Captivated By Jamaica: NOEL COWARD (1899 – 1973)

A friend of Ian Fleming and Errol Flynn, British-born playwright, songwriter and actor, Noel Coward first visited Jamaica on a two-week holiday in 1944. He was 43 years old, an accomplished playwright with dozens of plays to his credit and an Oscar nomination for Best Writer for the film “In Which We Serve” (1942) under his belt. Coward quickly fell in love with Jamaica and he returned to rent Fleming’s Goldeneye in 1948.

On that trip he was determined to claim a piece of his dream island for his own and settled on a slope 10 miles away from Goldeneye with a magical view of the sea. Coward met with an architect and began building his Jamaican retreat ­the aptly named “Blue Harbour.”

A year later, he returned to his two-storey villa now staffed with a chambermaid, chauffeur and several gardeners and boasting a salt-water swimming pool at the sea’s edge. By the 1950s when Coward turned his talents to cabaret performances and gained a new generation of admirers, a steady string of guests began to appear ­ socialites and dignitaries, writers and actors including Sir Laurence Olivier, Vivien Leigh, David Niven, Katharine Hepburn, Mary Martin, Sir John Gielguld, Claudette Colbert, Alec Guiness and Patricia Neal and of course Errol Flynn and his wife Patrice Wymore, and Ian Fleming. Today, Wymore remembers those times as very relaxed and peaceful, blessedly free from the paparazzi.

Tired from the constant social whirlwind, Coward soon began to desire a place away from Blue Harbour where he could find peace and quiet. He had already purchased another piece of land located on a hillside, known as “Lookout”, once belonging to the infamous pirate and one-time governor of Jamaica, Sir Henry Morgan, some three centuries earlier. To pay homage to the lightning bugs or “peeniewallies” that covered the grounds of Lookout, Coward renamed the spot, “Firefly”. He built a small house there and used it as his retreat from his original retreat, Blue Harbour. Coward lived most of the year at Firefly, where he painted and wrote in peace, comforted by a magnificent panoramic view of the sea.

After numerous years of entertaining dignitaries such as Queen Elizabeth both on stage and at his Jamaican home, Coward was knighted in 1970. He died at his beloved Firefly in 1973 and is buried there, his grave overlooking Blue Harbour. A statue of Coward stands in London’s famed Theatre Royal. Noel Coward’s Blue Harbour is now a privately owned guesthouse. His Firefly is now operated as a museum by Island Outpost and maintained in Coward’s own inimitable style. Call 725-0920 for more information.

  A FEW FACTS ABOUT NOEL COWARD
* In 1965 he was one of the first men to undergo plastic surgery.

* He turned down the following roles (all of which brought great acclaim to the actors who played them): Professor Higgins in “My Fair Lady” (which went to Rex Harrison), the King in “The King and I” (which went to Yul Brynner), Colonel Nicholson in “The Bridge on the River Kwai” (which went to Alec Guiness) and Harry Lime in “The Third Man” (which went to Orson Welles).

Errol Flynn (1909-1959)

Errol Flynn

Born in Tasmania in 1909, the boy who would go on to become known the world over as Captain Blood and Robin Hood was once a gold prospector, tobacco plantation manager and British government policeman. Once he had established himself as a bona fide Hollywood movie hero, in the late 1930s to early 1940s, he also became an international property owner, purchasing land in the lush Jamaican town of Port Antonio. Flynn dubbed Port Antonio heaven on earth and brought his third wife, stage and screen actress Patrice Wymore to live there with him in the 1950s. They adopted the town as their own and were often seen rafting and hosting party after party. Both were attracted by Port Antonio’s simplicity and striking natural beauty.

Flynn was known to frequent local bars and down white rum, sure and straight like a real Jamaican. Stories about the rakish movie star have become the stuff of legend ­ Flynn driving his Cadillac into a pool without outing his cigar, Flynn letting a crocodile loose on the town of Montego Bay, Flynn gambling and winning Navy Island. Yet he did have a serious side and that showed through in his Jamaican investments in a cattle farm and the Titchfield Hotel, which he hoped would help to stimulate tourism in Port Antonio. Unfortunately, Flynn died in 1959 from heart trouble before he could put any of his plans to develop the Titchfield Hotel or Navy Island into place. (In the late 1960s Titchfield Hotel was destroyed by fire. Today only the ruins of this great landmark still stand. The Government of Jamaica now owns Navy Island).

After the death of her charming rogue of a husband, Wymore returned to Hollywood for a brief revival of her career during which time she appeared in “Ocean’s Eleven” with Frank Sinatra. In 1967 she came back to Jamaica for good and soon became known for her skills at cattle farming, once even winning the title of Champion Farmer. Today she continues to operate Errol Flynn Estates breeding beef cattle and growing coconuts. In a recent interview she confided that she’s still here because, “the Jamaica I fell in love with as a young bride still exists in many ways (certainly not all), and it is the pull of the peace and tranquillity that keeps me here.”

Ian Fleming (1908-1964)

Ian Fleming

Born to privilege in England in 1908, Fleming was educated at the military academy at Sandhurst. After being caught out past curfew, he eventually left the Sandhusrt military academy and went to Austria to continue his schooling. It was there that Fleming learned German and first started writing, poems and short stories, primarily for his own enjoyment. Still trying to decide what he was meant to do he attempted to join the Foreign Service. After failing the exams Fleming turned to journalism. He began to work with Reuters and achieved some success covering a spy trial in Russia. After a short while, Fleming turned to banking which gave him the financial independence he sought. He began to exercise his love of the high life, filling his free time with women, liquor and fast cars. Within a few years, however, he became bored with the monotony of a banker’s life and began to work for the British naval intelligence service at the rank of lieutenant. He later became a commander and the right-hand man to one of Britain’s top spies, Admiral John Godfrey.

Fleming spent World War II using his language skills, sharp wit and creative mind conniving ways to confuse the Germans. He assisted refugees in plotting escapes from Nazi Germany and commanded an assault unit trained to work special intelligence missions. Fleming was a member of the team that designed a prototype for the CIA and he also met with President Kennedy to help engineer Castro’s fall from power. In July 1943 Fleming visited Jamaica for a naval conference (the British were concerned about the potential presence of Nazi U-Boats in Caribbean waters) and fell in love with the island’s tropical beauty. Sad to leave when the time came, he told himself he would return when the war was over and write the spy novel to end all spy novels.

True to form, in 1946 Fleming purchased land in Oracabessa that had once been a donkey racecourse and designed a house he called Goldeneye. It had no hot water, no air conditioning and no glass windows but that was exactly how Fleming wanted it and he began to spend every winter there and write. In 1952, at the age of 44, after his long-time girlfriend, Lady Anne Rothermere, a married woman, became pregnant, Fleming returned to Jamaica and waited for her divorce to become final. The two were later married in Port Maria with Jamaican ‘neighbour’ Noel Coward as a witness. While waiting Fleming made good on his promise to write the world’s greatest spy novel, introducing the world to James Bond, the suave agent 007.

Over the next 12 years he would draw on his own experiences, his fascination with military gadgets, his sharp wit and his dry arrogance to create the most successful action hero ever known. Although he wrote all 13 James Bond novels in Jamaica, only three, ‘Dr. No’, ‘Live and Let Die’ and ‘The Man with the Golden Gun’ had parts set on the island specifically in downtown Kingston, Negril, Frome and Savanna-la-Mar. For example in ‘The Man with the Golden Gun’, Bond was led to the original 77 Harbour Street Kingston offices of auctioneers C. D. Alexander and Co. by an ad in the Daily Gleaner. He was interested in a property at 3 Love Lane, Savanna-la-Mar, which would prove to be the centre of a series of lucky breaks that 007 leveraged to complete his last great adventure. Fleming tended to name characters and places for people and places he knew, naming James Bond after the author of the ornithological classic Birds of the West Indies. Fleming paid tribute to his mother, calling 007’s boss “M”. Beginning in 1962 with “Dr. No”, filmed on the island he loved, his books would be immortalised on film.

Fleming received acclaim from prize-winning authors and counted Prime Ministers, movie stars and acerbic Jamaican columnist Morris Cargill among his friends. He soon reverted to living life in the fast lane, travelling far and wide, eating rich foods, drinking and smoking with ease and occasionally battling bouts of depression. In 1964, at the age of 56 during the filming of ‘Goldfinger’, after years of continued warnings from doctors to slow down, Fleming’s heart, like Flynn’s a few years before, failed him. He is buried in Sevenhampton near the Welsh border. Fleming’s Goldeneye now belongs to Jamaican entrepreneur Chris Blackwell of Island Records fame and remains much as Fleming left it. It is located west of what is now called James Bond Beach ­ owned and operated by Blackwell’s Island Outpost.

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