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Marshall Cole, one of the last Cocoanut Grove nightclub fire survivors, dies at 94

Mr. Cole spoke at a Cocoanut Grove memorial in Boston. "I was very lucky,'' said Mr. Cole, a survivor of the fire.
Mr. Cole spoke at a Cocoanut Grove memorial in Boston. "I was very lucky,'' said Mr. Cole, a survivor of the fire.Dina Rudick/Globe Staff/The Boston Globe

Marshall Cole was in his upstairs dressing room between shows at the Cocoanut Grove nightclub on the night of Nov. 28, 1942, when noise floated up from the Melody Lounge. At first he thought it might be a commotion among football fans — Holy Cross had upset Boston College earlier that day.

“I went down to see if I could get in on it,” he told an inquest three days later, according to a Globe report, but he felt “something like an earthquake” after reaching the stairs.

“Someone hollered, ‘Fire.’ Soot hit me in the face,” he said. “I felt as if I was pushed upstairs. I went up backwards.”

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Mr. Cole, who in dramatic fashion escaped Boston’s deadliest fire, died in his Falmouth residence June 28 after a period of failing health. He was 94 and had been one of the five last-known survivors, according to the Cocoanut Grove Memorial Committee.

A talented tap dancer — a “chorus boy” in nightclub parlance — he rushed back to his dressing room. Then he followed another man through a window and onto the roof of the building.

Others joined them, according to the 1942 inquest that examined what happened during the fire that killed 492 people.

Someone on the roof found a ladder that wasn’t quite long enough to reach the ground. The men held onto it as the women climbed down first, followed by the men.

“How did the last man get down?” William Arthur Reilly, who was then Boston’s fire commissioner, asked Mr. Cole at the inquest.

“We held the ladder from below till it swayed and he jumped the last six feet,” Mr. Cole replied.

That was not the only time he narrowly escaped death. During World War II, Mr. Cole was serving on the USS Hancock in the Pacific when the aircraft carrier was targeted by Japanese pilots in kamikaze attacks.

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Mr. Cole, who had been posted as one of three watchmen on a tower, became ill with what later was diagnosed as meningitis. He was sent to the aircraft carrier’s doctors, who initially gave him a couple of aspirin.

Years later, he told his family that if he had been at his post, instead of in the sick bay, he would have been killed in a kamikaze attack.

Having sidestepped death twice, he went on to be a fearless and gifted water skier, performing acrobatics while being towed behind speeding boats.

At exhibitions and contests on Lake Winnipesaukee in New Hampshire, “he could slalom ski, he could barefoot ski,” said his daughter Diane Leonard of West Roxbury.

She added that sometimes he arranged for a boat to tow a flying saucer that might ordinarily be used for sledding.

Placing a chair on the saucer, Mr. Cole would “stand on his head and hold the ropes and do all these acrobatics,” Diane recalled. “He was a performer and a half.”

And an instructor, too. For a time, Mr. Cole was president of the Massachusetts Aqua Sports Association.

“Safe and enjoyable water skiing depends on teamwork — cooperation of the boat driver, observer, and the water skier,” he wrote in a July 9, 1961, Globe guest column, when he was 35.

The article was illustrated with photos of a water skier demonstrating hand signals such as how to tell the driver to speed up, slow down, or cut the motor.

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“Just as in the case of the automobile driver, directional signals are great,” Mr. Cole added, “but you should know how to get along without them if necessary.”

Marshall Stephen Cole, who was known as Skip, was born in his family’s South Boston home in 1925. His parents were Marshall J. Cole, who worked for Gillette, and Yvonne Ouellette, who raised the children.

The oldest of three brothers, Mr. Cole was already performing as a tap dancer in numerous venues by the time he graduated from South Boston High School.

At one point he was in the running for a show that featured dancers on roller skates performing intricate choreography, linked together holding hands.

Diane recalled that “he said, ‘I would have been really good at that, but I had sweaty hands. I let go of one of the girls and everyone went every which way.’ "

Displeased, the choreographer didn’t cast Mr. Cole.

Mr. Cole also was an artist who had a talent for drawing and the patience to build intricate models of ships.

While Mr. Cole was a youth, he met Anne Breen of Peabody through relatives. They were high school sweethearts and married in 1946, while he was on leave from the Navy.

Mr. Cole spent his post-war career working for what was then H.P. Hood and Sons.

“He started out as a milkman and progressed to sales rep,” Diane said.

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In the mid-1970s, Mr. Cole’s work took him to Vermont, where he was a senior sales representative. For about 40 years, he and wife lived just north of Burlington in Milton, Vt. — a community along Lake Champlain.

A former longtime member of the South Boston Yacht Club, and a scuba diver who had untangled fishing lines from yacht engines off Marshfield, Mr. Cole kept sailing in Vermont, trading saltwater for the lake.

“Dad was very determined, very active,” said his other daughter, Elaine Woodward of East Falmouth. “He would never sit still. And he loved sailing.”

In addition to his wife and two daughters, Mr. Cole leaves two sons, Stephen of Colchester, Vt., and Richard of Round-O, S.C.; and three grandchildren.

Mr. Cole’s family held a private burial at Massachusetts National Cemetery in Bourne and will announce a memorial service.

For years, Mr. Cole spoke sparingly about that night at the Cocoanut Grove. As commemorations brought fire survivors together decades later, he began to open up.

The National Fire Protection Association recorded video interviews with survivors in 2012 — 70 years after the tragedy.

Mr. Cole recalled in his interview that he wasn’t downstairs in the Melody Lounge that night because of the post-football game crowds, even though it “was my favorite place. It was nice, quiet – piano player, a woman singing, telling jokes. Constant entertainment.”

That decision may have saved his life, because so many died elsewhere in the nightclub.

When he realized the building was on fire, he initially gathered up his expensive tap shoes and a “beautiful camel hair coat that was in style — brand new!”

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Then a man burst into his dressing room and broke through a window to escape to the roof. Mr. Cole dropped everything and followed, along with several chorus girls.

During a 2013 ceremony, when the street where the nightclub had stood was renamed Cocoanut Grove Lane, Mr. Cole spoke of the role good fortune played in his survival.

“Like I say, I was very lucky,” he told the crowd. “A lot of people didn’t make it. God rest their souls.”


Bryan Marquard can be reached at bryan.marquard@globe.com.