Snapshot: Noel Coward, New York and Susan Sontag

I have a record called Noel Coward In New York, a gift from a Manhattanite cousin. It’s a vinyl album, a Columbia Masterworks reissue of recordings made in the city in 1959. The music I don’t care for much at all – nor did the cousin, I think. Hence the gifting of it. But the cover image, my oh my. It’s a black-and-white daylight photo of the great Coward with the Manhattan skyline behind him.

He’s standing erect but casual, in evening dress, with a white handkerchief in his top pocket, and drinking tea from a white china cup and saucer, with a smouldering cigarette clutched between the second and third fingers of his left hand. His gaze is lightly sardonic but there’s a camera-welcoming smile, too. Because of optical foreshortening, he’s a giant of a figure, head and shoulders above the city’s skyscrapers. As the Colossus was to Rhodes, so a real-life version of this Cowardly image could replace the Statue of Liberty: a first Noel for the Port of New York. The highest priest of camp as front man for the city where camp was invented, in 1964 – or, at least, first publicised, by Susan Sontag. I encountered her essays three or four years later – a little Londoner’s introduction to modern, even post-modern, New York intellectual trends and trendinesses. London-New York. As one city drinks its cup of coffee so the other sips its cuppa.

The picture is credited to Bernard Cole, presumably the London-born photographer of that name. Coward’s image is a direct, conscious echo of an earlier shot made by LIFE magazine photographer Loomis Dean, in the Nevada desert, for Coward’s 1955 At Las Vegas live album, the image of Manhattan’s east side is the view out of the left-hand window as you make the final descent into La Guardia airport, finishing your drink as you pass the UN building. The picture looks like it was taken on the waterfront of Long Island City – pretty much the spot where, last time I was in New York, I had breakfast with an old friend from London – who had made the transatlantic crossing decades earlier and has, for many years, self-identified as her new city’s ‘professor of punk and reggae’. 

© Peter Silverton 2022

*This is an extract from the book London Calling, New York, New York by Peter Silverton to be published in 2023.

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