force – we have few enough good actresses without letting those we have, fly away. There’s no denying that America’s the place to get on – this book was refused by Harcourt Brace only yesterday.

Met the Theatre Guild this morning and played hide and seek with them in the park – such a merry set of rascals! Teresa Helburn invented a new prank – she took all my MSS. and hid them in a tin box for two months – how we laughed!


Apparently all the theatrical “Elite” congregate at the Algonquin for supper, I noticed Elsie and Mrs. Janis, Irving Berlin, Frances Carson, and Desiree Bibble who looked appalling in probably the rudest hat that has ever been worn by man, woman, or child.

Marc Connelly made me laugh for twenty minutes over a friend’s funeral – what a sense of humour!


Spent all day on an island in the middle of the Sound with a lot of old gentlemen in towels – returned very sunburned and in great pain – now I know what Jeffery suffered when he embarked for England looking like a fire engine.

Went to the first night of “Bluebeard’s Eighth Wife” with Alfred Lunt – in which Barry Baxter made an enormous hit, he is now a brilliant light comedian. I think one or two of his sworn acquaintances in England will be quite cross when I tell them.


Had my first experience of surf bathing to-day, at Easthampton. Apart from spraining my wrist, being grazed all over, stunned by a breaker, and finally swept several miles out to sea, I enjoyed it thoroughly.


Met Mr. Liveright – what a dear!

– from Terribly Intimate Portraits, Boni & Liveright, Inc., NY, 1922.

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