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Finalist for a Lambda Literary Award
Finalist for the Publishing Triangle’s Judy Grahn Award for Lesbian Nonfiction
Finalist for the Marfield Prize
For fans of Book of Ages and American Eve, this “lively, illuminating new biography” (The Boston Globe) of 19th-century queer actress Charlotte Cushman portrays a “brisk, beautifully crafted life” (Stacy Schiff, bestselling author of The Witches and Cleopatra) that riveted New York City and made headlines across America.
All her life, Charlotte Cushman refused to submit to others’ expectations. Raised in Boston at the time of the transcendentalists, a series of disasters cleared the way for her life on the stage—a path she eagerly took, rejecting marriage and creating a life of adventure, playing the role of the hero in and out of the theater as she traveled to New Orleans and New York City, and eventually to London and back to build a successful career. Her Hamlet, Romeo, Lady Macbeth, and Nancy Sykes from Oliver Twist became canon, impressing Louisa May Alcott, who later based a character on her in Jo’s Boys, and Walt Whitman, who raved about “the towering grandeur of her genius” in his columns for the Brooklyn Daily Eagle. She acted alongside Edwin and John Wilkes Booth—supposedly giving the latter a scar on his neck that was later used to identify him as President Lincoln’s assassin—and visited frequently with the Great Emancipator himself, who was a devoted Shakespeare fan and admirer of Cushman’s work. Her wife immortalized her in the angel at the top of Central Park’s Bethesda Fountain; worldwide, she was “a lady universally acknowledged as the greatest living tragic actress.” Behind the scenes, she was equally radical, making an independent income, supporting her family, creating one of the first bohemian artists’ colonies abroad, and living publicly as a queer woman. And yet, her name has since faded into the shadows.
Now, her story comes to brilliant life with Tana Wojczuk’s Lady Romeo, an exhilarating and enlightening biography of the 19th-century trailblazer. With new research and rarely seen letters and documents, Wojczuk reconstructs the formative years of Cushman’s life, set against the excitement and drama of 1800s New York City and featuring a cast of luminaries and revolutionaries who changed the cultural landscape of America forever. The story of an astonishing and uniquely American life, Lady Romeo reveals one of the most remarkable forgotten figures in our history and restores her to center stage, where she belongs.
Guernica editor Wojczuk debuts with a brisk and vivid biography of actor Charlotte Cushman (1816 1876), who captivated audiences while breaking 19th-century America's strict gender rules. Born to a middle-class family in Boston, Charlotte dropped out of school at age 13 and worked in her mother's boardinghouse after her father abandoned the family. After a series of disastrous performances in her brief singing career, Cushman leapt at the opportunity to play Lady Macbeth in 1836; the role launched her to fame at a time when unescorted women weren't allowed in theater audiences. In the 1840s, Cushman earned acclaim for her performances as Romeo (alongside her younger sister, Susan, as Juliet) in London and made a successful U.S. tour in which she portrayed both male and female characters, including Cardinal Wolsey in Shakespeare's Henry VIII and the prostitute Nancy from Charles Dickens's Oliver Twist. After falling in love with the writer Matilda Hays, Cushman moved to Rome where the two lived openly as a couple and established a network of female artists, before succumbing to breast cancer. Wojczuk enriches her portrait with lively theater gossip and detailed discussions of 19th-century class, social, and gender codes. This enthralling history restores Cushman to her rightful place in the spotlight. Correction: An earlier version of this review misstated Matilda Hays's last name.