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. It was known, 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.