Lady Romeo: The Radical and Revolutionary Life of Charlotte Cushman, America’s First Celebrity

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.

Tana Wojczuk by Beowulf Sheehan

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.

Angel of Waters (Wikimedia Commons)

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.”

Charlotte Cushman. Wikimedia Commons

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.”

The Pretty One

          Born with cerebral palsy, for much of her life Keah Brown longed for normalcy, hating the disability which she believed defined her in the eyes of others as well as herself.

          “It’s very painful when people treat me differently,” says Brown, author of the recently released The Pretty One:  On Life, Pop Culture, Disability, and Other Reasons to Fall in Love with Me. “Black people with disabilities are all but invisible. We simply don’t exist.”

          Brown, whose cerebral palsy impacts the right side of her body, also suffers from seasonal depression, chronic migraines and anxiety. But despite all this, she also learned not to stand down.

          “I never gave anybody the chance to say anything to me, I showed I wouldn’t back down,” she says, “I put forth a front that if you say anything to me, I’m going to say it back.”

          She also, encouraged by her mother, started writing her thoughts and emotions into poems and short stories at a young age.

          “My mom was really adamant that I finish school and also making sure I had every opportunity to just be a kid,” she says.

          All this helped Brown discover her place in the world and an acceptance of herself and a way of dealing with others.  It’s a journey of growth and shedding feelings of powerlessness.  For most of her life she hated mirrors but now that she embraces who she is, she no longer avoids them. Such empowerment led her to create the hashtag #DisabledAndCute. She also is a contributor to such magazines as Harper’s Bazaar, Marie Claire and Teen Vogue.

          Brown describes her book as a collection of essays about the idea that we’re on a journey to joy.

“With this book, people can see my journey and I really hope people can take things from I and to look at their own lives,” says Brown. “I wanted to be sure to tell the whole story, to create a kinship with others. By reading books like these outside of our experiences, we could learn so much about other people and to open us up.”

Cerebral palsy sometimes impacts Brown’s ability to write on certain days.

“Sometimes I don’t have the energy, I have pain, so when I have those days, I take breaks or I’ll write on my phone using an app,” she says.  “But I try to get something done every day.”  

Brown is already focusing on her next book. She’d like to write fiction which Brown describes as her first love.

In the meantime, she encourages all of us to listen to people, whether they’re disabled or not. And always continue on despite the odds.

“We all have bad days—all of us,” she says. “I try to go forward though, no matter what.”

Ifyougo:

What:

When: September 25 at 6:30 p.m.

Where: American Writers Museum,180 N. Michigan Avenue, 2nd Floor, Chicago, IL

Cost: Free for members; $12 for non-members.

FYI: ASL Interpretation will be provided at this event; let the museum know how they can make event more comfortable by contacting them or RSVP at general@americanwritersmuseum.org or (312) 374-8790.

The Library Book by Susan Orlean

Susan Orlean’s newest book, The Library Book (Simon & Schuster, $28), is about a fire and a library but like all things this New York Times bestselling author writes (The Orchid Thief, Rin Tin Tin), it’s so much more. A lover of libraries since she was very young, Orlean had been toying with the idea of writing about the subject when her son, then six-years-old, announced that his class assignment was to write about a city employee and instead of the typical fireman or policeman interview, he wanted to write about a librarian.Susan Orlean_credit Noah FecksSusan Orlean_credit Noah Fecks         Then, after moving to Los Angeles, Orlean was at the Los Angeles Central Public Library when the librarian opened a book, took a sniff and announced that you could still smell the smoke. Orlean asked if that was from a time when smoking was allowed. The answer was no, instead the aroma dated back to April 29, 1986 when an inferno blazed for seven hours, reaching 2500 degrees. It took half of the Los Angeles’s firefighting resources to extinguish the blaze and by then flames and water had destroyed 400,000 books and damaged another 700,000.
“It was the combination of all of these that gave me the final push; it was as if I was being nudged, repeatedly, to look at libraries and find a narrative about them to write,” says Orlean, a staff writer at The New Yorker and author of seven books. “Learning about the fire was definitely the final nudge that made me sure this was the story I wanted to tell.”

But how to tell the story? For Orlean, who is obsessive about details and research—it took her almost as long to write the book as it did to rebuild the library—she had to figure out her focus.

“That’s exactly what the challenge was–it was a topic that was both broad and deep, with so much history and so many ways I could pursue it,” she says. “I finally decided to treat it as a browse through a library, with stops in different ‘departments’ of the story, such as the history, the fire, the present day, my own library memories. By visualizing the story that way I was able to move through the topic and engage as many aspects of it as I could.”

Her attention to details, both past and present is amazing and intriguing. We learn that Mary Foy, only 18, became the head of LAPL and also, because the fire was set by an arsonist, she delves into previous book burnings such as when in 213 B.C. Chinese emperor Qin Shi Huang ordered any history book he didn’t agree with be destroyed. The act, says Orlean, resulted in over four hundred scholars being buried alive.

In keeping with her compulsive exploration, Orlean even tried burning a book herself, just to see what happens and how it is done.

Asked to name her favorite library, Orlean mentions the Bertram Woods branch library in Shaker Heights, Ohio.

“That’s where I fell in love with libraries and became a passionate reader,” she says. “Of course, I’ll always feel a special attachment to the L.A. Public Library, because of the book, and it’s a great library to be in love with.”

Orlean also hopes people appreciate the gifts library give us.

“I want people to think about the nature of memory, both individual memory and common memory,” she says. “Our individual memories are as rich as a library, full of volumes of information and vignettes and fantasies. And our common memory is our libraries, where all the stories of our culture reside. I love reminding people of the value of both.”

Ifyougo:

What: Susan Orlean discusses her new book followed by a book signing.

When: November 13th at 6 pm

Where: Cindy Pritzker Auditorium, Harold Washington Library Center, Chicago Public Library, 400 S. State Street, Chicago IL

Cost: Free

FYI: (312) 747-4300; chipublib.org

 

A Cloud in The Shape of a Girl

Intrigued by the passage of time, the choices we make and the constraints life forces upon us, Jean Thompson, a New York Times bestseller and National Book Award finalist author, let a swirl of happenings and thoughts combine to create her latest novel, A Cloud in The Shape of a Girl (Simon & Schuster 2018; $26.00).Jean Thompson_c_Marion Ettlinger“The inspiration for the book came at me from different directions,” she says. “I was interested in how different generations pass on their memories, what the context of our day-to-day life is and how we choose to remember our past. At the time I was putting this all together, there were all these violent family episodes in the news and that played a part too. As a sidebar, so did the unearthing of my grandmother’s 1922 Rockford College yearbook and my grandfather’s from Lombard High School in 1912.”

Using one family in a time span from World War II to now, Thompson follows the changing American culture over the years as seen through the lives of three women—mother, daughter and granddaughter living in an unnamed Midwestern college town (note: Thompson lives in Urbana, Illinois), dealing with the cards they’ve been dealt and yearning for so much more.

“For some of these women, the choices are made for them,” says Thompson. “Evelyn, the grandmother can’t achieve what she wants and so settles. Laura, the mother, always wanted to be have a family, but as she says, ‘just not the family I have.’ And Grace has endless options, but still struggles.”

It’s a melancholic novel at times but exceptionally well-written, showing the ties and love binding three generations of women together and the need for all of us to avoid repeating the past by studying the history of those we love as well as ourselves and making decisions including what to leave behind and what we need to go forward to achieve what we desire.

Ifyougo:

What: Jean Thompson in conversation with award-winning author Beth Finke about Thompson’s new novel, A Cloud in the Shape of a Girl. This event will also include a reading and book-signing.

When: Thursday, October 11 at 7pm

Where: Women & Children First, 5233 North Clark St., Chicago, IL

FYI: 773-769.9299; womenandchildrenfirst

 

Ohio: A Novel

He was a successful journalist, but Stephen Markley says the arc of his career was leading him in a different direction than his ultimate dream—to be a novelist. While many of us would have just continued with the flow of success, Markley instead signed up to attend the Iowa Writer’s Workshop at the University of Iowa, among the most prestigious of writing programs. But the next step was to write a novel and though it took almost five years for Markley to reach his goal the effort and time were well worth it as his recently published novel, Ohio: A Novel (Simon & Schuster 2018; $27), is garnering great reviews.Stephen Markley credit Michael Amico (smaller version)The The book tells the story of four friends who meet up years after graduating high school in an attempt to sort out issues from their past, mend relationships and come to an understanding about how and why they’ve changed in the intervening years.  Their lives also parallel the transformation of their home town, the fictional New Canaan based in part on Mt. Vernon, Ohio where Markley grew up.

“New Canaan is not exactly Mt. Vernon though I certainly borrowed freely and shamelessly from there, particularly from my high school and it wasn’t difficult for me to access what it felt like to come from a town like New Canaan, to move away and return, to gossip about what’s been going on, to drink till the bars kick you out when you’re back home,” says Markley. “I wanted to explicate how I grew up and the monumental changes I’ve seen since 9/11 and how they impacted the place where I lived and the lives of those I knew.”

Describing his book as both a murder and social mystery as well as a ghost story, Markley says the book is about “big things.” These includes the opiate crisis, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Great Recession, the loss of good paying union jobs which catapulted many workers out of the middle class and, ultimately, how dramatically New Canaan, like so many real places, morphed from prosperity into a rustbelt relic.

Markley was a senior in high school when the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001 occurred. Suddenly everything changed and life became totally different.

“There were military recruiters everywhere and everyone was talking to them about enlisting and many people I know signed up,” says Markley. “My approach in creating characters was taking inspiration from those I knew but not taking people I knew—I didn’t want to copy people but to use stories to help form the people in my book. By doing so, they became real to me,  When choosing the fate of my characters, I struggled, going back and forth as to what happens to them. They’re part of the story I wanted to tell.”

Ifyougo

What: Talk, Q&A, Signing with Stephen Markley

When: Thursday, August 23 at 6 p.m.

Where: Barnes & Noble, 1130 North State St., Chicago, IL

Cost: Free

FYI: (312) 280-8155; stores.barnesandnoble.com/store/2922

 

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