Merrill, Lisa. 2000. When Romeo was a Woman: Charlotte Cushman and her Circle of Female Spectators. The University of Michigan Press, Ann Arbor. ISBN 978-0-472-08749-5
A biography of 19th century American actress Charlotte Cushman that particularly examines her romantic relationships with women.
At the height of her career, Charlotte Cushman was considered America’s greatest actress. She was a celebrity throughout the English-speaking world, though contemporary sources reflect contrasting views of her. As a woman who had no romantic entanglements with men, she could be viewed as “pure” and a model of propriety in an occupation (acting) that had a reputation of impropriety. But to early feminists, she was a model of the economically independent woman who claimed male privilege along with playing male roles on the stage. Her physical appearance was both praised and derided for not being conventionally “feminine”.
Cushman curated her own image, both in public and via private letters and diaries--even in how she staged photographs taken of her. Her performance on the boundary of gender was only one aspect of how she communicated how she wished to be seen, as well as negotiating her same-sex desires. Her private correspondence helps draw back the curtain from assumptions about the nature of 19th century “romantic friendships” between women.
But as a performer, another facet is how her spectators attributed meaning to her presentation, and used the act of viewing her performances to engage with their own potential lesbian desires. Similarly, her depiction on stage of strong women, in the context of her own life, became a lens for public attitudes toward changing gender roles. Interestingly, European reactions to her often attributed her transgressive presentation to national character (as an American) rather than to gender.
Chapter 1: Crossings
The biography opens at a crucial turning in Cushman’s life: her first voyage to Europe to perform on the British stage. (The next chapter will step back to review her life from the beginning.) In 1844, at age 28, Cushman traveled to Britain for her first non-U.S. performances. In her diary from this period, she writes of how she misses her lover, the painter Rosalie Sully. While Rosalie was dependent on her parents and living in their home, Cushman had become the supporter of her family, not someone supported. Cushman’s experience as a lesbian was not only in terms of the women she loved, but in her “opting out” of the conventional path of marriage or partnership with a man.
The trip to Britain was a significant step, even in a career that had already made Cushman both a lead actress and manager of Philadelphia’s Walnut Street Theater. Playing opposite British tragedian William Charles Macready inspired her and helped give her connections for an English tour that she felt was essential to her continued career. But while on ship, depression and self-doubt rose. She not only wanted professional acclaim, but the security to live life her own way. Money was one bar to being able to share a household with Rosalie, even though such a household would give social sanction to their relationship.
Though British actors were lauded in the U.S., career success in the other direction was hampered by social prejudices. Americans saw the British as “high culture” while the British considered Americans to be impetuous, direct, and unrefined. One advantage Cushman had was that her forceful personality that was considered “masculine" at home was merely considered “American” abroad. Paradoxically, male Americans in Britain might be considered boorish and uncouth, but Cushman’s assertive personality was considered admirably full of masculine vigor. But Cushman also had to contend with greater social prejudice against actresses in Britain than at home.
Merrill compares the intense physicality of Cushman’s writing about Rosalie in her diaries to Faderman’s assertion that Romantic Friendships (expressly including Cushman’s) were non-sexual. Paradoxically, Cushman’s fame for playing male romantic roles was combined with a reputation for good moral character (because of a lack of male lovers). Romantic friendship gave her an accepted context for her relationships with women, but her own writings make it clear those relationships were erotic. [Note: Merril mistakenly accepts the position that the term and concept “lesbian” didn’t exist before the late 19th century rise of the sexologists, suggesting that without language for it, Cushman and her circle would have no sense of self-identity as women who loved women.]
Cushman’s writings make clear that she and her circle of women friends were constantly analyzing and negotiating how public they could be in their relationships, undermining the idea that they perceived their love as “innocent”. Cushman viewed her bond with Rosalie as a marriage, having given her a ring and used the specific word “marriage” in relation to it in her diary. The diary recounts her erotic dreams of Rosalie and she writes about their devoted bond and looks forward to being reunited.
Alas, Cushman’s British tour would last much longer than the original six month plan, and Rosalie would die before she returned.
Chapter 2: The Hero in the Family and on the Stage
Having begun at the crucial start of Cushman’s British tour, the biography now circles back to her youth and beginnings.
In her own memoir, Cushman notes that she was a “tomboy,” using that word, and notes how the term was used to constrain independent-minded women, though she embraced it. Cushman’s writings both private and public show a process of creating a narrative about her life, identity, desires, and career. She selectively and deliberately created several different personas to manage different aspects of her life. Cushman came from two generations of strong-willed, independent women. She was tall and not conventionally pretty. Her father--a generation older than her mother--had family connections with the Mayflower and early Puritans, which gave her a cachet of the archetypal American pedigree, as well as softening British prejudices against actresses. Cushman elaborated on her “tomboy” origins, noting her intellectual and physical interests, and she showed an early dramatic flair. When she was still a child, her father suffered business losses and functionally abandoned the family. Her maternal uncle encouraged her interest in theater. She excelled in amateur theatricals, including her signature “trouser roles” playing male parts.
The family’s financial situation gave Cushman the narrative framework for the social acceptability of her theatrical career. At age 14, she began performing professionally to help support the family and attracted patrons and teachers by her talent. At first, she trained for the opera. The official story became that her voice was strained by being forced to sing soprano parts with a contralto voice, but this can be seen as a metaphor and excuse for her unsuitability for “traditionally feminine” roles. Her initial reviews were negative for singing roles, but more positive for dramatic parts, and she reached a turning point in the role of Lady Macbeth, playing her as a forceful domineering figure. Spending several years in stock roles in New York, she seized the attention of the critics who helped propel her to success. Her appearance in trouser roles was especially popular. She turned a talent for poetry into a cross-promotional opportunity, using published poems to draw attention to her performance and establish her as a more cultured lady, not simply an actress.
During these early years, she several times had to contend with male patrons who wanted to derail her career toward something more refined (such as literature) or toward marriage. Her rejection of one of these patrons was fastened onto by later biographers as “explaining” her decision to remain unmarried, and her emotional disinterest in male suitors. [Note: this is extremely common in conservative biographies of unmarried professional women. Biographers will sometimes go to great lengths to dig up a potential failed heterosexual romance in order to explain a lack of interest in marriage. In Cushman’s case, the man that biographers chose for this was never even mentioned by name in her memoirs. Just a passing reference to her rejecting someone whose intentions turned out to be “not honorable.”]
In the later 1830s, Cushman played many male roles, which were clearly more memorable than her equally competent performance in female roles. The popularity of actresses in male roles is sometimes attributed to the male audience’s eagerness for the sight of a woman’s legs, but Cushman was equally popular with female spectators in these roles.
Part of Cushman’s legend was a series of key roles that--as framed by her--she fell into or had thrust upon her, but which she then turned into iconic, powerful performances. These included Nancy Sykes in Oliver Twist, to which she applied a proto-“method” acting approach, studying people in a New York slum to prepare. Rather than focus on glamorous and feminine roles, she used unattractive, unfeminine roles to display her acting prowess.
By the early 1840s, Cushman was the sole support of an extended family and able to demand better terms for her contracts, even in a weakening theatrical market.
Chapter 3: “Is Such Love Wrong?”
This chapter looks at the background of Cushman’s romantic relationships during her early career. She took over as manager (and leading actress) of the Walnut St. Theater in Philadelphia in 1842 and declared her intention to make it a “respectable and cultivated” place. Her intent was to avoid the more dubious reputation of theater and attract a more cultured audience. This represented a turning point in Cushman’s deliberate construction of her public image.
She wasn’t the only female theater manager of that time. Women managers used the myth of “female respectability” to change the middle class reception of the entertainment. They encouraged treating performances as a formal social event, with appropriate dress and attending as families. Cushman’s romantic disinterest in men helped her image as an icon of respectability and morals.
Despite her busy life, Cushman had the time for deep friendships, infatuations, and at least one love affair with a woman in Philadelphia. Because she socialized predominantly with women--as was normal for women of her class at the time--her life was viewed as following conventional norms. Before her intense mutual love affair with Rosalie Sully, she had other close relationships (not necessarily erotic), most notably with writer Anne Brewster and actress Fanny Kemble. (As noted later, the relationship with Kemble seems to have been more hero-worship, and Kemble became increasingly uncomfortable with Cushman’s attention.) Her ability to engage in these relationships was aided by her decision to establish a separate household from the one where she was supporting her extended family.
With Anne Brewster, Cushman shared a love of literature and poetry. They read to each other and discussed favorite texts. Anne described their love as “pure and elevated” though her language was often strongly sensual. But Anne’s brother was suspicious enough of the nature of their relationship to demand that Anne break it off. Cushman’s diary references to Anne are less intense than Anne’s writings about the relationship, or at least more circumspect. Cushman’s interactions with Fanny Kemble were different in part because Kemble had been something of a mentor to Cushman early in her career.
A general economic downturn led to Cushman resigning as manager at the Walnut, but a new opportunity came in the form of an invitation from prominent English actor William Charles Macready to play opposite him on a U.S. tour. Cushman and Macready had a turbulent and variable professional relationship. She impressed him at first both professionally and personally--in part by flattering his ego--and her desire to impress him drove her to improve her performances and acting style. He provided both a role model and some direct coaching. But at various times in their long association, he was affronted by Cushman’s attitude that she should have equal standing with him in performances and decisions. He was also jealous of how the friendly New York critics responded to Cushman’s performances, and he became less enthusiastic about working with someone who could be a rival to him in reputation. Their increasingly prickly relationship resulted in Macready declining to include Cushman in his tour of the American South. Cushman instead toured New England and was struck by the contrast in professionalism from what she had become accustomed to in New York and Philadelphia.
Returning to Philadelphia, Cushman became increasingly occupied with paying court to Fanny Kemble, who was finding her marriage to a wealthy American Southerner unhappy. Cushman showered Fanny with gifts and invitations and was overjoyed at Kemble’s reception of her. There was a mix of both idolization and desire. The sources of Kemble’s marital discomforts were multiple. Kemble’s husband was hostile to her professional interests, and his family’s participation in slavery-based businesses appalled her. In addition, he was regularly unfaithful. Cushman longed to be Kemble’s savior and to help her achieve the divorce she wanted without losing custody of her children. Cushman’s inability to provide this function revealed the one-sidedness of Kemble’s interest in her and they had a bitter falling out.
Rosalie Sully came into Cushman’s life after Cushman commissioned a portrait from Rosalie’s father. Rosalie differed from Cushman’s previous relationships in returning her devotion in equal measure. Cushman’s diary notes the occasions on which they “slept together” with delight, and though this was probably not a euphemism for sex specifically, it was clearly a meaningful emotional step in their relationship. (That is, not saying that they were not involved sexually at the time, but that the phrase “sleep together” was unlikely to be a direct reference to sex, and simply literally meant sharing a bed overnight.) Cushman later destroyed her correspondence with Rosalie, but the reflections in her diary entries on the voyage to England indicate an intense emotional and physical relationship.
Cushman performed with Macready again on his return to New York, Philadelphia, and Boston, and she sometimes attributed to him the idea of touring England (though she had been discussing the idea in her correspondence for years). She had a common pattern of creating official stories for some of her professional decisions that might otherwise be viewed negatively. So claiming that Macready was the one who had encouraged her international tour was in line with this myth-making.
Rosalie’s family seems to have been entirely supportive of her relationship with Cushman. Her father came with her to New York to see Cushman off on her voyage, not knowing when they might see each other again.
Chapter 4: Embodying Strong (-minded) Women
This chapter looks at the reception of Cushman’s signature roles and how that reception was associated with social attitudes toward strong women and toward her American identity.
On arriving in London, Cushman declined an invitation to join Macready’s company as he refused to offer her leading roles, already having a leading lady in the company. She struggled to find an entrance to British theater (despite a wealth of letters of recommendation and introduction), largely due to not being considered conventionally pretty enough for the leading female roles. She convinced one theater manager to give her a chance by putting on a spontaneously melodramatic performance in his office. Once she’d gotten a foot through the door, she was able to set her own terms to debut as a star rather than co-star in a performance of Fazio. She played on the British perception of Americans of both genders as representing “masculine vigor” and used melodrama as the vehicle to show off her talents and forceful performance style.
Cushman was pronounced a brilliant success in her debut and then agreed to play opposite American actor Edwin Forrest, though her own abilities were judged vastly superior to his. Cushman’s Lady Macbeth and other “strong female” roles delighted everyone except her male co-stars, who often felt both physically and theatrically overshadowed. Cushman was particularly well received by female viewers for these features. Her performance wasn’t merely a direct outgrowth of her personality--she had been deliberately studying interpretation and delivery with prominent British actors on tour in the States, and this paid off in a style of delivery acceptable to British audiences while other American actors were judged incapable of properly portraying iconic words (such as Shakespeare) on the British stage.
The chapter continues with a survey of Cushman’s most iconic female roles: Meg Merrilies in Guy Mannering, Queen Katherine in Henry VIII, in addition to Lady MacBeth.
Chapter 5: Wearing the Breeches
This chapter looks at Cushman’s male roles on stage and how she used them as personas for flirting with women offstage.
Comments on Cushman’s performance as Romeo in Romeo and Juliet point up some of the moral contradictions of the times. One reviewer, after seeing her, suggested that Romeo should only be played by a woman, because two women together could best portray passionate love “without suggesting vice.” That is, a clear distinction was made between elevated, pure romantic passion (which was considered acceptable between women, and was considered the purest distillation of the ideals of romantic love) and sexual desire (which was not only popularly considered to be only possible between man and woman, but was considered to be inescapably present between man and woman). This attitude held that a man playing Romeo inescapably led the viewer to contemplate sex (vice) as the outcome of love, whereas a woman playing Romeo ruled out the possibility of sex (according to the official party line) and therefore allowed the focus to be on romantic love. This is the same philosophy that allowed women’s Romantic Friendships to flourish and be praised, as long as it was possible to pretend that there was no “vice” involved.
Women playing male roles on stage was normal at the time, though not necessarily common. The popularity of “trouser roles” was in part that they could be played to titillate male audiences with the display of a female body in revealing masculine clothing. But Cushman played the role as a desiring, rather than desired, figure. To prepare for debuting her Romeo in England, she sent for her mother and her sister Susan so that she could play opposite Susan as Juliet, as she had in the States. One of Cushman’s official fictions was that she played Romeo only to give her sister a supportive co-star for her Juliet. This would provide a plausible excuse if her performance were seen as too transgressive. (Never mind that Susan had been pulled into acting only to perform with Charlotte.) The creation of this official narrative was urged by some of Cushman’s friends and supporters. Cushman was not the only actress of the era who worked self-consciously to create an image of respectability to counter the general bad moral reputation of the profession. And trouser roles were a crucial point of contention due to the way they potentially sexualized actresses.
Audiences loved Cushman’s Romeo and praised her “manly passion.” Romeo was the role that pushed her from American curiosity to mistress of the English stage. One critic--perhaps in all innocence--lauded her performance as “Sapphic,” referring to the association of Sappho’s poetry with the sensation of love as a physically overwhelming experience (without necessarily meaning to evoke same-sex erotics).
Just as the conventions of the times saw the expression of passion between women as acceptably “chaste,” Cushman was able to use that framing to express her desire for women offstage as well as on. She began adding masculine touches to her ordinary wardrobe (which did lead to some speculations about her personal life). Other women in her social circle were similarly adopting masculine touches that represented their emancipation from traditional feminine constraints. (We aren’t talking about complete cross-dressing here, but things like masculine tailoring, or masculine hats.)
Cushman’s performance (both on stage and off) was a code that could be deciphered by other women with similar desires. And there were men who found her presentation unsettling specifically for that gender-crossing, calling her performance “unsexed,” “epicene,” “monstrous,” and “a perversion.” These reactions came more from American critics. British critics tended to see her “masculine” performance as simply “American.” Other stereotypes came into play that affected the reception of her Romeo, such as Romeo’s “Italian passion” being viewed as best depicted by a woman based on British stereotypes of Italian men as being unrestrained and too demonstrative (in a feminine fashion). (British ideals of masculinity leaned toward hyper-control over emotional display, which was another factor in considering American masculinity to be “uncouth”.)
Throughout Cushman’s career, female fans would write to her of their passionate response to her performances, expressing sensual and near-erotic fantasies involving her, including jealousy of her leading ladies. She discussed these responses in letters to her female partners, including addressing the possibility that those partners might be jealous of her costars and fans. (And, as we will late see, her partners had some valid concerns about the attractions of star-struck female fans!) In addition to Romeo, two other notable male roles that Cushman played were Hamlet (obviously in the play of the same name) and Cardinal Woolsey in Henry VIII. Cardinal Woolsey was not one of the traditional “trouser roles” (in contrast to Hamlet), and because Cushman was equally famed for her Queen Katherine in the same play, it was a striking choice.
Chapter 6: Scribbling Circles and Strange Sympathies
This chapter discusses Cushman’s reception in England by a community of cultured women, including many who shared intimate relationships, and looks at specifically female views of her life and work.
As soon as she arrived in England, Cushman gathered friends and supporters from a set of artists, writers, and intellectual women. Their correspondence shows a network of friends and lovers who worked each other’s lives into their art. Creative women in 19th century society struggled for success, acceptance, and the ability to do their work in the face of stereotypes of appropriate female behavior. Women were typically each other’s strongest supporters. These were not just upper class intellectual women, but also radicals and reformers.
Cushman benefitted greatly from the support of these women, both emotionally and socially. They showered her with laudatory poetry and invited her to social events. Among the notable members of this circle were the poet Eliza Cook, with whom Cushman developed a passionate relationship. (During this period, Cushman’s correspondence with Rosalie Sully back home appears to have cooled significantly, though Cushman wasn’t always careful throughout her life about breaking off one relationship before starting another.)
Cushman’s intimate friendships were rarely exclusive, and her correspondence often shows an awareness that letters sent and received might not be entirely private and that the contents must be circumspect within the bounds allowed to romantic friendship. Another close friend was Geraldine Jewsbury, who for a while transferred her affections to Cushman from Jane Carlyle (wife of historian Thomas Carlyle--there was an even wider web of ties and jealousies involved). The correspondence among women like this shows how they understood (and misunderstood) and negotiated the nature of their emotional relationships.
In the summer of 1847, Rosalie Sully died. The news struck Cushman badly and within the same timeframe her relationship with Eliza Cook was fading. Having been assisted by her circle of female friends, Cushman’s rising success meant she could support them in turn. Radical author and feminist Matilda Hays was a beneficiary of Cushman’s support and became her lover. Contemporaries such as Elizabeth Barrett Browning referred to their relationship as a marriage, though confidently asserting that they were celibate. Cushman and Hays were noted for dressing identically, wearing masculine-influenced fashions.
Hays returned with Cushman to the U.S. in 1849. In contrast to the British admiration for her “American” forcefulness, Americans now started saying she was too Anglicized in her performance style. That return also brought a renewed relationship with Anne Brewster. But in the summer of 1850, Cushman received word that Eliza Cook was deathly ill in England and immediately returned there, which caused quite a stir in the press. After being assured that Cook was not at death’s door (though she would never entirely recover), Cushman returned to her U.S. tour. [Note: one interesting side issue I noticed in Cushman’s life is how many trans-Atlantic journeys she made, often on short notice and for only brief stays. Although such voyages were never trivial at the time, they were far more common than one might think.]
While in Boston, Cushman and Hays befriended 21-year-old sculptor Harriet Hosmer and formed an immediate attachment. As Cushman and Hays planned a retirement to Italy with other close friends, they invited Hosmer to join them.
Chapter 7: Building a Community
This chapter talks about Cushman’s circle of friends and lovers in Rome, where she was establishing a second home (or rather, a third one, perhaps).
Cushman arrived in Rome in 1852 with her partner Matilda Hays and her personal assistant Sallie Mercer, as well as several female friends, including journalist Grace Greenwood and sculptor Harriet Hosmer (who brought a friend and also her father as chaperone).
A brief note about Sallie Mercer. Cushman first hired the young African American woman as a maid to accompany her on her initial voyage to England. Mercer continued in Cushman’s employ until Cushman’s death, increasing in responsibilities and scope until the title “personal assistant” in the modern sense is the best description for her. (She had far more power and responsibility than “housekeeper” would imply.) Descriptions and photographs of Cushman’s social entertainments in Rome show Mercer as a participant, not only as a servant. One gets the impression that Mercer’s story would be fascinating on its own. She was perhaps the one constant presence in Cushman’s life and accompanied her on all her travels. On those occasions when they were in the U.S. and Mercer took leave to visit her family, Cushman often comments on how essential she was to the smooth running of the household. I feel a little guilty about not mentioning the book’s regular references to Mercer, but she doesn’t directly figure in either the theatrical or romantic arcs of Cushman’s life.
Rome was a popular destination for both English and American travelers and expatriates, due to the combination of the ability to live well on a small budget and the city’s function as a place to study art and sculpture. Certain other American expats in Rome took unsettled notice of the woman-centered, emancipated community that Cushman and her friends were building. There seems to have been a sort of “taking sides” between those who welcomed her and those who disapproved of her. Cushman’s circle became a magnet for other independent and creative women and her forthright activities to promote the careers of her artistic friends contributed to some of the reaction.
Cushman and her immediate circle shared a house in an expat community in the neighborhood of the Spanish Steps. In Italy, the expectations of feminine convention could be abandoned to some degree. Hatty Hosmer delighted in her independence and freedom, supported somewhat unusually by her father. This paternal congeniality was attributed by contemporaries to the fact that the entire rest of the family had died of illness, and Mr. Hosmer felt that allowing Hatty free rein for her active and tomboyish impulses was a way to build up her physical resilience. But his support went even further than unconventional physicality, for he supported her in her sculpting interests. He was comfortable enough with Cushman that he returned to the States, leaving Hatty in her care. Hatty found a teacher for her sculpture career, which, assisted by Cushner’s professional and personal support, began to take off.
Somewhat to Cushman’s disquiet, perhaps not only because she was used to being an unrivaled center of attention, Hays and Hosmer developed an increasingly close relationship. This may have been part of the impetus for Cushman to return to the English stage the next spring, taking Hays with her, though Cushman would repeatedly go though a cycle of “retiring” and then returning to the stage.
The seeds of Cushman’s Roman colony remained, including Hosmer and Greenwood and adding Virginia Vaughan and novelist Isa Blagden, as well as their extended network of artistic friends. Hosmer had had passionate female friendships in her past, including a now-married childhood friend Cornelia Crow, whose father was one of Hosmer’s patrons. (Remember the name Crow. Another of his daughters becomes relevant later.) So it isn’t entirely startling that the growing tension between Hays and Cushman resolved with Hays returning to Rome to be with Hosmer. Cushman threw herself back into performing. Observers commenting on Hays and Hosmer often praised the two in masculine-coded language, much as they did for Cushman herself. Hosmer seems to have been regularly described as “queer” (using that word) in reference to her gender presentation: “the funniest little creature, not at all coarse, rough or slangy, but like a little boy” and “[I had] never seen anything as innocent as Hatty, nor so very queer.” In comparison, reactions to Cushman from her female admirers ranged from the clearly erotic to hero worship to admiration.
Hays became increasingly unhappy away from Cushman and returned to England after four months to apologize and take up their relationship again, though it was cooler now. Cushman’s correspondence with her closest friends about these romantic upheavals urged caution and circumspection regarding revealing the details publicly. Clearly she felt there was something in it that might draw disapproval. There was much she explicitly declined to commit to writing.
Cushman and Hays settled into a home in London together for the next two years before returning to Rome. There, their relationship would be irretrievably damaged by the introduction of American sculptor Emma Stebbins to their circle. Among much coming and going of old and new friends, Cushman and Stebbins began spending a lot of time together and Cushman and Hays were increasingly apart. This time, Hays was the jealous one. They argued and fought. It was when Hays brought their conflict into the open before witnesses that Cushman made the final break. Hays had violated the veil of silence and deniability over the nature of their relationship.
When Hays left Rome, she initiated a “palimony” suit against Cushman, claiming that she’d set her own literary career aside to support Cushman’s career. Cushman gave her a monetary settlement and shortly after was living with Stebbins. Hays returned to London, writing and publishing in support of women’s rights. She later fictionalized her relationship with Cushman in unflattering terms in a bitter novel, Adrienne Hope.
Stebbins was middle aged, wealthy, and a “lady artist.” She had come to Rome to study sculpture, as Hosmer had, and she was immediately entranced by Cushman. In Stebbins’ company, Cushman became somewhat more staid. She began dressing more conventionally and assumed the persona of matriarch of her little community, addressing Hosmer as “dear child.” (It's interesting that Cushman's relationship with Hosmer seems to have survived the drama around Hays.) The relationships between the women in Cushman’s household were variously romantic, erotic, platonic, and professional, and the language they employed to describe their relations sometimes muddies the water, refering to themselves as bachelors and old maids, other times as wives and married partners (and not always aligning those terms with their established partnerships).
Stebbins and Hosmer bonded over their shared interest in sculpture, even as Stebbins and Cushman emulated a traditional middle class marriage. The context of Cushman’s circle brought together other female couples such as Frances Power Cobbe and sculptor Mary Lloyd, as well as women and couples challenging gender norms, such as George Sand and Rosa Bonheur. Cushman had a specific interest in supporting women sculptors. In addition to Hosmer and Stebbings, there was cameo artist Margaret Foley and sculptor Edmonia Lewis who had black and Native American heritage. Lewis’s work was often overtly political and reflective of her ethnic heritages, and as a black woman she faced more than the usual barriers to her studies. Both Cushman and Stebbins worked to gain her recognition and clients.
One fly in the ointment of Cushman and Stebbins’ relationship was the disdain that Stebbins (like Hays before her) had for the stage as a profession. And in the midst of this, Cushman began planning a return to the American stage, partly for financial reasons and partly simply because she missed the adulation and fame.
Chapter 8: The Sapphic Family
This chapter covers the period in Cushman’s life when things really got complicated.
In 1857, after five years abroad, Cushman returned again to the States. Stebbins and Sallie Mercer came with her, though various friends had warned Cushman that Stebbins might find a cool reception in the American circles that hadn’t previously met her. (But recall that Stebbins herself was American and had wealthy relatives in Boston.) Cushman’s reputation is seen in the success of her professional activities during this tour, even in the uncertain economy.
Stebbins remained in New York when Cushman traveled to performances in Chicago and St. Louis. In the latter location, while consulting with Wayman Crow, the patron of Hatty Hosmer, whom Cushman intended to employ as her financial advisor, she met his daughter Emma Crow and sparks immediately flew. Emma was 18 and described the 42 year old Cushman in her memoir as “the incarnation of the ideal lover” in her role as Romeo.
[Note: I know I’m being inconsistent in whether I refer to individuals by given name or surname. As there are going to be two Emmas in Cushman’s life from here on, and as Emma Crow’s father will also be a continuing figure, I’m going to refer to Emma Crow as “Emma” to distinguish from Mr. Crow and from Emma Stebbins, whom I’ve been calling “Stebbins.”]
Emma spent all the time she could in Cushman’s presence for the two weeks she was in St. Louis, although she received little attention in return. But by Cushman’s departure, she was calling Emma “little lover” and began a voluminous correspondence with her that would continue for the next 18 years. Cushman expected that Emma’s infatuation would soon fade, but that was not the case, and Emma was consistently the more assertive in pursuing their romance. Emma kept all Cushman’s letters to her, despite the latter’s requests to burn them, though her own side of the correspondence is lost due to Cushman’s ruthless curation of her legacy. Cushman offered a constant stream of assurances of love, endearments, and descriptions of kisses and caresses. Cushman stopped in St. Louis again on her return from her tour specifically to see Emma again. Their letters had been growing increasingly passionate, but Cushman felt the need to have a serious talk with Emma about the nature of those passions and about Cushman’s existing emotional commitments.
Emma wanted to join Cushman in her hotel room and sleep with her during her stay. Cushman suggested that it would be more socially acceptable for her to visit the Crow house and join Emma there. This is just one example of the careful negotiation of the expectations and limits of romantic friendship. The allowance it provided covered much, but not everything. That same careful negotiation is seen when Hosmer, in a letter to Emma’s father (and her patron) spoke approvingly of Cushman and Emma being “lovers” while only a few months later Hosmer was expressing jealousy of the relationship and indicated to Crow that if Emma accepted Cushman’s invitation to join them in Rome, she would take responsibility for keeping a eye on them. In one passage she suggests to Emma that if she “kept on as she was” (implied: with Cushman) she might never get a husband, citing her own example, though there’s no indication that Hosmer actually wanted a husband and she regularly expressed the position that marriage to a man was incompatible with an artistic career for a woman.
Cushman echoed this opinion of marriage in a letter to Emma, while referring to her relationship with Stebbins with the word “marriage” and mentioning the ring she wore as a token of it. At the same time, she indicated to Emma that she wouldn’t abide rivals for Emma’s affections. Cushman’s letters to Emma increasingly dealt with how to frame and balance both relationships. She repeatedly urged Emma (in vain) to burn her letters, lest they fall into hostile hands. (The letters were eventually donated to the Library of Congress after both their deaths and are a major source of information about the details of Cushman’s personal life during this period.)
Cushman returned to Europe with Stebbins in 1858. She wrote to Emma’s parents suggesting that Emma and her sister (a different sister from the one Hosmer had been involved with) come for an extended visit in Rome, dancing around assurances that Hosmer (who was framed as something of an adopted daughter of the Crows) would watch over their reputations. Stebbins may have been expressing unease at this prospect. In one letter to Emma, Cushman playfully suggests that Stebbins may have failed to mail Cushman’s last letter to her. But Cushman seemed determined to maintain both relationships.
Shortly before Emma and her sister came to Rome, Cushman’s sister Susan (the one who had played Juliet to her Romeo) died unexpectedly. Some time before, Cushman had adopted Susan’s son Ned (by the husband who had deserted her around the time of the birth) and this shift in family dynamics may have given Cushman a new idea. Emma and Ned should marry, giving a veil of respectability to Emma’s presence in the household. The original notion seems to have been for the marriage to be in name only, though that fell by the wayside.
Cushman’s letters increase their cautions to be discreet, both in writing and in public. Although Emma appears to have been the initiator in their relationship, Cushman knew she would be blamed more if the public decided there was something improper between them. Ned would provide a useful “beard” not only to the general public, but perhaps to Stebbins. Ned, for his part, seems to have been attracted to Emma, while Emma agreed to the marriage but was still focused on Cushman. Wayman Crow had concerns about these plans for his daughter but they primarily concerned Ned’s lack of a profession and his immaturity. (Ned was entirely supported by Cushman.) In the end, it came together. The whole group returned to the States late in 1860 to prepare, and Cushman did some performances as well. Wayman Crow had become her investment manager, to further tie the families together.
Ned and Emma married in April 1861, scheduled around Cushman’s performance schedule, which in turn was arranged around Stebbins’ professional needs. The married couple settled in Boston while Cushman toured New England to perform. Cushman had now begun referring to Emma as her “daughter” as well as “my little lover,” showing the complexity of roles between them. Cushman’s correspondence to Emma was now being actively self-censored to avoid potentially damaging interpretations if others read the letters. Cushman reluctantly left Emma behind in the U.S. to establish the marriage when she returned to Rome with Stebbins, acknowledging that it would be emotionally hard for her to be present during that stage of the marriage.
Emma became pregnant shortly and Cushman’s letters framed the child as hers and Emma’s, noting that it would bear her surname, and discussing the benefits of a gender-neutral upbringing for children as ideal. Their letters continued to express erotic desire, but Cushman regularly cautioned about causing Stebbins pain or attracting social disapproval. For these reasons, they put off a reunion. Stebbins was working on a commemorative sculpture of Horace Mann, Hosmer was working on a similar monumental project, and Cushman did not feel free to travel to the U.S. under those circumstances. Unfortunately, Emma had a miscarriage. She traveled to England for a brief stay to recover where Cushman joined her.
Emma and Ned wanted to return from Boston to St. Louis, but by now the Civil War had started and Cushman was concerned for their safety. Against Stebbins’ wishes, Cushman accompanied them back to the States to visit and do some charity performances for the Sanitary Commission before returning to Rome. In Rome, Cushman’s household was shifting. Hosmer had moved into her own house, perhaps being too much in professional competition with Stebbins for comfort. (They were sometimes competing for the same sculpture commissions and Cushman was forthright in preferentially championing Stebbins’ career.) Cushman was working on arrangements to have Emma and Ned join her in Rome. One significant question was a job for Ned and Cushman pulled strings with her personal friend, Secretary of State Seward, to appoint Ned as the American Consul in Rome--a position that was primarily symbolic.
Emma was pregnant again and it was decided that she (and Ned) should join Cushman in London for the birth. Cushman would be present to support Emma during the birth of all four of her sons. The plans moved forward after that and Emma and Ned moved into Cushman’s house in Rome as he took up the position of Consul. The continuing difficulty was to reassure Stebbins of her secure place in the extended family--being the only member of the new household configuration with no official legal tie to Cushman.
One form that reassurance took was for Cushman and Stebbins (and Sallie Mercer, as always) to travel to the States together, leaving the married couple in Rome. There are some hints during this time that the erotic passion between Cushman and Stebbins had declined from what it once had been, though the romantic attraction and loyalty were still strong. Emma gave Cushman that erotic charge, but Cushman had no intention of leaving Stebbins and Emma had flashes of jealousy over that loyalty. At the same time, Emma expressed some regrets over the choice to marry Ned, as it had created a barrier between her and Cushman.
In the midst of all this, in 1869, Cushman was diagnosed with breast cancer. Despite treatments, including surgery, the cancer persisted and her health began a long gradual decline. (She would live for 7 more years.) Cushman decided to return to the States with Stebbins to convalesce after the surgery. Rome had lost its attraction due to the tension between the two Emmas and the disintegration of her friendship with Hosmer. When Seward resigned, Ned lost his job as Consul and the family moved back to St. Louis, ending the Cushman presence in Rome.
Cushman and Stebbins moved into the Stebbins family home in Boston. (Sallie Mercer was still with them and there seems to have been some awkwardness over her position, now that Cushman no longer had a household for her to preside over.) Cushman even returned reluctantly to the stage, playing Queen Katherine against Edwin Booth, as well as in other signature roles. Her growing ill health led her to switch to doing dramatic readings rather than full stage performances beginning in 1871. In 1874 she began a series of “farewell performances” accompanied by a sequence of retirement galas, concluding in June 1875.
That winter her condition worsened and in February 1876 she died, with Stebbins at her side.
Chapter 9: The Backlash and Beyond
This chapter discusses Cushman’s post-death legacy and how public views of her changed with the rise of the sexologists and increased focus on “morbid” relationships between women.
Cushman was mourned as a national celebrity. At the time, she was perhaps the most famous woman of the English-speaking world. [Note: One might argue that Queen Victoria had an edge on her, but I’ll allow Merrill her hyperbole.] Eulogies of Cushman noted the respectability she brought to the acting profession, her “purity” (i.e., lack of male attachments), her lack of radical religious or political causes. She was praised for not being a suffragist, though she had worked hard in her own way to give women the right to economic independence. Her lack of connections to men, combined with her divergence from the feminine ideal of the day was framed positively, calling her “complete in nature” combining male and female virtues. People attributed to her “character” the pure and devoted friendship she inspired in so many women.
At the time of her death, her independence from men, her female friendships, and her androgyny were all seen as postive virtues. Those same traits were viewed differently as the attitude toward autonomous “masculine” women became pathologized. In Cushman’s era, the gender segregation of society meant that her all-female household went unremarked. The popular myth that women were incapable of sexual passion meant that their love must be “innocent,” i.e., non-sexual. Women were lauded and encouraged in having intense same-sex friendships, especially if they were unmarried. At the same time, dangerous erotic passion was attributed to working-class women, passing women, and non-European women.
Private writings such as Cushman’s letters and memoirs demonstrate that even so-called “respectable” women could be aware of their erotic feelings and might employ complex strategies to avoid breaking that willing suspension of disbelief on the part of society. These social framings created a space in which women could love each other, within boundaries that were constantly watched and negotiated.
Stebbins undertook a memoir of Cushman’s life “lest unworthy and careless hands undertake it.” She continued Cushman’s work of shaping her public image very consciously. Having filtered out the more hazardous aspects of Cushman’s life, the result was meager. Cushman’s various lovers were demoted to “devoted friends” or omitted entirely. This self-censored result sheds a different light on the alleged acceptability of romantic friendships.
Even toward the end of Cushman’s life--and definitely after her death--attitudes were turning against independent unmarried women and especially against “mannish” women. With the rise of the late 19th century sexologists, characteristics that had been praised became seen as deviant. Descriptions of Cushman shifted in tone, aligning with this reframing. The absence of men in her life was called an absence of love, and her lovers were entirely erased from the record. Like other female partners of the day, such as Cushman’s friends Geraldine Jewsbury and Jane Carlyle, the passion was edited out of their biographies, lest post-Freudian readers view it as “morbid.” Later theater critics began to describe Cushman as ridiculous and monstrous--in clear contradiction to the contemporary reception of her work. And thus, the most famous actress of the 19th century, a celebrity known throughout the English speaking world, and the core of a thriving community of women artists and intellectuals, faded in the historic record.