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October 17, 2013

Noël Coward comedy opens today at MSU

As 'Blithe Spirit' opens today at MSU, some facts about its eccentric playwright

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• A fashion dandy in his day, Coward is credited for starting the turtleneck craze in the 1920s and for crafting a polished public image enhanced by long cigarette holders and dressing gowns.

• After sending the manuscript to 1922's "The Young Idea" to George Bernard Shaw in order to make sure he had not plagiarized any influence, Shaw responded with an encouraging letter that included detailed feedback on the work. The interaction influenced Coward to show the same warmth to other theatre hopefuls. Coward was also admired for his generosity to the poor and downtrodden, serving for a time as president of The Actors' Orphanage.

• Coward's opening of "Sirocco" in 1927 became one of the most infamous in all of theatre history when the play about sexual freedom among the wealthy met with catcalling, booing and even violent reaction from the crowd. Though Coward was spit on in the street after the play, he remained in town to suffer the criticism, keeping his dinner reservation the following night at a restaurant popular among theatre professionals.

• Coward's 1930 play, "Private Lives," was one of his most popular, selling out in both London and New York with he starring alongside Gertrude Lawrence. Following its success, Coward vowed he would not star in play for longer than three months at any one venue.

• Coward worked with the British secret service during World War II, collecting information about American sentiments during the war. He was vilified in the press for supposedly fleeing the country, prompting Coward to write a poignant, if hopelessly naive, letter to the British Ministry of Information asking that the truth of his actions be shared with the public: "Please believe that I shall continue to do my best, as discreetly as possible. If however it were possible for me not to be quite disowned in all directions I think it would strengthen my hand."

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