The tragic end of an alcoholic 19th century actor

GeorgefrederickcookecolorGeorgefrederickcookeiagoAt the turn of the 19th century, George Frederick Cooke was the A-list star actor in his native England.

He was deemed a figure of the “first rank of the London stage” whose portrayal of Richard III at Covent Garden Theatre in 1800 cemented his rep as “the leading tragedian of the day.”

But like many artists, Cooke was an alcoholic. He’d vanish from the stage for long periods, and when he made it to a performance, he was “often so drunk as to not be able to come on the stage at all,” recalls the New York Times in 1873.

As with countless other actors, his addiction torpedoed his career. So Cooke left London and went on tour in New York in November 1810.

Here, he played Richard III to rapt, star-struck audiences at the Park Theatre, then on Park Row.

GeorgefrederickcookeplaqueUnfortunately, he never made it back to England. The War of 1812 left him stuck in the city, and the 56-year-old actor died here that year of cirrhosis.

Now his story gets more dramatic. Cooke was buried behind St. Paul’s Chapel on Fulton Street in a pauper’s grave, supposedly without his head, which he’d willed to science to pay down his debts, according to rumors.

His skull was also reported to have made it on stage—as a prop in a British performance of Hamlet later that century.

A monument to Cooke was erected at St. Paul’s by his protegee, British thespian Edmund Kean in 1821. His body was reburied there, but whether it was intact remains a mystery.

[Photo at right: from]

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6 Responses to “The tragic end of an alcoholic 19th century actor”

  1. Big Sis Says:

    This rates both an “interesting” and an “ewww.” : )

  2. Lady G. Says:

    That is sad, but a fascinating piece of history. I learn something new with your blog every post.

  3. wildnewyork Says:

    He was a big star on the stage, it seems–elite entertainment in 1811!

  4. Paul Ruoso Says:

    56 yrs in 1811 was a pretty good run.

  5. wildnewyork Says:

    Agree, especially for a drunk.

  6. What remains of New York’s first Theatre Alley | Ephemeral New York Says:

    […] imagine it in the early 19th century, with actors and theater professionals hanging around before a show and carriages lining up to pick up theatergoers after the curtain […]

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