Born On This Day, 1816: Charlotte Saunders Cushman

Jim Burroway

July 23rd, 2016

charlotte-cushman200 YEARS AGO: (d. 1876) The American stage actress was from one of Boston’s oldest families, a direct descendent of Robert Cushman, a Pilgrim who helped organize the Mayflower voyage to Plymouth and who is credited for giving the first sermon on North American soil. But Charlotte was nothing like her Pilgrim forbearers or other proper Bostonian families. She would begin her life in the theater at thirteen, when she began singing opera to make money after her father died. She learned to sing from a friend of her father’s who owned a piano factory, and she is said to have possessed a remarkable contralto range. Her performance in Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro was a great success.

But when her singing voice suddenly failed due to the strain of singing above her comfortable range, she switched gears and became a noted drama actress, with a particular flair for Shakespeare. In 1836, she made her dramatic debut in the lead role of Lady MacBeth to rave reviews. With her sister, fellow actress Susan Webb Cushman, they became famous for playing Romeo and Juliet together, with Charlotte playing Romeo to Susan’s Juliet.

Charlotte Cushman and Matilda Hays

Charlotte Cushman and Matilda Hays

In 1844, Cushman began traveling to Europe, where in 1848 she met journalist and sometime actress Matilda Hays. They began an affair and lived as a couple. They were known for dressing alike, and they immersed themselves in an expatriate community in Rome consisting mainly of lesbian artists. They also, separately, indulged in a number of tumultuous affairs. In 1857, Cushman began seeing the sculptor Emma Stebbins (Sep 1). When Hays discovered the affair,  the two underwent a violent argument, with Hays hitting Cushman and chasing her around the house. Hays left Cushman and sued her, saying that she had sacrificed her career to support Cushman’s. The two settled the case privately for an unknown sum, and parted ways.

Stebbins moved in with Cushman. A few months later, Cushman left Stebbins behind and returned to the U.S. for another tour. Before returning to Italy in 1861, Cushman performed at the Washington Theater in the title role of Hamlet. The poster for the production described her as “a lady universally acknowledged as the greatest living tragic actress.”

Charlotte Cushman and Emma Stebbins

Charlotte Cushman and Emma Stebbins

In 1869, Cushman underwent treatment for breast cancer, with Stebbins setting aside her sculpting to devote her energies to Cushman’s recovery. As Cushman recovered, she developed a career as a dramatic reader, reading scenes from Shakespeare, poetry, poems and humorous pieces. In 1871, the couple returned to the U.S. and Cushman embarked on a series of performances, many of them billed as her final appearance as either a dramatic reader or actress. Her final final stage performance was in May of 1875 at Boston’s Globe Theater, which was followed by a short tour of dramatic readings in Rochester, Buffalo, and Syracuse before retiring to her villa in Newport. She became ill in October of 1875, and moved to Boston for treatment, where she died the following February of pneumonia. As for Stebbins, she never produced another sculpture after Cushman died. Instead, she devoted her time to compiling their correspondence for Charlotte Cushman: Her Letters and Memories of Her Life.

Joyce Miller

July 25th, 2016

Coincidentally, a friend of mine just gave a performance as Charlotte Cushman based on a biography by Lisa Merrill. My friend wondered where you found the first picture. She thinks that might not be Charlotte.

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