CHARLOTTE CUSHMAN was born in Boston. She began as an opera singer but when her voice began to fail, and her reviews turned sour, she turned to acting becoming America’s first great performer and public celebrity.
Cushman did not limit her roles to females, earning accolades for Hamlet and Romeo. It may have been a reflection of her own life. Cushman was involved romantically with just about ever major female of her time. She was known as “Lady Romeo” and was one of the most famous people of her time, friends with all the great names of the time, Walt Whitman, William Cullen Bryant et al, as well as political figures. She was close friends with Secretary of War, Edwin Stanton, staying in his home as a guest frequently.
Another frequent guest at the Stanton home, who was in Cushman’s thrall was the President. Lincoln made a special request that Cushman perform Shakespeare’s Macbeth as a benefit for the Union soldiers. It is even believed that her rendition of the role of Lady Macbeth played a major role in Lincoln’s composition of the Gettysburg Address.
In 1848, Cushman met journalist, writer and part time actress Matilda Hays. Matilda Hays was a novelist and well know translator of George Sand. She worked in many genres but most of the topics related to women’s work and their limited opportunities. She eventually wrote a semi-autobiographical novel about her passionate relationship with Charlotte Cushman.
Charlotte Cushman and Matilda Hays developed an extremely close friendship which eventually blossomed into a romance. For the next ten years the two would be together almost constantly. In Europe they were well known as a couple and often dressed alike in public. In 1849, Cushman left London and returned to the United States with Hay. Eventually they moved to Rome were they fostered an American expatriate community made up mostly of many Lesbian artists and writers.
Five years later, in 1854, Matilda left Charlotte for the sculptor, Emma Stebbins. Stebbins was a feminist and lived openly as Lesbian in the bohemian circles of Rome at that time. Her best known work is the Angel of the Waters, 1873, also known as The Bethesda Fountain, located on the Bethesda Terrace in Central Park, New York. Stebbins and Cushman moved in together, but just a few months later Cushman had to travel back to the United States for a short tour.
While away, she met Emma Crow, a beautiful eighteen-year old actress. “My little lover” was how Cushman always liked to refer to Emma even though she insisted that she was still devoted to Stebbins.
A biography by Tana Wojczuk, Lady Romeo: The Radical and Revolutionary Life of Charlotte Cushman, America’s First Celebrity is an excellent record of this remarkable woman’s life and is available at most outlets.