02 June 2009

Romeo Coates, Part 3

Coates’s next recorded theater appearance was not so calm, however. The Amateur wasn’t even performing on this occasion, a presentation of Enrico IV at the Opera House on 1 June. (I’m not sure what this performance was; it may have been the opera based on Shakespeare’s Henry IV or the comic opera La caccia d’Enrico IV by Giacomo Rust. The only thing of which I’m sure is that it wasn’t Pirandello!) Angelica Catalani, the prima donna who was to play the lead role, refused to appear (because, according to some reports, the manager hadn’t paid her). The management decided to proceed with the production with no one taking Catalani’s part, but the audience, having learned this, began murmuring in indignation. The disturbance snowballed until parts of the set actually began toppling onto the stage and spectators began leaving their seats to search for the manager. The fugitive spectators, too many to be contained backstage, spilled onto the set and the actors, fearing for their safety, fled. The confusion and fervor escalated into a full-fledged riot. Finally, after several speakers had tried in vain to restore order, at nearly midnight, a member of the audience who had retained his seat rose at the behest of others in the house: Romeo Coates. The crowd quieted, and the would-be peacemaker spoke: "Ladies and gentlemen,--It is a great misfortune, we must allow, to be deprived of the talents of Madame Catalani, but it is of no use for us to go a-rioting." Unfortunately, the crowd occupying the stage felt they were taking the right action and forced Coates off the stage. The rioters rejoined their friends in the house, and the curtain fell at just after midnight. Coates made another few remarks from the pit, saying that he had “hoped some treaty would be entered into about [Madame Catalani]; and . . . that it would be of no use for us to go a rioting . . . ; as I had seen the bad consequences of that, in my acquaintance with the public theatres . . . .” No one else coming forward to speak, the crowd dispersed.

Between stage appearances, Coates, a devotee of dances, parties, and festivities of all kinds--particularly ones where he could show off his finery and, especially, his diamonds--traveled to Brighton around October, the end of the season there, to attend a ball. He had ordered a set of diamond coat buttons from a prominent jeweler and he had them put on a new dress coat for the occasion. He arrived, doubtlessly with his customary pomp and flash, and everyone’s attention was on him as soon as he entered the ballroom. Then the dancing began, and Coates suddenly realized that with his focus on displaying himself, he’d forgotten to find a dancing partner. All the women’s dance cards were full and Coates was faced with the prospect of not only standing alone at a dance without participating, but of missing the chance to sparkle and glisten as he and his diamonds spun around the floor--an effect to which he was especially partial because it enhanced the impact of his jewels. Then an attractive young woman arrived late, and Coates grabbed the opportunity and asked her to be his partner. At first she refused, but Coates waited a suitable interval and asked again, and this time the woman accepted. The commotion that accompanied their entrance onto the dance floor led the lady to see that she had apparently lucked onto the evening’s prize. Pleading that her plain dress was no suitable match for his splendid attire, she begged her partner to let her withdraw. Coates begged her to finish the dance, but the lady demurred, and the dancers were about to separate when Coates made one more plea. She would consent to remain his partner, the young lady replied, if Coates would give her one of his brilliant coat buttons to wear in her hair. Coates hesitated, but he felt trapped in the moment and took out a penknife, snipped off a diamond button, and fixed it in his partner’s hair. The act earned him great accolades from the partiers, but Coates was afraid that now all the other ladies present would desire his diamonds for hair ornaments and he would return to London bereft of his valuable adornments.

On 1 December, Coates appeared again at the Lyceum in a new role and play for him in Britain: Belcour in The West Indian by Richard Cumberland. As usual, it was a benefit performance, this time for Mrs. Bury, the wife of a junior army officer serving in Spain. I don’t have any report on how the performance went, but the real focus of this appearance is what happened before the play began. Just after the curtain rose, a young man stood up in the gallery and called for everyone’s attention. I don’t know if he identified himself by name at that time, but he said he was an admirer of Coates’s and that he was presenting this information so that Coates could respond. In truth, the speaker was a newspaper editor, Gibbons Merle, who 27 years later would publish his own version of the event in Fraser’s Magazine. Merle had, in fact, been a follower of Coates and had even visited the amateur actor at his home. Merle had seen Coates frequently for several months, then not for over a year, during which time Merle lived abroad. He was back in London now, and called on an acquaintance at the Morning Post whom Merle asked to get him a pass for the theater. The Morning Post friend suggested he get over to the Lyceum: “Coates is to perform and it is high time that he should be exposed. From my situation, I cannot do this act of public justice; but you are little known in London, and can interfere without any unpleasant feelings to yourself.”

This all begins to sound like a set-up, but Merle seems to have taken his friend at face value. The Morning Postman told Merle “that although Coates might not be receiving any money directly for his performance on charitable occasions, a certain person who had influence over him was disposing of his services for money; and stated that the widow of an officer for whom he had performed had been compelled to give a bill for £20, which she had paid, and which was then in [the journalist’s] possession.” If Merle would go to the theater and confront Coates, the newspaperman would be there with the evidence. Merle was persuaded to do the deed--he says it was out of concern for Coates’s reputation and to give him the chance to answer the charge--and he appeared at the theater a half an hour before the curtain went up. "Ladies and gentlemen,” declared Merle, “the charge against Mr. Coates is that he does not act upon a principle of philanthropy, but directly or indirectly gives his services for remuneration." The crowded theater was stunned and the audience raised some objections but eventually quieted and Merle recounted the story of Mrs. Bury’s appeal for help:

About the latter end of April, a lady, the wife of a subaltern in his Majesty's service on duty abroad, who was in much straitened circumstances in spite of every effort she could make to improve her position by giving music lessons, thought she would try and raise some funds by a theatrical entertainment. Having heard of Mr. Coates' generosity in these matters, she applied to him, through the medium of Mrs. Lyall, that gentleman's landlady. Your surprise will be as great as mine was, ladies and gentlemen, on learning that this aid was persistently refused, through the same medium as it was asked, until the bénéficiaire agreed to give Mrs. Lyall £40 for the Amateur's services: £20 to be paid by bill before the performance took place, the other half was never called for. I have, ladies and gentlemen, professed myself Mr. Coates' friend. I have proved this by bringing this business forward, thus giving him an opportunity of proving to the public whether he is in deed and in truth a philanthropic 'Amateur of Fashion.’

The crowd hissed and shouted back, “Produce your proofs.” Merle looked around the theater for his friend from the Morning Post but couldn’t see him. Just as Merle feared he was going to be dragged from the theater and bounced on the pavement, the journalist showed up with the putative bill and handed it to Merle, who read the document aloud and showed it to several spectators. The audience called for Coates, who was so dumbstruck that he at first thought the incident was a gag performance, put up by some of his tormentors. He came down to the footlights and said to Merle: “I don’t know who you are. You have the dress of a gentleman; but I can tell you, sir, that it is in my power to give you a thousand pounds to leave the theatre.” (Merle assumed Coates had forgotten their past acquaintance “in his agitation.” He also said he asked Coates to donate half that amount to the theatrical charity, and he would leave the theater.) But when the audience shouted, “Answer the charge,” Coates understood that they were serious. He withdrew to the rear of the stage and quickly wrote a response, which he read to the audience:

I, Robert Coates, do upon my honour declare that I never did, directly or indirectly, receive money for acting, and that all the tickets that I have in the house are paid for.

This didn’t entirely satisfy the audience, given that the bill for the £20 had been shown around, and Coates invited anyone who still wanted more information to go see Mrs. Bury. Then he sat down while the house debated whether he should be allowed to perform. The spectators, having decided that they had paid to be entertained, wanted their money’s worth and so the show went on. Despite (or perhaps encouraged by) the presence of Coates’s fellow actors Charles Mathews and John Liston in the boxes, the audience raised a commotion each time Coates came on stage until the end of the play.

The next day, the Morning Post ran the story of the incident (which it had engineered) at the Lyceum and it was picked up by the other London newspapers. The managers of Covent Garden capitalized on the scandal by staging a parody of Coates and the challenge. The Amateur watched each performance from a box, and though he looked as if he enjoyed the caricature, he didn’t perform another play for three months (though he did deliver a recitation before that). In the meantime, Coates, very hurt by Merle’s charge, set out to find out what might have underlain the accusation the editor made on behalf of the Morning Post. (Merle, for his part, asserted in his 1840 memoir of the event, “that I had good reason to believe, only two days after the exposé which I had made, that Coates had been made the victim of the cupidity of the person at whose request he had performed for the officer’s widow; and that neither on that nor on any other occasion had he received one farthing for his services.”)

It turns out that that Martha Lyall, Coates’s landlady, had earlier come to the Amateur for financial help and that he’d been generous with her, staging one of the early performances at the Haymarket (billed as a benefit for an unnamed “widow”). When Mrs. Lyall saw how liberal Coates was with his assistance and how many others there were who came in search of his philanthropy, she conceived the idea of charging a fee to bring their pleas to her tenant. Coates, of course, never knew of Lyall’s con, and when Mrs. Bury first came to his residence, she found he wasn’t home and Lyall, as had become her habit, interceded. Bury told Lyall her wish for Coates’s help, and the usual procedure unfolded, Bury being none the wiser. The account of this routine and others like it made its way to the offices of the Morning Post and when Merle arrived, essentially innocent for having been living outside London but trusting his colleague, became the perfect vehicle for the exposé. (Whether Merle really tumbled to the truth on his own as soon as a couple of days later or only learned of it with everyone else the next year is a matter of conjecture.)

Having learned the truth, Coates confronted Lyall and demanded not only an apology, but a sworn affidavit acknowledging her guilt and affirming Coates’s innocence. He threatened to take legal action if she refused, and Lyall complied completely. The statement (published in full in Coates’s biography, The Life of Robert Coates) was sworn before the Lord Mayor of London, William Domville, at Mansion House, the “Gracie Mansion” of London, on 16 February 1814. It was published in several periodicals in the city and was sufficient to remove all doubt of Coates’s honesty and forthrightness with respect to his charitable performances. His friends, of course, never believed he was taking money, but the fact of the accusation couldn’t help but damage Coates’s reputation despite Lyall’s confession. Even later, some publications referred to the charge without ever mentioning the refutation. (Does this sound like any news organization we know and love in modern-day America? I’m just sayin’ . . . .) A rumor even circulated, an adjunct to the false corruption charge, that Coates had no fortune and lived off the incomes of his rich friends. No one could live as well as Coates did for as long as he did on a con. I mean, it’s not like they had computers and electronic funds transfers in those days: if you bought diamonds (especially in the quantities Coates did) and bespoke clothing--not to forget that fabulous curricle--you’d need a lot of very real cash. And the Bank of England, the Amateur’s bankers, would certainly know if he was a charlatan, don’t you think?

The false accusation, however, didn’t prevent further demands for Coates’s services, and he responded with the same generosity he had always displayed. He was just more careful about how he arranged his benefits--and for this reason stayed off the London stage for several months.

Coates’s next appearance on a London stage was the recitation mentioned above. On 28 February 1814, he had been solicited by a lady in need whom he had helped before to read “The Hobbies” at the Haymarket Theatre following a performance of The Tragedy of Tamerlane by Nicholas Rowe. Then on 7 March, the Amateur appeared once again as Lothario in The Fair Penitent at the Haymarket. Unfortunately for Coates and the company, the Amateur’s return to the London stage was marred by a large contingent of troublemakers who had come for the express purpose of disrupting the performance. Most of the play proceeded despite the noise, though the actor playing Horatio was so rattled by the disturbances that when he was supposed to say the line "Would I were a beggar and lived on scraps!" he substituted the words "Would I were a baker and lived on sprats!" bringing down the house in laughter. At Lothario’s death scene, however, the rowdies bombarded the character’s corpse as they had Paris’s dead body in an earlier performance, hoping to obtain the same reaction: the dead man would rise and quickly exit the stage. Coates, however, disappointed his tormentors this time and the final act of the play was performed against a horrendous din. Coates was so incensed that he left the theater at the end of the play, skipping his promised rendition of his favorite recitation, despite calls for his appearance from his supporters in the house. Reports say that spectators stayed in the theater for two hours waiting for the Amateur to return.

So distressed was Coates at this latest uproar that he determined that however beneficial his theatrical endeavors were in behalf of people in need of his help, it was no longer worth endangering himself and the other actors. He resolved to redirect his philanthropic efforts more toward cash endowments and less on performances, even though he still harbored a great love for acting. He continued to attend the theater, of course, but more often as a spectator than a participant. That March presentation of The Fair Penitent would be his last London performance. In the following months, however, the Amateur of Fashion fielded requests from theater managers from all over England. He mostly acquiesced to the invitations and there were probably scores of appearances in provincial theaters. Coates’s biographers mention a half dozen as probably typical of the performances he gave between his final London gig in March 1814 and December 1816.

In mid-September 1814, Coates went to Birmingham to perform The Fair Penitent. According to his biography, he was well received by the local audience and since his usual tormentors weren’t there to disrupt the show, it went off with no distractions, though Coates’s biographers note “the rendering of several passages in a different way from that adopted by professional actors.” I can only guess what that’s a euphemism for! Bell’s Weekly Messenger on 18 September, however, reported a somewhat different estimation: “[T]he audience there, much to their credit, refused to tolerate a counterfeit actor. He received merited disapprobation.” When Coates got to the death of Lothario, he received an ovation and calls of “Encore! Encore!” This prompted the manager to come on stage and have a word with the “dead” Lothario. The manager, thinking Coates had agreed to repeat the death scene, announced this to the audience and the curtain fell. When it rose again, the house expected to see the reprise of Lothario’s death, but were met with the final act. The spectators shouted and called again for “Encore,” and the manager came forward to apologize for having misunderstood Coates. The Amateur would gladly deliver a speech he never got the chance to give before the Prince Regent and the Czar of Russia, but he would not repeat the death scene. The audience being satisfied by the alternative, the play was allowed to conclude. After the final scene, the band played "See, the conquering hero comes" and Coates strode on stage in regimental dress. The house hushed, but no sooner had Coates uttered the first words of the speech than a wag in the audience shouted out, “Sing it!” and Coates, miffed, walked off stage not to return. Bell’s even reported that the Amateur displayed a look of contempt and said “[h]e would be d--d if he spoke any more!”

On 1 December, the Amateur of Fashion traveled to perform Romeo in the birthplace of the great poet itself, Stratford-on-Avon. The performance was well received, and Coates took advantage of being in the Bard’s hometown. Charles Mathews, who played there a few weeks later, wrote his wife of the events, couching them in a sarcastic and sneering tone:

After he had acted he was determined to have a procession all by himself, a minor pageant in imitation of the jubilee; and walked, dressed as Romeo, from the barn to the butcher's shop, where Shakspeare was born. Here he wrote his name on the walls, and in the book kept for that purpose, called himself "the illustrator of the poet;" complained of the house; said that it was not good enough for the divine bard to have been born in, and proposed to pull it down at his own expense, and build it up again, so as to appear more worthy of such a being! He went to the church; wrote his name on the monument; and being inspired, on the tablet, close to the pen in the right hand of the bard, wrote His name in ambient air still floats, / And is adored by Robert Coates.

The 1 December appearance having gone so well, the manager of the Startford theater requested a second presentation, and Coates did Lothario on 3 December in behalf of some charitable cause or other. He was also scheduled to recite “The Hobbies” following the play. The house sold out.

Having satisfied himself that he was still loved in the provinces, if not so well in London, Coates decided to take a break from his theatrical endeavors. He was not forgotten by those who petitioned for his help, but as he’d resolved earlier, he was more forthcoming with cash than performances to help those who came to him in need. 1815 was given over in England to celebrating the defeat of Napoleon, but the Celebrated Amateur of Fashion didn’t make many appearances on the stage during that year. He did return to Bath to do The West Indian on 3 and 15 February in the town where he started. At one performance, the great actor William Charles Macready was present, and his memoirs include this rather derogatory passage:

One of the very worst [amateurs], who owed his notoriety chiefly to his frequent exposure of himself in the character of Romeo, Lothario, Belcour, &c., was Coates, more generally known as “Romeo Coates.” . . . . He displayed himself, diamonds and all, this winter [1815] at Bath in the part of the West Indian, and it was currently believed on this occasion he was liberally paid by the theatre, which profited largely by his preposterous caricature. I was at the theatre on the morning of his rehearsal and introduced to him. At night the house was too crowded to afford me a place in front; and seeing me behind the scenes, he asked me, knowing I acted Belcour, to prompt him if he shouild be “out,” which he very much feared. The audience were in convulsions at his absurdities, and in the scene with Miss [Lady] Rusport, being really “out,” I gave him a line which Belcour has to speak, “I never looked so like a fool in all my life;” which, as he delivered it, was greeted with a roar of laughter. He was “out” again, I gave him again the same line, which again repeated, was acquiesced in with a louder roar. Being “out” again, I administered him the third time the same truth for him to utter, but he seemed alive to its application, rejoining in some dudgeon, “I have said that twice already.” His exhibition was a complete burlesque of the comedy, and a reflection on the character of a management that could profit by such discreditable expedients.

The only records I’ve found of performances in 1816 were also at Bath. Coates was apprently in Bath for other reasons when the manager of the Theatre Royal approached him to make a return appearance on the stage. On 14 December 1816, the Amateur of Fashion performed Belcour in the The West Indian again and the portrayal was so well received that Coates remained in Bath to play two performances as Lothario in The Fair Penitent to profit the manager if the latter would stage a third appearance for the benefit of a charitable society in town. On Monday, 21 December, the first performance of Coates’s second production in Bath was not so smoothly presented as The West Indian had been a week earlier: a spectator, who stated he bore Coates no animosity personally, expressed his dislike of the actor’s interpretation of the role. When the hissing got louder, Coates declared that he planned to appear in behalf of a local charity later, but if he couldn’t finish this night’s show without further disturbance, he would cancel his other appearances. The interruption ceased. The presentation of The Fair Penitent on Tuesday evening proceeded without interruption and on Wednesday, 23 December, the Amateur of Fasion returned to his most favorite role, Romeo, for his charitable performance. The play was well received by the audience, which included many who had seen Coates’s début performance in the same role seven years before. It was the last appearance of Robert Coates, the Celebrated Amateur of Fashion, on a public stage. He retired from public performing at the age of 44.

However charitable his motives--and there’s no indication that the Amateur himself ever made a penny from his theatrics--Coates’s idiosyncrasies must have made him exasperating to act opposite, and it confounds me that he could find actors to appear with him. I presume he paid them enormous sums, just as he bribed the managers, but still, it must have been excrutiating not only to be seen with Coates--it can’t have been good for an actor’s reputation--but to try to work in one of his productions. It was also dangerous, considering the upheavals that were inevitable whenever Coates appeared on stage. The Amateur may have performed out of a sense of benevolence, but he also had a “crazy” vanity. He was well-known all over Britain for his eccentric actions both on stage and off, and his acting, well-intended though it may have been, “was nothing better than burlesque,” according to one 19th-century report. Capt. Gronow characterized the performance he saw as “ludicrous” and Max Beerbohm called his acting “grotesque”; a contemporaneous critic called him a “counterfeit actor” and expressed approval of the audiences’ rejection of him. Eventually no actress would play Juliet opposite him and I suspect a lot of the men had second thoughts as well. Perhaps that accounts for his abrupt departure from the stage after just seven years.

Following the last performance at Bath in 1816, his notoriety eventually faded with the remainder of his inheritance. He continued to appear privately and give recitations when requested, but theater audiences were deprived of the pleasure of seeing the celebrated Amateur of Fashion. As an actor, Coates’s notoriety faded as the public’s attention shifted elsewhere. In addition to the ridicule and critical attacks he suffered for his love of acting, Coates also garnered a lot of admirers and supporters--some quite illustrious--who defended not only his character and motivation, but his talent and skill as well. Among the published accounts of Coates’s life on the stage, the periodical press was generally among those who heaped disapprobation on him. Memoirs by the actor Charles Mathews and Capt. Gronow both sneered at the Amateur’s acting as well as his habits and behavior in public. But others recorded a different man. Coates’s biographers, John R. and Hunter H. Robinson; Pryse Gordon; and Max Beerbohm all found reason to praise the Celebrated Amateur of Fashion--or at least to mitigate the criticism. Gordon had a stake in Coates’s reputation as he laid claim to “having been the means of first bringing out the celebrated Romeo Coates on the British stage.” He had initiated Coates’s agreement to appear on stage in Bath; arranged the introduction to William Wyatt Dimond, the manager of the theater in Bath; organized the attendance of society ladies at Coates’s début; and “contrived . . . to plant in the centre of the pit a score of abigails and butlers” who were essentially recruited to act as a claque. It’s not surprising to read that he stood up for Coates, considering how much of his own ego he invested in the Amateur’s success and reputation.

I don’t know what brief the Robinsons held for Coates, but they were generous with him in The Life of Robert Coates and frequently took Coates’s detractors to task for their criticism and insults. I couldn’t find anything out about the two Robinsons--I don’t even know if they were brothers or father and son, or what. They share a name with Coates’s wife, Emma Robinson, and I wondered if they were nephews, cousins, or even brothers of hers, but their names aren’t mentioned in connection with her history so if they are related, it’s pretty distant, I guess. They never cop to having seen the Amateur on stage, so I don’t assume their accounts of his performances are first-hand, so their judgment of his acting skills is not based on observation. Apparently, they just liked his story.

Beerbohm found himself intrigued with the dichotomy of the press reports of Coates’s performances and that of people like Gordon. He set out to discover why there was this disconnect, and he blamed it all on Coates’s first love in England. It’s a little far-fetched for me, but maybe the turn of the 19th century was a really different time. According to Beerbohm’s research, Coates met a young lady, Miss Emma Tylney Long, the heiress of a baronet, in 1811. Miss Long was something of a guy-magnet, and many young (and not-so-young) men in society pursued her. Robert Coates was among the men who fell in love with her. (One of Coates’s rivals was his friend the Baron de Géramb. Another was said to be the Duke of Clarence, the future King William IV.) In 1812, Miss Tylney Long married someone else (and was never reported to have encouraged Coates or any of the other suitors), but Beerbohm writes that the lady basically set Coates up to make a fool of himself out of revenge for a slight she claims he did her at a garden party. Beerbohm found this journal account of the event:

Mr. C**t*s, who will act Romeo (Wherefore art thou Romeo?) this coming week for the pleasure of his fashionable circle, incurred the contemptuous wrath of his Lady Fair at the Fête. It was a sad pity she entrusted him to hold her purse while she fed the gold-fishes. He was very proud of the honour till the gold fell from his hand among the gold-fishes. How appropriate was the misadventure! But Miss Black Eyes, angry at her loss and her swain's clumsiness, cried: “Jump into the pond, sir, and find my purse instanter!” Several wags encouraged her, and the ladies were of the opinion that her adorer should certainly dive for the treasure. “Alas,” the fellow said, “I cannot swim, Miss. But tell me how many guineas you carried and I will make them good to yourself.” There was a great deal of laughter at this encounter, and the haughty damsel turned on her heel, nor did she vouchsafe another word to her elderly lover.

In a letter Beerbohm found, sent by Tylney Long to Coates, the lady confesses that she had “compelled” the Amateur to adopt the performance style and costume he displayed on the night of his theatrical début in Bath, as pay-back for his behavior at the garden party. Beerbohm believed that because Coates had no sense of humor, he didn’t see what Tylney Long was doing, and after he made his début performance, he continued to keep to the same style on stage out of some sense of loyalty to the young lady. It all seems a little thin to me, even if Coates was too dense to see what the lady was up to. Besides, that outrageous, diamond-encrusted costume was his from Antigua--Tylney Long didn’t suggest that to him at all. And why in heaven’s name would Coates continue to perform in a style suggested by Tylney Long years after her marriage to someone else if all it brought him was ridicule and boos? No, I suspect Coates just liked the way he acted and had developed his own style, which was already on display at the York House in Bath before Pryse Gordon ever asked Coates to go on the stage, back in Antigua and wasn’t about to change for anyone, especially not a woman who threw him over.

In 1823, Coates met Emma Anne Robinson, the daughter of a naval officer, and married her on 6 September; they had two children, a son and a daughter, neither of whom, like Coates’s own siblings, lived to adulthood. As early as 1830, Coates’s fortunes began to turn somewhat: in May, his fabulous diamond-and-ruby-hilted sword, which he carried both on stage and at social occasions, was sold at auction. When slave revolts in Antigua and other West Indian islands in 1831 resulted in reduced fortunes for Coates, he moved to Boulogne-sur-Mer in northern France, where impoverished British nobility went to lick their financial wounds. (The slave trade was prohibited in the British Empire in 1808, but the institution was not abolished until 1834. Rebellions occurred in the West Indies sporadically, including in the 19th century starting in the 1810s.) The Manchester Guardian ran a report on the English ex-pat’s lifestyle while he and his wife were still living abroad; it included this passage:

He is greatly respected by the inhabitants, both French and English, and acts with great liberality and courtesy to all, and to his poor countrymen he is a kind benefactor. In many respects, so great is the influence of Romeo Coates at Boulogne, that he sets the fashion there. . . . The dress of Romeo Coates is still very peculiar. On Saturday morning he was walking on the pier at Boulogne, which he frequently does for hours, dressed in a blue velvet frock coat, yellow pantaloons and Hessian boots. . . . They evidently do all they can to attract notice at Boulogne.

So respected were the Coateses in their temporary home, where he lived in relative comfort in the best suite at the Hotel du Nord, that when King Louis Philippe paid Boulogne a visit on 21 August 1840, Coates offered his rooms for the use of the royal party. The account of this and the brief exchange between Coates and the King of France was widely reported in the British press. In old age, however, Coates and his wife moved back to London. One day in 1843, a man looking out the open window of a gentleman’s club in London spotted an elderly man, oddly dressed in clothes that were 30 years out of fashion. “It’s Romeo Coates!” the man exclaimed in recognition. The man on the street, walking past the window, stopped, turned to the small crowd that had gathered inside the club, and doffed his hat. “My name, gentlemen, is Robert Coates,” he said sternly. He put his hat back on his head and walked on with great dignity.

The former Amateur of Fashion returned to his old haunts and made the circuit of social events and visits with his old friends. He was occasionally persuaded to recite, especially for those too young to have seen him at his height. On Tuesday, 15 February 1848, Coates was on his way home from an annual concert at Drury Lane when he realized he’d forgotten his opera glasses at the theater. He had barely dismounted his famous curricle when a hansom cab hit him and after knocking him down, ran over him, causing many broken bones and internal injuries. The cab driver sped on and was never found. The badly injured Coates was tended at King's College Hospital until Wednesday, 16 February, and, when it looked as if he was recovering, at home until Sunday, 20 February, when he developed erysipelas. Robert Coates died the next day, Monday, 21 February; he was 75, a ripe age for the day. Amateur acting in England would never be the same again for, as Dutton Cook concluded: “After Mr. Coates’ wonderful performances, the efforts of other amateurs seem to be but pale and feeble.” Some analysts suggest that he prefigured melodrama, the theatrical style that became popular after Coates’s return to London from France. What Coates had been doing on British stages in the early 1800s, however, was something for which no one even had a word at the time, “but we certainly do today,” one 20th-century biographer observed:

Robert Coates had, in utter innocence, invented Camp.

[A blog doesn’t seem the right place for footnotes and such-like source documentation. When I put together these kinds of historical posts--the ones on Everybody Comes to Rick’s/Casablanca and The Group of Hissed Authors are in this same vein--I do have the citations for all the research. If anyone feels the need to challenge me on any of this, go ahead and maybe I’ll clue you in. I ain’t no Doris Kearns Goodwin!]

2 comments:

  1. Great blog good sir!

    I would love to do further research on Coates, and I was wondering if you had any suggestions of what I should read? I am in particular interested in more of his personal life. Thanks!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thank you. I'm pleased you've enjoyed 'ROT.'

      As for sources on Coates, I've pretty much covered the field. Most of what's available is about his public life because he never wrote an autobiography that I discovered and no one in his family published a memoir. Aside from the various reviews I found, however, here are my principal sources, almost all 19th-century publication:

      Max Beerbohm, “Poor Romeo!” The Works of Max Beerbohm (London: John Lane, 1896)

      Paul Collins, “A Dedicated Amateur of Fashion,” chap. 10, Banvard’s Folly: Thirteen Tales of Renowned Obscurity, Famous Anonymity, and Rotten Luck (New York: Picador USA, 2001)

      Dutton Cook, “Notes on Amateur Actors, Part I,” Once A Week [London: Bradbury and Evans] 13.320 (12 Aug. 1865)

      Dutton Cook, “Notes on Amateur Actors, Part II,” Once A Week [London: Bradbury and Evans] 13.321 (19 Aug. 1865)

      Pryse Lockhart Gordon, Personal Memoirs; Or, Reminiscences of Men and Manners at Home and Abroad, vol. 1 (London: H. Colburn & R. Bentley, 1830)

      Rees Howell Gronow, “Romeo Coates,” The Reminiscences of Captain Gronow: Being Anecdotes of the Camp, the Court, and the Clubs at the Close of the Last War with France (London: Smith, Elder & Co., 1862)

      “Memoir of Robert Coates, Esq.,” The European Magazine and London Review v. 63 (Mar. 1813)

      Gibbons Merle,] “A Newspaper Editor’s Reminiscences,” Fraser’s Magazine for Town and Country [London] 129.22 (Sept. 1840)

      Philo-Romeo, “Rise and Progess of Mr. Coates: To the Editor of the National Register,” National Register [London] 28 Feb. 1813

      John R. and Hunter H. Robinson, The Life of Robert Coates: Better Known As 'Romeo' and 'Diamond' Coates, The Celebrated 'Amateur of Fashion' (London: Sampson Low, Marston & Co., 1891)

      Edith Sitwell, “Some Amateurs of Fashion,” ch. 5, English Eccentrics (New York: Vanguard Press, 1957)

      Some of these are available on line but for most, you'll need access to a fairly large library.

      ~Rick

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