If the soul and the ego were objects we could look at, the soul would be a translucent heart beating.
On researching a nineteenth-century actress and her risk-taking, gender-bending life.
Few people know that the most seductive, emotional Romeo was, in fact, a woman. The same woman who was the inspiration for the muscular, striding angel at the top of the Bethesda Fountain sculpture at Central Park. She was Charlotte Cushman—the queer nineteenth-century actress long obscured by history, conjured to life in Tana Wojczuk’s new biography, Lady Romeo: The Radical and Revolutionary Life of Charlotte Cushman, America’s First Celebrity (Simon and Schuster).
Cushman had been the biggest star of the New York City theater scene; Walt Whitman had raved about her but figuring out the story of Cushman’s life—and of her erasure from popular history—became a decades long project for Wojczuk, who wrote a biography that not only illuminates the life of the actress, but also a moment in US history, and the swift changes of sexual and culture mores. Wojczuk captures the scope of Cushman’s charisma, evident in the detailed descriptions of her performances, and in the devotion the actress won, both from audiences and from her romantic partners.
People often remark on how quickly American notions about gender and sexuality have been transformed in recent years. Cushman’s story—both her adventurous life and her remarkable erasure—is a reminder of how much longer the struggles for queer freedom have been going on, the many forms they have taken, and of the cultural forces of conservatism that shape-shift and go dormant, but rise again and again.
Rachel Riederer My first question about Charlotte Cushman is how she went from being so famous, to being virtually unknown in our time. (Then we’ll back up and talk about how she became so celebrated in the first place.)
Tana Wojczuk When I first found out about her, and realized how famous she was, it was like a detective story. I almost thought of it as a murder mystery—who killed Charlotte Cushman by wiping her from the historical record? It seemed intentional, not just a case of someone fading in historical memory. Sure, there’s the fact that the theater is hard to keep a record of. One of the things that makes it so magical is that the audience and the actors are having this live experience together. If you record a performance, or you watch a movie together, it’s not the same thing. But then the audience leaves the theater, and they’ll remember one or two moments, but they don’t fully recall the whole production.
So, the history is hard. Theater is very fragile, in that sense. Actors like Cushman are really dependent on historians and biographers to record them and to write their stories. And the timing was such that, when Cushman died, in 1876, the year of the American Centennial, an era had started that was in many ways more conservative than the one she had come up in. Because after the Civil War and with the influence of Queen Victoria and her prudish morals, the culture in America and in Europe became much more socially restrained. And so, the sort of prudish Victorian biographers who came after her found her a very inconvenient figure.
RR What made her so inconvenient? What did she do that was so radical?
TW There’s a good example from an obituary, right after she died. She had played men onstage and after her death, thousands of people were in the street holding a vigil in her honor. And this critic was writing, Yes, she was great, but thankfully women won’t have to debase themselves by playing men anymore.
The title of the book, and the focal point of Cushman as Romeo came about in my writing process because there were so many reviews of that performance that were just so interesting. One of them talked about her as a better man than most men, which acknowledged the fact that it was a performance—that being a man is a performance.
TW That was what she was beloved for. That’s why people were trying to cram into her funeral to say goodbye to her. She was inconvenient because she was very masculine. And she critiqued masculinity in her portrayals of men. Her Romeo, for example, was very passionate, had very deep feelings—and many men found that liberating and wonderful, and many women found it sexy. However, some people found it very threatening to think of masculinity in this way. It was viewed as something more distasteful in 1876 than in was in, say, 1846, when she first was playing these parts.
RR Did Cushman have contemporaries? Were there other female actors playing men’s roles at that time?
TW Ellen Terry was a famous competitor of hers. And before her, Sarah Siddons, the great British actress, had played men’s roles. But the big difference between Cushman and these other actors was that they were very traditionally feminine, and their portrayals of men were more—not a gag, exactly—but they were more intended to titillate male audience members, who got to see these women in these short tunics and tights, and thought the idea of a woman sword fighting was hilarious. Whereas Cushman looked more masculine, and she played these roles more quote-unquote “straight.” She really embodied the male aspect of her character.
And she was a great swordsperson. She was really good onstage in those fights. There’s a great anecdote where she was playing Romeo, and someone in the audience coughed or farted or made some kind of rude comment. She stopped the play, escorted Juliet off the stage, and then told the audience to kick this guy out of the theater. They lifted him up and carried him out. Then she resumed the performance.
RR That is real charisma.
TW Real charisma. The characteristics that she found admirable, and that we still find so admirable—courage, and truth telling, and fearlessness when someone is being a bully—were male characteristics at the time. And so, by becoming a man, she could embody all these qualities that she found so important. It was a true embodiment. It just so happened that she had to be a man to do that.
RR I wonder if you could talk a little bit about Cushman’s personal life. I’m curious about whether you see the same radicalism in her work showing up in her relationships.
TW Yeah—she was a lesbian, and I think she was what we would now call genderqueer. She would dress and act more masculine. She would dress from the top to the waist in men’s clothes.
For context, how normal was this in the 1840s and 1850s?
TW It’s complicated. Women did not wear pants. Amelia Bloomer became famous for wearing pants, which they nicknamed bloomers—she was ridiculed for it. Women weren’t allowed to have careers, they did not have access to higher education. And if they were married and made money, all their money would go to their husbands. They were socially and economically totally dependent on men and on the kindness of strangers. And so, it was very radical.
But, there is a big debate over how queerness was seen back then. It doesn’t show up in public documents. For a long time, people theorized that queerness just wasn’t visible at all, except to people who were queer themselves. But I’ve seen myself, looking at letters and other correspondence, it’s obvious that people knew. The poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning met Cushman and her partner, Matilda Hayes, who everyone called Max. Browning wrote to her sister saying, These women, they look alike, they dress alike, they go everywhere together. Are they married? And her sister was like, Yeah, it’s pretty common. Obviously, this depended on the circle you were in—but it was acknowledged, it just wasn’t acknowledged in public documents. And even when Cushman and Hayes broke up, Hayes sued her for damages, for giving up part of her career. So it existed and was known. And now, scholars like Sharon Marcus, who wrote this great book Between Women, wrote that if you sidestep the public documents and focus on the letters and the private writing, you see that queerness was just as much part of people’s lives then as it is now.
The fact that it wasn’t written about publicly protected her, in a way. Cushman’s private life wasn’t written about, really, at all. Occasionally theater critics wrote that she went around dressed in men’s clothes or that she had a female “friend” who went with her everywhere, but they really focused on her performances. A lot of sexism still filters through in the criticism. Some wrote things like, she’s too ugly to be an actress, or they found her too emotional to play men’s roles. But Cushman had tremendous financial power, because audiences would pack the theaters to see her. And she used that power to buy her freedom. She moved to Rome and started an artists’ colony, where she could live more openly with her female partners than she did in America.
RR One of the things that stood out to me in the book is, there’s a little bit of a pattern in her romantic life, and after a while I thought, Oh, Charlotte is kind of a womanizer!
TW I think that operating outside of traditional norms of marriage and partnership, Cushman took some liberties. I don’t think her partners liked it, she definitely hurt people by philandering. But she also believed in marriage as a sacrament between the person and God, and she knew that she would not marry. She thought that if you marry, it’s really serious. And you don’t get divorced. And you can’t be with other people. Since Cushman wasn’t married, she looked at that as a bit of license. It doesn’t mean that her partners agreed with that perspective. They definitely didn’t always. She lived with her partner Emma Stubbens, and even though Cushman declared that she wasn’t married, they were partners for thirty years, and lived together and supported each other, financially and otherwise. But she cheated on Emma Stubbins with another woman, a nineteen-year-old actress, and in fact, she then married off that actress to her nephew.
That seems very seedy, but had she not done that, we would not have her letters—her lover, Emma Crow, is the one who preserved most of them—and she also wouldn’t have any descendants. She adopted her nephew as her son, and their children became her grandchildren and they inherited her estate. That is how she continued her lineage. She gave her name to this young woman by marrying her to her nephew and adopted son.
RR She really made a family.
TW She made a family, and it was really important to her, and she loved having children around, and wrote about them constantly in her letters.
RR You mentioned an artist colony in Rome. Tell us more.
TW I was really lucky to get a fellowship in Rome, and was able to go there and walk in her shoes. I saw that her first house was on the main drag, where all the shops were. And her second house was at the top of a hill, if you walk way up the Spanish Steps it’s at the top—she was literally moving up in the world. Her house was just down the street from the Medici house. When she was in Rome she lived with women artists and writers including Sara Jane Lippincott who was the first female overseas correspondent for the New York Times and Harriett Hosmer, a famous sculptor whose work can be seen (under more normal circumstances) at the Brooklyn Museum. They all lived together and supported each other, and she gave loans to lots of struggling artists. The people who had been there a long time didn’t love having them there, they thought they gave Americans a bad name. She went out riding in her men’s clothes, and she could go out with her female partners.
RR By that time Cushman was a true celebrity and really financially successful. What was her career like starting off? Did she have a big break that catapulted her from beginning in the theater to really making it?
TWAt this point all culture was European culture, and to be truly famous an American actor had to succeed in London. In the early part of her career she had been acting in New York and drawing huge crowds, but she still had to take whatever parts they gave her, she couldn’t demand a certain salary or cut of the ticket sales the way the successful male actors could. And so, on the advice of a friend, she secretly saved money, hid it from her mother, and bought a ticket for a ship to London. She couldn’t get work at first, then she convinced a theater manager to hire her, and she played Lady Macbeth, and that went over well. But what really catapulted her to the next level was the next move she made, which was taking this huge risk, of playing Romeo. She brought her sister over to play Juliet, and it was this production of her as Romeo and her sister as Juliet that made her a true star. They performed that for years together.
RR Can you talk about that Lady Macbeth performance, and about that role in general?
TW I would say she pretty much invented the way we see Lady Macbeth now, the modern version of the character. When Cushman was cast, she had just failed as a singer, and this was her first big acting role that really only established actresses usually played—it’s a very challenging part. Sarah Siddons had played that role, and she had just died, and everyone was nostalgic for her, so there were a lot of things stacked against Cushman at that moment. Lady Macbeth had usually been played as a sort of seductress, very feminine, very sexy. Cushman really changed all of that—she played it as a very physically powerful woman, who basically dominated and bullied her husband into murder. That’s really how we think of her now. Audiences loved it. It was also a big risk. She could have been hated for it—she could have been associated with this bloodthirsty, ambitious woman. But she was able to create enough distance between herself and the character that people really saw it as this incredible invention.
RR She was a real risk-taker and made a lot of bold choices over the years.
TWDefinitely. Her father was a merchant who also took a lot of risks and went bust doing it. Then he disappeared. So it’s interesting that Cushman would still be such a risk-taker—she had every reason to be very risk-averse. But then again, she also had a family to support, and the fire in her, ambition—there was really no other way for her to be.
Rachel Riederer is a science and culture writer, and is on the editorial staff at the New Yorker.
If the soul and the ego were objects we could look at, the soul would be a translucent heart beating.