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A generation knew him as the man behind the Dreadnought hoax, and Horace de Vere Cole entertained the nation for over twenty years through the tabloids and the gossip columns. And yet the mischief, apparently innocent and impish, concealed an undercurrent of anger, frustration and violence. 'Our chief jester' was, as Winston Churchill said, 'a very dangerous man to his friends', with a darker and more political side. He was a complex figure, in whom many of the conflicts and contradictions of his times mingled.
The Dreadnought hoax in 1910 scandalised the Edwardian establishment and provided the tabloid newspapers with a story that would run and run. The man behind it has lived in the popular imagination ever since as the world's greatest practical joker. But he was much more than that. He was 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. Once the toast of society and the popular press, he lost his fortune and died alone in poverty. 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. With unique access to Cole's papers and letters, Martyn Downer has written the first biography of this fascinating, quixotic and complex man. Now that a century has passed since Cole's audacious stunt, it is surely time for his story to be told. In The Sultan of Zanzibar, Downer conjures up a vanished pre-war world of seedy nightclubs, artistic battles and doomed love affairs with, at its heart-roaring, blustering and raging - its chief jester Horace de Vere Cole.
Martyn Downer is author of Nelson's Purse, an investigation into newly discovered possessions of the British admiral, and The Queen's Knight, a biography of Sir Howard Elphinstone, confidant of Queen Victoria (both Bantam Press). Formerly a director of Sotheby's in London, he now works as an art dealer. He lives in Hertfordshire with his wife and three children.
‘"With unprecedented access to family papers, Martyn Downer has got under the skin of one of the most celebrated clowns of history - showing how this volatile, unhappy fantasist was both a transgressor and a product of his age."
"A really fascinating and gripping account of the life of one of the weirdest and most outrageous practical jokers of the twentieth century."
Hardback 320pp, ISBN 978 0 948238 43 7; £16.99