[Vwoolf] Cole as practical joker

Sarah M. Hall smhall123 at yahoo.co.uk
Tue May 5 07:46:17 EDT 2020

Thanks, a wonderful piece of précis, which I learned at school but didn't see the point of at the time. I've come to appreciate it a lot more: it's a real art to include enough colour and interest to give a flavour of the whole while leaving you ready to read a full biography. I've proofread a few DNB entries for OUP and wish they'd send more.

    On Tuesday, 5 May 2020, 11:21:19 BST, Adolphe Haberer via Vwoolf <vwoolf at lists.osu.edu> wrote:  
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. His only sister married Neville Chamberlain [see Chamberlain, Annie Vere]; 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 (1970)
   - Burke, Gen. Ire. (1976), 258
   - register, Eton

Adolphe HabererProfesseur émérite à l'Université Lyon 21 route de Saint-Antoine 
69380 Chazay d'Azergues
ado at haberer.fr
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