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The crown was made of pale green laurel, fit for a Caesar, and tied with a white ribbon to symbolize royalty. A handsome young actor carried it onstage on a cushion of purple velvet. Charlotte had chosen a simple dress for the occasion, in a gray silk that matched the steel in her hair. Now in her late fifties, Charlotte had already spent a lifetime being judged by the press, who found her “lantern jaw” ugly but her performances “electrifying.” One friend said her mouth was like “the Arc de Triomphe” (it was both a jibe and a compliment). As she greeted the audience, her large, deep-set gray eyes lit up with pleasure.
“She is the rage. Gentlemen reproduce the color of her favorite mulberry morning gown in their scarves and cravats—ladies emulate each other in exactly copying the motion of her hips as she walks the stage,” reported the New York Tribune, “the press follow her from the first preparatory ‘hem!’ of her entrance to the final movement of her embroidered handkerchief as she soothes the tragedy-startled rouge upon her cheek.”
It was November 1874, and it felt as though all New York City were crowded into Booth’s Theatre for Charlotte Cushman’s farewell performance. An enormous crystal chandelier presided over the grand room, the beautifully dressed men and women crushed and breathless below. Edwin Booth, who owned the theatre, had hung red, white, and blue drapery in honor of Charlotte, the “American Queen of Tragedy.” New York’s wealthy, famous, and powerful sat in the box seats, crushed against blue velvet, or leaned, smoking, against Grecian pillars that shone richly with golden gilt. Politicians joined socialites and actors: Governor of New York John Adams Dix; Governor-elect Samuel Tilden; Mayor Havemeyer and his successor, William Wickham, who was negotiating with the French over how much their Statue of Liberty should cost New Yorkers; railroad magnate Cornelius Vanderbilt; and Peter Cooper, inventor of the steam engine and founder of Cooper Union. Above them dangled “clinging vines and branches of artificial grapes.”
Standing on the apron of the stage, Charlotte could see thousands of fans crowding excitedly into every available space in the theatre. They stood along the aisles at the back, and in the galleries they leaned precariously over the railings. At a signal from the orchestra the audience turned their faces up to be beatified. Tonight, Booth’s Theatre was a place of worship.
Charlotte, however, could see the machinery behind the marvel. She could see the musicians watching her from the sunken orchestra pit, a new innovation in theatre. Booth’s boasted other new technologies, like a sprinkler system to douse overzealous special effects, hydraulic lifts to move scenery, electric spotlights, and forced-air heating.
That night, Charlotte bookended her career by performing the same role she had made her debut in forty years earlier, Lady Macbeth. Throughout her career she had given Shakespeare’s characters new life, keeping Shakespeare himself alive when his work could have become a dead thing on the page. She had become famous for her “breeches parts,” competing with male actors for men’s roles over four decades: Macbeth, Cardinal Wolsey, Henry VIII, Hamlet, and especially Romeo. Though often described as mannish, even “epicene,” Charlotte had dazzled fans of every gender as Romeo in her brilliant red-and-turquoise tunics and skintight leggings, with a dagger strapped to her thigh.
A professor from New York College read an ode by Richard Stoddard written in Charlotte’s honor. It was called “Salve Regina,” translated as “Hail Holy Queen,” and modeled on a hymnal of the same name. “Shakespeare!” the poem began, invoking the god of the theatre. “Honor to him and her who stands his grand interpreter. Stepped out of his broad page upon the living stage.”
Another speech, this time by American literary critic and poet William Cullen Bryant—white-haired and white-bearded, the elder statesman of arts and letters and the powerful editor of the New York Evening Post. To Bryant and the assembled elite of New York society, Charlotte was America’s “bright, particular star,” and its most profitable commodity. To the working-class audience who’d waited in line for hours to buy tickets, she was “our Charlotte.” Everyone was so familiar with Charlotte’s work Bryant did not have to list her famous roles by name. Then the Arcadia Club presented Charlotte with a large bouquet of flowers, and Bryant placed the laurel wreath on her head amid a maelstrom of applause. Thus it was that in America in 1874 a fifty-eight-year-old Shakespearean actress was crowned queen.
“I was, by a press of circumstances, thrown at an early age into a profession for which I had received no special education or training,” Charlotte explained to the audience. “I had already, though so young, been brought face to face with necessity.” She spoke for once in her own words, rather than those of the Bard. “To be thoroughly in earnest, intensely in earnest in all my thoughts and in all my actions, whether in my profession or out of it, became my one single idea,” she continued in that unusual voice: warm, woody, and worn to splinters by years of overwork. She paused as the audience applauded. “Art is an absolute mistress; she will not be coquetted with or slighted; she requires the most entire self-devotion, and she repays with grand triumphs.” The theatre erupted.
Charlotte left before the applause had died away. She gathered her things, and her maid, Sallie, collected her costume. Then they left the theatre through the back door, at 23rd Street near Fifth Avenue. Edwin Booth and his colleagues had built her a bower of pine branches, sweet and herbaceous, and lithe young actors lit her way with torches. They would likely have carried her on a palanquin, but she was too stout for that. Charlotte climbed into her carriage, and collapsed against Emma with relief. Emma Stebbins had been Charlotte’s wife in all but name for more than two decades, even putting her own promising career as a sculptor on hold to take care of Charlotte in her illness. The press referred to Emma as Charlotte’s “friend” or “companion,” but they called each other by other names. Early in their courtship, Charlotte began calling Emma her Juliet and signing letters “your Romeo.” To friends, Charlotte referred to herself as the man of the house. Though she and Emma were not, Charlotte admitted, as passionate as they once were—Charlotte had played Romeo to more than one Juliet since they’d been together—they had made homes in five cities and on several continents. They had survived war, infidelity, and Charlotte’s celebrity. Hopefully, they would now survive Charlotte’s fans.
Whipped into a frenzy of adulation, the crowd surged against the carriage and almost knocked it over. As the driver urged the horses forward, policemen ran ahead, trying unsuccessfully to untangle the snarled traffic. But more people kept arriving, jamming against streetcars and then pouring out into the road. Charlotte watched in amazement, and amusement, as several men took it upon themselves to unharness the horses from her carriage and pull it slowly through the oceanic crowd.
Charlotte was exhausted. For the past decade she had performed through gruesome pain, her body besieged by cancer. Only recently, she’d undergone another painful surgery to remove a tumor from her breast, flabbergasting friends by refusing to be sedated with chloroform. She made this decision after researching her condition in medical journals, some written in German, which explained the dangers of the drug, including cardiac arrest and death. But away from the stage she grew depressed, praying that God “take me quickly at any moment so that I am not allowed to torture those I love by letting them see my pain.”
Thankfully, her destination that night wasn’t far. Recently completed, the Fifth Avenue Hotel stood at the center of the new theatre district that now radiated from Madison Square Park. Overlooking the park, the massive hotel had been literally built over the bones of the poor, sitting on land that had once been a potter’s field and claiming a full city block from 23rd to 24th Street. It was also the unofficial political headquarters for politicians from Tammany Hall.
People with torches lined the carriage route in a long procession. Looking out from inside, Charlotte and Emma tried to guess how large the crowd was; Charlotte thought it was at least twenty-five thousand. When they arrived at the hotel, she was startled to see “rockets set up all the way along up to the front entrance,” and as she walked toward the entrance she heard “indescribable noise and confusion.” It reminded her of the fireworks she and Emma used to watch in Rome, at the Piazza del Popolo. “The whole big square in front of the Fifth Avenue Hotel was crammed with human beings,” she later wrote. “They could not move, they were so densely packed.”
Once inside, Charlotte and Emma squeezed along the corridors of the building, which were as crammed with people as the street. From their rooms they could still hear the crowd shouting for Charlotte. Then suddenly amid the noise and confusion a sweet sound rose up. A choir had assembled under their balcony and began to sing. In the heart of the largest, most exciting city in America, Charlotte, who had once had to cover up the fact that she was too poor to pay for her own costume, stood on the balcony and listened to New York serenade her. It was a farewell fit for American royalty.
“What is or can be the record of an actress, however famous?” Charlotte asked in her unfinished memoir. “Other artists—poets, painters, sculptors, musicians, all produce something which lives after them,” but not actors. Charlotte knew she would not live forever in the unreliable memories of her fellow Americans, but her legacy continued in the work of her contemporaries. Like many women of her time, her lasting impact could be found in the actions of those she inspired.
From girlhood she was taught that theatre was sinful, yet Charlotte Cushman became an actress and then America’s first celebrity. For much of Charlotte’s career theatre audiences were mainly men, and women were not allowed to attend the theatre alone. Yet she inspired passionate responses in both men and women. To men, she embodied the man they wanted to be, gallant, passionate, an excellent sword-fighter. To women, she was a romantic, daring figure, their Romeo.
American artists and writers who later became famous were starstruck by her, and she was a household name on two continents. Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote home to his wife, Sophia, to tell her that Charlotte Cushman was staying at his hotel. Walt Whitman was awed by the “towering grandeur of her genius.” In 1858 Louisa May Alcott wrote in her diary: “Saw Charlotte Cushman and had a stage-struck fit.” Charlotte’s talent even made Alcott wonder whether it was in acting, rather than writing, where her own talent lay. Alcott’s relatives, however, were horrified by the idea, and she soon gave it up, working “off my stage fever in a new story.” That story was a prototype for her novel Jo’s Boys, in which a young woman falls in love with an actress based on Charlotte Cushman.
After watching her wring the blood from her hands as Lady Macbeth, President Lincoln walked from the theatre to his desk, where he took up a draft of the Gettysburg Address and wrote about the boys he had sent to their deaths, resolving again “that these dead shall not have died in vain.”
Before Charlotte, America had no celebrities; now they manufacture them like blue jeans. She made a lasting impression on young women like Alcott, who saw her as a model of women’s independence and a symbol of their “incarnate power.”