Past Articles

What's New on the Rialto

Noel, Tallulah, Cole, and Me: A Memoir of Broadway's Golden Age
By John C. Wilson - Edited with Commentary by Thomas S. Hischak and Jack Macauley

Book Review by David Levy

John C. Wilson's achievements in the theater might have been the stuff of legend: he directed Carol Channing in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, directed Cole Porter's most enduring hit Kiss Me, Kate, helped shape the Westport Country Playhouse during its formative years, and his intimate relationship with Noël Coward extended from the rehearsal room to the bedroom. Of course, that last bit couldn't be discussed publicly when Wilson wrote his memoir (in 1958, shortly before his death in 1961), and perhaps because his final years saw him fall into alcohol-induced obscurity, few remember him today.

His memoir was left unpublished until 2015, when his great-nephew Jack Macauley, having inherited Wilson's papers, teamed with Thomas S. Hischak to finally usher the book into print. Of course, given the passage of time, preparing the book for publication meant authoring extensive notes about the people and shows referenced within the text—I would estimate that close to a third of the book is sidebar material offering short biographies of the players and plot synopses and production histories of the plays. What the editors opted not to do, however, is to edit the text, at least in the contemporary book-publishing sense of the term. That is to say, in the interest of preserving Wilson's voice as much as possible, the book was denied the kind of revisions it would have received had it been published during the author's lifetime.

The result is a bit of a mixed bag. We do, as the editors intended, get quite a good feel for Wilson's voice. It's easy to see why he was so well liked in all his circles, and the stories he shares are all told lovingly, even when they present some great stars in questionable light. Some, such as Marlon Brando and Claudette Colbert, appear in brief but fascinating episodes. Those who take up more pages spring to life in three-dimensional vivacity: the book will leave you feeling like you know Lynn Fontanne and Alfred Lunt intimately. Oddly, the three celebrities in the title never quite come into focus. Wilson talks a lot about having been at this party or producing that show with Noël Coward, Tallulah Bankhead, and Cole Porter, but gives you very little sense of what they were like behind closed doors.

Wilson's relationship with Coward is fleshed out a bit by editorial notes, but only a bit. We learn in no uncertain terms that they were lovers, and the assertion is made that once Wilson married Natalie Paley (another fascinating but underwritten figure) his relationship with Coward transitioned into that of strictly friends and business partners. Of course Wilson could not have written anything explicitly during his lifetime, and one of the joys of the book is attempting to read between the lines of Wilson's prose for indications of what his relationship with Coward was really like—and whether he had similar relationships with any of his other famous friends.

Unfortunately, this task is made harder by Wilson's resistance to telling his story in anything resembling a linear fashion. As his anecdotes jump around the calendar, it becomes even more difficult to pin down how they line up with his life. Did this show happen while he was sleeping with Coward? Had Wilson directed show X before he produced show Y? It's extraordinarily hard to keep track. The end result is a book full of interesting history told through amusing anecdotes, but lacking in any sense of forward motion or development.

Published in an attractive but expensive hardcover edition with 32 pages of photographs, this is primarily a book for libraries and academics. But if you're a casual fan, your best bet is to ask your library to add the title to their collection, then enjoy taking advantage of the extensive index to find the parts about your favorite stars of yesteryear.

Noel, Tallulah, Cole, and Me: A Memoir of Broadway's Golden Age
John C. Wilson
338 pages
Rowman & Littlefield Publishers
Official Publishing date: October 22, 2015
List Price: $65.00 Hardcover/Kindle Edition
ISBN: 978-1442255722

Privacy Policy