Everyone at Noel Coward’s birthday party was watching the young couple dancing crazily across the floor. Not everyone was amused. Yes, some were, if I could judge by the indulgent smiles. A few partygoers, however, sat stone-faced, eyes dark with anger. A lovely party, ruined by drunken fools. Noel didn’t seem to notice that his delightful party was fast degenerating into a bad scene from a British drawing-room melodrama penned by, perhaps, some fussy lady writer with three names.
But of course he did. Noel missed little, frankly.
At one point, leaning into Ellin Berlin, Irving’s wife, and whispering something that made her laugh foolishly, he caught my eye from across the room—a slight nod toward Dougie Maddox and Belinda Ross. Knowing, that nod, and then—look, dear Ferber, at the cold breeze that’s suddenly shivered off the East River into my cozy rooms.
I smiled back, but watched as Dougie waved across the crowded room at Noel, a boyish smile on his lips. Noel, shaking his head, shrugged his shoulders and walked away, placing his champagne flute on a sideboard.
The hour was getting late, and already I was planning my escape. A delightful time, yes, but too much party chatter, especially from some wide-eyed showgirl who’d come to the party draped on the arm of Tommy Stuyvesant, decades older and millions richer. Earlier I’d managed to escape her bubbly ramble only to have her find me hiding in a corner with the glass of red wine I’d barely touched—a batch of wine, Noel had confided earlier, freshly delivered from a Canadian rum-runner into Chelsea Harbor on the west side of town and delivered by a bootlegger to his apartment.
Irving Berlin, a little sheepishly, had been pressured to play Christmas carols on the white-lacquered grand piano Noel had positioned by the bank of bay windows that overlooked the icy East River. Christmas was days away. “They didn’t name me Noel without reason,” Noel had quipped when he invited us to his birthday bash. But Berlin’s rousing “Joy to the World”—sung off-key and too loudly by the celebrants—had led to scattershot improvised parodies of other holiday chestnuts. “Hark! The Herald Square Merchants Sing!” That made me smile, though Leslie Howard laughed too long.
“I’m thirty-three years old,” Noel had announced.
“The same age as Jesus Christ when he was crucified,” Clifton Webb’s voice had broken in.
“We all have our cross to bear.” Noel had stretched out his arms and dipped his head to the side.
“Sacrilege,” the showgirl with Tommy had sputtered. “That ain’t right.”
But then Dougie Madden and Belinda Ross joined the party, and the temper of the room immediately shifted. They’d obviously come from another party—or maybe not—but both were tipsy, Dougie’s voice crackling with humor as he slurred his words and Belinda, her squeaky little-girl timbre exaggerated from drinking, interrupting everyone’s conversations. Irving Berlin stopped playing, with a final irritated run of his fingers up and down the keyboard. Noel put a seventy-eight on the gramophone, a scratchy “Good King Wenceslaus” that sounded like Rudy Vallee singing through a megaphone in a narrow hallway, and Belinda, almost as if hearing a stage cue, grabbed Dougie, and the two swirled around the room, bumping into folks, careening into chairs, demanding that Noel play the recording over and over.
Moss Hart leaned into me. “Edna, when no one’s looking, smash that record into pieces.”
“It doesn’t matter,” I told him. “I don’t think that girl needs music to make a fool of herself.”
Hart shook his head back and forth. A tall, slender man, handsome with that high forehead and slicked-back wavy hair and the ostentatious lavender bow-tie, Moss was a generation younger than most of us in the room, a man in his late twenties, the new wunderkind sensation on the Great White Way with his hit Once in a Lifetime. Bubbly, flamboyant, he was always over-joyed to be in the company of the likes of Cole Porter, Lawrence Olivier, and, surprisingly, me. Looking like a sparkling yeshiva boy from the Bronx in a pin-striped double-breasted suit with that vaudeville tie, he stood at my side much of the evening, watching, wryly commenting, and I feared the rollicking smart talk he was overhearing would shortly appear in a Broadway revue with or without George Kaufman as his co-conspirator. I said as little as possible.
“Why does Noel invite them?” he asked.
“Not them,” I emphasized. “Him. Dougie. Noel told me he finds Dougie…fascinating. Doubtless a euphemism, but so be it. Moss, what he finds amusing is that Dougie, a thirty-five-year-old scion of old Manhattan money who safeguarded the family treasure after the Crash three years ago, seems to be discovering life outside a Wall Street office.”
A year or so ago Dougie wandered into a party of theater folks, many jaundiced remnants of the old Algonquin Table crowd of the roaring twenties, and discovered that he liked theater—and, I gathered, the attention of Noel Coward. Dougie also discovered me, and we were friendly—I insisted that I liked him, despite his slavish interest in my life, my work, my conversation. He flattered me a little too much. “So Big—I read it—a masterpiece.” Of course I agreed, but I only had to hear it once from him. A steady mantra, I could do without.
Dougie swirled past me, his face flushed, sweat beading on his brow as he clutched Belinda’s slender waist. A boyish man, lanky though a little too bony, with a shock of gleaming straw-blond huckleberry hair slicked back from his forehead, a hint of a moustache over a thin upper lip. Blue-gray eyes spread too far apart over an elegant Roman nose. But what saved him was his infectious smile. His mouth was too big for his face, so his smile, toothy and wide, startled—and captivated. The sudden appearance of dimples also didn’t hurt the charming package.
A celebrated bachelor, housed with an imperious mother in a Fifth Avenue castellated mansion, he famously avoided nightclubs, playboy binges at speakeasies, and serious thought. Suddenly he was investing his capital in Broadway shows, especially Noel’s massive box-office smash Private Lives, which gave him entry to parties such as this one. Likeable, as I said, but I considered him negligible—just there in the room, the genial young man who flattered me too much when he didn’t have to. Frankly, I didn’t find in him the stuff of real friendship, a man lacking mettle. Last week, sipping cocktails in my apartment, Noel had argued the point with me.
“I like his wide-eyed innocence,” he’d insisted. “A man without wit, true—dare I say witless?—but each experience he has seems to be a first-time experience. A child’s reactions.”
“And therefore tedious,” I’d countered. “Dougie is…well, paper thin.”
“Tedious, no!” His British inflection was exaggerated. Teejus, no!
“I choose my words carefully, dear Noel.”
“But good-looking, dear Edna. That counts for something.”
“I don’t think so, Noel.”
“We see the world differently, darling.” He’d bowed at me.
“Yes, I have my eyes open.” I’d wagged a finger at him. “And now he has love in his life.”
Noel had grinned. “A man who experiences his first passionate love at thirty-five is like a goldfish in a glass bowl—a creature that swims deliriously in circles while those watching shake their heads in dismay.”
I’d laughed then. “Let’s hope he doesn’t end up floating on the surface of that bowl.”
“I thought you Americans believed in happy endings.” Noel’s eyes had brightened.
I’d pulled in my cheeks. “That is a happy ending.”
Over the summer Dougie headed to Newport, yachting and doubtless wearing a straw boater and billowing white flannel trousers. Noel sailed from New York to England, then on to Egypt, madly writing fresh dialogue on board, and I traveled to France with my mother. Noel had returned to New York a few weeks back—twenty-seven pieces of luggage and a gramophone that played Sophie Tucker’s “Some of These Days” till the wee hours of the morning. I returned with my mother and a case of jaundice—or was it simply bile?
A few weeks ago, everyone back from vacation, we learned that Dougie had become besotted with Belinda Ross, the dazzling new singer on Broadway. The boy who never gave in to the coy flirtations of debutantes was drunk in love.
“I was gone for the summer,” Noel told me. “I come back a month ago, and Dougie is madly in love. What did I miss?”
Belinda now staggered against the piano, ran her fingers up the keys, seemed delighted at the invention of music, and started to warble some unintelligible lyrics, some garbled take on “Night and Day.” Moss Hart, staring out the windows at the night river, swung around, caught my eye, and covered his ears in a deadpan Buster Keaton parody. Noel raised his voice as he tilted his long head. “Not now, dear Belinda.”
She ignored him.
Dougie pulled at her arm, but she sloughed him off. “It’s a party. A birthday.” She pouted, “People know me now.”
Of course, people did know her now. A year ago no one had heard of Belinda Ross. That was before her meteoric rise on Broadway, a trajectory dizzying to observe. September to now—a few months, and much attention. Her origins were admittedly obscure—especially given the press machinery of Broadway chroniclers who liked to cloak simple stories in Baroque legend and mystical rites-of-passage. F.P.A.’s “The Conning Tower” column described her as “the damsel in the gold dress.” Walter Winchell offered her a ride in his Stutz-Bearcat convertible.
She’d been an anonymous performer in her brother’s hole-in-the-wall theater somewhere in the hinterlands of Eleventh Avenue, so west of Broadway it could be Jersey, a shadowy old vaudeville house lost among the Chelsea Pier longshoremen and stevedores in Hell’s Kitchen. Yes, a few long blocks from Times Square, but geography no one had heard of. The beautiful girl with a wonderful singing voice, equal parts thunder and whispered cooing, she sang and danced for the piddling crowd that somehow found its way onto that dark landscape. She could be a coy Mary Pickford, a vampish Theda Bara, even a smart-mouthed Fanny Brice, but she played to nearly empty houses.
Discovered there by Cyrus Meerdom, the powerhouse producer with the lascivious eye—rumor had it her greedy brother somehow orchestrated the serendipitous meeting—she quickly departed the ragtag company of actors and appeared in Meerdom’s Colleens revue at the Mendes Theatre on Forty-third, an anemic show of half-baked numbers, except for Belinda’s singing. Suddenly, the critics and audiences paid attention to the new star. For many, she epitomized the post-Crash femininity—gone the boyish, bobbed-hair flappers, the stick-figure mannequins. With her curvaceous body and hourglass figure that reminded some old-timers of an elegant Lillian Russell, Belinda captured a lot of fluttering hearts. She became a sensation.
But the revue wasn’t. For one month, Cyrus was seen everywhere with Belinda on his arm. Dancing at El Morocco. At 21. Eating caviar au blini with Jimmy Durante at Les Ambassadeurs. Sipping Cel-Ray tonics at Hudnut’s basement café. She clung to Cyrus’ arm as though to let go would be to watch her treasure boat sail away. Rumors were everywhere. Supposedly someone overheard Cyrus whisper suggestions of Paris trips, a penthouse apartment at the Sherry Netherland, a yacht in the Hudson, talking too much so that his wife learned of the indiscretion. He didn’t care.
Neither did Belinda. But the revue closed after four weeks. A flop. Two weeks later, Belinda found a new home. The success of George White’s Scandals had ignited Broadway, with Rudy Vallee singing “Life is Just a Bowl of Cherries.” Leggy beauties danced in syncopation. Imitating the revue, Tommy Stuyvesant, financed by an eager Dougie Maddox, opened his spectacular Tommy’s Temptations at the New Beacon. Belinda Ross starred. The show was an instant smash—witty, sardonic sketches, yes, but mainly Belinda, showcased. Belinda’s grinning face appeared on the cover of Stage and Broadway Lights. The Daily News featured her in a photogravure spread. Winchell’s “On Broadway” in the Mirror wept with hyperbole. Her smiling face adorned calendars in gas stations across Brooklyn and Queens. Stage-door Johnnies left roses and phone numbers. George Kaufman, giddy, sent candy.
Cyrus Meerdom was a thing of the past.
Suddenly, Belinda was on the arm of Tommy Stuyvesant at Leon and Eddie’s Famous Door, listening to the cool jazz of Wingy Mannone. A loudmouth with family millions, Tommy flaunted the vivacious Belinda, though he always wore a bemused look on his face, as though he understood the vagaries of such transitory romance. A bachelor who was also a notorious skinflint, he simply shrugged his shoulders when Belinda suddenly disappeared into the arms of his chief financial investor, the hapless Dougie Maddox. After all, she was still his moneymaker on Broadway.
When Dougie and Belinda arrived at the party, Tommy had been pontificating about the dire state of theater in these depressed years—“Those goddamn Hollywood movies suck the life outta Broadway”—but stopped when Belinda spotted him and threw a friendly half-wave in his direction. A tall, beefy man with a gleaming bald head and small dull eyes, who always looked uncomfortable in a suit, Tommy laughed out loud. Of course, everyone in that room who had followed the picayune melodrama of Belinda and her suitors shot glances at one another, but Tommy, shaking his head, turned away, indifferent. Belinda noisily gave Dougie a peck on the cheek.
Noel, a glass of cognac in his hand and a Turkish cigarette bobbing at the end of his long ivory holder, sidled up to me and nodded at the two. “Look, Edna. I’ve provided a floor show. The ingénue and the sybarite.”
“But Tommy seems indifferent.”
He grinned. “Look closely, darling. It’s all a pose. A broken heart.”
“You’re a romantic, Noel.”
He sighed. “I’m watching the death of my party.”
“I think that happened a while ago, Noel—during Belinda’s screechy rendition of Cole Porter.”
“Tommy isn’t happy his biggest star is filled with bathtub gin.”
Watching the florid man as he gulped back his drink, I noticed a sudden flick of his head in Belinda’s direction. Still that enigmatic smile on his face, that feigned indifference, but his eyes revealed something else: A trace of hurt? Or was it anger?
“Ah, Belinda,” Noel laughed softly. “The girl who plans to ruin Dougie’s life.” Then, the smile disappearing, he said, “Such girls are commonplace, if captivating, and always fickle. Such girls are—doomed.”
I raised my glass to him. “A dark romantic in the New World.”
Noel narrowed his eyes. “Look at the two of them. The way they look at each other. They love each other.”
“That surprises you, Noel?”
“Such raw love is dangerous in the young.”
“They think they are the only ones who’ve ever been in love. It makes them…reckless.” He chuckled as he raised his glass.
As the party went on, Noel’s mood shifted. He stood by the piano but stared out into the black night. A gust of wind rattled the windows, snowflakes swirling. A hint of moonlight reflected on the choppy East River. His gaze shifting back to the room, Noel pursed his lips and frowned at the couple. He was watching Dougie, who kept telling Belinda to lower her voice. “Do you know where you are, for Christ’s sake?”
She shot back. “Of course I know where I am. I’m not a fool.”
Noel twisted his head to the side and drained his cognac. “A fool and Dougie’s money are soon parted.”
He stared back out into the black night.
A tall man, over six feet, lithe like a strapping young boy, that stark aristocratic face under the blond tousled hair, a few strands drifting onto his forehead, Noel leaned back against the piano, sadly resigned to a failed evening. He stifled a yawn, which surprised me, and he caught me looking. I walked over to him and looked up into his face. “Noel, you should ask them to leave.”
His words were clipped, world-weary, very British: “Edna, love, I never ask anyone to leave my home.” A thin smile. “In a moment I’ll disappear and return in my red satin dressing gown and begin a recitation of homiletic bedtime stories.”
I laughed. “‘Twas the night before Christmas…”
He finished. “And all through my house…” He smirked. “Design for living in Manhattan?”
After New Year’s, he’d be headed to Cleveland with Lynn Fontaine and Alfred Lunt for tryouts of his new play, Design for Living, a new risqué comedy about a questionable—if engaging—ménage a trois.
Watching the drama in the room, Irving Berlin nudged Noel’s elbow, made a tsk tsk sound, sat at the piano, and began a jazz-baby rendition of a song I didn’t recognize, a mournful, down-and-out dirge that made Noel smile. “Someone is reading my mind,” he said to Irving. “That’s always dangerous.”
But a few chords into the song, Belinda began humming loudly and, stopping abruptly, Berlin dropped his hands into his lap. He stared straight ahead, unhappy. Noel leaned over his shoulder. “Might I request the Mozart Requiem?”
There was a commotion at the front door. A raised voice, alarmed. A phony high-pitched laugh. Someone groaned.
“Oh, Christ,” Tommy’s voice boomed out.
The room went quiet.