In 1923, during the West End run of his musical revue London Calling, the 24 year-old Noël Coward encountered another young man, who was to play a significant role in his life. With sexual relations between men remaining a criminal offence in Britain, until 1967, the truth about their relationship could never become public knowledge in either of their lifetimes. The dashing fellow who had caught Coward’s eye was none other than His Royal Highness Prince George, the fourth son of the reigning monarch, King George V.
A voracious bisexual who dabbled in the use of both cocaine and morphine, the Prince was instantly drawn to the urbane playwright, who had already made a name for himself through such credits as The Better Half and The Queen Was in the Parlour. They began a clandestine affair, one which resumed intermittently over the two decades which followed their first meeting.
While Prince George maintained a career in the Royal Navy until 1929, Coward became an international celebrity, his popular songs and light-hearted comic plays like Hay Fever and Easy Virtue, as well as more serious works such as The Vortex, which touched upon the taboo subjects of drug-use and repressed homosexuality, earning him the title ‘The Master,’ from his many adoring fans. At the same time, both men continued to have other lovers.
Coward was linked to several young actors including Louis Hayward and Alan Webb, and Prince George to numerous women including the cabaret star Florence Mills, who died of tuberculosis in 1927 at the age of 32, banking heiress Poppy Baring, and American socialite Kiki Preston, the latter such a heavy drug user that that she was dubbed the ‘girl with the silver syringe.’ Rumours abounded that the prince also fathered an illegitimate son with the daughter of a Canadian coal-merchant. By 1932, Prince George’s indiscretions had caught up with him, forcing his elder brother the Prince of Wales to deal with a blackmail plot hatched against his sibling, by a French architect with whom he was engaged in an affair.
Although swiftly dealt with, the blackmail attempt convinced the Royal Family that the Prince must definitely marry, and a suitable bride was soon found in the elegant Princess Marina of Greece and Denmark. The wedding took place on 29th November 1934, after which the Prince was granted the Dukedom of Kent. A son, Prince Edward, the present Duke of Kent was born in October 1935; followed by a daughter, Princess Alexandra who arrived on Christmas Day 1936. Irrespective of his lover’s growing family the first Duke’s affair with Coward continued, the showman’s debonair charm winning over the Duchess Marina, with whom he struck up a great friendship.
At home and abroad however, the gaiety that had characterised the “Roaring Twenties” was beginning to be replaced by fear and uncertainty. Fascism was taking hold across much of Europe, with the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War in July 1936 aggravating an already precarious situation. Princess Alexandra’s birth in December 1936 took place within a royal family which had just been severely shaken by the abdication of the Duke’s eldest brother. The Prince of Wales had ascended to the throne as King Edward VIII in January 1936, but was forced to abdicate after his refusal to end his relationship with the American divorcee, Wallis Simpson, and in December that year the royal succession passed to George V’s second son Albert, the Duke of York: crowned King George VI in May 1937.
Although common knowledge that Edward VIII, known later as the Duke of Windsor, had been sympathetic towards Hitler and the Nazis, less well-known are the allegations that Prince George, the Duke of Kent, might have shared his sibling’s sympathies. In their 2001 book, Double Standards: The Rudolf Hess Cover-Up, Clive Prince and Lynn Picknett claim that in the 1930s, the Duke of Kent met with both Rudolf Hess and other leading Nazis such as Alfred Rosenberg, with the latter writing to Hitler in 1935 that the Duke had been working towards, ‘strengthening the pressure for a reconstruction of the Cabinet and mainly towards beginning the movement in the direction of Germany.’
Similarly, Prince and Picknett maintain that as late as 1939, the Duke of Kent also met with his cousin Philipp, the Prince and Landgrave of Hesse, who had joined the Nazi Party in 1930. The alleged aim of their discussion being the Duke’s hopes of preventing war with Germany; with a subsequent approach to his brother George VI, about potential negotiations with Hitler, being a suggestion that the King soundly rebuffed.
In 1935, the Kents had inherited from George’s aunt, Princess Victoria, the country house of Coppins located near Iver in Buckinghamshire, and not far from Coward’s own home in Fulmer. After the outbreak of war in 1939 however, they moved to Pitliver House in Fife. The Duke of Kent initially resumed his activities with the Royal Navy as a Rear Admiral, but by 1940, had been transferred instead to the Royal Air Force, taking a position as an officer in Training Command, before becoming an Air Commodore for the department of Inspector General of the RAF.
Coward too was doing his bit for the war effort. In 1938 he had been recruited by Sir Robert Vansittart at the Foreign Office, and was approached by Sir William Stephenson, the head of British Security Coordination, about gathering intelligence on American targets in 1940. Consequently, Coward faced the wrath of an outraged British press, who wrongly assumed his presence in America was in order to avoid the war. Devastated by these accusations, Coward pleaded with Vansittart to allow him to reveal the truth. His role in intelligence came to an end soon after. The historian and journalist, Michael Thornton, himself the recipient of unwelcome advances from Coward in the 1960s, has suggested that it was Coward’s on-going affair with the Duke of Kent that in fact put an end to his activities as a secret agent. Furthermore, as Thornton has revealed, the security services were monitoring Coward himself, and were left shocked by an incident in which the Duke of Kent and the playwright spent an evening together in London, the pair of them dressed as women.
Death was the only thing able to part the Prince from his ‘dearest darling Noël.’ On 25th August 1942 along with fourteen other crew members, including his private secretary John Lowther, the Duke of Kent boarded an S-25 Sunderland Mk III Flying Boat, headed from Invergordon in the Scottish Highlands for a visit to Iceland, where he was scheduled to meet with other RAF personnel. Flight Lieutenant Frank Goyen acted as the aircraft’s captain, and Wing Commander Thomas Lawton Mosley, another highly experienced flier, was his co-pilot. At approximately 1:10 pm the aircraft took off in apparently good conditions, but shortly after take-off the weather deteriorated. Approaching Eagle’s Rock, a craggy hillside near Dunbeath in Caithness said to resemble an eagle spreading its wings, the flying boat suddenly dipped. Upon impact with the rock face, the Sunderland exploded.
The dreadful sound of the crash alerted locals who rushed to the scene. One of the first to arrive, policeman Will Bethune, later spoke of how he discovered the Prince’s body with an attaché case still handcuffed to his wrist. Split open on impact, the Icelandic hundred kroner notes the case had contained were scattered all around the site. Virtually nothing remained of the aircraft itself.
Miraculously, there was one survivor. Sergeant Andy Jack, the Sunderland’s tail gunner, was thrown from the wreckage suffering only minor burns. After being forced to sign the Official Secrets Act as he recovered in hospital, Jack refused to speak about the crash, except for one interview with the Scottish Daily Express in the 1960s. He apparently remembered very little, and agreed with the findings of the Official Inquiry.
On 7th October, 1942, the Secretary of State for Air, Archibald Sinclair told the House of Commons that the Inquiry had ruled:
‘First, that the accident had occurred because the aircraft was flown on a track other than that indicated on the flight plan given to the pilot and at too low an altitude to clear the rising ground on the track; secondly, that the responsibility for this serious mistake in airmanship lies with the captain of the aircraft; thirdly, that the weather encountered should have presented no difficulties to an experienced pilot; fourthly, that the examination of the propellers showed that the engines were under power when the aircraft struck the ground; and fifthly, that all the occupants of the aircraft were on duty at the time of the accident.’
It was therefore concluded that the accident had been due to the ‘aircraft being on wrong track at too low altitude to clear rising ground on track. Captain of aircraft changed flight-plan for reasons unknown and descended through cloud without making sure he was over water and crashed.’
Yet these findings seemed to raise more questions than they answered. The conspiratorially minded ventured that the Prince had in fact been assassinated; and there were also claims that the last person to see the Duke of Kent alive was Prince Bernhard of the Netherlands, rumoured to have possibly been a Nazi spy. Strangely, many significant files relating to the events of that day in August 1942 have long since vanished, only fueling the speculation about how and why the Duke was killed.
MEMORIAL SERVICE FOR DUKE OF KENT – 1942
Above: British Pathé footage of the Duke of Kent’s Memorial Service at Westminster Abbey (1942)
Princess Marina, who had given birth to their son Michael only weeks before, collapsed upon hearing the news of her husband’s death. Coward too was devastated, recording in his diary, ‘I can hardly believe it, but of course that is nonsense because I believe it only too well. It is never difficult to believe that someone young and charming and kind is dead.’ Acknowledging his own sense of loss, he confessed, ‘The thought that I shall never see him again is terribly painful.’
The Duke of Kent’s funeral was held at St. George’s Chapel in Windsor, four days after the crash, on 29th of August. Coward attempted to comfort the grieving Duchess, but was himself inconsolable, and his attempt to keep a stiff upper lip dissolved ‘when the coffin passed with flowers from the garden at Coppins and Prince George’s cap on it I was finished. I then gave up all pretence and just stood with the tears splashing down my face.’
In Which We Serve, Noël Coward’s patriotic film for the national war effort, was released in September 1942, after beginning filming in February of that year. It saw Coward star as the captain of the fictional HMS Torrin, his rousing speeches reinforcing the film’s underlying sentiment: of a people that refused to be defeated. Along with songs such as 1941’s London Pride, the film’s message clearly resonated with British audiences, who had seemingly forgiven Coward for his perceived desertion at the start of the war.
His new-found popularity with the British public notwithstanding, Winston Churchill, was instrumental in preventing Coward from being knighted in 1942. The official reason given was a recent fine incurred by Coward, a result of his breaching war-time currency exchange laws by spending £11,000 in the US, however, the Prime Minister’s personal animosity appears to have been a more likely explanation.
This ill-feeling was also shared by the Minister of Supply, Lord Beaverbrook. Coward’s affair with the Duke of Kent had evidently become common knowledge amongst the upper echelons of the British Government, with Beaverbrook even taking steps to ensure that any evidence of it must never come to light. He arranged for the Duke’s letters to be stolen from Coward’s home in Belgravia. The loss of these letters, a treasured memento of his time with the man he had loved for nearly twenty years, came as a dreadful blow to Coward. Beaverbrook’s daughter later disclosed that she had once seen the letters in her father’s safe, but there was no trace of them after his death in 1964.
After the war, Coward struck up a relationship with the young actor Graham Payn, who was to remain his constant companion for the remainder of his life; and in 1970, Coward finally became Sir Noël. By that time, he and Payn were living at the Firefly Estate in Jamaica, and it was there that Coward died on 26th March 1973. Following his death, Payn dismissed the idea that Coward had ever been romantically involved with the Duke of Kent, insisting that they had simply been close friends. In his book Royal Feud, Michael Thornton revealed that he had once pressed Coward about the true nature of his relationship with Prince George. Coward, who never publicly admitted his homosexuality replied, ‘We had a little dalliance.’
In November 1972, a party was held at Claridges in Sir Noël’s honour. His performance, the last Coward would make in front of an audience, ended with If Love Were All, a song whose elegiac quality made it one of his most recognisable and enduring. Taken from Coward’s 1929 operetta, Bitter Sweet, the tune was written for the character of Manon, a world-weary female cabaret singer who dreams of finding ‘somebody splendid’ to restore her faith in love. Though he shared his creation’s ‘talent to amuse,’ words which would later be inscribed on his memorial stone in Westminster Abbey; unlike the hapless Manon ‘The Master’ certainly found his Prince.
Above: A recording of If Love Were All by Fred Rich & His Orchestra (1930)
Present Indicative – Noël Coward (1937)
Future Indefinite – Noël Coward (1954)
Royal Feud – Michael Thornton (1985)
Double Standards: The Rudolf Hess Cover-Up – Clive Prince and Lynn Picknett (2001)
The Letters of Noël Coward – Edited by Barry Day (2008)
The Mystery of U-33: Hitler’s Secret Envoy – Nigel Graddon (2011)