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Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast Episode 19d - Charlotte Cushman

Saturday, February 24, 2018 - 07:00

Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 42 (previously 19d) - Charlotte Cushman

(Originally aired 2018/02/24 - listen here)

Let’s start this out by all agreeing that the world desperately needs a Charlotte Cushman mini-series. A lovely costume-drama soap opera that covers the entirety of her professional life, expanding to her larger social circles. It would have the glamour of the stage, the excitement of international travel, the intrigue of social politics in an era when feminist activism was grappling with problems ranging from “is it possible for a skilled female artist to compete for commissions on an footing equal to men?” to “if I divorce my husband I may never see my children again!” And most of all, it would tackle the complex, hazardous ambiguities of being women who loved women in a society that preferred to pretend such a thing didn’t exist and which gave the women involved no clear model for communicating and establishing their relationships.

And yet they persisted.

I had been seeing references to Charlotte Cushman in a number of general works on lesbian history, but it wasn’t until I was blogging the book Improper Bostonians that I realized I needed to follow up on her in more detail. Although Boston was only one of Cushman’s many homes, in entry after entry of queer Bostonians of the 19th century, her name kept coming up as a friend, as a lover, as the person who introduced two women who then became a couple, as an artistic patron. Many of those descriptions made reference to Cushman’s household and social circle in Rome. I started building this image of complex network of women loving and supporting each other in their professional endeavors. I confess it felt a bit like the milieu I’ve been constructing for my characters in the Alpennia novels. So I went online to hunt down some references on Cushman’s life to do this podcast.

Let’s start with a brief overview of Cushman’s professional career, and then I’ll circle back to talk about her relationships and friendships and how they influenced the shape of her life, including biographies of some of the women whose lives she influenced.

Charlotte Cushman was the greatest American actress of the 19th century, quite possibly the greatest actress of the English-speaking world in her day. And that greatness came about in equal parts from an innate dramatic flair, a lot of dedicated hard work to study her craft from the best models available, the outright economic drive to support not only herself but her entire family, and the gift of a physicality that didn’t align with the standards for conventional femininity and therefore drove her to create memorable character interpretations for roles in ways not expected for actresses.

Charlotte Cushman was born in 1816 in Boston, Massachusetts. On her mother’s side she came from at least two generations of strong-willed, independent women. Her father’s family was a classic American pedigree tracing back to the Mayflower and the early Puritans. What we know of her early years includes an active physical childhood--she later described herself as a “tomboy,” using that word in a very similiar sense to what it had in my own childhood, noting that she embraced it as a description even though others used it as a way to try to constrain and control independent-minded women. She also showed an early flair for the dramatic, doing comic imitations of her parents’ guests and performing in amateur theatricals, including an early interest in “trouser roles,” that is, playing male characters.

Whe Charlotte was 13, in a short period her father suffered massive business losses and then died, leaving the family destitute. So at age 14, she began performing professionally to help support her mother and younger siblings. Initially, she trained to sing opera, forcing a natural contralto voice into the soprano range required for the conventional leading female roles. Whether this did indeed damage her voice, as the story was put out, or it was simply decided that she would never make a success by aspiring to traditionally feminine performance, she rapidly switched to dramatic acting and achieved her first major critical success with a portrayal of Lady Macbeth as a forceful, domineering figure in contrast to the usual softer interpretation of the role at that time. She would bring a similar approach to other roles that became her iconic crowd favorites, such as Meg Merrilees (a terrifying but benevolent old crone) in the play Guy Mannering and Nancy Sykes in Oliver Twist (to which she brought something of a proto-“method acting” approach, going into a New York’ slum neighborhood to study the women there. But Lady Macbeth was her official professional debut and her first triumph. She was 19 years old at the time.

During several years of stock roles in New York she developed a critical following and began playing the trouser roles that would be the other half of her signature style. It was not at all uncommon for women to play male roles on stage in the 19th century. In some cases, as in operatic trouser roles, the purpose was to bring the experience of a seasoned performer to portray a young man more believably than a male actor of a similar age could. But there was also the titillation factor, bleeding over from music hall culture, of creating an excuse for a woman to wear clothing that exposed the shape of her legs on stage. The latter was definitely not one of Cushman’s motivations. She made it a lifelong crusade to make the theater a more respectable profession and environment, and when she spent a stint as the manager of the Walnut St theater in Philadelphia in her late 20s, she was one of a number of woman managers who tried to change theater-going culture to be more family friendly and treated as a formal social event.

Cushman’s most famous male role was as Romeo, which she debuted playing opposite her sister Susan who has been enticed into a theatrical career primarily for that purpose. In later years, Cushman would give plausible motivation for this potentially transgressive performance by saying that she had played Romeo in order to give her sister the best co-star for her Juliet. But it’s clear from the written record that this story was created after the fact.

The reception of Cushman’s Romeo is an excellent place to pause and discuss some of the oddities of 19th century attitudes toward sex and romance. To vastly oversimplify, two principles were accepted with little examination. First, that all personal interactions between men and women were inherently sexualized. Platonic friendship between the sexes was considered next to impossible. Unmarried women in unchaperoned contact with men were suspected of being compromised. Married women had somewhat more latitude. The second principle was that romance was a good and noble thing and had nothing inherently to do with sex. Women were encouraged to experience and practice romance, but due to principle number 1, it might be a good idea if unmarried women practiced their romance with other women where there was no chance of the corrupting presence of sex.

As we’ll see later, the starting presumption that there was no potential for sexual activity between women had its limits, but this polite social fiction was part of the essential foundation of the concept of Romantic Friendship between women. Women who expressed undying devotion to each other, who kissed and embraced freely, who wrote letters full of passionate longing to be with the beloved, who considered it their highest aspiration to live happily ever after in quiet retirement with their female friend...these things were considered to be part of the ideal model of womanhood. Such experiences were considered to be part of practice and preparation for turning such devotion to a husband, but of course it wouldn’t do at all for respecrtable young women to “practice” by experiencing such feelings toward a man. And the significant gender segregation of society, even after marriage, meant that women’s opportunities for forming close emotional bonds were primarily with other women.

From the modern point of view, this creates a significant level of confusion. Were these women participating in homoerotic relationships or was this simply the performance of non-sexual friendship in modes that later became inextricably merged with sexual desire? The legacy of the 20th century medicalization of sexuality makes it hard for us to imagine that such relationships might at the same time be socially accepted and unselfconsciously sexual. The answer is something more complicated than those two positions, and the internal details of Charlotte Cushman’s life, as expressed in her memoirs and correspondence, help to explore those nuances.

But for now, we were talking about how attitudes toward sexuality affected the reception of Cushman’s Romeo. One theater reviewer, after seeing the role, 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 not only was 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 (that is, 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.

Female theater goers responded enthusiastically to Cushman’s Romeo, even as she continued well into her 40s when even a woman could no longer sustain the visual illusion of being a teenage boy. Female fans responded to the performance in unmistakably erotic ways, and Cushman used the role as a context for flirtations, including ones that developed into something much more. But I get ahead of myself.

Among the important professional contacts that Cushman made during her early career were British actress Fanny Kemble, who had married an American, and British actor William Charles Macready. Macready was a man of enormous ego and difficult personality, but he inspired Cushman to study his techniques in order to bring a systematic improvement to her own performances. And she was able to attribute to Macready the idea of making a performance tour in England (just in case anyone thought it was a presumptuous idea for a young actress to have on her own, though in fact she’d been considering it long before she met Macready).

At age 28, Charlotte Cushman, armed with a collection of letters of introduction and reference, and accompanied only by her newly hired black maid Sallie Mercer, made the voyage to Great Britain and the next stage of her career.

At various points in Cushman’s career, she made bold decisions and demands that came out of a desire never to accept second best, never to settle for less than she thought she was worth. This attitude led her to decline contracts that couldn’t promise her starring roles and to demand equal billing and equivalent pay to actors with more established careers. Although Macready was one of her most significant contacts in England, Cushman had already locked horns with him a few times during his American tour. While he was impressed with her professionalism and talent, he was deeply uneasy about working with someone who had the potential to overshadow his own performances. He never entirely forgave her for the times when American critics praised her performances over his when they shared the stage.

So when Cushman arrived in London and Macready was only willing to offer her supporting roles in his company, she declined and spent her time establishing social contacts and making friends, especially among a wide circle of intellectual and creative women, authors, artists, publishers, radicals, social reformers. 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, crossing boundaries of class, religion, and even race.  These circles included novelist Geraldine Jewsbury and her romantic friend Jane Carlyle, poet and publisher Eliza Cook (more on her later), political radical and feminist Matilda Hays (more on her too later), and many others.

Cushman got her first foot in the door in a London theater company by virtue of walking into the manager’s office and, when he initially turned her down, putting on a spontaneous over-the-top melodramatic melt-down, then dusting off her (metaphorical) hands and telling him, “That’s what I’m offering you.” As a result, she was able to insist on debuting in a starring role rather than a supporting part and moved from success to success from there on out. British audiences were wary of American actors, considering them unworthy of touching the great English playwrights, as well as being generally uncouth and uncultured. But the flip side was that there was an image of Americans as representing “manly vigor”. This wasn’t necessarily a plus for American men, who often clashed with the British ideal of emotional control. But in Cushman’s case, it meant that her brashness and assertiveness could be chalked up to her being an American rather than being thought unwomanly.

Cushman was pronounced a brilliant success in her London debut in Fazio and then agreed to play opposite American actor Edwin Forrest, though her own abilities were considered vastly superior to his. Cushman’s Lady Macbeth and other “strong female” roles delighted everyone in the English audiences except her male co-stars, who often felt both physically and theatrically overshadowed by her. Cushman was particularly well received by female viewers for these features of her performance. Her style 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 delivery that British audiences found acceptable when other American actors were judged incapable of properly portraying iconic roles (such as those of Shakespeare) on the British stage.

After 5 years of performing on English, Scottish, and Irish stages, during which time she brought her mother and siblings over to share and support her success, Cushman returned to the States to reprise her success there. Three years later, at age 36, she decided she was in a comfortable enough financial position to retire from the stage and selected Rome as the setting for her retirement. There were a number of reasons for this choice, but largely it was the intersection of a very cheap cost of living and the presence of a substantial British and American expat community. Cushman’s retirement wasn’t to last particularly long--the loved she thrill of being on stage and the center of attention--but the reasons for that were tied up with her romantic life, so it’s time to circle back and begin talking about that.

As mentioned previously, in early and mid 19th century culture, both in America and Britain, it was considered completely normal and expected for women--both unmarried and married--to have passionate romantic attachments to other women that were expressed in language and behavior that modern people would have no hesitation in considering homoerotic. Charlotte Cushman was born in Boston, the flashpoint of this culture that gave rise to the concept of the Boston Marriage, two women sharing their lives together in a way that was functionally indistinguishable from a heterosexual marriage...except for the part where society chose to believe that a sexual component was not only not present but was unthinkable and impossible.

Given that, what sort of evidence would distinguish whether a relationship between two women was a non-sexual exclusive platonic friendship or whether it was a lesbian relationship “hiding in plain sight”? I’m going to start off by staking out a position that it doesn’t matter. If two women engaged in an intense emotional bond that inspired them to exhange rings, make formal vows of exclusivity, to write letters expressing desire for the other’s physical presence and that recorded their kisses and embraces and longing to sleep in the same bed. If those two women discussed the goal of setting up housekeeping together and worked to achieve that goal. And--to touch on less positive aspects--if they experienced jealousy and depression when those ideals of fidelity and exclusivity appeared to be violated to a degree that would seem odd for platonic friends. If two women are in a relationship with all these features, why would the nature of that relationship undergo a cataclysmic conceptual change just because they were or were not touching each other’s genitals?

As I laid out in my podcast on archetypes of asexual lesbianism, the official social understanding of Boston Marriages were that they were non-sexual and they flourished in part because that archetype made them acceptable within the framework of 19th century society. But the map is not the territory. There is plentiful evidence that Romantic Friendship encompassed the whole gamut of sexual potential from those that were asexual by preference, to those where sexual desire may have been felt but sublimated into non-genital expressions, to those that embraced genital sexuality. And unless we have unambiguous comentary on that aspect from the women themselves in contexts where they felt safe to express themselves, there is no way of concluding what part genital expression had in any particular relationship. So with that said, I’m not going to focus on what evidence there may or may not have been for specific sexual practices in Cushman’s life. I’m going to focus on public behaviors and on the discussion of those public behaviors in her private correspondence to identify her relationships as being romantic in nature as we, today, understand the term.

It’s worth pointing out that Cushman never expressed any regret at not marrying a man, she is known to have had proposals of marriage that she emphatically rejected, and although she sometimes opined that she considered marriage incompatible with a professional career, there’s no evidence that she was ever seriously tempted to try the experiment.

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”. While the specifics of what “not innocent” would involve are never directly touched on, it’s clear that they were well aware that certain types of behavior would be considered to risk moving a relationship from permitted to forbidden. And when those relationships required the acceptance and permission of family members, there are cases where those family members were uncomfortable enough with the nature of the relationship to step in and bring pressure to bear.

This was the case with Cushman’s earliest known romance. While managing the Walnut St Theater in Philadelphia around 1842, Charlotte became acquainted with Anne Brewster, a writer who would much later become a European correspondent for various American newspapers. With Anne Brewster, Cushman shared a love of literature and poetry. They would spend time together either in Anne’s parents’ house or at the separate residence Charlotte had established apart from her mother and siblings. They read to each other and discussed favorite texts. In her diaries, 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, but this was a continuing feature of Cushman’s curation of her written record. The most revealing information about Cushman’s relationships usually comes from records that she had no control over to edit or destroy.

Shortly after, Cushman set out on what can only be called a campaign of courtship of actress and mentor Fanny Kemble. Kemble was British but had married an American southerner whose family business was thoroughly enmeshed in the economy of slavery--a fact that Kemble despised. Combined with her husband’s disdain for her profession on stage and his sexual infidelities, Kemble came to a breaking point and was looking for legal evidence that would allow her to divorce him without losing custody of her children. Charlotte showered Fanny with gifts and invitations, motivated by a mix of star-struck idolization and desire, and was overjoyed at Kemble’s reception of her. Cushman longed to be Kemble’s savior and to help her achieve the divorce she wanted, promising to do everything she could to help procure it. Her inability to fulfil this promise 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, a well-known society painter. (This, or another portrait from the same source, ended up in the possession of Anne Brewster.) Rosalie differed from Cushman’s previous relationships in returning her devotion in equal measure. Cushman’s diary notes with delight the occasions on which they “slept together”, and though this was probably not a euphemism for sex specifically, it was clearly a meaningful emotional step in their relationship. (That is, I’m 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.)

One of the major bars to Charlotte establishing a household with Rosalie, as they both desired, was finances. Rosalie was dependent on her parents for support and Charlotte--already supporting her own extended family--wasn’t yet able to take on another dependent, even though such an arrangement would give social sanction to their relationship. In spite of this, 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. At the same time, Rosalie’s family approved of and supported the relationship. When Cushman made the decision to travel to England for the sake of her career, Rosalie and her father accompanied her to New York to see her off. Cushman’s shipboard diary recounts her erotic dreams of Rosalie and she writes about their devoted bond and looks forward to being reunited. Cushman later destroyed her correspondence with Rosalie, but the reflections in her diary entries on the voyage to England document their intense emotional and physical relationship.

The intensity of that relationship did not survive the separation. What was originally intended to be perhaps a half-year tour turned into 5 years on opposite sides of the Atlantic. The emotional nature of their correspondence had cooled by the time Charlotte took up with poet Eliza Cook in England, though she was never particularly careful about concluding one romance before embarking on another.

Eliza Cook was a poet, author, publisher, and political activist participating in the Chartist movement, a working-class movement for political reform in Britain. She supported political and sexual freedom for women, and believed in the ideology of self-improvement through education, for which she used the term "levelling up." She and Cushman established a romantic relationship that may have been doomed by the difference in their interests. Cushman seems to have had no particular interest in politics or direct reform movements, though she certainly believed in improving the ability of women to maintain professional careers on an equal footing with men.

Cushman’s intimate friendships were rarely exclusive, and her correspondence from this time often shows an awareness that letters sent and received might not be entirely private. (Although it speaks to a slightly earlier age, think about all the contexts in the novels of Jane Austen when even the most personal of letters are expected to be shared aloud or passed around, even before the primary recipient knows what they contain.) Cushman would caution her correspondants that the contents of their letters must be circumspect and within the bounds allowed to romantic friendship. Among the letters from Geraldine Jewsbury--who briefly transferred her affections to Cushman from her life-long relationship with Jane Carlyle--there are circumspect cautions not to pay attention to public gossip about her relationships as long as her “friends” were chosen for their virtuous qualities. This sort of correspondence shows how the women in these circles 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. Her next long-term relationship was with radical author and feminist Matilda Hays. When Cushman first arrived in England, she had received support and assistance from her circle of female friends. Now her rising success meant she could support them in turn. Hays was one of the beneficiaries of that support. Their contemporary Elizabeth Barrett Browning commented on their relationship writing, "I understand that she (Cushman) and Miss Hays have made vows of celibacy and of eternal attachment to each other -- they live together, dress alike... it is a female marriage." Their “dressing alike” included wearing matching tailored shirts and jackets. It was something of a fashion among the feminist set to wear masculine-styled garments and accessories. Like many of Cushman’s lovers, Hays was a writer and publisher as well as a political activist. In later life she translated the works of George Sand. She also had a brief stint as an actress while she was living with Cushman, though this doesn’t seem to have been a significant interest.

In 1849 when Cushman returned to America, Matilda Hays came with her. But in the summer of 1850, Cushman received word that Eliza Cook, her previous girlfriend, was deathly ill in England and she immediately returned there, which caused quite a stir in the press. Perhaps an emergency trans-Atlantic trip to what she believed to be a deathbed was one of those things that fell outside the normal bounds of romantic friendship. After being assured that Cook was not at death’s door (although she would never entirely recover), Cushman returned to her U.S. tour. One interesting side issue I noticed in Cushman’s life is how many trans-Atlantic journeys she made, often on short notice and only for brief stays. Although such voyages were never trivial at the time, they seem to have been far more common than one might think.

While in Boston, Cushman and Hays befriended a 21-year-old sculptor named Harriet Hosmer and formed an immediate attachment. As Cushman and Hays planned a retirement to Rome with several other close friends, they invited Hosmer to join them. The theme of sculpture will show up a lot from here on in. That struck me as an interesting coincidence when I was first tracing Cushman’s social circle, but the explanation is even simpler than the likelihood that making friends with one sculptor will lead to befriending others. Rome was the place to go to study classical sculpture and to find teachers and patrons to further one’s own art. Among the sculptors residing in Rome in the mid-19th century were a startling number of women, and Charlotte Cushman seems to have befriended most of them.

Harriet --or Hattie--Hosmer was a fascinating woman in her own right. Her father, a physician, had responded to the tragic death of his wife and Hattie’s three siblings by deciding the best way to protect Hattie’s health was for her to have an active, physical education and, in essence, to be raised as a boy. Whether one falls on the nature or nurture side of gender expression, Hattie thrived under the program and was frequently commented on as being gender non-conforming later in life. Observers in Rome described her in language such as “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.” This is an interesting early use of the word “queer” in a context that was very clearly talking about gender expression, though the word had a much broader application at the time as well.

Hosmer had studied anatomy under her physician father and had an early talent for modeling. A family friend, Wayman Crow, encouraged her and became a patron of her ambitions to become a sculptor. (Hosmer also had a romantic friendship with Wayman’s daughter Cornelia, and another Crow daughter will become relevant later.) To move from modeling in clay to working in marble, Hosmer needed to study in an atmosphere like Rome, and Cushman’s invitation provided the ideal opportunity. Initially, her father accompanied her, but he soon decided he could place his confidence in Cushman to look out for her. Hosmer would later be considered the most distinguished female sculptor in19th century America and the first professional female sculptor. But all that comes later. (Also later was a 25-year devoted relationship with Louisa Barring, Lady Ashburton. Although I’m primarily focusing on the romantic relationships in immediate proximity to Cushman, pretty much all of the women discussed here had multiple romantic relationships with women throughout their lifetimes.)

In any event, Charlotte Cushman, Matilda Hays, and a collection of friends including Hattie Hosmer and writer Grace Greenwood set up housekeeping in Rome near the Spanish Steps in the midst of a vibrant expat community of intellectuals and artists. Cushman’s female-centered household evidently caused a bit of a stir, perhaps amplified by her forceful personality and assertive promotion of her friends’ professional careers. Somewhat to Cushman’s disquiet, perhaps not simply because she was used to being an unrivaled center of attention, Hays and Hosmer developed an increasingly close relationship. This relationship may have been part of the impetus for Cushman to return to the English stage the next spring, taking Hays away with her, although Cushman would repeatedly go though a cycle of “retiring” and the returning to the stage so the domestic tensions may not have been the only motivation.

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. A growing tension between Hays and Cushman in England resolved with Hays returning to Rome to be with Hosmer. Cushman threw herself back into performing.

Hays became increasingly unhappy separated 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. 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.

Among much coming and going of old and new friends, Cushman and Stebbins began spending a lot of time together while Cushman and Hays were increasingly apart. This time, Hays was the jealous one. They argued and fought. It was when Hays finally 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 pursuits 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 titled Adrienne Hope.

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.” 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 now as bachelors and old maids, other times as wives and married partners (and those not always aligning with the actual 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 much later, toward the end of their time in Rome, sculptor Edmonia Lewis.

Although Lewis was never one of Cushman’s lovers she’s worth spending some time on (especially if we’re planning for our sprawling mini-series production). Edmonia Lewis was born of a black father and a bi-racial Ojibwe and black mother. Although orphaned by age 9, when Edmonia was 15 her brother raised funds to send her to Oberlin College. And although she functionally completed the program for a degree, a series of racially-charged incidents resulted in her being denied a diploma. After leaving college, she moved to Boston to study to become a sculptor. Her 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, though she also received support from a number of abolitionist organizations. It was that support that enabled her to to to Rome to study in 1866 where she gained the patronage of both Cushman and Stebbins, who worked to gain her recognition and clients. It’s clear, though that Lewis was always on the fringes of the artistic community and her later supporters expressed bitter disappointment at how little practical help Cushman had provided. Though, in fairness, their time in Rome only overlapped by 3 years and came at a time when Cushman had other worries taking her attention.

Some of Lewis’s most famous and iconic works include “Forever Free” commemorating the emancipation of enslaved blacks after the Civil War, “Hagar” using the Biblical figure as an allegory of the experience of black mothers in the United States, and “The Old Arrow-Maker and his Daughter” inspired by her Native American heritage, as well as several pieces inspired by Longfellow’s poem Hiawatha.

Several of my sources speculated on whether Lewis engaged in romantic relationships with women like many of those in her larger social circle. I can’t find any direct evidence for specific close friendships, though she never married or had any known romantic relationships with men either.

But as I say, Edmonia Lewis entered Cushman’s social circle quite late in her various stints in Rome. Let’s circle back to the point when Cushman and Stebbins first took up together in 1857. During that same year, Cushman decided to make another tour in America. Although Stebbins had a somewhat negative opinion of the stage as a profession, she seems to have accepted that Cushman needed regular infusions of adulation and fame. She seems not to have needed the money quite as much, but Cushman’s fame was such that her performances were always profitable. Stebbins remained in New York when Cushman traveled to performances in Chicago and St. Louis. And this is when Cushman’s personal life gets really complicated. Despite the relationship with Emma Stebbins being relatively new, Charlotte was hopelessly susceptible to the attractions of passionate female fans. And so a second Emma came into her life. This will make references to the players potentially confusing, so from here on out, Emma Stebbins will be referred to as Stebbins, while Emma Crow will be simply Emma.

While playing in St. Louis, Cushman stopped to do some financial consultation with Wayman Crow, the patron of Hattie Hosmer, whom Cushman intended to employ as her financial advisor. During that visit, Crow’s 18 year old daughter Emma saw Cushman playing her Romeo and sparks flew. Charlotte Cushman was 42 years old at this point, but Emma described her in her memoir as “the incarnation of the ideal lover.” That may give you some concept of how successfully Cushman inhabited her roles on stage.

Emma spent all the time she could in Cushman’s presence for the next two weeks she was in St. Louis, although she received little attention in return. But by Cushman’s departure, she was calling Emma her “little lover” and began a voluminous correspondence with her that would continue for the next 18 years. Cushman expected that Emma’s initial infatuation would soon fade, but that didn’t happen. Emma was consistently the more assertive one in pursuing their romance, while Charlotte dithered between loving the passionate attention and worrying about the hazards of such a relationship, as well as its potential to wound Stebbins deeply.

Throughout the years, Emma kept all Cushman’s letters to her, despite the latter’s requests to burn them, though Emma’s 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. She stopped in St. Louis 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. She made no bones about the nature of her relationshp with Stebbins, calling it a marriage and referring to the ring she wore in token of it.

Emma wanted to join Cushman in her hotel room during that visit 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.

To condense down a great deal of complications, Cushman simultaneously wanted to bring Emma into her life but had no intention of leaving Stebbins and was also worried about appearances. It’s unclear just why she felt that inviting Emma to join them in Rome would present a greater potential scandal than any of her other romantic friendships. It’s possible that she felt that Emma was incapable of being discreet. It’s possible that she expected another round of public jealousies and fights such as the ones that had heralded the transition from Matilda Hays to Emma Stebbins. It’s possible that Cushman felt some unease herself over taking a lover half her age.

The solution she came up with was that Emma would marry her nephew Ned Cushman. Ned was the son of her sister Susan whom she had adopted some years previous. The original idea seems to have been that Ned would be no more than a beard--a plausible excuse for Charlotte to have a public legal relationship to Emma. But once matters had proceded as far as the wedding, it was clear that that was a non-starter. Whatever opinion Emma had regarding the marriage at the beginning, it wasn’t going to be an in-name-only affair. And although Charlotte’s correspondence with Emma continued to be fairly passionate for the rest of her life, by the time they next met, on the occasion of Emma’s miscarriage of her first child, their public relationship appears to have settled into that of mother and daughter.

There was a great deal of soap-opera style coming and going in the years that followed. Hattie Hosmer left Cushman’s household, possibly out of growing professional jealousies with Stebbins. Cushman and Stebbins made regular trans-Atlantic visits, either for Cushman’s performances or in relation to Stebbins’ sculpture installations. (Two of her most famous works are a bronze of Horace Mann at the State House in Boston, and the statue “Angel of the Waters” in New York’s Central Park.) But for the most part their life seems to have settled into a comfortable accommodation of their various interests.

In 1869, twelve years after Cushman and Stebbins became a couple (and the same length of time after Emma Crow came into their lives) Cushman was diagnosed with breast cancer. Despite treatments, including surgery, the cancer persisted and her health began a long gradual decline, though she would continue to live for 7 more years. Cushman decided to move back to the States permanently, giving up her other homes in Rome and England to settle in Boston. She threw herself back into performing on the stage until declining health led her to shift to doing recitations rather than full productions. In 1874 she began a series of “farewell performances” including a sequence of retirement galas concluding in the middle of the following year. That winter her condition worsened and in February 1876 she died with Stebbins at her side, as well as being joined at the very last by Emma and Ned.

The question of what happened to Charlotte Cushman’s fame and legacy after her death is another complicated question. Her immediate legacy looked secure. At the time of her death, her independence from men, her female friendships, and her androgyny were all seen as postive virtues. But public opinion regarding those same traits shifted 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,” that is, 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 othered by being associated with working-class women, with passing women, and with 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 self-policed 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. But 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, inside light on the alleged acceptability of romantic friendships. This same sanitization of 19th century women’s same-sex romances can be seen in a biography of Cushman published in 1970 that I also cover in the blog.

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 translated into an absence of love, and her lovers were entirely erased from the record. Like other female couples of the day, such as Cushman’s friends Geraldine Jewsbury and Jane Carlyle, their 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 to the point where she must be “discovered” rather than being part of our common cultural knowledge.

But oh my what a dramatic mini-series she would make! Don’t you agree?

Show Notes

Charlotte Cushman was the greatest American actress of the 19th century. So why isn’t she a household name?

In this episode we talk about:

  • Cushman’s professional career arc
  • The ways in which 19th century attitudes toward romance and sex affected reception of Cushman’s performances
  • The phenomenon of Romantic Friendship between women, and how it wasn’t necessarily as sexless or as respectable as we’re sometimes led to believe
  • A chronology of Cushman’s many female romantic partners
  • Cushman’s social circle of women intellectuals and artists at her “retirement” home in Rome
  • A discussion of how Cushman’s careful management and curation of her public image, particularly with respect to her lovers, calls into question some of the popular assumptions about Romantic Friendship and Boston Marriages
  • Why the world desperately needs a TV mini-series about Cushman’s life and social circle

This topic is discussed in one or more entries of the Lesbian Historic Motif Project here:

Links to the Lesbian Historic Motif Project Online

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