Beginning as a boy soprano, Payn later made a career as a singer and actor in the works of Coward and others.
Payn was born in Pietermaritzburg, South Africa, the son of Francis Dawnay Payn and his wife, Sybil, née Graham.
He was educated in South Africa and, after his parents divorced, in England, where he made his first stage appearance, aged 13, at the London Palladium, as Curly in Peter Pan.
In October 1931, he broadcast as a boy soprano on the BBC in a programme featuring Derek Oldham and Mabel Constanduros, and made further broadcasts in 1932 and 1933.
At the age of 14, he auditioned for the Noël Coward and Charles B. Cochran revue Words and Music (1932). His audition piece, singing "Nearer My God to Thee" while executing a tap dance, was so striking that Payn won two tiny parts in the revue. For 163 performances, he played a busker entertaining a cinema queue as a lead-in to the ballad "Mad About the Boy", and announced, in top hat, white jacket and shorts, the show's other hit song "Mad Dogs and Englishmen".
Graham Payn (25 April 1918 – 4 November 2005) was a South African-born English actor and singer, also known for being the life partner of the playwright Noël Coward. Sir Noël Peirce Coward (16 December 1899 – 26 March 1973) was an English playwright, composer, director, actor and singer, known for his wit, flamboyance, and what Time magazine called "a sense of personal style, a combination of cheek and chic, pose and poise". After Coward's death, Payn ran the Coward Estate for 22 years.
He first appeared in films as a boy soprano in the same year. When the revue closed, Payn signed a nine-week contract to sing in cinemas around Britain, but the tour was cancelled when his voice suddenly broke.
Unemployable as a boy soprano, he returned with his mother to South Africa. During the run of Words and Music, Payn had studied tap dancing with the show's choreographer, Buddy Bradley. To make a living in South Africa he taught at dancing schools in Durban and Johannesburg, reproducing Bradley's routines.
Returning to England in 1936, Payn broadcast frequently as a light baritone on radio as well as on the new television service in variety shows in 1938 and 1939; he was also cast in radio plays. His first adult role in the West End came a fortnight before the outbreak of World War II, in Douglas Furber's song and dance show, Sitting Pretty, after which all the theatres were closed. Payn volunteered for the army but was discharged on health grounds because of a hernia after a few weeks.
In 1941 and 1942, he appeared in Up and Doing, a revue, with Leslie Henson, Binnie Hale, Cyril Ritchard and Stanley Holloway, and its successor Fine and Dandy, with the cast unchanged except for Dorothy Dickson replacing Binnie Hale. In the latter show Payn and Patricia Burke sang Rodgers and Hart's "This Can't Be Love" and later, Coward's "London Pride". One night, Coward came backstage after the performance. Payn later wrote, "I remember being very nervous, not having seen him for the best part of 10 years, though I was pleased as punch to be recognised in my own right." Coward's verdict was, "Very good. Splendid." In 1943, Payn announced his engagement to marry Sheila Ascoli, but the wedding did not take place.
In Magic Carpet, Payn appeared with Sydney Howard and then, after The Lilac Domino (1944), he played Lewis Carroll, the Mock Turtle and Tweedledum in Clemence Dane and Richard Addinsell's musical version of Alice in Wonderland (1944). In the Leslie Henson show Gaieties (1945) Payn and Walter Crisham sang and danced "White Tie and Tails". Coward came backstage after a performance and offered Payn a leading part in his forthcoming show, Sigh No More, which, Payn wrote in his memoirs, "marked the beginning of a personal and professional relationship between Noël and myself that would last until his death."
Coward continually promoted Payn's career. He was widely thought to overrate his protégé's talents. Payn received consistently good notices for his performances, but lacked drive and star quality, as he himself knew. Coward also eventually came to realise it, writing: "He is, I fear, a born drifter. I know his theatrical career has been a failure but there are other ploys to go after. He sleeps and sleeps, and the days go by. I love him dearly and for ever, but this lack of drive in any direction is a bad augury for the future. I am willing and happy to look after him for the rest of my life, but he must do something."
In 1951, Payn returned to revue at the Lyric Theatre, Hammersmith. The Lyric Revue had material by several contributors, including Coward, Flanders and Swann and Payn himself; he and Cole Lesley, Coward's assistant, contributed the song "This Seems to be the Moment". The show was such a success at Hammersmith that it transferred to the West End. The following year there was a second edition, The Globe Revue, which ran for six months. Coward cast Payn in an American revival of some of his Tonight at 8:30 plays, with Gertrude Lawrence. They were well received on tour but failed on Broadway. In London, Payn appeared in Coward's new works, Pacific 1860, Ace of Clubs, After the Ball, and Waiting in the Wings. Payn's performances were well reviewed, but the shows were unsuccessful. In the 1960s, he played the supporting role of Morris Dixon in Present Laughter.
Payn also did some film work. In 1949, he was in the Borstal drama Boys in Brown, with Dirk Bogarde and Richard Attenborough. He appeared in two films with Coward: The Astonished Heart (1950) and The Italian Job (1968), in which Coward played a criminal mastermind with Payn as his obsequious assistant.
After Coward died in 1973, Payn's career for the rest of his life became the administration of the Coward estate. The Coward authority Barry Day wrote, "It was not a job he ever wanted or expected but he brought to it a dedication and focus that Noël would have been surprised and pleased to see. [He] was thrust into his biggest role and played it as he knew Noël would have wanted him to. It was a fitting farewell performance." Coward's biographer, Philip Hoare, wrote, "Graham disproved his partner's assessment of himself as 'an illiterate little sod' by publishing his memoir and by managing the Coward estate. He was a generous, uncomplicated man, and he will be missed by his many friends."
In 1988, 15 years after Coward's death, Payn, who "hadn't the heart to use it again", gave their Jamaican home, the Firefly Estate, to the Jamaica National Heritage Trust. He retained their other home in Switzerland, where he died in 2005, aged 87.
Payn wrote Noël Coward and His Friends (1979) with Sheridan Morley and Cole Lesley, and, with Morley, was co-editor of The Noël Coward Diaries, which they dedicated to Lesley. Payn wrote his autobiography, My Life With Noël Coward, in 1994.
Sir Noël Peirce Coward (16 December 1899 – 26 March 1973) was an English playwright, composer, director, actor and singer, known for his wit, flamboyance, and what Time magazine called "a sense of personal style, a combination of cheek and chic, pose and poise". (P: ©Allan Warren. Noël Coward's last Christmas card, 1972 (©17))
Coward's most important relationship, which began in the mid-1940s and lasted until his death, was with the South African stage and film actor Graham Payn. Coward featured Payn in several of his London productions. Payn later co-edited with Sheridan Morley the collection of Coward's diaries, published in 1982. Coward's other relationships included the playwright Keith Winter, actors Louis Hayward and Alan Webb, his manager John (Jack) C. Wilson (1899–1961) and the composer Ned Rorem, who published details of their relationship in his diaries. Coward had a 19-year friendship with Prince George, Duke of Kent, but biographers differ on whether it was platonic. According to Payn, Coward maintained that it was simply a friendship. Coward said, on the duke's death, "I suddenly find that I loved him more than I knew." (Picture: Graham Payn)
Born in Teddington, a suburb of London, Coward attended a dance academy in London as a child, making his professional stage début at the age of eleven. As a teenager he was introduced into the high society in which most of his plays would be set. Coward achieved enduring success as a playwright, publishing more than 50 plays from his teens onwards. Many of his works, such as Hay Fever, Private Lives, Design for Living, Present Laughter and Blithe Spirit, have remained in the regular theatre repertoire. He composed hundreds of songs, in addition to well over a dozen musical theatre works (including the operetta Bitter Sweet and comic revues), poetry, several volumes of short stories, the novel Pomp and Circumstance, and a three-volume autobiography. Coward's stage and film acting and directing career spanned six decades, during which he starred in many of his own works.
At the outbreak of World War II, Coward volunteered for war work, running the British propaganda office in Paris. He also worked with the Secret Service, seeking to use his influence to persuade the American public and government to help Britain. Coward won an Academy Honorary Award in 1943 for his naval film drama, In Which We Serve, and was knighted in 1969. In the 1950s he achieved fresh success as a cabaret performer, performing his own songs, such as "Mad Dogs and Englishmen", "London Pride" and "I Went to a Marvellous Party". (Picture: Prince George, Duke of Kent)
His plays and songs achieved new popularity in the 1960s and 1970s, and his work and style continue to influence popular culture. Coward did not publicly acknowledge his homosexuality, but it was discussed candidly after his death by biographers including Graham Payn, his long-time partner, and in Coward's diaries and letters, published posthumously. The former Albery Theatre (originally the New Theatre) in London was renamed the Noël Coward Theatre in his honour in 2006.
Coward was homosexual but, following the convention of his times, this was never publicly mentioned. The critic Kenneth Tynan's description in 1953 was close to an acknowledgment of Coward's sexuality: "Forty years ago he was Slightly in Peter Pan, and you might say that he has been wholly in Peter Pan ever since. No private considerations have been allowed to deflect the drive of his career; like Gielgud and Rattigan, like the late Ivor Novello, he is a congenital bachelor."
Coward firmly believed his private business was not for public discussion, considering "any sexual activities when over-advertised" to be tasteless. Even in the 1960s, Coward refused to acknowledge his sexual orientation publicly, wryly observing, "There are still a few old ladies in Worthing who don't know." Despite this reticence, he encouraged his secretary Cole Lesley to write a frank biography once Coward was safely dead. Details of his sexual life emerged; for instance, from his youth Coward had a distaste for penetrative sex.
Coward maintained close friendships with many women, including the actress and author Esmé Wynne-Tyson, his first collaborator and constant correspondent; Gladys Calthrop, who designed sets and costumes for many of his works; his secretary and close confidante Lorn Loraine; the actresses Gertrude Lawrence, Joyce Carey and Judy Campbell; and "his loyal and lifelong amitié amoureuse", Marlene Dietrich.
In his profession, Coward was widely admired and loved for his generosity and kindness to those who fell on hard times. Stories are told of the unobtrusive way in which he relieved the needs or paid the debts of old theatrical acquaintances who had no claim on him. From 1934 until 1956, Coward was the president of The Actors' Orphanage, which was supported by the theatrical industry. In that capacity, he befriended the young Peter Collinson, who was in the care of the orphanage. He became Collinson's godfather and helped him to get started in show business. When Collinson was a successful director, he invited Coward to play a role in The Italian Job. Graham Payn also played a small role in the film.
In the 1950s, Coward left the UK for tax reasons, receiving harsh criticism in the press. He first settled in Bermuda but later bought houses in Jamaica and Switzerland (in the village of Les Avants, near Montreux), which remained his homes for the rest of his life. His expatriate neighbours and friends included Joan Sutherland, David Niven, Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, and Julie Andrews and Blake Edwards in Switzerland and Ian Fleming and his wife Ann in Jamaica. Coward was a witness at the Flemings' wedding, but his diaries record his exasperation with their constant bickering.
Coward's political views were Conservative, but not unswervingly so: he despised the government of Neville Chamberlain for its policy of appeasing Nazi Germany, and he differed sharply with Winston Churchill over the abdication crisis of 1936. Whereas Churchill supported Edward VIII's wish to marry "his cutie", Wallis Simpson, Coward thought the king irresponsible, telling Churchill, "England doesn't wish for a Queen Cutie." Coward disliked propaganda in plays: "The theatre is a wonderful place, a house of strange enchantment, a temple of illusion. What it most emphatically is not and never will be is a scruffy, ill-lit, fumed-oak drill hall serving as a temporary soap box for political propaganda." Nevertheless, his own views sometimes surfaced in his plays: both Cavalcade and This Happy Breed are "overtly Conservative political plays written in the Brechtian epic manner." In religion, Coward was agnostic. He wrote of his views, "Do I believe in God? I can't say No and I can't say Yes, To me it's anybody's guess."
Coward spelled his first name with the diæresis ("I didn't put the dots over the 'e' in Noël. The language did. Otherwise it's not Noël but Nool!"). The press and many book publishers failed to follow suit, and his name was printed as 'Noel' in The Times, The Observer and other contemporary newspapers and books.
The papers of Noël Coward are held in the University of Birmingham Special Collections.
Days of Love: Celebrating LGBT History One Story at a Time by Elisa Rolle
Paperback: 760 pages
Publisher: CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform; 1 edition (July 1, 2014)
CreateSpace Store: https://www.createspace.com/4910282
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Days of Love chronicles more than 700 LGBT couples throughout history, spanning 2000 years from Alexander the Great to the most recent winner of a Lambda Literary Award. Many of the contemporary couples share their stories on how they met and fell in love, as well as photos from when they married or of their families. Included are professional portraits by Robert Giard and Stathis Orphanos, paintings by John Singer Sargent and Giovanni Boldini, and photographs by Frances Benjamin Johnson, Arnold Genthe, and Carl Van Vechten among others. “It's wonderful. Laying it out chronologically is inspired, offering a solid GLBT history. I kept learning things. I love the decision to include couples broken by death. It makes clear how important love is, as well as showing what people have been through. The layout and photos look terrific.” Christopher Bram “I couldn’t resist clicking through every page. I never realized the scope of the book would cover centuries! I know that it will be hugely validating to young, newly-emerging LGBT kids and be reassured that they really can have a secure, respected place in the world as their futures unfold.” Howard Cruse “This international history-and-photo book, featuring 100s of detailed bios of some of the most forward-moving gay persons in history, is sure to be one of those bestsellers that gay folk will enjoy for years to come as reference and research that is filled with facts and fun.” Jack Fritscher
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