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Dave Wood's Book Report, Jan. 2, 2008

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Sure, I know. Noel Coward is a superficial fop.

But he's a superb superficial fop.

So when "The Letters of Noel Coward," Barry Day, ed. (Knopf, $37.50) arrived in the mail, I dove right into the correspondence to and from the guy who wrote about mad dogs and Englishman going out in the noonday sun.

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The collection is voluminous, with letters to and from George Bernard Shaw, T.E. Lawrence, Virginia Woolf, all of the Churchills, Daphne du Maurier, and Greta Garbo -- who asked him to marry her -- to which the gay guy responded that he almost accepted.

These letters were not just dashed off, as we do today. Even his telegraph messages were crafted.

In 1938, he was heading for the U.S. to open his revision of "Words and Music."

Beatrice ("There are fairies at the bottom of our garden) Lillie was to be his star.

Lillie, who was Lady Peel, was notorious for ignoring her scripted lines. So Coward wired her:

"PRETTY WITTY LADY PEEL

NEVER MIND HOW SICK YOU FEEL

NEVER MIND YOUR BROKEN HEART

CONCENTRATE AND LEARN YOUR PART"

To which Beatrice Lillie replied:

"THANKS MUSTY DUSTY NOEL C.

FOR BEASTLY WIRE TO LADY P.

TO CONCENTRATE IS HARD I FEAR

SO NOW SHE'S CRYING IN HER BEER"

In 1940, Coward came to the U.S. once again and visited the actor Cary Grant three times.

The gossips were pretty sure Grant and Coward were having an affair. That didn't make sense because Grant was living with Randolph Scott.

What was really happening was this: Both Coward and Grant were working for the British Secret Service.

Grant's job was to keep his ears open in Hollywood as to which actors were pro-British and which actors were pro-Nazis. (Like Erroll Flynn!?)

Were these fellows really spies?

When the war was over, Grant was awarded the King's Medal for Service in the Cause of Freedom, an award given only to those who perform intelligence services.

As for Coward, the King wanted to confer knighthood on him. Winston Churchill said no.

We think of the graphic novel, made popular by artists like Art Spiegelman and his unforgettable Holocaust comic, "Maus," as a recent development.

Think again.

Thanks to the University of Iowa Press, we now know differently.

The Iowa City publisher has just reissued "The Last Flower," by James Thurber ($19.95 cloth).

Thurber published it in 1939 soon after Germany attacked Poland. It's a polemic about war, the whimsical style that Thurber made famous.

Whimsical, yes, but serious, too. The Thurber drawings are priceless.

Bob Latz is a Minnesota politics insider and so one reads his first book "Jews in Minnesota Politics" (Nodin Press, $29.95) with the knowledge that he knows what he's talking about.

It's a fascinating story because years ago Minnesota was known for its rampant anti-Semitism.

But in recent years, Minnesota's Jewish politicians have made the local and national scene, with the likes of Minneapolis Mayor Arthur Naftalin, Ambassador Geri Joseph, Paul Wellstone and his Republican counterpart Rudy Boschwitz and Norm Coleman.

Latz comes to the book from a DFL perspective, but gives credit where credit is due.

Dave Wood is a past vice-president of the National Book Critics Circle and former book review editor of the Minneapolis Star Tribune.

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