I’ve just got here, through Paris, from the sunny southern shore;
I to Monte Carlo went, just to raise my winter’s rent.
Dame Fortune smiled upon me as she’d never done before,
And I’ve now such lots of money, I’m a gent.
Yes, I’ve now got lots of rhino, I’m a gent.
With those lyrics begins one of the most popular musical hall numbers of the late 1800s. A song that features in movie classics such as David Lean’s Lawrence Of Arabia and Orson Welles’ The Magnificent Ambersons, you can also hear the GIs singing it in the Steven Spielberg-produced Band Of Brothers. Why, it’s even been cannibalised by Seth MacFarlane who used its melody in an episode of American Dad.
Penned by Fred Gilbert, the number in question is The Man Who Broke The Bank At Monte Carlo and it swiftly became associated with one of the true giants of the British music hall, Charles Coborn. But just who was the man in question? The answer is about as clear as Coborn’s singing towards the end of the song when the titular hero takes a turn for the tipsy.
I stay indoors till after lunch, and then my daily walk
To the great Triumphal Arch is one grand triumphal march.
Observed by each observer with the keenness of a hawk,
I’m a mass of money, linen, silk and starch.
I’m a mass of money, linen, silk and starch.
According to biographers of Fred Gilbert, the songwriter drew his inspiration from the gambler-cum-confidence trickster Charles Deville Wells (above, complete with his weapon of choice, the roulette wheel) who first set off for Monaco’s Monte Carlo Casino in the summer of 1891. His stake money – a not inconsiderable £4,000 – had been acquired by conning people into investing in a bogus invention known as a “musical jump rope”. He then proceeded to break the bank 12 times in the space of just 11 hours.
‘Bank breaking’ occurs when a gambler wins more chips than are available at the table on which he is playing – the term is a translation of the French phrase ‘faire sauter le banque’. Should such an event occur, a black cloth is placed over the table until replacement chips can be found. It isn’t the case – as is often assumed – that Charles Wells won the Monte Carlo’s reserves. He did, however, win 23 times from 30 successive roulette spins, a feat that won him a cool one million francs. And then, in November, he came back and did it all over again, winning another million francs in one 72 hour period!
Exactly how Wells gave the Monte Carlo a run for its money is a matter the casino itself was keen to uncover. But when the private detectives they hired unearther no wrongdoing, the establishment was left to conclude that Wells’ claims about enjoying a lucky streak were true.
Since many of his wins came from staking money on the number ‘5’, it has been suggested that Wells’ roulette triumph was made possible by either the Martingale or the D’Alembert systems, high-risk methods of betting the true effectiveness of which has long since been disproved by statisticians. Then again, since neither system is particularly subtle, you’d think the private eyes would have noticed had Wells employed either one of them.
Vast though Wells’ wins were, the money blinded him to casino gambling’s cardinal rule – the house always wins. Having built up his stake with another non-existent invention – a fuel-saving device for steam-ships, this time – Wells returned to the French Riviera, broke the bank six further times, then lost every last penny. Later jailed for fraud both in England and in France, he died in poverty in Paris in 1922, his sole comfort perhaps the international fame Gilbert’s song briefly granted him.
I patronised the tables at the Monte Carlo hell
Till they hadn’t got a ‘sou’ for a Christian or a Jew;
So I quickly went to Paris for the charms of mademoiselle
Who’s the lodestone of my heart, what can I do,
When with 20 tongues she swears that she’ll be true?
But was Wells truly the first man to break the bank at Monte Carlo? Over the years, a strong case has built up for Joseph Jagger, a British mechanical engineer who made it to Monaco in 1873. Once there, he bribed six clerks to note down every winning number over a five day period at Beaux-Arts Casino. Jagger then went to the tables and played the nine most frequent winning numbers. Three hundred thousand dollars later, Jagger headed back to the UK and presumably never gave mechanical engineering another thought.
Those are the facts in the Jagger case and they have been verified by the Breaking Las Vegas documentary series. But the programme’s claim that Jagger was the inspiration for Fred Gilbert’s song doesn’t stack up; the number having been written in keeping with the Monte Carlo’s owner Francois Blanc’s desire to cash in on Wells’ lucky streak. Furthermore, though Jagger’s winnings were big, he didn’t actually break the bank, at least not in the way that we now understand the term.
As I walk along the Bois De Boulogne
With an independent air
You can hear the girls declare
“He must be a millionaire!”
You can hear them sigh and wish to die,
You can see them wink the other eye
At the man who broke the bank at Monte Carlo.
So while it is true that Charles Deville Wells wasn’t the first man to enjoy a run at Monte Carlo, it’s he that Charles Cobham toured the world singing about. And on that note, take it away, Charles!