Who Was Charlotte Cushman?
To say that Charlotte Cushman was a nineteenth-century actress would not completely describe this talented and sometimes controversial woman. True, she was a fine actress. At the height of her career, she was considered America's greatest actress and one of the most famous women in the English-speaking world. She was also a patron of the arts, and many women artists of the time were indebted to her for her emotional and financial support.
Unlike many of our famous actresses today, Charlotte Cushman was not a beauty. At five feet six inches tall, she was large for a woman of her day and often towered over the men who played opposite her. She had a large forehead and a square jaw and was often described as "masculine."
Charlotte Cushman was born on July 23, 1816. The oldest of three children, she grew up with her mother and grandmother, two strong and unconventional women. Her grandmother had left her husband and raised her three children alone, something extremely unusual in the early nineteenth century. Her mother had been a self-supporting teacher, and would again be forced into independence with the failure of her husband's business and his subsequent desertion of the family.
Charlotte's first public appearance, on March 25, 1830 when she was just fourteen years old, was a recital arranged by her singing teacher. Shortly after this, while singing in the church choir, her vocal talent came to the attention of Robert Sheppard, who was so moved by her voice that he offered to be her patron.
While establishing herself as an actress, Charlotte also did some creative writing. She wrote poetry and short stories which appeared in Godey's Lady's Book and the Ladies Companion Magazine.
Of the almost 190 characters that Charlotte portrayed on the stage, the one for which she is best known is that of Meg Merriles, the mysterious gypsy queen in Sir Walter Scott's Guy Mannerling. Charlotte developed the role over the years from the costume of rags to the expertly applied makeup.
Charlotte is also very well known for the male roles she played. She was not doing anything unusual in playing masculine roles for many popular actresses in American and England in those days were termed "breeches actresses."
In her private life off the stage, Charlotte Cushman was involved in a number of what were then referred to as romantic female friendships. There friendships were not frowned upon in the nineteenth century, as it was felt that women were incapable of feeling passion or erotic desire. Nor had the term "lesbian" yet been coined to describe this type of relationship. But in reading Charlotte Cushman's correspondence to many of her female friends, the physical attraction and passions were evident.
In 1852, Charlotte Cushman traveled to Rome with her then-partner Matilda Hays and some friends. Charlotte was determined to create in Rome a woman-centered community stressing unity with other women and emancipation from men. When she returned to England, she left in place the seeds of the female artist community that she had started in Rome, where she would return later to live.
In the spring of 1869, Charlotte was diagnosed with breast cancer, which would eventually take her life. In 1874, Charlotte embarked on a series of final farewell performances. A huge gala in New York including a torchlight procession, a fireworks display, and the adulation of tens of thousands of fans was followed by festivities in Philadelphia and Boston. On the morning of February 18, 1876, Charlotte Cushman died.
Excerpted from Lisa Merrill, When Romeo Was a Woman: Charlotte Cushman and Her Circle of Female Spectators, Ann Arbor, Mich., University of Michigan Pr. 1999.
The Randolph-Macon Woman's College Charlotte Cushman Collection
was made possible by the generous donation of
John E. and Diana Herzog, R-MWC Board of Trustees.
site last revised April 6, 2012