[Vwoolf] Cole as practical joker

Adolphe Haberer adolphe at haberer.fr
Tue May 5 06:20:33 EDT 2020

Today's DNB biography of the day

Cole, (William) Horace De Vere (1881–1936), practical joker, was born on 5
May 1881, reputedly at Blarney, co. Cork, elder son of William Utting Cole
(1851–1892), army officer, and his wife, Mary De Vere (1859–1930), niece
and heiress of the scholars Aubrey and Sir Stephen De Vere
<https://www.oxforddnb.com/documentId/odnb-9780198614128-e-32798>. His only
sister married Neville Chamberlain [see Chamberlain, Annie Vere
<https://www.oxforddnb.com/documentId/odnb-9780198614128-e-112247>]; one of
his two younger half-sisters married Sir Michael Palairet. He was educated
at Eton College (1894–1900). While serving as lieutenant in the Duke of
Cambridge's imperial yeomanry in South Africa (1900–02) he was severely
wounded. As an undergraduate at Trinity College, Cambridge, he disguised
himself as uncle of the sultan of Zanzibar and was elaborately received by
the mayor of Cambridge. An elderly lady missionary who wished to address
him in his native language was deterred by his mock interpreter explaining
that his master could not meet her unless she contemplated entering his
harem. After Cambridge he worked as a gondolier in Venice.

Cole's most famous hoax (10 February 1910) was perpetrated in concert
with Duncan
Grant, Adrian Stephen and his sister Virginia Woolf, and others. Together
they impersonated the emperor of Abyssinia and his suite on a stately visit
to HMS *Dreadnought* which was flying the flag of Admiral Sir William May
at Weymouth. Afterwards he leaked this hilarity to journalists. Henceforth,
for over fifteen years, he enjoyed high notoriety as a practical joker.

Perhaps his greatest triumphs were simplicities like donning corduroy,
providing a few poles for red lamps, and pulling up a stretch of
Piccadilly, while policemen diverted traffic; or challenging conceited
athletes to midnight races in the streets, and shouting ‘stop thief’ when
they were well ahead …

Lord Vansittart reflected: 'our Chief Jester achieved a standard higher
than the increasing imbecility of students' rags' (Vansittart, 122). Some
of his pranks were gloriously absurd. Once he was driving in a taxi with Shane
Leslie and a dummy of a nude woman; as the taxi passed a policeman at
Piccadilly he opened its door, banged the dummy's head on the road shouting
'ungrateful hussy!' and drove off at high speed. He would walk with a cow's
udder protruding from his flies and then cut it off with scissors before
aghast bystanders. Police officers were often his targets. While strolling
with Lord Aberdeen outside the viceregal lodge in Dublin, he transfixed the
viceroy's coat-tails with a rapier to show the deficiencies of Irish
detectives. Mistaken for Ramsay MacDonald he harangued a gang of navvies on
the evils of socialism. Though he claimed to be puncturing pomposity (he
had the tory MP Oliver Locker-Lampson arrested in St James's as a
pickpocket) his most ambitious stunts humiliated his victims. He gave
theatre tickets to a large number of bald men whose pates seen from the
dress circle spelt out an expletive: characteristically he even remembered
to dot the ‘i’. He held a party for a group of men who introducing
themselves in the absence of their host discovered that they all bore such
surnames as Ramsbottom, Winterbottom, and Boddam-Whetham.

Horace De Vere Cole was a striking man with piercing blue eyes, bristling
white hair, and stiff moustaches. His advanced deafness prevented him from
realizing that his carefully timed coughing was inadequate to cover his
explosive breaking of wind. Potentially a generous friend (when visiting
someone ill he brought neither flowers nor books but the loan of a picture
by Augustus John), in low moods he was pugnacious, abusive, or malicious.
Always he was both conceited and lustful: *Who's Who* excluded him after he
filled in his recreation as 'f—g'. In 1911 when involved in a 'sordid,
gas-lit Piccadilly circus affair' with a disreputable woman he was
described by Virginia Woolf as 'upon the downward path, sampling human
nature and spitting it out' (*Letters of Virginia Woolf*, 1.453–4). His
preference was for young girls. On 30 September (or possibly 30 October)
1918 Cole married a farouche heiress, Denise Ann Marie José Lynch (*b*.
1900), posthumous only surviving child of Denis Andrew Malachy Daly
(1865–1899), Galway landowner. They had one daughter. This marriage was
dissolved (1928) after Cole had lost his money in Canadian land
speculations, and in 1948 she married Anthony Radley Drew. Cole became a
remittance man in France, where his pranks were much resented. Rashly he
married Mabel Winifred Mary (Mavis; 1908–1970), formerly a scullery maid
and Soho waitress, daughter of Samuel Charter Wright, grocer's assistant,
on 31 January 1931. Her son (*b*. 1935) was fathered by Augustus John.
Cuckoldry and poverty together broke Cole. He died after a heart attack on
26 February 1936 in Honfleur, France, and was buried (4 March) at West
Woodhay churchyard, Newbury, Berkshire. His widow married Mortimer Wheeler
(1939) and shot Lord Vivian (1954).

   - *The Times* (29 Feb 1936)
   - *The Times* (5 March 1936)
   - R. Owen and T. de Vere Cole, *Beautiful and beloved* (1974)
   - A. John, *Chiaroscuro* (1952)
   - *The letters of Virginia Woolf*, ed. N. Nicolson, 1 (1975)
   - Q. Bell, *Virginia Woolf**: a biography*, 1 (1972), 157–60, 213–16
   - Lord Vansittart, *The mist procession* (1958)
   - S. Leslie, *The film of memory* (1938), 262–3
   - S. Leslie, *Long shadows* (1966), 110–12
   - *Lady Gregory's diaries, 1892–1902*, ed. J. Pethica (1996)
   - *Carrington**: letters and extracts from her diaries*, ed. D. Garnett
   - Burke, *Gen. Ire.* (1976), 258
   - register, Eton

Adolphe Haberer
Professeur émérite à l'Université Lyon 2
1 route de Saint-Antoine
69380 Chazay d'Azergues
ado at haberer.fr
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