Blue Harbour, Jamaica
Noël Coward invites me to his place in Jamaica. In his invitation he reminds me of a “morbidly delightful conversation” we’d had the night we snuck out of Somerset Maugham’s villa with Jean Marais to hit the St. Tropez waterfront.
I barely remember any of it as Gerald Haxton spiked my drinks with absinthe. Except vague memory of arm-wrestling with Picasso to decide who’d wear Brigitte Bardot’s bandeau.
Jamaica is a repeat of the Riviera, but strictly a theatre crowd. Clifton Webb, Katharine Cornell, Guthrie McClintic, Alfred Lunt and Lynne Fontanne, Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh. I hyperventilate when I realize she’s ten feet away from me.
Then I feel a hand on my shoulder, “Easy there, young man. We don’t want to have get an oxygen tank for you.” I turn and Clifton Webb is looking down his nose at me, but smiling.
Because it’s my first time at Blue Harbour, I am to judge the “contest.” No one tells me what it is. Cole Lesley, Coward’s factotum, tells me not to worry, he’ll be there to help me.
“Coley” slips a blindfold over my eyes and leads me outside. Olivier’s voice booms: “Ladies and gentlemen. Your attention please! The Darlingest Derriere Competition now commences! Our distinguished judge has arrived!”
I gasp. Coley whispers, “Don’t worry dear, all in good fun.” He takes me by the arm and leads me over to the strong smell of coconut oil. My foot brushes a bare leg. “Someone needs a pedicure — desperately!” says a woman with a Mid-Atlantic accent. I hope it’s not Vivien Leigh.
Olivier intones: “Let the judge’s hand now decide!” I anxiously whisper, “How can I judge? I can’t see anything?” Coley hisses, “It’s by touch dear, not sight. Just give a nice squeeze and whichever feels the best to you is the winner.”
I almost freeze, but Coley guides my hand and then my fingers are gripping the slippery skin of one of the most important backsides in the English-speaking theatre.
My first three squeezes elicit a giggle, a grunt, and an “oooh,” respectively. Then as I am about to make contact with the fourth posterior, a man’s distinctly American voice blurts, “Don’t be shy sweetheart, give it a good grab.” I do so.
Then as I try to make contact with the next contestant, I’m thrown off balance by the sudden shifting of the body below me and I instantly realize I’m not touching the soft flesh of someone’s sit-down but a man’s…
Noël ’s unmistakable voice cracks the air, “Alf-r-r-r-ed! You have r-r-r-uined the contest!” I pull off the blindfold and Lunt springs up with glee, shouting, “Oh, no, no, no! I’m IT!”
He makes a dash for Olivier, who’s just lighting up his ganja. Vivien jumps up to intercept him. The three of them run across the lawn and Lynne Fontanne tries to catch up.
Coley appears with a drinks cart. Guthrie McClintic takes a long sip from his and says to Noël, “Lynnie’s gone off to explain the rules of ‘Tag’ to Alfred.”
Clifton Webb lights a cigarette and looks up at me, “Sit down, young man, you’re not the last among equals, you know. We’re all friends here.” It sounds like a sneer, but his eyes are warm. He hands me a highball.
Sitting amidst nude celebrity is safer. No one can pull my shorts down.