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The Magical Kingdom of Firefly Hill : Arts: Celebrities came to Noel Coward's winter retreat for the Jamaican sunsets and for their host's wit and wisdom.

January 01, 1992|CHARLES HILLINGER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

FIREFLY HILL, Jamaica — Actors and actresses from Hollywood, from Broadway and the London stage, political leaders and royalty for years beat a path to this remote mountain-top lair overlooking a dazzling view of the blue-green Caribbean and Jamaica's spectacular North Coast.

They came here to enjoy the incomparable wit and wisdom and company of playwright, author, composer, lyricist, poet, novelist, actor, producer, director Noel Coward in his winter writing and composing retreat. He named his beloved four-acre Firefly Hill "in honor of the myriad of glowing insects larger and more luminous than I have ever seen."

"Firefly Hill has given me the most valuable benison of all: time to read and write and think and get my mind in order," he would write in his diary. "I love this place. It deeply enchants me. Whatever happens to this silly world, nothing much is likely to happen here."

Writing, he believed, came easier when he was here, "the sentences seemed to construct themselves, the right adjectives appeared discretely at the right moment. Firefly Hill has magic for me. . . ."

Coward died under a Jamaican heaven on Firefly Hill March 26, 1973, at 74 of a heart attack. He is buried in a marble tomb embraced by a gazebo-like wrought iron frame in his garden on the spot he would sit each night watching the sun set as he sipped his brandy with ginger ale chaser and looked out to sea and along miles and miles of lush green coast spread out beneath him.

On a wall in his four-room, two-level, white-stucco house he built on the crest of Firefly Hill in 1956 is his last poem. It begins:

When I have fears, as Keats had fears,

Of the moment I'll cease to be

I console myself with vanished years

Remembered laughter, remembered tears,

And the peace of the changing sea . . . .

Coward's biography, written by his friend Cole Lesley, is called "Remembered Laughter" from the line in that poem.

It was here on Firefly Hill in his study that Coward wrote his novel "Pomp and Circumstance," his musical "Ace of Hearts," his collection of verses "Not Yet the Dodo," his comedy "South Sea Bubble," and several of his 50 plays, nearly 300 songs, his reviews, musicals, short stories and autobiographies.

The consummate playwright of comedy, Coward, the son of a British musical instrument salesman, born Dec. 16, 1899, and a protege of the London stage, wintered in Jamaica for 30 years.

When England's Queen Mother drove 80 miles off her course to spend an afternoon at Firefly Hill with Coward in February, 1965, he personally prepared his iced green pea soup, steaming curry in a coconut (cocomania) and rum cream pie.

"As for me, I was at her feet," he wrote of the Queen Mother's visit. "She has an infinite grace of mind, charm, humor, and deep down kindness. She puts everyone at ease immediately without apparent effort. She did me great honor. . . ."

The list of those who flew to Jamaica to spend a few hours or several days watching the spectacular sunsets from Firefly Hill as they sipped cocktails and were charmed by Noel Coward read like a Who's Who of the theatrical world and the rich and famous. Those who would spend more than a day stayed at Blue Harbour, his guest house two miles down the steep one-lane trail through a jungle of bougainvillea, ferns and banana trees. Firefly Hill is 20 miles east of Ocho Rios on Jamaica's North Coast.

Adlai Stevenson was here and Winston Churchill, Princess Margaret, Lord Beaverbrook, Evelyn Waugh, Gertrude Lawrence, Katharine Hepburn, Irene Selznick, Alec Guinness, Errol Flynn, Joan Bennett, Agnes de Mille, Alfred Lunt, Lynn Fontanne, Claudette Colbert, Patricia Neal, Laurence Olivier, Vivien Leigh, Gladys Cooper, Joan Sutherland, Peter Sellers, Britt Ekland, Michael Redgrave. The list goes on and on.

David Niven burst into a flaming attack of chicken pox on his arrival and stayed two weeks until he was well. Mary Martin and her husband were here a month.

Ian Fleming and his wife Ann lived down the mountain, three miles away at Goldeneye, Fleming's estate on the seashore at Oracabessa. Coward was a witness at their marriage. He was a close friend of Fleming's since World War II days and often read the proofs of Fleming's James Bond books as they came from the printers.

It was in 1948 while visiting the author of the 15 James Bond books that Coward bought his Jamaica property.

"All these important people came to see Mr. Coward, came to stay with him, and I had never heard of them before. I didn't know who they were because I have always lived here in the mountains of Jamaica far from movie theaters and things like that," said Imogene Fraser, 49, the mistress of Firefly Hill, who quit school when she was in fourth grade.

"I didn't know who Mr. Coward was at first either, but I soon found out he was a very famous man."

She and her husband, Miguel, went to work for Coward in 1963, nine years before he died. Imogene was the housekeeper at Firefly Hill. Miguel was the butler. They both served the master of the house his cocktails and meals, as they did his guests.

It was Imogene Fraser who discovered Coward in his bathroom early in the morning crying out for help as he was dying of a heart attack. She and her husband lifted him onto his bed and were alone with him when he died.

In 1975, Graham Payne, a friend who was willed Firefly Hill, presented the property to the people of Jamaica. It is administered in their name by the Jamaica National Trust Commission and open to the public.

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