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The Empress of Ireland | Noël Coward visited Tangier


My routine was to stay in the house and write most days, and then go out with Brian for dinner, either to a restaurant or the home of one of his friends. La Belle Hélène was the bar and res­taurant we most frequented, owned by a strangely glamorous, middle-aged French lesbian with a face of elephant hide. She was said to have bought the establishment with money earned during a long circus career as a motorcyclist on the flaming wall of death. We ate elaborately at La Belle Hélène and drank copi­ously, and Brian indulged us extravagantly at lunch and dinner. Whenever he was offered a particularly fine wine or delicacy, he would murmur, ‘It’ll do! ’ He did it often, and for some reason always seemed to be highly amused each time he uttered the phrase. ‘I don’t get it,’ I said. ‘What’s funny?’

‘Oh, just a private joke. The Marquess and Marchioness of Londonderry were at dinner when the marquess suddenly fell down in a fit. The marchioness called out to the maid to run down to the wine cellar and fetch a bottle of brandy. The maid came back holding a dusty old bottle with a large “N” on it – a priceless Napoleon brandy. “This is all I could find, your lady.” To which the marchioness replied, “It’ll do.”’

At table, I always encouraged Brian to tell me Tangerine stories from the old days.

Whenever Noël Coward visited Tangier he always spent a large part of his time with Brian, avoiding the socially compet­itive English homosexual expatriates. ‘Save me, darling, from this terrible English colony desperate for my presence.’ Brian and his friends hid him, lunching and dining in secret. ‘Each day, the leaders of so-called Tangier Society would ring me up to make sure that Noël was eating with us. Everything was all right as long as he wasn’t lunching or dining with any other member of the English colony.

‘At a small private lunch on the beach Noël was talking bril­liantly about the craft of playwrighting, and an obliging but dim young actor sat at his feet taking in every word as holy writ. Noël said, “There must always be a strong, last-act curtain.” The actor looked up at the master and said, “Muslin’s nice.”’

One night Brian took Coward to a restaurant run by a White Russian, who not only made the best boeuf Stroganoff in the world but also had a very handsome Spanish barman. ‘There were six of us and we were the only people in the downstairs bar apart from an old, drunken English woman, wearing a dirty spotted cardigan, sitting on a barstool and leaning against the wall to stop herself falling down.’

When the woman recognized Noël Coward, she heaved her­self off her stool and approached the table. She slapped him heartily on the shoulder. ‘Mr Coward, sing me one of your songs.’ In situations like this, Coward was known for fast, evis­cerating wit that left the victim gutted, and the party nerv­ously awaited the inevitable disembowelling. Coward took a long pull at his drink, and then placed his glass carefully on the table. He mopped his lips with a clean white handkerchief and looked the woman in the eye. ‘Certainly, my dear – it will be a pleasure.’ He moved to an untuned, upright piano and performed his entire Las Vegas repertoire. ‘Then he helped the woman off the stool, took her outside, called a taxi and pushed money into her hand. It was a very generous gesture, very moving.’

Dinner was taken upstairs in a private gallery. The blinds were drawn, Brian asked the barman to remove his clothes, and the Stroganoff was duly served by him naked. ‘Despite the entertainment, Noël suddenly said to me, “Binkie has turned down my play.” This was a reference to Waiting in the Wings, his play about a home for retired actresses. When I thought of the thousands and thousands that the producer Binkie Beau­mont had made out of Noël, I knew the knife was turning in his heart.’

After dinner Brian was in the habit of taking a walk and would usually fall behind whomever he was with to importune willing young men always described nevertheless as ‘victims’.

Coward turned to him on one such walk and asked, ‘Dear boy, what on earth are you up to?’

‘Casting,’ Brian replied.

Later they visited one of the decadent bars near the docks, a rough Spanish place where the company was mixed. Coward made it clear that he was attracted to a particular young man. ‘A rather dark number known around and about as Chocolata.’ Brian arranged an introduction and organized for the young man to be smuggled into Coward’s smart hotel, the Minzah, which maintained a stricter policy concerning exotic overnight guests than most establishments. The following day Coward and Brian met at the Café de Paris for a mid-morning aperitif. ‘Well Noël, how was your evening?’

‘Divine!’ Coward crooned. ‘Splendid casting, dear boy – splendid casting!’

It was in Tangier that Brian saw Coward for the last time, where he had gone to recuperate after a serious operation. ‘I went to say goodbye to him as he was going down to Mar­rakech. He was sitting alone in the back of this enormous Rolls-Royce with a blanket over his legs. Too late I realized I should have jumped into the car and gone with him. There he was, Noël Coward – brilliant, witty, famous, rich, a household name the world over . . . and so utterly lonely.’

Extract from Slightly Foxed Edition No. 51: The Empress of Ireland © The Estate of Christopher Robbins 2004

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