July 13, 1999
Time magazine had a brief item the other day about plans for celebrating the 100th birthday anniversary of the late Noel Coward, an icon of the British stage and screen. His birth month was December and, since he also was a popular actor, playwright and songsmith in this country, Broadway is planning to take special note of the occasion. His sophisticated, worldly demeanor was toasted in the 1920s and right on through the World War II era. Time also mentioned that Coward had a great friendship and collaboration with Gertrude Lawrence, the British stage star who introduced theater audiences to the role of Anna in The King and I years ago. The magazine’s reference to Miss Lawrence brought back a flood of memories to me about a memorable interview I had with her in a Honolulu beachfront hotel during WWII.
For reasons you will soon understand, this is not exactly among the highlights of my career, except for the fact that she is without question the most internationally celebrated stage and film star I have ever had the privilege of meeting. She was a preeminent personality, a singer and actress who had achieved the lofty rank of stardom at home in England and abroad long before I had the good fortune to chat with her on a one-to-one basis. It was my misfortune that I barely knew who she was when we met that balmy day on Waikiki.
I was enjoying being alone in The Stars & Stripes Honolulu office one Sunday morning, typing letters to various correspondents and family members back home. No other staffers were present since we did not have to prepare a Sunday edition. The phone rang and, against my better judgment, I answered it. After a brief preamble the man on the other end of the line told me that Miss Gertrude Lawrence was resting in the Moana Hotel (one of the only two hotels then on Waikiki Beach) after returning from a USO-sponsored tour of GI locations in the Pacific. He stated that she would be ready to receive the press in her suite at 2 p.m. that day and our paper was welcome to send a representative to cover the event. I said fine, and we hung up. My mind wondered, “Who is Gertrude Lawrence?”
I phoned our editor and told him about the press conference, assuming no one would get the assignment because it was our day off. Instead, he told me I should attend and write a report for the next day’s paper. Our editor outranked me by several stripes, so I said OK, with misgivings. I reasoned that the two civilian papers on the island, the Honolulu Star-Bulletin and the Honolulu Advertiser, would send their reporters. I would listen as they asked questions and make my notes accordingly. At the appointed hour, I knocked at Miss Lawrence’s suite and was ushered into a sort of parlor, completely unoccupied at the time. I was still wearing the rumpled khakis I had worn for typing letters. Time passed slowly, but eventually Miss Lawrence made a sweeping entry into the room. She overwhelmed me with her friendly manner, and for several minutes it was just the two of us making small talk. No other media representatives appeared, creating a situation I had not prepared for. I had to ask all the questions and I truly did not know what to say.
But, gracious lady that she was, Miss Lawrence sensed my uneasiness and quickly began describing interesting points about her tour of the South Pacific jungles. I did not even whip out a notebook, but listened intently and remembered everything she said. Finally, I realized the “interview” was over, and awkwardly began to leave. She was still charming and personable, and as I turned to leave I heard her chuckle softly.
Once safely in the hallway outside her suite, I became aware of a cool draft from the hotel air conditioning. In only a moment, I realized that the seat of my rumpled khakis had a rather lengthy split along a seam on the seat, and that is what prompted Miss Lawrence’s discreet little chuckle when I turned my back to leave.
We had an exclusive story about the famed actress in the next day’s edition of The Stars & Stripes. It made no mention about the end of my interview with one of the world’s most celebrated stage and screen stars. That was one of those moments a body never forgets.