The Unknown Coward - by Barry Day

Part 2 of an extract from Barry Day's unpublished text - Part 1

After In Which We Serve he toured the country in Blithe Spirit, Present Laughter and This Happy Breed. Feeling for once a familiar sense of purpose, he could write:

". . . if I can make people laugh, etc., maybe I am not doing so very badly. I only know that to sit at the side of the stage amid the old familiar sights and sounds and smells is really lovely ... The only things that matter to me at the moment are whether or not I was good in such and such a scene and if the timing was right and my make-up not too pale. This is my job, really, and will remain so through all wars and revolutions and carnage."

According to his own account, the real war for Noël started late in 1942 when he began his travels to entertain the troops. By this time just about anyone who called themselves - by whatever definition - an entertainer had offered their services to the Entertainment National Service Association (ENSA) and theatrical troupes were touring the 'theatres of war' non-stop. Apart from the genuine stars, the standard of professionalism - as opposed to the enthusiasm - was so variable that ENSA soon came to be redefined, perhaps a little unfairly, as "Every Night Something Awful".

Not surprisingly, Noël preferred to make other arrangements: I had no intention of offering my services to ENSA for I was suspicious of its efficiency and my instincts rebelled, as usual, against the idea of being subject to the whims of a Government department."

Several thousand concerts, several hundred thousand miles and as many handshakes later, this worst of times and best of times was over. That, at least, was Noël's war as generally reported. But official papers declassified in recent years and a series of biographies of other people -most notably William Stevenson's 1976 biography of Sir William "Little Bill" Stephenson (A Man Called Intrepid) and Charles Higham and Roy Moseley's revisionist study of Cary Grant (The Lonely Heart - 1989) - suggest an alternative scenario.

In this scenario the clues we already have can be seen to imply a particular interpretation, which has been generally accepted, without actually denying other possibilities. For instance, in Future Indefinite (published in 1952) Noël describes being recruited by "Little Bill" during a visit to New York in 1940. "He did not make the mistake of swearing me to secrecy at all. That impressed me, because by that time I was, of course, perfectly aware that whatever his exact occupation was, it was very secret indeed." (in fact, Stephenson, a Canadian, was by this time Director of British Security Co-ordination, based in New York and co-ordinating all British espionage activities in the Western Hemisphere. He later helped set up the O.S.S., which evolved into the C.I.A.)

Noël goes on blandly - writing more than a decade later but still bound by the Official Secrets Act "It is not my business here to discuss his activities except when those activities impinged on my own life, which from time to time they did." Just how much they did becomes much clearer, if one accepts the alternate scenario which suggests that he knew a great deal more about the 'secret world' than he let us believe long before that July 1940 meeting.

Far from being recruited as an innocent by Campbell Stuart just before the outbreak of hostilities, it becomes clear from a study of Noël's correspondence that he was involved as early as 1938. He was in contact with Sir Robert Vansittart, the Foreign Office Permanent Under-Secretary. Vansittart was convinced that information would be a crucial weapon in the coming war and had set up his own private network of civilians - mostly businessmen - who routinely travelled around Europe. It was their unofficial Imission' to feed back to the secret services information on the rise of Nazism. When war was finally declared Vansittart became Churchill's Chief Diplomatic Advisor.

On July 5 1h 1938 Vansittart is replying to Noël: In view of the uncertainty of the letter's destination it will be brief. Your letter told me much in a small compass, particularly in regard to the attitude of some people. In fact, it told me all I wanted to know. Some people are not very quick at seeing wedges, even right under their noses. I shall look forward to hearing more of your experiences directly you get back."

At strictly face value, such enigmatic prose could be interpreted in a variety of ways but Noël's letter of November 5th clarifies the nature of the correspondence ...

"My dear Bob,

I am terribly sorry to have missed you however I had not very much to tell you. I had a brief but reasonably interesting time in Switzerland. I snooped around a good deal and flapped my ears and I don't think discovered much more than you know already which is (A) That the Swiss, although pretty scared, behaved and are behaving pretty well and very calmly. (B) That the Nazi propaganda, particularly in Zurich and Basle, is very strong but failing on the stoniest of stony ground. (C) 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. There was, of course, relief that war had been averted but also a certain surprised resignation that it should have been averted at such a price.

I heard an Englishman (commercial traveller type) in the bar of the hotel in Zurich making a tremendous tirade against Duff, Anthony and Winston but he was very quietly and successfully squashed by a Swiss professor of sports propaganda who said, without heat, that in the opinion of the Swiss if we'd had a few more men like that perhaps the British Empire would not have fallen so low.

It was all a little depressing I think and I felt that everybody was just waiting rather drearily to see what was going to happen next. I am afraid none of this is very illuminating however my time was very short. I sail for America on the 5 Ih and my address there is 450 East 52nd Street. I shall be in Washington for two weeks in January so just drop me a line when you have time and give me a few conversational leads or, if possible, defences.

My love to you both,"

Two months later, in January 1939, he visited the US as a house guest of his old friend, Cary Grant in Santa Monica. By that time - "Little Bill" confirmed later - both men were working for the S. I.S. (Secret Intelligence Service) with Noël as Grant's 'control'.

Their task was to identify Nazi sympathisers within the entertainment community and Hollywood in particular. Although this idea seems fanciful today, it must be remembered that in those tense isolationist years Fascism was as much a bogeyman to many Americans as Communism was to become immediately after the war. The House Committee on Un-American Activities was already in existence and generally approved of - it was only in its Communist witch hunt days of Senator Joe McCarthy (1908-1957) that it acquired its stigma. There were numerous German refugees in Hollywood and there was good reason to suspect that Nazi influence was being actively developed south of the border in Mexico and Latin America as a whole. In all of this confusing but covert activity, it now appears that the British Government was laying plans to look after its own interests, until such time as the neutral Americans made their minds up to commit to the inevitable conflict. For the time being Britain and Germany enjoyed equal official status in the USA, while in certain quarters Germany was the preferred partner, should a choice become necessary.

In informed circles commitment to Britain was felt to be only a matter of time, once war was declared, but American popular opinion did not necessarily agree that it should be. To anticipate events a clandestine Anglo-American alliance was set up with a dual purpose. Producer Alexander Korda - with the tacit backing of M.I.6 - dedicated his company, London Films as a front for the duration of the war. In July 1939 he set up a branch in Hollywood, ostensibly for the purpose of finishing his film, The Thief of Baghdad. In addition it became the nucleus of a group that included producers Samuel Goldwyn and Waiter Wanger, Douglas Fairbanks Sr. (who died later that year) and, by association, Cecil B. de Mille. So effective were their efforts that by September 1941 - only weeks before America entered the war -Mountbatten would refer in a letter to Nod] to the ongoing Senate Enquiry into the "alleged pro-British activities of the movie industry."

In that same month Noël returned to London from yet another US trip to consult with Vansittart who, in addition to his Government role, was also a part time scriptwriter. (He contributed to the screenplay for Thief.) Vansittart was by now Korda's London control.

All of this had already happened before Noël received the phone call from Campbell Stuart that sent him off to Paris as soon as war was declared two months later. It strains credibility to imagine that Stuart did this in ignorance of the Vansittart connection even though in those early and amateurish days a lot of left hands didn't appear to know they even had right hands.

On September 5' 1939 he received a letter from the Ministry of Information. An A. D. Peters - a well known literary agent in peace time - wrote: I am directed by the Minister of Information to inform you that your name has been entered on a list of authors whose services are likely to be valuable in time of war. The Minister will be grateful, therefore, if you will refrain from engaging yourself in any other form of national service." By the time it arrived, Noël was unpacking in his Paris office.

The likeliest conclusion, then, is that the Paris job was viewed as a specific and visible assignment for an operative who had already shown an interest in and an aptitude for intelligence work but whose high and controversial public profile could not afford - in the immediate circumstances - for him to be apparently socially flitting to and from the uninvolved USA when his fellow countrymen had their sleeves firmly rolled up in European combat.

Noël professed himself profoundly bored with the pointless routine of the Paris operation and undoubtedly the fit was a poor one but then, if it was only intended as a temporary measure, the appointment makes more sense. And since, during the few months he was there, he was able to make frequent trips back to London, there is every reason to suppose that he could be kept up to date on US developments.

By mid-1 940 the Paris stint was over, as far as Noël was concerned, and he was back in the US, ostensibly to sound out current opinion on likely American involvement but also - as it- now seems - with a rather broader agenda. On June 9'h he was again Cary Grant's house guest but it soon became clear that the proximity was endangering the security and Noël moved out. By this time Grant was not the only US-based agent in the film business. David Niven was also granted special travel status and Merle Oberon, Korda's then wife, made frequent transatlantic trips on intelligence business matters. Over in Europe Leslie Howard was similarly employed.

(Ironically, Howard - the gentle Ashley Wilkes of Gone With The Wind and the original film Professor Higgins in Pygmalion - was one of the more visible victims of the invisible war. At the time his Lisbon plane was shot down in 1943, the Secret Service were working round the clock to master the German's ENIGMA decoder, which would unlock the secrets of the enemy's military communications. They apparently - according to Stevenson - knew of the plan to kill Howard but were powerless to prevent it without giving away the fact that the code had been cracked. So Howard died, unwittingly playing the kind of quietly heroic part he had played on the screen.)

On June 20th "Little Bill" - accompanied by Vansittart - arrived in New York and set up shop. Noël was one of his first contacts, which tends to confirm his importance in the mix. He was offered "a job which, in his ("Little Bill's) opinion and mine, would be of real value to the war effort, and would utilise not only my celebrity value but my intelligence as well", then subsequently received a cable from Stephenson. "He gave no explanations, merely a brief message announcing that the whole thing was off ... A greater power than we could contradict had thwarted our intents." (Future Indefinite)

The 'greater power' was, of course, Winston Churchill, who let it be known that he felt Noël was using his activities for his own aggrandisement. The story was duly and gleefully printed. Today's revisionist view is that Churchill made this public rebuttal for quite opposite reasons. Since Noël's celebrity cover was the whole purpose of the exercise, Churchill can hardly have been unaware of the game being played. It is now thought that he was, in fact, protecting Noël from the excessive attentions of the Nazis and the British press alike. As a publicly-disowned agent, he would be free to continue his activities unmolested.

If that was, indeed, Churchill's intention, it only partially succeeded. The British press turned their attention elsewhere, certainly, but when the war was over the NaziVack list of Brits to be liquidated was to surface, showing Noël's name high on it. Singing "Don't Let's Be Beastly to the Germans" would hardly have rated that kind of billing. As fellow liquidatee, his friend Rebecca West cabled him when the list was published - "My dear - the people we should have been seen dead with." The probable fact of the matter is that Churchill never did quite grasp the concept that visibility is its own disguise.

After the Churchill episode Noël continued his unofficial work for "Little Bill", taking off on January 1941 on a morale raising tour to Australia and New Zealand, all the while filing his reports via Cary Grant in Los Angeles. The rest of his wartime troop tours would appear to have served the same dual purpose.

The ultimate irony was the tip of the wartime iceberg that was visible to the general public. It was to cause Noël problems right from the outset, despite the best efforts of those in Government who knew about his covert activities.

On July 9th 1940 the War Office is writing to the Colonial Office:

In the course of his projected tour of South America on behalf of the British Council, Mr. Noël Coward will have opportunities of carrying out certain incidental work for this Directorate.

This he has undertaken to do on the clearest understanding that such work will neither interfere with his programme nor be regarded as forming in any sense a purpose of his tour, which will be undertaken solely on behalf of the British Council.

In consideration, however, of the work which Mr. Coward may be able to do for his Directorate, I am prepared to contribute £200 towards the expenses of the tour, and I shall be glad to hear if his suggestion meets with your approval."

In the event it is unlikely that the suggestion did meet with the necessary approval, since it was illegal for a Government to pay someone engaged in covert activities in what were than neutral countries. All of those early American trips were paid for out of Noël's own pocket and he simply assumed that, when the war was over, this expense would be made good. Instead, when he returned to England in 1941 he found himself being prosecuted for illegally taking currency abroad. He was found guilty and only a sympathetic judge stood between him and a considerable fine. (it is stretching speculation too far to wonder whether the judge was 'advised' to be sympathetic?)

The unofficial status caused more than financial embarrassment for Noël as governmental left hands persistently ignored the existence of their opposite numbers. A letter from the British Embassy in. Washington (August 8th 1940) arrived like a dash of cold water and said (in part):

Incidentally, as a result of certain newspaper reports quoting you as saying that you are working for the Embassy, the State Department made enquiries as to your exact position. They have been assured that you are over here on private business and that you are not working for the Embassy or the Government. If you are questioned again on this point by the newspapers, perhaps you would make it clear that you are not a Government agent. As such, you would, of course, have to be notified to the State Department or risk imprisonment up to five years!"

August 21 It finds Noël writing to Vansittart ...

"Please forgive me for not having answered your letter before. I am so sorry that the Foreign Office is agitated about my Press utterances.

I was very much distressed by the shindy in the House of Commons about me being sent over here and I am most awfully sorry if it caused you any embarrassment. I cannot help feeling a trifle embittered by the fact that although I have given up all my own affairs in order to do anything in my power to help my country I mostly seem to be getting only kicks for it.

Would it not be possible to tell the State Department the truth which is that I was sent over by the Ministry of Information to work, with your approval, at gauging various cross sections of American opinion and reporting on it? I think I should be only too delighted to register as a Government agent and I think it would do away with a lot of false rumour and wild surmise. I am most definitely not over here on personal business. If I were I should be carrying on with my own career and earning a certain amount of money.

I detect a strong note of rather dreary grievance in this letter for which I apologise, particularly as you were so sympathetic and understanding when we talked in Washington the other day. Please believe that I shall continue to do my best, as discreetly as possible, to find out anything that might be of the slightest use and contribute all I can towards winning the war. If however it were possible for me to be not quite so disowned in all directions I think it would strengthen my hand.

I visited the British Consul in Los Angeles yesterday with John Foster and we both thought him an intelligent and sensible man. I am going to call on the one here and also in Seattle where I go in a few days time. I have a good deal to tell you which I would prefer to do verbally when I get back.

I am very much cheered by the news from home and deeply proud and I must say I thought the Prime Minister's speech yesterday was magnificent.

When talking to the Press I am sticking to my original story that I came over on a mission to you that has now been discharged. Is this all right?"

To be fair, this new view of Noël's role is a mosaic of bits and pieces, many of them at variance with his own published account. Even now all the secret papers from that far-off period are not in the public domain and some of the facts may never be known. What seems certain is that the irritation he expressed in print in the 1950s may have done something to sublimate his frustration at not being able to tell his real story in Future Indefinite.

There is a solitary clue in the subsequent Diaries that is easy to miss but which takes on a new significance when read in this context. In the entry for April 15 th, 1955 he remarks - 7here will be no more heroism and secret missions." And yet the events he recorded hardly merited such a description.

The revised version of Noël's war had to wait until an interview he gave in 1973 to tittle Bill's" biographer, William Stevenson, and even that began with his usual surface flippancy. He recounts the 1940 New York meeting

I was awfully bewildered. I thought it would be more Mata Hari - and then I told myself, 'Well, hardly that. I couldn't wear a jewel in my navel, which I believe she was given, to doing . . ."'

He went on to recall the various conversations with Churchill, who told him - "No use, you'd be no good - too well known." To which Noël replied -"That's the whole point. I'll be so well known nobody will think I'm doing anything special."

"Eventually I got through to him - I was fluent in Spanish and could do the whole of Latin America, where the Germans were very active preparing their campaigns in the United States. And so that's where I started.

"My celebrity was wonderful cover. So many career intelligence officers went around looking terribly mysterious - long black boots and sinister smiles. Nobody ever issued me with a false beard. And invisible ink ? I can't read my own writing when it's supposed to be visible. My disguise was my own reputation as a bit of an idiot.

In the United States I just talked about Britain under bombing. Some of those senators - one or two who thought we were finished - did accuse me of being a spy. I said I would hardly be spying on my own people. But then in Latin America, I reported directly to Bill Stephenson while I sang my songs and spoke nicely to my hosts. A whole lot of tiny things are the stuff of intelligence. Smallest details fit into a big picture, and sometimes you repeat things and wonder if it's worth it. I travelled wherever I could go - Asia and what was left of Europe. And I ridiculed the whole business of intelligence, because that's the best way to get on with it - ridicule and belittle ourselves, and say what an awful lot of duffers we are, can't get the facts straight, all that sort of thing

I learned a lot from their technical people, became expert, could have made a career in espionage, except my life's been full of enough intrigue as it is."

To my mind this twilight account clinches the alternative scenario of Coward's War. It was an account he could probably never have brought himself to write but an interview for someone else's story was a different matter and his admiration for "Little Bill" remained lifelong. In addition, Noël was ailing by this time and it was now or never if the record was to be set right. A further proof is that none of those who were still alive chose to question the account.

Neither Noël nor Cary Grant ever received public recognition for the part they played in the 'secret war.' Both were accused of avoiding the issue when other celebrities were volunteering for active service. Grant apparently wished to do so, too, but was instructed to continue his normal film making activities, since the intelligence work they 'covered' was felt to be by far the most important contribution he could make to the war effort. He was subsequently awarded the King's Medal for Service in the Cause of Freedom - something only given to those who had performed special intelligence services. And even then the fact of the award was never made public to protect him for the attentions of still active Nazi sympathisers.

Both men were to receive ironic compensation in the world of real tinsel.

Noël did get to play a spy-master in public in Our Man In Havana, while Cary Grant was at the top of Ian Fleming's original wish list as James Bond.... Just before VE Day Noël found himself at a small London dinner party for four. One of the four was Churchill. ". . suddenly, towards the end of dinner, looking across the table at the man who had carried England through her dark years, I felt an upsurge of gratitude that melted into hero worship ... Emotion submerged us and without exchanging a word, as simultaneously as though we had carefully rehearsed it, the three of us rose to our feet and drank Mr. Churchill's health."

Fittingly, Noël's war ended as it had begun. It also gave him pause to consider just what the last few years had really achieved and his conclusions were a lot more sceptical in 1945 than they had been in 1940 ...

"During the years of peace, in that other life that we have almost forgotten; luxurious British commercial liners - without fear of night attack, U-boats, bombs or torpedoes - used to ply to and fro across the seven seas. It was a convention in these ships, an unwritten law, that on the last evening before the end of the voyage there should be a disciplined celebration, 7he Captain's Dinner'. On these occasions the stewards solemnly placed balloons, rattles, squeakers, crackers and little net bags of coloured paper balls on every table; the ship's' orchestra played gay tunes with verve and a certain valedictory abandon, and the passengers, many of whom had not spoken to one another throughout the trip, surrendered obediently to the 'gala' atmosphere, ordered more wine than usual, pulled the crackers, donned the paper caps, exploded the balloons with cigarette-ends, whirled the rattles, blew the squeakers and vivaciously hurled handfuls of the coloured paper balls into the faces of complete strangers.

We are a law-abiding, docile people; orders are orders, and it was 'The Captain's Dinner'. We are still, in spite of the ordeals we have endured, a law-abiding, docile people; orders are still orders, and it is 'Victory Day'. A day which, after years of tragedy, defeat, suffering, humiliation, fortitude and imperishable courage, has at last dawned for us. Having agreed to write an article commemorating this tremendous occasion I find myself faced with an insuperable obstacle and that obstacle is that I don't believe it. victory over the Nazis and deserving of a few flags and bugles, but the triumph is not final. We have not yet conquered the Japanese, and it remains to be seen whether or not we have really conquered the Germans!

Above all, and before our victory can be set in history whole and complete, we shall have to do a little conquering of ourselves. This is indeed a great opportunity, probably the greatest our country has ever had. For five dreadful years the people of Britain have endured intense personal suffering and loss, and the violence of air bombardment on their undefended cities. They have also, and this has perhaps been more difficult, put up cheerfully with the countless minor discomforts of war: food, fuel and clothes rationing; fewer and fewer transport facilities; the soul-destroying, endless dreariness of the black-out; the months of anti-climax when apparently nothing was happening at all and the end of the war seemed so far away as to be almost inconceivable.

All this has been endured with stoicism and our deep-rooted, indestructible humour, and it has, of course, done us a power of good. Archaic class distinctions have been broken down; the poor are no longer the poor, the rich are no longer the rich and the middle classes (always the most rigid social autocrats) have sent their insular prejudices whistling down the wind and relaxed into an unselfconscious gregariousness from Cheltenham to Maida Vale and from Kensington to Peckham Rye: they have even, since the influx of American and Dominions troops, been known to speak to strangers in railway carriages. In addition to these marked improvements in our national character there appears to be on the part of most people a healthy desire to participate in the affairs of the country, a desire which was dismally lacking in the black years immediately preceding the war. We have assuredly learned a lot but our victory will not be proved and consolidated unless we have learned enough; and I hope, I so profoundly hope that we have.

Speaking personally, I know that during this war I have been more fortunate and privileged than most civilians. I have travelled many hundreds of thousands of miles and have had the opportunity of watching events from many different angles. I have returned to this country several times, stayed awhile and then gone away again and have therefore, I think, been able to see the various moral and psychological changes in clearer perspective than those who have remained at home all the time. Above all I have been lucky enough to have been in close contact over and over again with the men who are fighting for us. Being neither a statesman, a politician, a government official, a military strategist nor even a journalist my observation has been untrammelled by any particular urgency or prejudice. This perhaps is sufficient reason for me to tell you a little of what I have learned about ourselves as a nation and a Commonwealth of Nations in relation, not only to our enemies but to our allies as well.

It is time, I feel, for at least one Britisher to discard temporarily our age-old tradition of understating our achievements and I would like to warn any of my readers who still cherish intellectual illusions of world democracy and equality of nations and peace-in-our-time, that they are going to disapprove profoundly of what I am about to say.

First of all, I do not believe that genuine peace in our time is possible, probable, or in the long view, even desirable. If we grab too eagerly at peace in our time and compromise again with our ideals and betray again our warriors, there will be no hope of peace for our children or our children's children. The far future is more important than the immediate future; maybe not for us but certainly for those who follow after. The immediate future is more, much more important than the present and in this we can participate, for this we can work and try to see clearly and remain vigilant until the end of our days.

Let us, for God's sake, or rather for the future's sake, not be deceived by our Victory Day. The physical war is perhaps nearly over but the moral war is only just beginning. We as a race are capable, like all other races, of prevarication, muddled thinking, sentimentalism, untimely arrogance and most untimely self-depreciation but we are also capable, in adversity of greater qualities than any other race in the world. Must adversity always be our only spur? Can we not this time, with so many bitter lessons learned, be brave and strong and vigilant in comparative peace as well as in total war? Let us try with all our concentrated will to maintain the spirit that upheld us in 1940. Let us remember, disregarding political tact and commercial expedience, that it was our inherited, stubborn integrity that gave the future of the civilised world a chance and a glimmer of hope. It was our soldiers who fought on the land, our young airmen who cleared the skies and our sailors who kept the sea routes open. Then we had no allies. We had much sympathy from other parts of the globe and much sincere admiration but we had no allies and we stood alone in the path of the most powerful and menacing onslaught in the history of mankind. A menace not only to ourselves and our much decried British Empire, but a menace to all those who are now fighting side by side with us.

It may be considered by many bad taste to emphasize so insistently this immeasurable achievement but we live in an age of advertisement, publicity and specialised propaganda and now, amidst the rather deafening cacophony of trumpets, one or two gentle fanfares on British bugles should not strike too sharp a discord. This is Victory Day but there were greater Victory Days in 1940 for us and for the world because then it was the beginning and now it is still a long way from the end.

This war's making most people feel bloody in one way or another -apart from the actual, immediate horror of it, it's planting a fine crop of neuroses in all of us. God knows that we shall be like when it's over.

Lelia in Time Remembered (Unproduced play - 1941)

 Copyright - The Noel Coward Society - May 2001