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Noel Coward's Elegant Island Aerie

October 28, 1990|VERA FOSS BRADSHAW | Bradshaw is a free-lance writer living in West Des Moines, Iowa.

OCHO RIOS, Jamaica — "I welcome you to Firefly Hill," the petite, dark-skinned woman said in the rich sotto voice so characteristic of Jamaicans. "I am Imogene Alvine Fraser, Mr. Noel Coward's favorite housekeeper. Come, I'll show you his house."

This was my introduction to Sir Noel Coward's beloved retreat, Firefly Hill--a modest, two-level house of typical white-island stucco that was designed to satisfy the whims of the late, internationally known British author, playwright, actor and composer.

Like an eagle's nest, it is on the crest of a high hill overlooking the Caribbean. Here Coward found peace, happiness and the "time to write." It is also where he died and is buried.

Six of us had made the trip to Coward's home in a mini-bus, since a conventional bus would never have negotiated the narrow, winding road that led up to Firefly Hill from the highway.

We had left Plantation Inn at Ocho Rios early in the morning. While on the 2O-mile ride that took us eastward along the sea (the road is rough since Hurricane Gilbert rolled through in 1988), we spent much of our time speculating as to whether the trip would be worthwhile.

We needn't have been concerned. Afterward, we agreed that the hours spent at Firefly Hill were the highlight of our Jamaican odyssey and were distressed that few foreigners get to visit it.

Admittedly, we owed much to Imogene, who painted such a vivid picture of Coward's life at Firefly Hill that we began to imagine its owner was only away on a trip and would soon return. Contributing to this illusion was the house itself, which is much as Coward left it. Imogene confessed that she keeps it ready for"The Master," as friends, press and villagers dubbed Coward, should he make an appearance.

There was more: The beauty of the home must have possessed us in much the same way it had Coward. It seemed to cast a spell over everyone, as did the spectacular scenery all around.

Coward accidentally discovered this "bit of paradise" in 1948. He had been visiting his friend, author Ian Fleming, when he decided to take a drive around the island, searching for a new place to indulge in his hobby of painting.

With adventuresome spirit, he left the main thoroughfare and turned up a country road. It wound up a hill about 1,000 feet and came to a dead end at a four-acre plateau of palm and cedar, from which all four points of the compass were clearly visible.

Below, on the north side of the island, Coward could see Blue Harbour, a cottage he then owned, plus the village of Port Maria, Cabarita Island, Galina Point (only 90 miles from Cuba) and the Blue Mountains that roll and plunge toward Kingston.

(Actress Lynn Fontanne, a frequent guest at what became known as Firefly Hill, never liked the mountains. She said they reminded her of empty seats in the theater.)

Although Coward made arrangements to buy the property almost immediately, because of his meager finances he was not able to build his "dream house" until eight years later.

Las Vegas, unexpectedly, became Coward's angel. He agreed to appear at the Desert Inn and, there, singing his own witty compositions, was a surprising smash hit. Even Frank Sinatra, then on a radio show, urged listeners to go to the Desert Inn and hear "songs as they should be sung." As a result, Hollywood celebrities chartered planes and rushed to Las Vegas to cheer his performances.

Thanks to Las Vegas and some lucrative TV shows, the house became a reality: a one-bedroom home with a comfortable living room, music room and kitchen. Although the property had been known to natives as the "Lookout," because it was used for that purpose by the famous buccaneer Sir Henry Morgan (who later became Jamaica's governor and outlawed buccaneering), it was was soon renamed "Firefly Hill."

Imogene, who seemed pleased to have visitors, led us proudly toward the rear of the house. Now 48, she was in her early 20s when she came to Firefly Hill. Her husband, Miguel, was Coward's butler and attended to mixing drinks and serving meals.

Coward did some important work at Firefly Hill. Here he wrote his only novel, "Pomp and Circumstance"; a successful comedy, "South Sea Bubble," and a musical, "Ace of Clubs." Here and elsewhere, Coward wrote 50 plays and about 300 songs, as well as musicals and short stories.

One of the household things Imogene pointed out was the white-iron dining-room furniture on the patio. "The Queen Mother ate at that table," she said thoughtfully, as if conjuring up the scene, "as well as countless famous folks from all over the world."

We climbed steps to each room and eventually came to the living room. If ever there were a "room with a view," this was it. It has a huge rectangular opening, beyond which is a spacious lawn and an azure sea that reaches as far as the eye can see.

Flowering shrubs and trees soften the landscape. At the end of the lawn is the white, wrought-iron, gazebolike structure that protects Coward's grave.

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