Firefly Hill: Noel Coward's elegant Jamaica hideaway

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Noel Coward's house, Firefly Hill, on a hill above Port Maria, was being painted the day I visited. There were tousled cushions on the porch, carved out between the bedroom and sitting room and overlooking the view he wrote ''Room With a View'' about. It must be half of Jamaica, an incredible sprawl of coastline, the town, the Blue Mountains, and a little green island in a broad and shimmering sea. A painting of banana leaves leaned against a wall. It was Coward's first, according to his servant Miguel, who, until recently, looked after the house since Coward's passing 10 years ago. There was a jaunty explosion of wide, brilliantly colored Hawaiian shirts in the gentlemanly wood-paneled closet. In the room where the Queen Mother came to lunch, there were heaps of yellowing sheet music on a table by the two pianos, and a romantic black-and-white photograph of Coward on the wall. Downstairs, sprightly water colors Coward painted of Port Maria village life were jumbled against a wall.

But by the time you read this, there are hopes that the cushions will have been plumped, the pictures will be up, and the Jamaica Tourist Board will be collecting a dollar for admission. Work on the house will continue over the next several years, but the Jamaica National Trust Commission plans to allow visitors starting at the end of November.

Even when messy, this little one-person writing, reading, and painting hideaway was all insouciant style, sparkling individuality, and clean lines. Dropcloths, ladders, and jumbled furniture did nothing to muffle its acerbic tang.

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The house was, after all, designed for the man who structured the elegant ''Private Lives.'' In that play, a divorced couple meets again on the balconies of the hotel where each is on a honeymoon with a new spouse. By the time they have appeared on the set with its double balconies and wafting music and done their double takes, you know just what's in store. Coward then scattered jokes through this elegant structure like so many glossy magazines and plump pillows on the porch, so that even though the plot holds no surprises, the play is a dazzling romp.

Firefly has the same solid, definite structure as a Coward play - and the same evasive purpose. Just as a Coward play skates around the edges of romance, divorce, love, and hatred - close enough to see what's going on, but distant enough to crack highly polished jokes about it - Firefly Hill was where Coward came to evade the complications of his own life. Complications in the form of bad reviews, cranky actresses, his burgeoning transatlantic social life, and even his Jamaica houseguests, who stayed at Blue Harbour, his other house down the hill. When he arrived here he would sigh, in his diary, ''At last - at last - it is all over and I'm here again in the most perfect weather and utter peace.''

On a lush and bushy Jamaican hilltop, its straight white walls delineate the action just as elegantly as the set of ''Private Lives.'' The broad porch for gazing at the view is carved into the house between his bedroom and the sitting room with its grand piano. Off his bedroom is the other porch for writing. With its photographs of friends like Rudolf Nureyev and Marlene Dietrich and its rows of books, the sitting room could easily be in a London town house.

Rather than an intrusion, this small, low-lying house is a kind of gentle joke, a tiny outpost of urbanity, where Coward concocted his worldly wisecracks and then set them to music.

He wrote and rewrote plays here, composed on the piano, and rarely brought friends up for a look at the numerous fireflies the hill is graced with. He always emerged refreshed, ''teeming with ideas,'' he said in his diary - and determined not to let leading ladies push him around.

Much as he liked to be alone here, when you visit you feel you are being entertained by Coward himself. It's like watching one of his plays. You know the author is firmly in control of the concoction, that you're looking where he expected you to look, and will laugh in the pause he has left for a laugh.

This little house is very focused, too. You find yourself standing at just the right corner of the garden to appreciate the visual buzz of magenta bougainvillea against white walls under blazing sun, which is in rattling dialogue with the blue sea in the distance.

When it gets overwhelming, you retreat again into the lovely little box Noel Coward lined with mementos of a glittering life, just as, in a more urban situation, you might duck into a Coward matinee.

Practical information

Firefly Hill is just west of Port Maria on A3, the coast road. There's a sign on the main road; after that you go up a long, winding drive. There were few signs when I visited, but people along the drive point the direction when you look imploringly out your car window.

For opening hours, call the Jamaica Tourist Board in Kingston: 929-8070.

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