A force of nature in her time, stage actress Charlotte Cushman who played both male and
female roles, was friends with Abraham Lincoln who admired her work. Indeed, she acted along side both Edwin and John Wilkes Booth and was said to have left a scar on the assassin’s neck that was later used to identify him as the president’s murderer.
Cushman was 58-years-old when on November 7, 1874 she gave her last performance in front of
thousands of fans in New York City. There should have been much to remember her by. She is Angel of Waters on top of Central Park’s Bethesda Fountain designed by her lover Emma Stebbins. This is no ordinary sculpture, Cushman soars above what is, at twenty-six feet high by ninety-six feet wide, one of New York’s largest fountains. But that was the kind of woman she was. She acted for more than 30 years traveling the world to appear on stage and it was publicly well-known that her lovers were female. Yet for some reason she slips from sight, almost lost to history until now, almost 160 years later, her vibrant life is captured in Tana Wojczuk’s new biography, Lady Romeo: The Radical and Revolutionary Life of Charlotte Cushman, America’s First Celebrity.
Wojczuk, a senior nonfiction editor at Guernica who teaches writing at New York University, first
became aware of Cushman when she was an aspiring actress, a passion she pursued starting at age
thirteen, and continued through college.
“Women often played men in the 18th and 19th centuries,” says Wojczuk who came across
Cushman’s name while researching women who had played Hamlet. “Most cross-dressing onstage was for comic effect or to titillate men who liked to ogle a woman’s legs. But Charlotte was a convincing man onstage. When I found out that she had also been one of the most famous women in the world I wanted to know why, and, like in a detective novel, to account for her disappearance.”
Cushman aimed for realism so much so that, according to Wojczuk, she was a pioneer of
method acting, visiting prostitutes in Five Points and exchanging clothes with them to prepare to
play a prostitute.
Reading fascinating books like this makes you wonder how many fascinating women—and
men—have vanished into the mists of time. Why, I wonder? ojczuk has a surprising answer.
“When she was at her height, American culture was remarkably diverse and experimental, still
figuring out what it would become,” she says. “There were successful all-black theatres in New York, for example, before well-connected white theatre owners had them shut down. Charlotte’s masculinity was acceptable on-stage, when viewed as a performance, and it helped argue for all gender as performance. But by the time she died in 1876, the American centennial, the postwar culture had clamped down, strictly policing public morality. Even though Charlotte helped create American culture, her role became inconvenient. She was a dangerous influence to young women now clamoring to go to college, to work, to vote. Even on the day she died Victorian critics tried to write her out of history. For a long time, they were successful.”