I’ve long been a fan of the English playwright and celebrated man of letters, Sir Noel Coward. He lived for years, died and is buried atop a hillside near Ocho Rios, Jamaica, at a house he named Firefly. He wrote several plays here and, in the 1960s, hosted his friends, the biggest names from Hollywood, Broadway and London, for holidays in the Jamaican sun.
The author of Private Lives, Blithe Spirit, Sail Away and countless more Broadway and West End hits, Coward thought of Firefly as his sanctuary from the hurly-burly world of the theater. It’s named for the myriad of fireflies that gathered on his hilltop each evening at dusk.
When our Caribbean cruise in April 2007 listed Ocho Rios as a port-of-call, we knew that Firefly, long on our bucket list, was a must. Much has been written about its setting and atmosphere. The overlook across the ocean from the terrace has been called the most beautiful view in the Caribbean.
Investigating the options, we learned that no organized excursions included the house in their itineraries. So we arranged a private taxi.
Firefly is located high above the village of Port Maria, around 20 miles (32km) from the port where our cruise ship, Coral Princess, was docked. It’s a rugged 20 miles on unimproved roads, winding through villages and dense forest. At last, at the very top of the hill, there’s Firefly!
A small, simple white stucco house, it’s not what you might picture as the home of a world famous playwright. After Sir Noel’s death in 1973, the house fell into disrepair. Rescued by Chris Blackwell of Island Records, it is now operated by the Jamaica National Heritage Trust.
We were greeted by a charming young Jamaican lady tour guide who leisurely escorted us through the house and grounds. Photos are everywhere – and maybe even the ghosts — of Sir Noel’s friends who visited: Laurence Olivier, Vivien Leigh, the Queen Mother, Maria Callas, Alfred Lunt, Lynn Fontanne, Beatrice Lillie and Ian Fleming among them. His books are on the shelves; his paintings are on the walls.
A few steps up is the small, simple bedroom where Coward died.
An expansive green lawn sweeps down from the house to the edge of the mountain and the blue Caribbean beyond. Here Sir Noel is buried on the exact spot where he enjoyed his nightly cocktails.
We brought from Coral Princess a small flask of ice cold martinis. At his grave site, we joyfully toasted this celebrated Renaissance man of the 20th Century. And, because it seemed right, we splashed a bit of the martini right on his marble gravestone.
In one of Sir Noel’s great lyrics, “If Love Were All,” he wrote: “But I believe that since my life began, the most I’ve had is just a talent to amuse.”
We think – and hope — he would have been amused.