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The Secret History of America’s First Celebrity

An interview with Tana Wojczuk about her new biography 'Lady Romeo.'

In her new biography, Lady Romeo, Tana Wojczuk excavates the secret history of Charlotte Cushman, a renowned 19th century actress known for revolutionizing the role of Lady Macbeth and upending traditional gender rules in the theater and offstage. Cushman lived a rich and radical life that was somehow largely lost to history. That life is recaptured here in this galloping, atmospheric account of a remarkable woman: the first real American celebrity. 

Revered by contemporaneous luminaries like Nathaniel Hawthorne, Abraham Lincoln, and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Cushman didn’t curry favor by conforming. She lived her life out loud as a queer woman, and professionally she believed in her talent and advocated fiercely to advance her career. It’s a thrill and an inspiration to come to understand Cushman’s bold aplomb in the pages of Lady Romeo

I spoke to Wojczuk about how she came to Cushman’s story, why she decided to write about her, and what she learned from Cushman’s life about passion, virtue, and loyalty.

Leah Carroll

How did you re-discover Charlotte Cushman and why do you think her story is not more well known?

Tana Wojczuk

I first discovered Charlotte Cushman while researching gender-bending in Shakespeare. I’ve always been interested in gender as performance, particularly in women who defy those expectations. When I found out Cushman played Hamlet and Romeo I was intrigued, but then I discovered that she didn’t play them as a titillation for men–who liked to see a woman in tights–but in a convincing way that won her fame and adoration from women and men alike. 

I have to say that initially I was discouraged from writing about her and ended up on a very long journey to educate myself about American Shakespeare. When my agent, Kiele Raymond, saw my work on Cushman she was the first person to say oh my god this woman needs to have a biography. I’d wanted to write about Cushman for years and had already traveled to the Library of Congress to photograph her letters, but was just obsessing about her in private. I realized though that my entire career had been about writing secret histories, and a biography of this woman who was so important but erased from history, made sense. 

Leah Carroll

The subtitle of the book is:  “The Radical and Revolutionary Life of Charlotte Cushman, America’s First Celebrity.” There is a lot to unpack there! Can you tell us more about her as a revolutionary and as a famous woman? 

Tana Wojczuk

One of the reasons Cushman is such a great subject is that her story is very modern. She was punished for her ambition–theatre managers tried to ruin her by casting her as a prostitute, for example, while others dismissed her as too ugly to succeed. But she not only overcame her enemies but didn’t let their criticism make her small. She took enormous risks, like going to dangerous Five Points area of New York alone, meeting sex workers and learning from them so that her performance as Nancy in Oliver Twist would become a star-making vehicle.  

She played Romeo with her sister as Juliet but had to negotiate with her manager so he’d allow her to do it. Her celebrity was due in part to her immense talent for transforming a role into something new, and her intelligence and understanding of human weakness is what made her so good at that. Whitman called her a genius, Louisa May Alcott had a “stage-struck fit” over her, Dickens respected her, Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote home excitedly that Cushman was staying at his hotel, Longfellow was working on a play for her. Tens of thousands of people tried to attend her funeral.

Leah Carroll

Your book is deeply researched and one of the most compelling things about it from a narrative perspective is how it crackles along with new discoveries. She’s been written about before but her queerness was elided in many ways. How does that shape this story for you?   

Tana Wojczuk

It took about a decade to research the book. I first started reading Cushman’s letters in graduate school and I couldn’t stop thinking about her and wondering why we didn’t know more about her. I used to go sit every day under the Bethesda Fountain to eat lunch and watch snake-charmers and tourists and couples get their wedding photos taken. I’d eat a hot dog and watch the dogwood blooms float over the lake and the swan boats and walk upstairs and down Poet’s Walk, admiring the sculptures of actors and of Shakespeare at the far end. Then one day I discovered that it was Cushman’s wife (in all but law) Emma Stebbins who sculpted the Bethesda Fountain Angel of the Waters, and realized that Cushman had been the inspiration for the fountain. There is no statue of Cushman on Poet’s Walk but there should be. And I realized that the Bethesda Fountain angel is a closeted memorial to a gay icon. 

I encourage emerging writers and researchers to go to archives in person whenever possible, and to speak to the librarians there. What writers who grew up with google don’t often realize is that search engines are biased, that archives are created by people, and that each search engine and archive work a bit differently. It’s important that you understand how a search works so you know what invisible gems it might be leaving out. Speaking to Matthew Wittman and others at the Houghton Theatre Library at Harvard, I realized that they were in the midst of digitizing a horde of amazing stuff, but not all of it was searchable yet. So I looked through the card catalogs, miscellaneous files, and randomly found letters from Longfellow asking Cushman to be in a play he was writing for her.

I also benefited from research done by two previous biographers, Joseph Leach and Lisa Merrill. Merrill’s biography is the most comprehensive and focuses on Cushman’s relationships with her female friends and spectators. The Leach was the first but it ignores Cushman’s queerness completely and is challenging as a resource because almost nothing is cited. In a file in the NYPL for the Performing Arts, I discovered the papers of a historian who had tracked down many of Leach’s references and so I could do that too, I went back to his original source material and found some wonderful stuff, but I also most importantly got to see what he left out in crafting his narrative, like Cushman’s passionate love affairs.

Leah Carroll

Because of the nature of her voice and stature, Cushman could play either male or female characters but often fought to play the male ones? What do you think that says about both Cushman and Shakespeare?

Tana Wojczuk

I always thought Shakespeare’s male roles were his best. Though of course all his roles were initially for men, and his female characters, played by men, often seem like parodies of women. Lady Macbeth is an exception, but she has so few lines and dies so early in the play that she wasn’t at first a starring role. Actresses like Sarah Siddons changed that but it was Cushman who really transformed the role into the contemporary character we know today. Previously, the role was performed as a woman who seduced Macbeth into doing what she wanted, but Cushman used her physical power to make Lady Macbeth into a bully. 

Co-stars complained to the press that she made them look weak: one even said he was afraid she’d hit him. Cushman’s Hamlet and Romeo were also exceptional, they made it clear that masculinity is a performance. But she also used that performativity to make a case for what she thought real “manliness” should entail. She was more in the mold of the cavalier, courageous and daring but also sensitive and passionate. Someone for whom truth was the ultimate virtue.

Leah Carroll

Much of Cushman’s drive came from her desire to support her family. She kept meticulous financial records her whole life and subverted the idea of the “male breadwinner.” As you explain, this drive was ultimately a deeply important part of her life. What do you make of that?

Tana Wojczuk

Benjamin Franklin is often held up as the ultimate up from bootstraps success story. The American man daring greatly and succeeding is still a popular myth. Jill Lepore has pointed out that Franklin’s sister Jane was equally intelligent and ambitious but stayed home to care for her family. We see over and over in our narratives how women who stay home are rewarded by familial love but have to sacrifice their dreams. 

I remember being furious when Anne of Avonlea became a teacher, because I thought she was giving up on her life. Now of course I’m a teacher myself and I also have a family. I know how hard it is to be both those people–the ambitious artist, the parent who prioritizes her child’s wellbeing–but as a new mother I found a lot of strength in Cushman’s story. She took care of her mother and siblings and considered her youngest brother Augustus to be her child. When Augustus died young she was destroyed and nearly gave up acting. What am I doing this for? she wondered. 

But being able to provide for her family was a true motivation for her. She took on what was considered the masculine role of head of household; she was the breadwinner. When she later became the grandmother of her adopted son’s children she was a passionate maternal figure and that was a victory for her in many ways. Ursula Le Guin points out that all adventure stories should, like the Hobbit, end up back at home, because isn’t that what we’re fighting for all along?

NONFICTION – BIOGRAPHY
Lady Romeo
By Tana Wojczuk
Avid Reader Press
Published July 7, 2020

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