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

“Charlotte Cushman is a very dangerous young man.” So wrote an anonymous female fan, on seeing the American actress play Romeo on stage in London in 1845, the role that secured her transatlantic stardom. Overturning decades of theatrical convention, Charlotte performed Shakespeare’s original text, rather than David Garrick’s bowdlerized version that woke Juliet up just in time for a tear-jerking final embrace. As Charlotte transformed herself into the strutting Italian nobleman, it was her audience, instead, that awoke. Stirred by her virility and moved by her vulnerability, they forgot the young hero was a woman, and remembered the play was a tragedy. With her younger sister, Susan, playing Juliet, Charlotte’s Romeo could clasp her lover’s body and weep over her freely without any hint of impropriety. Yet the frisson of her gender-bending performance hung in the air, inspiring the breathless adoration of scores of young women.

Dangerous indeed.

Tana Wojczuk’s biography of “America’s first celebrity” offers a lively romp through a remarkable life story, although the personality of Charlotte Cushman remains elusive, and the book lacks the context that could make richer sense of her surprising path through art and love. We’re left with a fragmentary, tantalizing picture of this forgotten star.

A Summer’s Day

Born in the freakishly cold summer of 1816 in Boston, Charlotte grew up a tomboy and natural leader. Her comfortable childhood ended abruptly when her father walked out, and Charlotte, at age 13, dropped out of school to help her mother run a boarding house. For the rest of her life, Charlotte would feel a deep sense of responsibility toward her family, forcing herself to work through illness and exhaustion in order to provide for them.

In Charlotte’s era, the theater was a paradox: “a raucous, debauched space” where men paid for sex on the upper tiers, which at the same time “promised connection with European high-culture”—especially Shakespeare. As a child, Charlotte was awed by the British star William Macready’s performance as Coriolanus, but for women, acting was a disreputable career. Her ambition, at first, was to be an opera singer. She trained with a local singing coach, trading lessons for housekeeping, and traveled to New Orleans to perform. There, by chance, the sudden death of a theater owner’s wife left an urgent opening for an actress to play Lady Macbeth. As played by the famed British tragedienne Sarah Siddons, the character appeared fragile and sympathetic. Charlotte, lantern-jawed and statuesque, made her terrifying—a monstrous, murderous queen.

In New York, Charlotte joined the Bowery Theatre, a rough and rowdy place with a passionate audience. She played small parts, including the controversial role of the prostitute Nancy in Dickens’s Oliver Twist, to prepare for which she spent days wandering the seedy Five Points district, and traded her own dress for a streetwalker’s rags. Wojczuk turns the story into a metaphor for Charlotte’s instinctive, fearless approach to acting. “It was clear she could not simply button herself into the role of Nancy as it was already made; she would have to take a seam-ripper to the thing and piece it out herself.”

Stirred by her virility and moved by her vulnerability, they forgot the young hero was a woman.

Charlotte’s performance of gender was just as radical, and in her relationships with women she pushed the boundaries of what her conservative society would tolerate. Her first serious romance was with a young aspiring artist named Rose Sully, whom she secretly “married,” according to her diary. But before she sailed for England shortly after, Charlotte burned Rose’s letters, and when Rose’s father found out about the affair, it threatened to become a scandal. Sexless “marriages” between women were not unheard of, but any hint of passion threatened the precarious balance between secrecy and open commitment.

Fame and wealth offered one kind of protection from the world’s scrutiny, and the company of like-minded, progressive women another. After Rose, Charlotte had no shortage of female admirers and lovers, including Matilda “Max” Hayes, with whom she formed a women-only artists’ community in Rome, along with the sculptor Harriet Hosmer and writer Grace Greenwood, calling themselves the “Jolly Bachelors.” When Emma Stebbins, also a sculptor, visited Rome, it was the beginning of Charlotte’s final “marriage,” although not the last of her affairs. Jealousy eventually broke up the Rome commune, and Charlotte moved back to the United States with Emma to a mansion in fashionable Newport.

Charlotte, who died at 59 from breast cancer, herself wondered what the legacy of an actress could be. Her admirers ranged from Walt Whitman to Abraham Lincoln to Louisa May Alcott, who saw her perform and “had a stage-struck fit”—the aftershock, perhaps, reverberating in her tomboyish heroine Jo March. Charlotte’s most lasting memorial, however, hides in plain sight in the middle of Central Park, in Emma Stebbins’s most important commission, the Angel of the Waters statue, looming over the Bethesda Fountain. There, in the imposing stride and androgynous strength of the angel, is a secret memorial to a remarkable woman, a “pythoness” who once held all of America in her grasp.

Joanna Scutts is the author of The Extra Woman: How Marjorie Hillis Led a Generation of Women to Live Alone and Like It