Occasionally, a woman finds herself eating an incriminating letter in lieu of showing it to her girlfriend. Other times, she abandons a glitzy career in order to build a utopian, ladies-only artist colony nestled among the cobblestoned hills of Rome. And, once in a while, her much-younger lover marries her son and bears his child in order to gain unmitigated access to her secret lover-cum-mother-in-law.
If you’re Charlotte Cushman, the subject of Tana Wojczuk’s debut, Lady Romeo: The Radical and Revolutionary Life of Charlotte Cushman, America’s First Celebrity, you’ve done all of the above and much more. Born into an educated, upper-class family in 1816, Cushman’s gilded future melted away when her father disappeared, leaving her mother with a gaggle of children and an equally burdensome heap of debt. Wanting to help, young Cushman hatched a plan: She would support her family by fashioning a career for herself on the stage.
The world of early 19th-century theatre, however, was a Bacchanalian affair, shrouded by the infamously “dark, horrible, guilty ‘third tier’ of all the large theatres [where] men could purchase sex with prostitutes.” Actresses were generally considered to be better-lit sex workers and, due to the lurid nature of the arena, women weren’t allowed to attend productions without male accompaniment — making Cushman’s gender a literal barrier to entry.
Cushman’s androgyny posed another hurdle for the aspiring actress. One rival spoke of a square “lantern jaw” that accentuated her homeliness and others noted her swagger-like walk, no doubt exaggerated by her eyebrow-raising affinity for wearing breeches. Unlike most of the dainty women who graced the stage, she towered over her male co-stars, “moved like a ‘pythoness,'” and displayed an aptitude for swordplay that once sent a fellow actor’s baton sailing into the audience.
The actress, however, managed to weld these traits into strengths, stunning theatergoers with the magnitude of her presence and an eerie ability to embody Shakespeare’s male roles. A living, breathing, sword fighting example of the now-ubiquitous adage “Do I want her or do I want to be her?” Cushman was both desired and admired by women and seen by men as aspirational — an embodiment of the ideal male lover. Not one to execute an assignment halfheartedly, her onstage sex scenes were allegedly so erotic that one critic ventured: “No man would have dared indulge in them.”
Offstage, Cushman engaged in cutthroat contract negotiations, befriended abolitionists, openly dated women, nimbly outwitted those who tried to blackmail her, and hatched plans that smelt strongly of entrapment in order to help her female friends divorce their husbands. By age 33, Cushman was internationally beloved, independently wealthy, and widely known as America’s first celebrity.
In her unfinished memoir, Cushman hypothesizes that while most artists leave something concrete in their wake, an actor’s legacy is intangible and therefore more easily forgotten. In a fit of prescience, she writes: “What is or can be the record of an actress, however famous?” Though Cushman was mourned extensively after she succumbed to pneumonia at age 59, it wasn’t long before her name was deleted from the canon — an erasure due not to a lack of iPhone cameras but a feminist backlash, spurred on by the rise of the Victorian era, that postdated her life.
So how exactly does one profile a woman whose exploits have been scrubbed from the history books? Flip to the back of the 178-page biography and you’ll find an acknowledgments section, notes on sources, image credits, a selected bibliography, and an index that span an additional 47 pages. In most cases, Wojczuk avoids drawing on secondary sources, instead gleaning tidbits from playbills, reviews, obituaries, scrapbooks, Cushman’s original costumes, and her “only extant diary, a tiny, pocket-size journal bound in red leather,” now preserved in Columbia University’s Butler Library. Extra spice is delivered via snippets of letters from Cushman to her lovers — missives that would have disappeared into the abyss had her S.O.s heeded her instructions to burn them after reading.
Given the level of detail, it’s not surprising that Wojczuk devoted over a decade of painstaking research to Lady Romeo. In a move reminiscent of Cushman’s own method acting, the author even voyaged to Italy, where she traced the actress’s steps, visited her homes, and armed herself with a novel’s worth of sensory details. She also managed to cull anecdotes from travelogues, letters, diary entries, and newspaper articles left behind by Cushman’s mammoth network of famous friends.
A heavily abridged sampling of those who immortalized Cushman on the page: Abe Lincoln, who penned the final draft of The Gettysburg Address after witnessing her portrayal of Lady Macbeth. Thomas Sully, a father figure to Cushman, painted her portrait and then banished her for seducing his daughter. In his Brooklyn Eagle column, Walt Whitman commended the actress for leaving her hotel “equipped cap-a-pie in masculine attire — hat, coat, unmentionables and all.” Cushman was remembered by Henry James, sang in a choir helmed by her pastor, Ralph Waldo Emerson and, when targeted by petty gossip, was defended “very prettily” by Charles Dickens. In an 1858 diary entry, Louisa May Alcott describes crossing paths with the uber-famous actress and losing her sh*t: “Saw Charlotte Cushman and had a stage-struck fit.” Alcott’s relatives later had to convince her not to abandon her literary career for the stage.
While the book doesn’t delve into what it was like for anyone who wasn’t a well-off, bohemian, white female artist to be queer, it does explore what it meant for Cushman and her similarly stationed paramours to be women who dated, lusted after, and lived their lives inextricably intertwined with other women. While publicly acknowledged, these “female marriages” were expected to be sisterly in nature and devoid of lust: “A woman who loved other women too fiercely could be treated as a novelty, or, as the horrific novel The Female Husband warned, she could be hunted down and whipped in the public square.” Wojczuk makes it clear that while Cushman’s queerness and fluid gender presentation may have been what attracted the world to her, they were also what led to her ultimate postmortem cancellation.
The text renders Cushman’s reverence for Shakespeare palpable and also hints at Wojczuk’s own obsession with The Bard — a lifelong affair that has permeated her oeuvre. In a recent piece for The New York Times, the author recollects carrying Shakespearean paperbacks in the rear pocket of her jeans as a teen and consoling herself by quoting Twelfth Night after a bully painted her locker with tuna fish. In addition to his prose, she appreciated that The Bard’s stories were meant for all classes and yearned for the air of unfettered autonomy that his male characters possessed. It’s not surprising, then, that her first book would focus on Cushman, a woman who revived Shakespeare’s original text of Romeo and Juliet; scraped by as a working-class artist before rejoining the ranks of the upper-class; and “walked like a man, spoke like a man, moved her body with the confidence of someone used to taking up space.”
Lady Romeo is a brisk read, packed with cinematic details and a smattering of Easter eggs sure to delight even the most hardboiled history buff. Ultimately, the book asks: What kind of choose-your-own-adventure occurs when a queer lady with an unbending will and a penchant for leaping about onstage with a dagger strapped to her thigh is born in 1816 and refuses to espalier herself to convention? The answer, Wojczuk posits, is Charlotte Cushman, a woman who was deemed to be “a better man than most men.”