Now largely forgotten, Cora Urquhart Potter was an actress whose stage career attracted an extraordinary degree of misogyny and vitriolic criticism as well as plaudits and acclaim for her luminous beauty, lavish costumes and — less often — her acting talent. Treatment that Meghan, Duchess of Sussex could probably empathise with today.
Mary Cora Urquhart was born in 1857, a Southern Belle from New Orleans who married James Brown Potter in 1877 and became part of New York’s elite and fashionable society. A daughter, Fifi, was born in 1879 — but not content to remain a beautiful ornament, Cora became involved with society fundraising in amateur theatricals in the 1880s. Her recitation of ‘Ostler Joe at a soiree scandalised President Cleveland’s sister, but Cora used the publicity to launch her professional career (which at times seems to parallel the narrative of ‘Ostler Joe).
In 1886 Cora left her husband and daughter to make her stage debut in London. Her defiance of convention, rejection of the domestic role and steely determination to embrace meaningful work meant male reviewers were often hostile. Underlying the scornful reviews of her tragic airs, affected intonation and stagey attitudes was outrage at her decadence, sensuality and ambition. “She is a comely object to behold and, when speechless and motionless, and agreeable adjunct to the scene” is one example of the backhanded praise she received.
Always with an eye on the main chance, Cora modelled her career on Lillie Langtry and Sarah Bernhardt. She became friendly with Oscar Wilde, James McNeill Whistler and the Prince of Wales (later Edward VII). Haute couture gowns from the Paris salon of House of Worth became part of her image (here she is as Cleopatra) but her adept self-promotion only goaded the critics into a further savaging in the press.
Cora partnered with Kyrle Bellew, a handsome matinee idol, whom she played opposite for ten years. They toured America, Australia (1890 & 1896), New Zealand (1896), South Africa, India and the Far East.
Cora’s most successful roles were as Milady in The Three Musketeers and Charlotte Corday. So thrilled was the audience by her performance that one night when her murderous assault on Marat caused the bath tub to fall over, no one even sniggered.
Her husband divorced her in 1900 and she purchase Bray Lodge on the Thames – a somewhat grander reproduction of Anne Hathaway’s cottage.
By 1904 Cora’s star had begun to wane when she took on the lease and management of the Savoy Theatre and opened with The Golden Light, a play written by her sister. Despite the extravagant stage fittings and lavish costumes “the play was so poor that after many expressions of ridicule from the audience the curtain finally descended amidst chilling silence.” When it emerged that her solicitor has embezzled trust funds to finance her Savoy venture, Cora was called as a witness at his trial: “Nor were her good looks and handsome costume lost on spectators and jury, who apparently felt that they were being treated to an excellent dramatic performance free of charge, and appreciated it all the more on that account.” The end result of her solicitor’s duplicity was a mortgagee sale of Bray Lodge and bankruptcy for Cora. She was reduced to performing as a vaudeville artist with a motley selection of boomerang throwers, a black minstrel singer, psychics and acrobats — the American newspapers gloated and she endured another drubbing from the critics.
With admirable resilience, Cora published The Secrets of Beauty and Mysteries of Health, then retired from the stage and reinvented herself as a lecturer on Eastern mysticism. She reconciled with her daughter, who after a scandalous divorce had married an extremely wealthy descendant of the Rockefeller family twenty years her junior. Fifi provided a regular stipend to her mother until Cora’s death on the French Riviera in 1936.
Cora Brown Potter features in Chapter 13 of The Only Living Lady Parachutist: Mrs Potter turned her beautiful face in profile to Lillian; her chin raised to a defiant angle. ‘Work makes a woman independent, my dear. Don’t give up your liberty for anything.’
Main source: Cora Urquhart Potter: The Victorian Actress as Provocateur by Craig Clinton, 2010.