Signed by the Hand and Pen of Noel Coward

July 22, 2008

At this point I wouldn’t consider myself a great connoisseur or collector of first editions. Yet recent forays into old book fairs, library castoff sales, and regular jaunts to Half Price Books often have come a cropper with unexpected gems. And affordable ones, too. Price points of $1 – $2 have not been uncommon. To wit, today’s example.

Back in February some students at the University of Louisville had a sale of donated books, CDs and videos at which I was happy to procure some Ralph Vaughan-Williams symphonies on Chandos and Naxos CDs for $1 or less, some formerly very expensive ($40 each) Japanese film classics on high quality VHS tapes that were issued in the 1980s as part of the so-called Sony Japan Film Collection (50 cents each), and lots of historical books and some real oddball items, such as an early 1950s pulp softcover of Is Another World Watching? The Riddle of the Flying Saucers by Gerald Heard plus an early to mid-1940s postcard shaped paper book call A History of the War – In Maps – In Pictographs – In Words, put out by Penguin, and interesting because at the time of publication the war (WWII) was still not over.

One book I eyeballed activated my hunch meter, a first edition of The Memoirs of Marshall Mannerheim (Dutton, 1954), about a great Finnish general who saved Finland during the Winter War against the Soviets in 1939.

Another item of interest was Future Indefinite, a first edition of an autobiographical tome by the gay dandy of British theater, Noel Coward. The latter item, I thought, would be a nice supplement to a book I recently bought (but have not read): Philip Hoare’s 1995 Noel Coward: A Biography, which is, just by a glance and by the reviews, easily the best biography of Coward available.

I picked up the Coward book unhesitatingly, but balked at first at the Mannerheim one. That is, until I went back to my computer and looked it up on Amazon and eBay and found that copies are long, long out of print and routinely priced at more than $100. I raced back to the sale and snatched it for a dollar.

Feeling that I had gotten the one real gem of the day, I sorted through my booty and casually flipped the pages of the Coward, whereupon the inside front cover page opened upon a signature. I beheld it and thought it must be the previous owner’s mark. Until I saw a big ‘N’ and a flourish of a signature that suggested “Noel Coward.” I was excited, but skeptical. I did a little research on the internet and found examples of Coward’s signature that left no doubt. This was a first edition with a genuine Noel Coward signature.

Just in case some of you youngsters don’t know who Noel Coward was, I will say that I first encountered the man’s work as the director, writer and star of a masterful 1942 World War II film called, In Which We Serve and as the creator of the play, Blithe Spirit, which I enjoyed in its Technicolor 1945 film incarnation. I later saw him nicely portraying a jaded publisher in the 1935 Ben Hecht film, The Scoundrel (an unsung gem, by the way.)

He was sort of the twentieth century’s Oscar Wilde, from the wit to the gayness.

But this description at the Noel Coward Society website says it best, so here tis:

“He was simply the best all-rounder of the theatrical, literary and musical worlds of the 20th century. He invented the concept of celebrity and was the essence of chic in the Jazz Age of the 20s and 30s. His debonnair looks and stylishly groomed appearance made him the icon of ‘the Bright Young Things’ that inhabited the world of The Ivy , The Savoy and The Ritz. No one is totally sure when and why it happened but following his success in the 1930s he was called ‘The Master’, a nickname of honour that indicated the level of his talent and achievement in so many of the entertainment arts.”

I’ll be holding on to this signed copy of Future Indefinite for awhile, just for the satisfaction of possession and then probably list it on Amazon or or eBay for $100 or so. (I’ll entertain any fair offer for anyone willing to pay with money order or Paypal.) As of this posting a signed first edition is being offered on eBay for $285.

Who says a dollar doesn’t buy much anymore?