Charlotte Cushman

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Charlotte Saunders Cushman
Charlotte Cushman ambrotype.jpg
Born(1816-07-23)July 23, 1816
DiedFebruary 18, 1876(1876-02-18) (aged 59)
Boston, Massachusetts, U.S.

Charlotte Saunders Cushman (July 23, 1816 – February 18, 1876) was an American stage actress. [1] Her voice was noted for its full contralto register, and she was able to play both male and female parts. She lived intermittently in Rome, in an expatriate colony of prominent artists and sculptors, some of whom became part of her tempestuous private life.


Early life

She was a descendant in the eighth generation from Pilgrim Robert Cushman, who helped organize the Mayflower voyage and brought the family name to the United States on the Fortune in 1621. Robert Cushman was a leader and a great advocate for emigration to America. He became a preacher in the colonies and was known for giving the first sermon in America. Charlotte's father, Elkanah, rose from poverty to be a successful West Indian merchant. Charlotte was a remarkably bright, sportive child, excelling over her schoolmates and developing a voice of remarkable compass and richness, with a full contralto register. Two friends of her father, one of them John Mackay, in whose piano factory Jonas Chickering was then foreman, provided her with musical instruction. Cushman was forced to take on serious responsibilities at a very young age. When she was thirteen, her father was beset by serious financial troubles and shortly thereafter died, leaving his family with nearly nothing. This caused Charlotte to seek some way to bring income to her family. Although she was an outstanding student and achieved much academically, she left school to pursue a career in the opera.

Robert Cushman (1577–1625) was an important leader and organiser of the Mayflower voyage in 1620, serving as Chief Agent in London for the Leiden Separatist contingent from 1617 to 1620 and later for Plymouth Colony until his death in 1625 in England. His historically famous booklet titled 'Cry of a Stone' was written about 1619 and finally published in 1642, many years after his death in 1625. The work is an important pre-sailing Pilgrim account of the Leiden group's religious lives.

<i>Mayflower</i> Famous ship of the 17th century

The Mayflower was an English ship that transported the first English Puritans, known today as the Pilgrims, from Plymouth, England to the New World in 1620. There were 102 passengers, and the crew is estimated to have been about 30, but the exact number is unknown. The ship has become a cultural icon in the history of the United States. The Pilgrims signed the Mayflower Compact prior to leaving the ship and establishing Plymouth Colony, a document which established a rudimentary form of democracy with each member contributing to the welfare of the community. There was a second ship named Mayflower which made the London to Plymouth, Massachusetts voyage several times.

In the fall of 1621 the Fortune was the second English ship destined for Plymouth Colony in the New World, one year after the voyage of the Pilgrim ship Mayflower. Financed as the Mayflower was by Thomas Weston and others of the London-based Merchant Adventurers, Fortune was to transport thirty-five settlers to the colony on a ship that was much smaller than Mayflower. The Fortune required two months to prepare for the voyage and once underway, reached Cape Cod on 9 November 1621 and the colony itself in late November. The ship was unexpected by those in Plymouth colony and although it brought useful settlers, many of whom were young men, it brought no supplies, further straining the limited food resources of the colony. The ship only stayed in the colony about three weeks, returning to England in December loaded with valuable furs and other goods. But when nearing England, instead of heading to the English Channel, a navigation error caused the ship to sail south-east to the coast of France, where it was overtaken and seized by a French warship.

When Mrs. Joseph Wood visited Boston in 1834, Capt. Mackay introduced Cushman, who sang with her in two of her concerts. Through Mrs. Wood's influence she became a pupil of James G. Maeder, a ladies' musical director, and under his instruction made her first appearance in opera in the Tremont Theatre as the Countess Almaviva in The Marriage of Figaro , with great success, and her second as Lucy Bertram in Guy Mannering . She went with his company to New Orleans, where her voice, which had been strained by the soprano parts assigned to her, suddenly failed. Seeking the counsel of James H. Caldwell, manager of the principal theatre of New Orleans, she was advised by him and by Barton, the tragedian, to become an actress and was given the part of Lady Macbeth to study. She made her dramatic debut in it, with complete success, in 1835. [2]

Mary Ann Paton Scottish vocalist

Mary Ann Paton (1802–1864) married names including Mary Ann Wood, was a Scottish vocalist.

Tremont Theatre, Boston former theater (1827–1843) in Boston, Massachusetts, United States

The Tremont Theatre (1827–1843) on 88 Tremont Street was a playhouse in Boston. A group of wealthy Boston residents financed the building's construction. Architect Isaiah Rogers designed the original Theatre structure in 1827 in the Greek Revival style. The playhouse opened on 24 September 1827.

<i>The Marriage of Figaro</i> opera by Mozart with a libretto in Italian by Lorenzo Da Ponte

The Marriage of Figaro, K. 492, is an opera buffa in four acts composed in 1786 by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, with an Italian libretto written by Lorenzo Da Ponte. It premiered at the Burgtheater in Vienna on 1 May 1786. The opera's libretto is based on a stage comedy by Pierre Beaumarchais, La folle journée, ou le Mariage de Figaro, which was first performed in 1784. It tells how the servants Figaro and Susanna succeed in getting married, foiling the efforts of their philandering employer Count Almaviva to seduce Susanna and teaching him a lesson in fidelity.

Stage/theater career

Charlotte Cushman as Meg Merrilees Charlotte Saunders Cushman - Brady-Handy.jpg
Charlotte Cushman as Meg Merrilees

Cushman made her initial professional appearance at age eighteen on April 8, 1835 at Boston's Tremont Theatre. [3] She then went to New Orleans where she performed successfully for one season, after which she returned to New York City to act under contract with the Bowery Theatre. She scored rave reviews in Albany, New York for her portrayal of Lady Macbeth. [4]

New Orleans Largest city in Louisiana

New Orleans is a consolidated city-parish located along the Mississippi River in the southeastern region of the U.S. state of Louisiana. With an estimated population of 391,006 in 2018, it is the most populous city in Louisiana. Serving as a major port, New Orleans is considered an economic and commercial hub for the broader Gulf Coast region of the United States.

Bowery Theatre former theatre (1822-1929) in Manhattan, New York City, United States, destroyed by fire and rebuilt numerous times

The Bowery Theatre was a playhouse on the Bowery in the Lower East Side of Manhattan, New York City. Although it was founded by rich families to compete with the upscale Park Theatre, the Bowery saw its most successful period under the populist, pro-American management of Thomas Hamblin in the 1830s and 1840s. By the 1850s, the theatre came to cater to immigrant groups such as the Irish, Germans, and Chinese. It burned down four times in 17 years, a fire in 1929 destroying it for good. Although the theatre's name changed several times, it was generally referred to as the "Bowery Theatre".

Lady Macbeth character in Macbeth

Lady Macbeth is a leading character in William Shakespeare's tragedy Macbeth (c.1603–1607). The wife of the play's tragic hero, Macbeth, Lady Macbeth goads her husband into committing regicide, after which she becomes queen of Scotland. She dies off-stage in the last act, an apparent suicide.

The Cushman sisters, Charlotte and Susan, as Romeo and Juliet in 1846 Harvard Theatre Collection - Charlotte and Susan Cushman TCS 45.jpg
The Cushman sisters, Charlotte and Susan, as Romeo and Juliet in 1846

By 1839, her younger sister Susan Webb Cushman became an actress, and at the age of 14 had married Nelson Merriman. Her husband abandoned her when she was pregnant and Charlotte cared for her sister. The two sisters became famous for playing Romeo and Juliet together, with Charlotte playing Romeo and Susan playing Juliet. [5] [4]

Susan Webb Cushman was a Boston, Massachusetts-born American actress, the younger sister of established actress Charlotte Cushman.

<i>Romeo and Juliet</i> tragedy by William Shakespeare

Romeo and Juliet is a tragedy written by William Shakespeare early in his career about two young star-crossed lovers whose deaths ultimately reconcile their feuding families. It was among Shakespeare's most popular plays during his lifetime and along with Hamlet, is one of his most frequently performed plays. Today, the title characters are regarded as archetypal young lovers.

In 1843, Cushman became involved romantically with Rosalie Sully, daughter of artist Thomas Sully. By 1844, the romance had ended. She began traveling abroad, acting in theater, and Sully died shortly thereafter. She was also very close to the writer Anne Hampton Brewster around 1844 but social pressure from Brewster's brother meant that they had to part. Brewster reminisced about their idyllic time together in letters in 1849. [6] She eventually left a portrait of Cushman by Thomas Sully as a bequest to the Library of Philadelphia. [7]

Rosalie Sully American painter

Rosalie Sully was a nineteenth century American painter who had a lesbian relationship with Charlotte Cushman.

Thomas Sully American painter

Thomas Sully was an American portrait painter. Born in Great Britain, he lived most of his life in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. He painted in the style of Thomas Lawrence. His subjects included national political leaders, such as presidents Thomas Jefferson and John Quincy Adams, and General Marquis de Lafayette, and many leading musicians and composers.

Anne Hampton Brewster American writer

Anne Maria Hampton Brewster was one of America's first female foreign correspondents, publishing primarily in Philadelphia, New York and Boston newspapers. She also published novels, poems and numerous short stories.

Charlotte Cushman and Matilda Hays Charlotte Cushman and Matilda Hays.jpg
Charlotte Cushman and Matilda Hays

In 1848, Cushman met journalist, writer and part-time actress Matilda Hays. The two women became close friends, and after a short amount of time and some correspondence, they became involved in an affair. For the next ten years the two would be together almost constantly. They became known for dressing alike, and in Europe were publicly known as a couple. [4]

In 1849, Cushman returned to the United States and by 1852 had decided to retire from the stage. She took up residence with Hays in Rome, Italy. They began living in an American expatriate community there, made up mostly of the many lesbian artists and sculptors of the time. Cushman used her notoriety to promote the works of African American/Native American sculptor Edmonia Lewis, who had become a close friend and whose work Cushman greatly admired.

In 1854, Hays left Cushman for sculptor Harriet Hosmer, which launched a series of jealous interactions among the three women. Hays eventually returned to live with Cushman, but the tensions between her and Cushman would never be repaired. By late 1857, Cushman was secretly involved with sculptor Emma Stebbins. One night while Cushman was writing a note, Hays walked in on her. Suspecting that the note was to Stebbins, Hays demanded to see it. Although Cushman maintained that the note was not to Stebbins, she refused to show it to Hays. The altercation that followed was explosive. Hays became enraged and began chasing Cushman around the house, pounding her with her fists at every opportunity. The relationship ended immediately and Hays moved out. She then sued Cushman, stating in her claim that she had sacrificed her own career to support Cushman's career and therefore was due a certain payment. Cushman paid her an unknown sum and the two women parted company forever. [4]

Poster advertising Cushman's appearance as Hamlet in February, 1861. Cushman in Hamlet poster.jpg
Poster advertising Cushman's appearance as Hamlet in February, 1861.

Emma Stebbins moved in with Cushman shortly after the break-up. Cushman traveled to America for a short tour a couple of months later. Although Cushman maintained that she was devoted to Stebbins, she became involved with another woman not long after her relationship with Stebbins began. Cushman met an 18-year-old actress, Emma Crow, the daughter of Wayman Crow, and fell for her. The two women began an affair, and Cushman often called her "my little lover".

An unfinished portrait of Cushman by Thomas Sully that was kept by Anne Hampton Brewster. Charlotte Cushman (Sully, 1843).jpg
An unfinished portrait of Cushman by Thomas Sully that was kept by Anne Hampton Brewster.

Before her departure to Italy, Cushman offered a farewell performance at the Washington Theater in the title role of Hamlet . The poster advertising her appearance describes her as "a lady universally acknowledged as the greatest living tragic actress". [8]

When Cushman returned to Italy, Crow followed. Not long after arriving in Italy, Crow attracted the attention of Cushman's nephew, Ned Cushman. In April 1861, Ned Cushman and Emma Crow married. [4]

She was friends with artists, writers and politicians; when she came to Washington, D.C. in the 1860s, she often stayed at the home of Secretary of State William Seward, with whom she was very close friends. In July 1861, Seward introduced her to President Abraham Lincoln, who told her that Macbeth was his favorite Shakespearean play and that he hoped someday to see her in the role of Lady Macbeth. In 1863 she again returned to the United States, appearing on several occasions for the benefit of the Sanitary Commission. Lincoln saw her perform in Macbeth in October at Grover's Theatre with his family. During the last six years of her life Cushman developed a remarkable ability as a dramatic reader, giving scenes from Shakespeare, ballad poetry, dialect poems and humorous pieces with a success not less decided than her earlier dramatic triumphs. In 1871, after a residence in Europe, she resumed her career in the United States as a reader, besides fulfilling several dramatic engagements. [2]

Her farewell appearance was announced at least seven times in as many different years. Her final performance in New York was at Booth's theatre, where she played the part of Lady Macbeth. She took a similar demonstrative farewell in the same character in Philadelphia and other cities and her career closed in Boston, at the Globe Theatre, on 15 May 1875. After a reading tour to Rochester, Buffalo, and Syracuse, she retired with a large fortune to her villa at Newport, where she was seized with her final illness. In October she went to Boston and placed herself under medical treatment. [2]

Breast cancer

In 1869, Cushman underwent treatment for breast cancer. Stebbins ignored her own sculpting career and devoted all of her time to caring for Cushman. [9]


Mount Auburn Cemetery, Cambridge, MA I Mount Auburn Cemetery, Cambridge, MA, USA 6 (2).jpg
Mount Auburn Cemetery, Cambridge, MA

Charlotte Cushman died of pneumonia [9] in her hotel room on the third floor at the Parker House Hotel in Boston in 1876, aged 59, and was interred in Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, Massachusetts. [2] [10]

In 1915 she was elected to the Hall of Fame for Great Americans. [11]


She made England her home for several years, becoming friends with the author Geraldine Jewsbury, who is said to have based a character on Cushman in her 1848 novel The Half Sisters. There is a one-woman play about her titled The Last Reading of Charlotte Cushman written by Carolyn Gage.

Emma Stebbins' statue The Angel of the Waters, the angel above the fountain in Central Park's Bethesda Terrace, is said to be inspired by Cushman. [12]

In 1907, the Charlotte Cushman Club was founded and named in her honor. In 2000, it became the Charlotte Cushman Foundation.

Her Charlestown home is a site on the Boston Women's Heritage Trail. [13]

Notes and references

  1. Clement, Clara Erskine (1882). Charlotte Cushman. Boston: JR Osgood.
  2. 1 2 3 4 Wikisource-logo.svg  Wilson, J. G.; Fiske, J., eds. (1900). "Cushman, Charlotte Saunders"  . Appletons' Cyclopædia of American Biography . New York: D. Appleton.
  3. Billy J. Harbin, Kim Marra, and Robert A. Schanke, The Gay and Lesbian Theatrical Legacy: A Biographical Dictionary of Major Figures in American Stage History in the Pre-Stonewall Era (Ann Arbor, University of Michigan Press, 2005), 126.
  4. 1 2 3 4 5 Charlotte Cushman biography on Accessed online 9 November 2006
  5. "Charlotte and Susan Cushman as Romeo and Juliet".
  6. "That's So Gay: Outing Early America". Retrieved 2017-09-15.
  7. "LCP Art & Artifacts". Retrieved 2017-09-15.
  8. See the poster Image:Cushman in Hamlet poster.jpg.
  9. 1 2 Emma Stebbins biography Archived 2007-11-09 at the Wayback Machine on Accessed online 29 December 2009
  10. Wilson, Scott. Resting Places: The Burial Sites of More Than 14,000 Famous Persons, 3d ed.: 2 (Kindle Locations 10758-10759). McFarland & Company, Inc., Publishers. Kindle Edition
  11. Notable American Women, 1607–1950: A Biographical Dictionary, Volume 2, by Edward T. James, Janet Wilson James, Paul S. Boyer, Radcliffe College
  12. "Lesser-Known Tales of the Old Croton Aqueduct: The Angel of the Waters," Friends of the Old Croton Aqueduct, Issue 47.
  13. "Charlestown". Boston Women's Heritage Trail.

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