Anna Cora Mowatt and the Troubling Dressing Room – Part II

Today, most of us don’t have trouble identifying instances of sexual innuendo. For the Victorians, though, who did things like put tablecloths over pianos so that the “legs” would not be exposed, the definition of what constituted risqué, improper, or suggestive situations could be very subtle by contemporary standards.

If Walter Watts had been an average theater manager, the story of his excessively expensive custom remodel of Anna Cora Mowatt’s dressing room at the Marylebone should never have done anything more than raise a few eyebrows in London’s Theater district in the spring of 1849. However, he wasn’t. This blog is an examination of how that dressing room became the “genie’s bower” in the tale told of his tragic downfall.

[As always, if this is your first time joining this blog, more background information is available on Anna Cora Mowatt and the Watts Scandal at this fine website.]

In 1859, Walter Watts had been dead for nine years. Anna Cora Mowatt had retired from the stage and married William Foushee Ritchie, editor of the Richmond Enquirer. In the United States, the story of scandal that connected their names had lost a great deal of potency thanks to a number of factors, including, primarily, her deft handling of the affair in her well-received autobiography.

However, in England, by an unfortunate historical coincidence, this old news received a big breath of new life. In quick succession, Leopold Redpath, William James Robson, and William George Pullinger were all arrested, tried, and convicted for spectacular instances of what today we would call white collar crime. Walter Watts, who had no connection with any of these men other than sharing a talent for embezzling, was credited by journalists and editorialists as having invented a new type of menace on modern society. His story was brushed off and re-examined for having kicked off this new and troubling crime wave.

As you might be suspecting, Watts was not actually the first clerk to figure out a way to dip into company funds and get caught doing so. (In a future blog, I’ll tell you the name of the embezzler from whom he learned his craft.) However, he was the only one who comes to mind who used his millions to fund two West End theaters. This choice meant Watts was aggressively engaged in promoting his venues. Like Jack Abramoff, Bernie Madoff, and Howard Weinstein from recent headlines, Walter Watts was a figure known to journalists before his arrest. London’s literati had been courted by him. They had socialized with him. They all knew people who felt the impact of Watts’ sudden fall. He wasn’t just an anonymous someone from “the City” like Redpath, Robson, or Pullinger. Watts might not have actually been England’s first white collar criminal, but for many of the journalists and authors in mid-century London, he might have been the first whose crime meant something to them personally.

From the late 1850’s to the 1930’s, versions of Walter Watts’ story appeared in collections of “true crime” stories, as well as non-fiction accounts of famous frauds and forgeries. Descriptions of Mowatt’s dressing room at the Marylebone are usually a highlight of the list of his excesses, particularly in accounts written at the turn of the century. Even an article on white collar crime written only a few years ago by an author who obviously had never heard of Mowatt made a point of mentioning that Watts had spent a lot of his money on gifts for actresses, unconsciously echoing the censure of his Victorian forbearers on the theater manager’s trespass on decency.

Whether or not this was what he consciously had in mind, by converting Mowatt’s private dressing room into a semi-public space that he could use to show off his theater, his lovely American starlet, and his talent for design to the paparazzi and elite invited members of the public, Walter Watts was skating along the edges of propriety. On the surface, nothing inappropriate was actually happening… as far as we know. However, as I discuss in Chapter Three of my book, The Lady Actress, Victorian popular culture shaded all female performers as morally suspect. The popular imagination imagined theaters as highly sexualized spaces. Even though from actors’ diaries, we know that dressing rooms were cold, dark, unpleasant spaces in which people tried to spend as little time as possible, Victorian erotica cast them as dens of iniquity.

Although the few pictures of her don’t quite capture what must have been her unique beauty, all Mowatt’s contemporaries who write about her mention how attractive she was. She specialized in playing spunky young ingénues in danger. People fell madly in love with her at first sight. Some critics grumbled that she had more looks than talent. Others grasped at words to describe the fresh, natural, special something that made her acting so endearing to audiences. I’m guessing we wouldn’t hesitate to identify at least part of that draw today as sex appeal.

In 1849, Walter Watts took the room where this attractive young woman undressed, redecorated it so that it looked like a rich woman’s boudoir and then invited selected guests in for private showings and parties. Even if everything was perfectly innocent, it certainly sounds like something fairly risqué is going on when I put it that way, doesn’t it?

The language the Victorian authors use show that they thought so too. “Genii’s bower” shows up as description for the redecorated dressing room several times. “Bower” is an old-fashioned word for bedroom. The dressing room didn’t have a bed in it. If you call a room that doesn’t have a bed in it a word that means “bedroom,” something about that room is probably making you think about sex.

“Genii” and other references to “The Arabian Nights” are telling as well, particularly the closer they occur to the turn of the century. To you and I, these references might suggest a cartoon version of Robin Williams, Will Smith in blue makeup or some other not very arousing image, but fin de siècle Victorians would have very different associations thanks to Sir Richard Francis Burton. Burton (not Elizabeth Taylor’s several times husband) published a rather infamously erotic translation of “1001 Nights” in 1885.

As time passed, writers also began to drop descriptors that characterized the gatherings held in Mowatt’s dressing room as “recherché” or exotic, perhaps indicating a loosening of the observance of normal moral boundaries. The writers of these pieces tend sprinkle French terms throughout their descriptions of things, people and actions associated with the theater. One author misidentified Mowatt as being French. Although she was a U.S. citizen and had left that country as an infant, Mowatt had been born in Bordeaux and did speak the language. This mistaken assignment of nationality may have been an honest mistake. I think it is more likely that all these reference the common English stereotype that assumes rampant promiscuity is the norm for the French — particularly French actresses.

In the newspaper articles and book chapters that I have collected so far dealing with the Watts scandal, there seem to be a definite trend in the way that Mowatt’s dressing room is handled as a significant plot point. We start out in 1859 with David Moirer Evans. In “Facts, Failures, and Frauds: Revelations, Financial, Mercantile, and Criminal,” he says, rather mildly, the dressing room “resembled rather a fairy grotto than a closet in a minor theatre.”1 In her autobiography, Mowatt spoke of the dressing room having a “fairyland” transformation. Evans may be echoing her language here.

He goes on to say that “there the queen of the evening, at the conclusion of some successful performance, would receive visits from ladies and gentlemen of high rank in literature and the arts; there also little suppers, in the most elegant and expensive style, were given to a select few.”2 After another paragraph describing Watts’ farewell dinner at the Marylebone, perhaps remembering those those ladies and gentlemen who visited that theater and might not take kindly to being mentioned in such a way, Evans hastens to add, “It must not be for a moment be imagined that there was anything in these gaieties of the Marylebone Theatre that in the slightest degree violated the rules of propriety. The liberality with which the entertainments were provided was, it is confidently asserted, fully equaled by the decorum which prevailed throughout them all…”3

Evans’ account of the Watts scandal was very influential. Other writers would copy some of his exact wording. No subsequent author ever reproduced any version of the above sentences about all actions at the Marylebone being above reproach. Evans’ account contains the first and only example of such a reassurance.

In 1859, we’re just short of a decade out from the events of the Watts scandal. Evans was a long-time financial correspondent for the Times. Although it’s not entirely likely he ever met Watts, he could easily have easily obtained a wealth of second-hand knowledge of the goings-on at the Marylebone and the Royal Olympic by simply interviewing his fellow reporters who covered that beat. From here on out, my sources tend to be anonymous and their versions of events less charitable and more speculative.

Compare Evans’ narrative to this unsourced article I found in an 1892 New Zealand newspaper:

Mrs. Mowatt, an accomplished authoress, as well as actress, petite, with luxurious hair and speaking eyes, quite the perfection of the American belle… won great esteem from Watts. He sent the lady’s husband, an invalid on a voyage to Trinadad; and on the occasion of Mrs. Mowatt’s benefit in January, 1849 presented her with a silver vase lined with gold, surmounted by a statuette of Shakespeare. On the complaint too, that star actresses had not elegant accommodation behind the scenes, Watts declared to Mrs. Mowatt that he would speedily arrange such a desideratum, and with enough taste and luxurious comfort for it to become the talk of theatrical London. Decorator and upholsterer went to work in a small apartment partitioned off from the green room. The carpet represented roses reposing on a bed of moss, and the walls panels of wreaths and bouquets, while from the ceiling hung ornaments in the form of lilies for lighting purposes. Flower pieces by Bartholomew were among the pictorial adornments, and four mirrors reflected the furniture of pale blue satin and gold. Watts was greatly delighted when one evening, after conducting a visitor behind the scenes, the journalist remarked, “you are quite the Sardanapalus of theatrical administrators.” It was true in more senses than one.4

After forty-two years of increasingly cynical re-tellings, this version of Watts’ redecoration of Mowatt’s dressing room seems to ends up recasting the actress as the kept woman in a love-nest under the stage of the Marylebone with Watts presiding as a decadent despotic sultan with the power to banish inconvenient husbands.

[For a more complete dissection of the above reference to one of Lord Bryon’s characters, see this previous blog entry.]

Well, dear Reader, I’ve led you on a rather long journey with this story of the dressing room and you may be starting to say to yourself, “So he gave her some nice furniture and a picture. So what?” What I and every other writer who has ever looked at Watts’ overboard redecoration at the Marylebone are really trying to puzzle out when we look at this incident is the true nature of Mowatt and Watts’ relationship. The dressing room makeover may be the key to unlocking the big three of the unanswered questions of the scandal: Were they having an affair? Did Mowatt have knowledge of the fraud prior to Watts’ arrest? Did Watts’ feeling for her play into the motivations for his suicide?

Like all the writers who have presented this story before me, I have opinions about the answers to these questions. With each new layer of evidence I uncover, my beliefs are adjusting and developing. At this late date it may not be possible to come to definitive conclusions about all of these mysteries. I promise, though, to let you know what I discover as I continue my investigations.

Anna Cora Mowatt and the Troubling Dressing Room

1. Evans, David Moirer. Facts, Failures, and Frauds: Revelations, Financial, Mercantile, and Criminal. London: Groombridge, 1859. Page 82-83.
2. Ibid p. 83.
3. Ibid p 83.
4. The Forgeries of Walter Watts, The Press, Vol. XLIX, Issue 8322, Nov. 5, 1892. Page 3.