The pockmarked road winds up from the north coast of Jamaica--past the clumps of banana plants, heavy with fruit, and hibiscus bushes, madly shooting off explosions of red and peach blossoms, past native shacks and the cinder-block Church of Jehovah's Witnesses--until it gives onto a grassy knoll on the mountaintop 1,000 feet above the azure ocean.
It was here that playwright Noel Coward built Firefly, his Caribbean refuge, for nearly a quarter of a century, from the demands of international celebrity. It was here he wrote "Future Indefinite," "Pomp and Circumstance" and "Nude With Violin." And it is here, on a promontory where he used to sip ice-cold martinis out of a Thermos and watch the sun set, that he was buried in 1973 under a simple marble slab.
Since then, Firefly has slowly succumbed to the ravages of the Caribbean climate and occasional intruders have made off with some of the memorabilia of Destiny's Tot, a man who embodied sophistication and wit as much as any of his plays ("Private Lives," "Hay Fever") or songs ("I'll See You Again," "Mad Dogs and Englishmen").
If two New Yorkers--Lynda Lee Burks and Patricia Ryan--have their way, however, Firefly may soon find new life as a nonprofit international theater retreat called HATS (an acronym derived from Coward's one-act play, "Hands Across the Sea"). HATS, its founders believe, will be the first artists colony ever devoted exclusively to the theater. Beginning early next year, if their timetable holds, it will welcome a handful of playwrights, designers, lyricists and composers, looking for solitude, inspiration or simply a breathtaking view of mountain range upon mountain range that enchanted all of Coward's visitors, save Lynn Fontanne, who complained that it reminded her of rows and rows of empty theater seats.
"I first visited Firefly two years ago more or less on a whim," says the 28-year-old Burks, whose father raises tropical fish down the coast in Silver Sands. "I thought it was probably the prettiest site I'd ever seen. And I also thought it was a shame it was sitting there lifeless and deteriorating." As a jack-of-all backstage trades at the Playwrights Horizon in New York, Burks had grown sensitive to the care and growth of the playwright in a world of jangling telephones and snarling traffic. "The quiet and seclusion of Firefly made it seem like the ideal spot to get away to," she says. "Can you imagine what it would be like for a writer or a designer to get up early in the morning, have papaya and banana bread and know a whole day stretched ahead just to think or write?"
Burks promptly set about acquiring the approval of Coward's heirs, the blessing of his friends and a green light from the Jamaican National Trust, which was given the property by Coward's lifetime companion, Graham Payn. Up to now, the Jamaican government has kept Firefly open to visitors on a spasmodic basis, and a fancy wrought-iron gazebo has been erected over Coward's tomb to keep stray goats from defiling it. But in a country fighting to put its economy back on its feet, historical preservation is a low-priority item.
It took Burks and Ryan, HATS' artistic and managing directors, respectively, 17 meetings in Kingston over a five-day period last fall to make their case. But in September, Jamaica's newly installed prime minister, Edward Seaga, gave his nod and soon after HATS acquired a five-year renewable lease on the property at $1 a year. A prominent board of trustees has since been formed and Burks and Ryan, operating out of free office space provided by Playwrights Horizon, have begun raising the first year's budget, an estimated $200,000. "Everyone tells us this is a bad time to raise money," admits Burks, "but nobody tells us our idea is crazy."
Playwright Hugh Wheeler ("Big Fish, Little Fish," "Candide") is one of those who is enthusiastic. A member of HATS' board, he was a frequent visitor to Firefly during Coward's lifetime. "Noel also had a home in Switzerland," he says, "but it always seemed to me his heart was in Jamaica. The public image of him--as a witty, sarcastic, slightly nasty person--was totally untrue. He had no grandness about him. He was not interested in great luxury or showing off. He was tremendously casual. He loved to fiddle around in the kitchen and bring out a Jamaican dish that was either a triumph or a disaster. But whatever happened he could make fun out of it. He would 'rise above,' as he liked to say.
"He also had great discipline and always got up very early every day to write. If by noon he'd done enough, he'd invite people up to Firefly for lunch. Otherwise, it was bye-bye until tomorrow. His work habits were impeccable. One of the nicest things about Noel was that he was tremendously interested in young writers and did all he could to help them. I ought to know, I was one."
Fastidiousness no longer reigns at Firefly, as it did when Coward entertained such celebrities as Mary Martin, Ian Fleming, Katharine Hepburn, Laurence Olivier and Agnes de Mille. The cost of trucking water up the hill has become prohibitive, and so the terrace pool has been covered over and now serves as a cistern for rainwater. The jaunty red-and-blue decor has faded badly, and the two grand pianos, which occupy most of the living room, play a sorry tune.
Still, there are palpable memories in the modest split-level dwelling, constructed of whitewashed cinderblock, which once prompted Coward to dub it jokingly "You Were Cement for Me" and "Concrete Proposition." Part of HATS' mandate is to restore the house as a museum and catalogue the contents scattered throughout the six rooms: the vibrant sports shirts hanging in the bedroom closet; the neat stack of striped beach towels in the bathroom; the reading glasses on a folding table by the mahogany four-poster in which Coward died; the shelves of mildewing books and sheet music; dozens of the primitive canvases he painted, with more exuberance than accuracy, of Jamaica's people and landscapes; and the fading snapshots, including one of Queen Elizabeth, who turned this end of the lush island on its head when she came calling for lunch in 1965.
That luncheon ran into a minor snafu when a lobster mousse, lovingly prepared the night before and stored in the freezer, failed to thaw in the Jamaican sun. Then, just as the queen's motorcade approached, it turned inexplicably to mush. Coward's staff went into a tizzy. Unflappable as ever, the playwright swooped into the kitchen and proudly whipped up pea soup out of a can for his royal guest.
One of Coward's neighbors, an energetic 70-year-old British woman, still laughs fondly at the incident. "That was Noel. He had great aplomb and affection for everyone. And he could be very bohemian. I can still picture him in a straw hat and peacock sports shirt, racing past my place on his way to Montego Bay in his electric-blue convertible. It was something to behold. People would stop and stare, and mutter, 'Jesus Christ!' at the sight. Noel would laugh out loud and say, 'How ever did they know?' "
Without violating history, Burks figures that some of Firefly's rooms and an outbuilding, rumored to have once served as the lookout for the English buccaneer Sir Henry Morgan could be transformed into studios. The writers would be lodged and fed elsewhere at nominal cost. To that end, HATS is eyeing Blue Harbor, Coward's first Jamaican residence, nestled into the rocks by the oceanside about a mile away. Almost before Blue Harbor was completed, it was overrun with houseguests. Coward's hard-won privacy was jeopardized all over again.
While his reputation as a playwright and his finances were then at a low ebb, CBS came forward in early 1955 with an offer of $450,000 if he would star in three television specials. With that windfall, Coward immediately hatched his plans for Firefly. It would be a hideaway for him alone, although he retained Blue Harbor for "his bloody loved ones," who were allowed up the hill at lunch, cocktail or dinner time. One hitch in HATS' dream: Blue Harbor has since passed into private hands, and its owner has slapped a steep ($300,000) price tag on it.
Burks and Ryan, who pay themselves $250 a week, are not fazed by the obstacles ahead. They have set Dec. 16, the 83rd anniversary of Coward's birth, as the official opening of HATS, and the following month envision four artists, the first of 20 per year, taking up a six-week residency at Firefly. Way down the road, Burks sees a Spoleto-type festival, showcasing Caribbean and American theater companies.
Right now, however, the emphasis is on rehabilitating a house that, for the sentimental at least, qualifies as a theatrical shrine. Says Wheeler, "We all agree that Noel's one of the permanent talents. One would hate to have the place just fade away."
Imogene Frazier, Coward's Jamaican maid for the last eight years of his life, agrees. She is Firefly's permanent caretaker and it was her husband, Miguel, who discovered the playwright dead of a heart attack on the morning of March 26, 1973. She still refers to Coward as "the master" and speaks of him in the present tense, with that Jamaican lilt that makes even pedestrian English sound poetic.
"He is such a lovely man, a gorgeous man," she says. "He loves his staff very much. He laughs and jokes with them. Except when the weather is bleak. Then he frowns, and you can't say good morning to him. But when the sun is hot, he comes out and looks at the lawn, all trim, and the blue sky and the flowers. And he smiles and says, 'Fantastic!'
"This property is looking very nice in his lifetime," she adds, gazing wistfully out the living-room window and imagining, perhaps, scenes of conviviality long gone. "It would be very nice to see it improve again. I think the master would laugh and say, 'Fantastic!' "