Mrs Brown Potter (1857-1936)

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Cora Urquhart Brown Potter (1857-1936)

Mary Cora Urquhart, her given name, was born in New Orleans on 15th May, 1859. She was the eldest of a clutch of beautiful daughters born into the well-to-do family of Colonel David Urquhart and his wife Augusta (Slocomb).

Raised in New Orleans and educated privately, Cora married the rich New York coffee broker James Brown Potter on 7th December 1877, when she was only eighteen years of age. She gave birth to her only child, daughter Anne (Fifi) Urquhart Potter, two years later on 14th November 1879. Following her marriage, Cora rapidly became one of the most popular and influential members of the New York social set, always in demand at parties because of her talent at recitations with which she would entertain the guests after dinner.

She first came to England in the summer of 1886 in the company of her husband and was introduced to the Prince of Wales (Edward VII to be) at a court ball. Taken with her beauty, the Prince invited the Brown-Potters to Sandringham for the weekend and they duly obliged. When James asked the prince what he should bring to wear, the Prince referred him to his tailors recommending a short jacket that he himself preferred to a full tailcoat for informal dinners. James followed the Prince's advice, and when he returned to the USA he wore the jacket at his club in Tuxedo, where other members admired the practicality and began to copy it. A little while later some members of the club caused quite a stir in New York wearing the jacket to dinner at Delmonico's. Other diners were informed that this was what was worn to dinner in Tuxedo these days. The fashion caught on as did the name and that, as the story goes, is how the American Tuxedo was born.

When James returned to the USA however, he did so alone, Cora remained in England. She had long harboured a desire to be an actress and abandoned her husband to follow her heart. Acting in those days was not the disreputable profession it had once been, but still it was no vocation for a woman of wealth and standing. Had they remained together, her husband would never have allowed it. She made her professional stage debut at the Theatre Royal in Brighton, appearing as 'Faustine de Bressier' in "Civil War" in March 1887. Later that month she made her London debut as 'Ann Sylvester' in the inaptly (under the circumstances) titled "Man and Wife" at The Haymarket. That was followed be a return to her role in "Civil War", this time at the Gaiety, where she stayed on to play 'Inez' in "Loyal Love".

She returned to America in October 1887 in company with Harold Kyrle Bellew, to play in "Civil War" at the Fifth Avenue Theatre in New York. It was to be the beginning of a long and successful partnership with the British Lancashire-born actor. They would be joint stars together almost uninterruptedly for the next ten years, playing during that time in England, America, Australia, China and India. Among her roles were 'Juliet' in "The Lady of Lyons", 'Kate' in "She Stoops to Conquer", 'Rosalind', 'Cleopatra', 'Francillon', 'Camille' and 'Floria' in "La Tosca", 'Hero' in "Hero and Leander" and the title roles in "Francillon" and "Charlotte Corday".

She had made London her home and had very quickly become the same social success there that she had been in New York. She ran with a crowd of the rich and famous and could count among her friends such luminaries as the Prince of Wales and Robert Browning. In 1887 she had published a book entitled "My Recitations", being a collection of poems she presented in recitals. In the foreword she states "Having received many requests for copies of my recitations, it has seemed to me they would be best answered by gathering and publishing them under one cover". She had a socail conscience also, and during the Anglo-Boer war of 1899-1902 she helped to raise money for war charities for the care of the victims.

Cora parted from Bellew in 1898 to join Beerbohm Tree at Her Majesty's Theatre, appearing there in November as 'Miladi' in "The Musketeers", and staying on to play 'Oliver Arnison' in "Carnac Sahib". She rejoined Bellew to appear in "The Ghetto" at The Comedy in September 1899 before he took a years absence from the stage to go gold-mining in Australia (from whence he returned with a fortune). In April 1901 she played the title roles in "Nicandra" at The Avenue, and "Mrs Willoughby's Kiss" at the Theatre Royal Brighton. She then rejoined Tree at The Haymarket to play 'Calypso' in "Ulysses". Over the next couple of years she appeared in "For Church or Stage" in Yarmouth, and "Forget-me-not" and "Cavalleria Rusticana" at the King's Hammersmith.

She next entered into theatre management taking over the lease of The Savoy where she opened in September 1904 with "The Golden Light". In November 1904 she appeared with Tree at Windsor Castle in a command performance of "A Mans Shadow". Other plays she produced (and starred in) at The Savoy included revivals of "Forget-me-not", "Cavalleria Rusticana", and "For chuch or Stage", and new productions of "Pagliacci" and "Du Barry". Unfortunately her tenure there was not a success. The theatre, which had been the home of Gilbert and Sullivan's wonderful comic operettas had been in decline since the break-up of their partnership.

On parting from The Savoy, she toured in various music halls playing in "Mary Queen of Scots and the Murder of Rizzio". In 1907 she toured South Africa, and in subsequent years toured the English provinces in various plays including "Lady Frederick", "The Devil" and "Madame X". After returning to America in 1911 she made her last appearance on the London stage performing the Prologue to "Buddha" at the Court theatre from February 1912. She then entered into retirement living with her mother, whom she had brought to England, in a stone house at Staines on the Thames which had once been a lodge of Windsor Castle. She made only one further stage appearance, in a benefit production at St. Julians, Guernsey, in February 1919. She died on 12th February, 1936.

A late starter on the stage, Cora still enjoyed a stage career that lasted some twenty years. She sacrificed much for her chosen profession, leaving behind not only her husband but her seven year-old daughter. Although her husband divorced her in 1903 she continued to use for her stage name her marital nom-de-plume of 'Mrs Brown Potter'. Was this because she still felt a connection to her husband? Or was using his family name for a career of which disapproved a last thumbing of the nose at her his snobbery? As a woman she was a great beauty and exceedingly charming. As an actress she was a competent practitioner of her craft without ever really reaching the heights of true greatness.

With regard to Mrs. Brown-Potter, as acting is no longer considered absolutely essential for success on the English stage, there is really no reason why the pretty bright-eyed lady who charmed us all last June by her merry laugh and her nonchalant ways, should not--to borrow an expression from her native language--make a big boom and paint the town red. We sincerely hope she will; for, on the whole, the American invasion has done English society a great deal of good. American women are bright, clever, and wonderfully cosmopolitan.

Oscar Wilde (in a short piece entitled "The American Invasion").

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