Charlotte Saunders Cushman: 1816. The American stage actress began her career as an opera singer at the age of thirteen, following the death of her father. She had learned to sing from a friend of her father, who was also a foreman at a Boston piano factory, and she is said to have possessed a remarkable contralto range. But when her singing voice suddenly failed due to strain, she switched gears and became a noted drama actress, with a particular flair for Shakespeare. She and her sister, Susan Webb Cushman, became famous for playing Romeo and Juliet together, with Charlotte playing the role of Romeo to Susan’s Juliet.
In 1848 while in Europe, Charlotte met journalist and sometime actress Matilda Hays, and they began a ten year affair during which they became known for dressing alike. Charlotte retired from the stage in 1852 and the couple moved to Rome, where they immersed themselves in an expatriate community consisting mainly of lesbian artists. Hays and Cushman split in 1857, and Cushman became involved with the sculptor Emma Stebens. She returned to the U.S. for a tour, and before returning to Italy in 1861 she was offered a farewell performance of the title role of Hamlet in Washington, D.C., the first of at least seven different so-called farewell performances over the next seven years. Her final final performance on the stage wouldn’t be until May of 1875 at Boston’s Globe Theater, nine months before she died at the age of 59 of pneumonia.
155 YEARS AGO: Edward Prime-Stevenson (a.k.a. “Xavier Mayne”): 1858. Trained as a lawyer though he never practiced, Edward Irenaeus Prime-Stevenson was known as a very cosmopolitan man of letters, befitting one who was born into a wealthy and cultured family. A master of nine languages, he wrote poetry, short fiction, magazine serials and travel essays for Harpers and The New York Independent before settling on music criticism. Early in his career, he wrote two books for boys: White Cockades: An Incident of the “Forty-Five” (1887), a historical fiction about a young Prince Pretender, and Left to Themselves: Being the Ordeal of Philip and Gerald (1891).
It was at about that time that he began dividing his time between the U.S. and Europe, and by the time the century turned, he was spending most of his time, never quite settled, in a regular circuit that consisted of stays in London, Paris, Budapest, Florence, and Rome. His beloved mother had died and left him an independently wealthy man, and his great love, Henry Harkness Flager, the son of a railroad magnate, had dumped him to marry a woman. As Stevenson let it be known in a few of his letters, he found America too oppressive for one such as he.
While in Naples in 1906, he published his “little psychological romance,” Imre: A Memorandum, under the pen name of Xavier Mayne. Imre, about a young Hungarian military officer’s relationship with another man, and was notable for two reasons. Not only was it the first American novel to deal openly and sympathetically with homosexuality, but it did so with a story line with a happily-ever-after ending.
Stevenson, again as Xavier Mayne, followed that with another book, The Intersexes: A History of Similisexualism as a Problem in Social Life, which he published privately in Rome in 1908. (“Intersex” was often used to refer to gay men or women under the idea that they were members of the “intermediate sex”. “Simisexual” was an all-Latin form of the word “homosexual,” which scandalized some scholars for its hybridization, some said “bastardiazation,” of Greek and Latin roots.) This 646-page opus, dedicated to the memory of the German writer Richard von Krafft-Ebing, covered an incredible array of topics: homosexuality in the ancient world and among primitive peoples, animal studies, gay geniuses, literature, ancient and modern legal codes, male prostitution, blackmail, violence, and contemporary anecdotes, gossip and scandals. It is considered the first great defense of homosexuality in the English language, as in this passage (where he uses Krafft-Ebing’s “Uranian” to refer to gay men):
Happiest of all, surely, are those Uranians, ever numerous who have no wish nor need to fly society — or themselves. Knowing what they are, understanding the natural, the moral strength of their position as homosexuals; sure of right on their side, even if it be never accorded to them in the lands where they must live; fortunate in either due self-control or private freedom — day by day, they go on through their lives, self-respecting and respected, in relative peace
From 1913, Stevenson published Her Enemy, some Friends — and Other Personages, a collection of short stories, many of them with overtly gay themes. This time, he published it under his own name. He stayed busy through the 1920s and 1930s, but by then he was writing mostly about music. When World War II broke out, he retreated to Lausanne, Switzerland, where he died in 1942.
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