The Dreadnought hoax in 1910 scandalised the Edwardian establishment and gave the tabloids a story that would run and run. The man behind it has gone down in history – if remembered at all – as the greatest ever practical joker. But he was far from just an innocent mischief-maker. Martin Downer, his first biographer, reveals him as a socialist whose hoaxes were intended as skewers to pomposity; a socialite who moved as easily through Soho and Whitechapel as Belgravia; an Anglo-Irish eccentric in whose character violence mingled with dreamy romanticism and high-minded poetic idealism; one whom Winston Churchill called ‘a very dangerous man to his friends’. For his most famous hoax, Cole and a group of friends (including the youthful Virginia Woolf) impersonated a delegation of Abyssinian princes and talked their way into an inspection of the Royal Navy’s flagship, HMS Dreadnought. Showing a distinctly modern flair for media manipulation, Cole fed the press the story, making him an overnight celebrity and the Navy a laughing stock.
Cole’s natural habitat in the teens and twenties was the Café Royal, the Eiffel Tower and other haunts of Soho North and South, in the company of artists and misfits of one sort or another. Augustus John was a close, if highly competitive, friend, Jacob Epstein the subject of an ongoing vendetta, and Wyndham Lewis lampooned him in his novel The Apes of God. Cole’s love life was strewn with beautiful and glamorous women, with none of whom he found any lasting happiness. His wealth evaporated in the Depression, and he died penniless and alone in France.
Rathbone Place, London,
Monday 28 March at 7.30pm.