William Fullerton and The Lady of the Locket
by Michael Green
In 1885, The Lady of the Locket ran for five months at the Empire Theatre, and was generally acknowledged to be the sole success in an otherwise dismal London theatrical season. Underlying its popularity was a unique collaboration among three young friends. Two of them – the great costume designer Percy Anderson and heart-throb baritone Hayden Coffin – went on to decades of fame. The third member of the trio, American-born composer William Fullerton, died a few years later and was forgotten by everyone, other than Coffin and especially Anderson.
William Fullerton, Jr. was the only son of a famous New York trial lawyer, “Judge” William Fullerton. A small number of minor compositions can be found in the U.S. Library of Congress. The earliest, “Silver Strains,” is a waltz published in 1871, when he was 17. Fullerton left the United States to study music in Leipzig, and then settled in London. His family seems to have believed he was studying in Heidelberg. The difference may indicate that he was concealing something – either his choice of music as a full-time career, or his lifestyle. Relations between the aggressive Judge Fullerton and his son, who was prone to illness and at some point became openly gay, may not have been entirely harmonious.
From Leipzig, he moved to London, where he lived with an aristocratic young painter – Percy Anderson. The sumptuous rooms maintained by Anderson in Queen Anne’s Gate became a gathering place for many of the leading lights of the musical and theatrical worlds.
In the early 1880s, Fullerton’s compositions in various genres found great popularity in London. Surviving pieces include “In a Dream”, a song in the classic lieder tradition, based on a poem by Heinrich Heine; and “White Lilies Waltz”, dedicated to the Duke of Albany (Queen’s Victoria’s ill-fated, haemophiliac son). A military march, “Tel-el Kebir,” celebrated the victory that cemented British rule over Egypt.
His first effort at opera came in 1884, with The Miser, which was a complete failure. For The Lady of the Locket (with lyrics by Henry Hamilton), he persuaded Anderson to design the costumes. Anderson, in turn, recruited the unknown young baritone, Hayden Coffin to take an important role. Coffin later reflected in his memoir: “we were novices …. [s]o for us it was great venture ….”
Following the success of The Lady of the Locket, the three began collaborating on a new, even grander work: Waldemar – The Robber of the Rhine. The lyrics were by Maurice Barrymore, and it was booked to open at the new Prince of Wales Theatre. A leading American impresario had plans to produce it in New York as well. In the meantime, however, Dorothy opened at the Prince of Wales, with Coffin in the leading role. Dorothy’s record-setting run lasted more than two years and catapulted Coffin to heights of fame, while Waldemar waited in the wings.
During the wait, Fullerton became depressed and his health deteriorated. In the summer of 1888, Anderson spirited him away to a cousin’s house in Hampshire (probably Well Manor), where he died on August 25. Andersen arranged his burial in the cemetery at All Saints’ Church in Crondall. There was a flurry of sad notices in the press throughout the English-speaking world, followed by oblivion.
Anderson passed away forty years later, in 1928. Coffin’s autobiography, “Hayden Coffin’s Book”, published in 1930, paid tribute to his old friend Anderson and then noted, simply “At his own request, he was laid to rest in Crondall Churchyard, where William Fullerton, our mutual friend of early days, was buried.”
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