Charlotte Cushman: Pioneer Protean

Born July 23: 19th century singer and actress Charlotte Cushman (1816-1876), first native-born star of the American stage, known for playing for a wide variety of male roles in addition to traditional female ones, and for a colorful love life, marked by a string of prominent same-sex lovers.

Cushman was born and bred in Boston. the daughter of a wealthy merchant and a descendant of the Pilgrim Robert Cushman, one of the organizers of the Mayflower voyage, through he first arrived in Plymouth on the Fortune in 1621.

Cushman began singing opera professionally as a teenager to earn money for her family after her father died. She debuted at Boston’s Tremont Theatre in 1835, appearing in such works as The Marriage of Figaro. After Boston she played a season in New Orleans, where her singing voice gave out, necessitating a career move to the dramatic stage, which she launched at New York’s Bowery Theatre.  Her first theatrical success came with a production of Guy Mannering (an adaptation of a novel by Sir Walter Scott. Her role in that play Meg Merrilies became one of the most popular in her repertoire. She was also highly esteemed for her Lady MacBeth and her Nancy in an adaptation of Dickens’ Oliver Twist. In 1842 Cushman managed the Walnut Street Theatre in Philadelphia. Famous actors she shared the stage with included William Macready and Edwin Forrest.

Cushman was also well prized for her gallery of Protean, or male roles. In 1839, she played Romeo to her sister Susan Webb Cushman’s Juliet.  Other male parts included the title role in Hamlet and Cardinal Wolsey in Henry VIII. 

1843 portrait of Cushman by Thomas Sully

19th century sexuality can be difficult to parse out. There was no vocabulary to describe same-sex relations, and lesbianism can be particularly difficult to be definitive about, as female sexual pleasure was literally believed not to exist. Even if it were, intimacy was usually written about in vague, coded language, even among heterosexuals in the Victorian era. Nevertheless, it seems pretty clear (and now generally accepted) what Cushman’s orientation was. Her life contained no liaisons with men, and a long string of close, intense friendships with women. Individuals she was involved with included Rosalie Sully, daughter of the painter Thomas Sully (1843-44); writer Anne Hampton Brewster (1944); journalist Matilda Hays (1848-1857); and sculptor Emma Stebbins (1857-1876, Cushman’s death). She also had a brief affair with 18 year old actress Emma Crow, daughter of St. Louis businessman, philanthropist and politician Wayman Crow. Emma would go on to marry Charlotte’s nephew Ned Cushman. 

Boston marriage: Cushman and Hays. The two were said to dress alike wherever they went

From 1852 through 1870, Cushman lived primarily in Europe, chiefly in Rome and London. In Rome she was part of a colony of expatriate American artists. In addition to some of the lovers we have named, Cushman’s circle also included Harriet Hosmer (who had an affair with Hays in 1854), writer Grace Greenwood (Sara Jane Lippincott), and sculptor Edmonia Lewis, who was African American/Native American and spent almost the entirety of her career, for obvious reasons, in Rome. Cushman was a major promoter of Lewis’s career. Stebbins, Hosmer and Lewis were part of the group of female sculptors called by Nathaniel Hawthorne and Henry James “The White Marmorean Flock” — the second adjective signifying a “marble like quality”, which doesn’t sound any more complimentary than does the noun “flock”.

In 1869, Cushman developed breast cancer. Stebbins essentially sacrificed her career to nurse her until the end of her days. In 1871 she built a mansion in Newport, Rhode Island, designed by Richard Morris Hunt. It was known as “The Corners”. This is where she spent the balance of her life until the very end.

Also during her last years, she returned to performing, not in plays, but on the lecture circuit, giving dramatic readings of monologues, poems, and other writings. When her illness became very advanced she went to Boston for treatment, and that is where she expired in 1876.

In 1907 Lydia Elliot Morris founded the Charlotte Cushman Club in Philadelphia, which provided respectable lodgings for touring actresses. In 1999, the club finally closed and its financial assets established the Charlotte Cushman Foundation.