The thrilling life of Charlotte Cushman, an indomitable queer performer and America’s first celebrity comes to swashbuckling life in a new biographical book by Tana Wojczuk.
Born in Boston, 1816, Cushman found her way to theatre in hopes of supporting her family after her father disappeared. Due to her powerful stage presence and sword fighting capabilities, she quickly rose to stardom and became known as America’s first celebrity.
Cushman gathered many adorning fans and seized the limelight with gusto, never hiding her queer identity although did not publicly announce it. Due to her androgynous physique, she would go on to embody many of Shakespeare’s male roles and showcased tremendous skill at onstage combat.
The actor was known at the time for her sharp wit, outmatching anyone who dared try blackmail her and engaging in cutthroat contract negotiations. Among her many outstanding achievements, Cushman travelled to Rome and set up a colony of prominent artists and sculptors, many of whom were a part of the queer community.
In 1889, nearly a decade after she passed from pneumonia, Lawrence Barrett delivered a lecture detailing Cushman’s many success, in which he described her as “a woman of weird genius, sombre imagination, great sensibility, and celibate condition.” He further stated she was “victorious by force rather than by sweetness.”
Though her legacy was mighty, Cushman has sadly fallen out of the public eye, lost to a hidden history as many queer figures tend to be. However, in a new biographical book Lady Romeo: The Radical and Revolutionary Life of Charlotte Cushman, America’s First Celebrity, Wojczuk delves into the actors’ fascinating life with new research and rarely seen letters and documents.
In her new book, Wojczuk wrote, “Charlotte became the hub on a spoked wheel, the original networker before such a term existed. Her personality was magnetic, she was funny, intelligent, and exciting.
Thomas Wentworth Higginson, who became Emily Dickinson’s editor, declared her a brilliant conversationalist. Geraldine Jewsbury, a writer and activist, wrote excitedly to her friend Jane Carlyle “all in a blaze” about her new friend Charlotte Cushman. This made Jane achingly jealous, though Geraldine insisted she and Charlotte were “only friends”.
Worjczuk further recounts, “Queerness was visible, if not discussed publicly. Elizabeth Barrett Browning first met Charlotte and Max, at a party in Paris where the three of them could see from the balcony Napoleon III taking the city in a violent military coup.
“The moment was memorable not only as the overthrow of a democratic government, but also as Elizabeth’s first glimpse of a ‘female marriage’. She wrote to her sister that the two women dressed alike and went everywhere together. Her sister assured her that these relationships were ‘by no means uncommon.'”
If you would be interested in further exploring the life of Charlotte Cushman, you can find Tana Wojczuk’s book at this link.
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