July 24, 2020 at 6:08 pm EDT | by Kathi Wolfe
‘Lady Romeo’ brings queer icon back to the stage

‘Lady Romeo: The Radical and Revolutionary Life of Charlotte Cushman, America’s First Celebrity’

By Tana Wojczuk

Avid Reader Press /Simon & Schuster

$27, 240 pages

Queer history stories can be worthy, but too scholarly, even snooze-inducing. Or they can grab you by the lapels and jolt you awake like a double shot of espresso.

“Lady Romeo: The Radical and Revolutionary Life of Charlotte Cushman, America’s First Celebrity” by Tana Wojczuk will keep you up at night. Turning the page – hungering for more.

Her mouth was compared to “the Arc de Triomphe.” Abraham Lincoln was a fan.  Queer poet Walt Whitman praised the “towering grandeur of her genius.” Louisa May Alcott wrote in her diary that she “had a stage-struck fit” after she saw Cushman perform. The governor of New York and railroad magnate Cornelius Vanderbilt were in the audience for Cushman’s farewell performance in November 1874.

Cushman and her partner sculptor Emma Stebbins lived as a married couple for more than two decades.  

The Bethesda Fountain on Poet’s Walk in Central Park is a secret tribute to her.

Yet, most of us haven’t heard of the queer 19th century American actress Charlotte Cushman. Wojczuk, brings Cushman, who lived from 1816 to 1876 and was as famous as Alcott, Ralph Waldo Emerson or Charles Dickens, vividly to life. As you read, you forget that you live in the 21st century. You’re with Cushman as she performs in theaters lit by oil lamps, receives telegrams and gets seasick while traveling by ship from the United States to England.

It’s ironic that Cushman is largely unknown today. Because during her lifetime, she was as well known as Tallulah Bankhead or Cher. “Before Charlotte, America had no celebrities; now they manufacture them like blue jeans,” writes Wojczuk, an editor at “Guernica.”

It would have been difficult for even Dickens to have imagined Cushman’s story.  Cushman was born in Boston to a middle-class “Mayflower” family. But her life changed dramatically when her father left her family when she was 13. She left school to help her mother run a boardinghouse.

As a teenager, Cushman goes to New Orleans. Her foray into singing opera is trounced by the critics. But, through a twist of fate, she found herself with little time to learn the part, suddenly cast in the formidable role of Lady Macbeth. Despite her youth and scant acting experience, the critics agreed that “like Hamlet thrusting his sword through a shadow in the curtains, Miss Cushman had hit immediately on a starring role,” Wojczuk writes.

Cushman became famous at a time when many thought acting was sinful. Yet, throughout her over 40-year career, Cushman, often described as “mannish,” played not only Lady Macbeth but male roles. She became famous for her “breeches parts,” Wojczuk writes, “Macbeth, Cardinal Wolsey, henry VIII, Hamlet, and especially Romeo.”

Men and women of all ages and classes worshiped Cushman. Working class admirers, who knew Shakespeare by heart though they couldn’t read the Bard in books, waited in long lines to get tickets to her shows, Wojczuk notes. The press followed Cushman’s every move, and men and women imitated her style.

Cushman became well known for playing Romeo in England. Often, her sister Susan played Juliet. In another unusual move, Cushman insisted that actors work with the full text of “Romeo and Juliet,” Wojczuk writes. “Charlotte, an American, insisted on a purity and fidelity to the original that Shakespeare no longer enjoyed in his own land.”

You could easily make several movies or at least an opera of Cushman’s life. She had female lovers, controlled her financial affairs (at a time when women couldn’t vote), and at age 33, with Max (one of her lovers) started an artist community for women in Rome.

Wojczuk rescues Cushman from history’s dustbin. “Lady Romeo” brings a queer icon back to the stage.

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