Noel Coward’s play to expose Ian Fleming’s secret affair
London: A play written by legendary playwright Noel Coward, which was once seen as too scandalous to perform, is all set to lift the lid on his naked pool parties and James Bond creator Ian Fleming’s very wild love life.
Amidst the tropical atmosphere of Noel Coward’s island retreat in colonial Jamaica, overlooked by palm trees and lapped by the azure Caribbean Sea, there was only one poolside rule: bathing costumes were strictly forbidden.
Guests arriving at the villa would be startled to find the king and queen of the London stage, Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh, draped naked over one another’s bodies.
In another corner, John Gielgud would be admiring himself, while Ian Fleming, creator of James Bond, would be pursuing his latest amorous affair.
Jamaica had long enjoyed a certain reputation for celebrities seeking escape. Hollywood stars such as Bette Davis, Errol Flynn and Claudette Colbert had all built houses there.
But it was not just celebrities. Jamaica was also a place where the black sheep of the British aristocracy were sent to stew quietly on large allowances so they would not embarrass their families back in England. Drink, drugs and adultery were their chosen pastimes.
Now, a play written by Coward based on the louche goings-on in Jamaica is coming to London for the first time, the Daily Mail reported.
So sensational was ‘Volcano’ considered that it was never performed in Coward’s lifetime, for it exposed the overheated passions of English aristocrats and celebrities abroad as never before.
Coward, who in 1931 — the year after he wrote his priceless comedy of manners, ‘Private Lives’ — was rated the highest-earning author in the world.
Romantic and sexually charged Fleming had built a remarkable modern villa overlooking a private cove. He called it Goldeneye.
Coward disliked the concrete styling of the place and said it reminded him of a hospital. He rechristened it “Golden Eye, Nose and Throat.”
Fleming was a rakish sexual predator whose tempestuous marriage and extra-marital affairs provided Coward with endless material. His fiery bouts of love-making were often violent, involving whips, as well as beatings with hairbrushes.
His friend Mary Pakenham (later Lady Longford) declared: “No one I have ever known had sex so much on the brain as Ian.”
And it was Fleming’s marriage to his aristocratic wife Ann that provided a central theme for ‘Volcano’.
Fleming had met Ann during the war when he was a Naval intelligence officer. At the time, she was married to a childhood friend and highborn aristocrat, Lord O’Neill.
Ann nevertheless saw nothing wrong with sleeping with Fleming. She claimed she was attracted to cads and bounders.
She would have married Fleming had he asked her after O’Neill was killed in action in 1944. Instead, she married Viscount Rothermere, Esmond Harmsworth, proprietor of the Daily Mail.
All the while she continued to see Fleming, and to write him letters that are shocking to this day.
In 1947, after the couple had spent a few days together, she wrote: “It was so short and so full of happiness, and I am afraid I loved cooking for you and sleeping beside you and being whipped by you?…”
Another time, as shown in a collection of her letters published by Mark Amory, she wrote: “I long for you to whip me because I love being hurt by you and kissed afterwards. It’s very lonely not to be beaten.”
Ann became pregnant and gave premature birth to a daughter, who died after eight hours, leaving her “bruised and bewildered”. The child was widely held to be Fleming’s, although her husband stood by her.
Coward was appalled one day to see Ann and Fleming breakfasting on the balcony of the island’s most famous hotel while a photographer stalked the area. He told them so.
“I gave them a very stern lecture indeed,” he wrote. “They were very sweet but I have grave fears for the avenir (future).”
Matters came to a head when Ann became pregnant again with Fleming’s child. She divorced Rothermere and in 1952 married her lover, with Coward as best man.
The pregnancy resulted in Caspar, their only child. His birth, by Caesarian, marked the end of their love-making. Fleming was repulsed by Ann’s scarred stomach and was soon back to his amorous pursuits.
He had already conducted affairs with Loelia, Duchess of Westminster, wife of Britain’s richest aristocrat, and with the novelist Rosamond Lehmann. Coward, a confidant to both women, acted as a go-between in these assignations.
When Fleming bored of Lehmann, he asked Coward to take care of her. An aficionado of snorkelling over the coral reef, Fleming had dismissed Rosamond by chucking an octopus at her.
Coward was most fascinated by the stories circulating about his friends’ love-lives. And none were more intriguing than that of Fleming’s tempestuous affair with Blanche Blackwell, the glamorous scion of an old plantation family who lived at nearby Bolt House.
She was a dark-haired, feisty and stylish woman, and Fleming was soon smitten.
It’s a reflection of her determined personality that Blanche became a literary as well as a romantic muse to Fleming. She was said to be the model for Pussy Galore in ‘Goldfinger’.
So fascinated was Coward in 1956 by the romantic intrigues of his friends — not least because he rather fancied Fleming himself — that the playwright began to work up his themes for ‘Volcano’.