Noel Coward worked as a pre-war British spy, reveal unpublished letters

November 14th, 2007 - 8:30 am ICT by admin  
Most of the letters belong to the pre- war period and reveal details about his spying activities, Times Online reports.

According to the extensive correspondence, Coward regretted bitterly that tuberculosis and a head injury during training had prevented him from serving his country in the First World War.

And this made him determined to serve his nation during World War II.

In 1939 he wrote to Winston Churchill: “This time I am determined to play as much of a part as the powers-that-be allow me . . . You may count on my doing whatever I am called upon to do.”

In 1941, writing to his mum, Violet, he said: “I cannot feel that dying for one’s country or for what one believes in is any worse than dying in bed of an illness. We all have to die sometime and if I had to die tomorrow at least I have had a magnificent run for my money.”

More than 500 letters have been discovered and vast majority are unpublished.

The letters had been preserved for a quarter of a century in two battered leather suitcases in a bank vault in Switzerland, where Coward bought a home in the 1950s.

Cole Lesley, his long-term companion, placed them there after the actor’s death in 1973.

No one was aware of the existence of the letters beyond Coward’s estate, which has made them available to Barry Day, a leading Coward scholar, who is publishing them.

The correspondence is particularly complete because Coward kept copies of the letters that he wrote, as well as those he received.

The letters contradict his own claim that he was recruited as a British undercover agent on the eve of war in September 1939.

Day said: “What wasn’t known was that Coward had been recruited as far back as early 1938 by Sir Robert Vansittart at the Foreign Office to be one of his unofficial team of ‘agents’, who would go about their normal business in Europe and report back on the mood of the countries they visited, what they heard in social conversations.”

“Vansittart was a top civil servant who could see war coming, even though his government lords and masters insisted on a policy of ‘appeasement’ towards Hitler. Vansittart wanted to piece together evidence of what Hitler was really planning and what the opinion was among Britain’s European neighbours,” he added.

Coward was posted to various countries, including Switzerland, from where, in November 1938, he wrote to Vansittart: “In various conversations I had and listened to, it was apparent that English prestige had dropped considerably but there was no violence about this, just a rather depressed acceptance of the inevitable.”

Coward was dispatched to Paris to set up a Bureau of Propaganda after the war began, working closely with the French Commissariat d’Information. The letters reflected deep concern for Europe’s future.

“We have nothing to worry about but the destruction of civilisation,” he wrote.

When, in 1938, Neville Chamberlain returned to London waving a piece of paper signed by Hitler and Mussolini, Coward ridiculed, “that bloody conceited old sod”.

On actors who went to the US instead of fighting in the war he wrote: “I am a trifle saddened by the behaviour of many of my actor countrymen of military age who scuttled off with such inelegant haste”

Methuen Drama, an imprint of A and C Black, will publish The Letters of Noel Coward on November 12. (ANI)

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