Anna Cora Mowatt and the Undimmed Mirror

As I have said before, the Watts scandal did not catch fire in the U.S. like it did in England. Furthermore, just at the point when the story seems to have completely died out, events conspired multiple times to resurrect the narrative from the ashes. The first point occurred almost a decade after the Watts’ trial and suicide when in 1859 David Moirer Evans published Facts, Failures, and Frauds: Revelations, Financial, Mercantile, and Criminal in which he posthumously crowns Walter Watts as the first “white collar” criminal.

Clusters of newspaper articles re-telling the story of the scandal emerge again in 1888, 1910, and once more around 1925. I’ve got a strong suspicion that the 1888 retelling might have been tied to the impending demolition of the Royal Olympic Theater to make way for a new, more modern facility in 1889 and saw a resurgence when the theater was razed completely as Wynch street became a casualty of urban renewal in 1904. The 1925 re-emergence of the Watts scandal in newspaper articles may dovetail with the conversion of the Marylebone Theater into a cinema. I haven’t got sufficient information to pin down a date for the last event yet.

The official theater history judgement on Walter Watts’ management of the Olympic was that it was an extravagant failure. However, it was Watts’ expensive re-build of the building that stood from 1850-1889. C.J. Phipps re-modeled and updated the theater in 1863, but Watts had provided firm foundation. His Royal Olympic was not just pretty. The design he had paid for was not only luxurious for patrons, it was comfortable for the performers and didn’t scrimp on practicalities like fire-safety features. Personally, Watts didn’t enjoy the best of luck, however, professionally he left a fairly positive legacy in his wake. His largess bolstered the careers of several new or rising dramatists or actors. His theaters introduced procedures that would become standard in the decades after his death such as: not charging for programs, paying understudies for lead roles, and insisting on read-through rehearsals of the script attended by the entire cast.

Therefore, in 1888, while Anna Cora Mowatt was fast becoming a faded footnote in U.S. theatre history, the prospect of demolishing the theater who he used his misappropriated millions to build might have stirred memories in England of Walter Watts and the American actress he was supposed to have fallen for like the following letter to the editor of The Referee:

Perhaps it may interest you to hear that I remember Walter Watts perfectly well, for at the time of his arrest, March 11, 1850, I was almost a young man. He was the tenant of my father, who built the Marylebone Theatre in 1842, and he resided in St. John’s Wood at a house with a large garden known as Neville Mansions. By-the-by, this house was occupied by Betty, the well-known proprietor of Asthley’s Amphitheatre. Watts was, as you observe, most lavish in his expenditure, and he would, when present at rehearsals, stand champagne to everybody.

We were led to believe, and it was generally accepted, that the fund from which he derived his income was the result of successful speculation in railway and other stocks. Mrs. Mowatt, the beautiful American actress and authoress, was his leading lady, and fitted up a dressing-room for her on the stage-level, and furnished it in a style which at that day was considered sumptuous. The handsome cheval dressing-glass which she used is now in my possession and perhaps the most curious and surprising part of the matter is the fact that it remained in the theatre for sixty years, and is still unbroken, having survived all the changes and vicissitudes the house has undergone.1

Metaphorically, the story of the Watts scandal does seem to have served at the turn of the century as an astonishingly undimmed mirror, reflecting images of a bygone era with unexpected clarity for those wishing to nostalgically gaze on the past.

1. The Referee. April 24, 1910. Page 13