Behind the Picture: Noël Coward in the Desert

Noël Coward standing in a dry lake bed, Nevada, 1955.
Loomis Dean—The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images
Noël Coward standing in a dry lake bed, Nevada, 1955.
Behind the Picture
'50s

The greatest portraits of stars are often those that surprise us, or feature famous people in unexpected surroundings. A naked John Lennon hugging and kissing Yoko Ono just hours before he was gunned down by a deranged fan; James Dean posing with a pig—these and other photos of showbiz legends endure because they capture a side of celebrities that’s occasionally obscured by fame. Namely, the playfulness that probably drew them to performing in the first place.

Case in point: Loomis Dean’s 1955 portrait of the inimitable composer, actor, singer and playwright Noël Coward, dressed in a tux, standing in the broiling Nevada sun and looking for all the world like a man waiting for someone to bring him a cocktail at a dinner party. As Dean explained in a 1993 interview with John Loengard, published in Loengard’s book, LIFE Photographers: What They Saw, the picture came about like this:

[Coward] was playing the Desert Inn in Las Vegas. They’d had Maurice Chevalier, and he’d bombed. Then they brought on Edith Piaf. The greatest singer in France. She lasted one show—”Who’s that old lady in the black dress . . .?” Out she went. Then they brought in Coward. He was a little man out there in a black sit, in the middle of the stage, all by himself. He was sensational.

I was backstage, and the showgirls were popping their eyes out. One said, “I don’t know who it is . . . but he’s killing ‘em out there.”

For our picture I told him we wanted to do “Mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday sun.”

“Oh, dear boy, I don’t get up until four o’clock in the afternoon,” he said.

“Oh, hell, we’ll do it then,” I said. We found a dry lake 15 miles out of town. I hired a Cadillac limousine and filled the back of it with a washtub full of booze and cold drinks and beer and tonic and ice cubes. The temperature was 119 degrees.

He loved it. We got out there and he said, “Splendid! Splendid! What an idea! If only we had a piano.”

He was in his underwear in the back of the car, and his dresser dressed him in his tuxedo. I stood on top of the Cadillac. He had the cigarette holder, and we did a few variations, but it was just perfect with that dry lake and one little black figure and that long shadow.

It was so bloody hot the Cadillac had a vapor lock. The engine had stopped, and the air conditioning went off. You could die in that heat. The whole gang of us, chauffeur and all, had to push to get it started. Coward had stripped back down to his underclothes by that time. I wanted to get that picture, too, but I was pushing. It’s like taking a picture of a fire. Do you save the little girl or take the picture?

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