Born in London on the verge of the new century (specifically, on December 16, 1899) and into a middle-class family of modest means, Noël Coward was, as a youth, at once precocious and unworldly, well-read and witty but almost entirely without formal education, and lacking in any significant interests other than the theater. From the age of eleven he was a working actor on the West End stage; reaching military age toward the close of World War I, he spent a few months in the army, all in England, mostly in the hospital. Then came the armistice, after which there occurred a sociocultural shift that was decisive for Coward’s career: shaken to their roots by the horrors of war, many of the more privileged members of his generation decided, as Coward’s latest biographer, Oliver Soden, puts it in his splendid new book,


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