Of course, Coward also remembers the boys and men in his life. Patrice asks him, “So you are a definite homosexual, Boss?” To which he coolly replies: “I like to give them a hand.”
Sometimes, Graham or Cole — both still full of energy — come up for lunch. When Graham eats, he “tackles his pâté with such unbridled enthusiasm, spreading it over the bread, smiling with each bite, it seems he might be auditioning for a television commercial.” One day he unexpectedly brings a guest, a minor actress named Coral who is married to a producer. She mentions seeing Judy Garland at one of Coward’s shows in Las Vegas. Graham interjects, “We loved her very much,” and Coral replies, “Oh, you know everyone.” “ ‘No,’ says Noël. ‘Everyone knows me.’ ”
But that too doesn’t seem to matter anymore. Coward is feeling so worn out. As he tells Cole, “when Jesus wants me for a sunbeam, I’ll be very glad to go.” The famous wit and cosmopolitan can hardly bear any noise or conversation: “Talking? I’m sick of talking. Talking wears me out. I like silence. I like solitary confinement.” Everything is too much for him. When forced to meet old friends at a restaurant, he orders the lightest-sounding dish, red snapper salad.
Alas, when their food arrives, “Noël’s red snapper is a giant combination of fish, and what he can only think of as tropical apparel. Half a pineapple has been sawn into chunks and put back into its skin, complete with maraschino cherries and a jaunty paper umbrella. Grilled plantain sits next to a tower of grated coconut; the snapper is swimming, nay drowning, in curly green leaves that might or might not be lettuce. There are wheels of oranges. Shredded cucumber. Miniature fried potatoes and a pond of spiced mayonnaise. So much for ‘light.’ Attempting to make some dent in this Jamaican still life, he flakes off some of the fish, thinking of the salads of England, a few watery lettuce leaves, a sliced tomato, a hard-boiled egg and a beetroot; in Switzerland you would get even less.”
As these quotations indicate, Janette Jenkins’s book is both quietly witty and remarkable in portraying the slipping away of mind and body that comes with old age. At times “Firefly” reminded me of the superb film “Gods and Monsters,” which depicts the last days of “Frankenstein” director James Whale and his relationship with a new houseboy. It’s not as harrowing as that movie, nor as profound as Tolstoy’s “The Death of Ivan Ilyich,” but it is similarly moving and beautiful. Patrice, with only his smile and his naive optimism, embraces life with all the energy of youth, while the rich, the internationally celebrated Sir Noël Coward looks forward to nothing whatsoever. One dreams of becoming a waiter; the other simply waits.
Dirda reviews books for The Washington Post every Thursday.