The Radical and Revolutionary Life of Charlotte
Cushman, America’s First Celebrity
by Tana Wojczuk
Simon & Schuster. 240 pages, $27.
SINCE HER DEATH in 1876, Charlotte Cushman, like her contemporaries Harriet Hosmer and her lover, sculptor Emma Stebbins, has been neglected, primarily because she was a lesbian. As author Tana Wojczuk observes in Lady Romeo: “To men, she embodied the man they wanted to be, gallant, passionate, and excellent sword fighter. To women, she was a romantic, daring figure, their Romeo.”
As a child, Cushman went from relatively comfortable circumstances to acute poverty. She was viewed as too tall at 5’7”, too unladylike in appearance, and had to live closeted throughout her life while vicious rumors circulated about her. She was resilient despite her personal and professional setbacks. Immensely talented, Cushman prevailed to become the definitive Shakespearean actress of her time, specializing in both male and female roles.
Cushman was a first-born rebel with a wicked sense of humor who loved to read, run fast, and had an aversion to fools, whom she did not suffer well. She was a typical tomboy, climbing trees, cutting dolls heads open to see what was inside, quick to anger, lousy at sewing but good with tools and math. Encouraged by an uncle, Augustus, she excelled at dramatic reading and decided to be an actress, much to her conservative mother’s chagrin. Her father left the family debt-ridden, and Cushman’s mother had to open a boarding house to make ends meet. Cushman dropped out of school at thirteen, taking any job she could get to help support her family.
In Lady Romeo, Tana Wojczuk seamlessly sets the scene of Cushman’s life against the historical currents of her times. Cushman’s main asset was her remarkable voice, and she determined to use it to lift her family out of poverty. Taller than most men of her time, she had a “lantern jaw” and moved like a “pythoness.” From her first performance as Lady Macbeth, her talent quickly made her the cash cow of New York’s Bowery Theater.
Cassandra Langer is the author of Romaine Brooks: A Life(Wisconsin).