Tuesday, February 5, 2013

The Many Loves of Charlotte Cushman

Charlotte Saunders Cushman, “of the Walnut Street Theater,” 1843.
  Thomas Sully (1783- 1872)

 Charlotte Cushman was born on July 23, 1816.  She was an eight generation descendant of the Pilgrim Robert Cushman who came to America on the Mayflower.  Cushman was a gifted student but she left school to pursue a career in the opera as a way to help support her mother and younger sisters after their father abandoned the family.

Strained by the soprano parts assigned to her, her voice suddenly failed. Desperate for a way to make a living, Charlotte became an actress. She was given the part of Lady Macbeth to study by a friend who was a theater manager. Cushman made her first appearance on stage as an actress in 1835 and she was instantly a hit.


Charlotte Cushman was not exactly a beauty by any standard and at five feet six inches,  she was tall for a woman of her day. She often towered over the men who played opposite her, but she was such a skilled actress, the audience didn’t seem to notice.

 Charlotte and Susan as Romeo and Juliet

Her younger sister Susan became an actress in 1839.  She was married by the age of 14 and ended up pregnant and abandoned by her husband.  Charlotte took her in and cared for her sister like she was her mother. Oddly, the two sisters became famous for playing Romeo and Juliet together;  the masculine looking Charlotte playing Romeo and Susan playing Juliet.

 Charlotte became so famous that she even had her own brand of cigars!

In her private life, Charlotte Cushman was involved with a number of women in what were referred to as “strong female friendships.” These friendships did not arouse the suspicions of people in the nineteenth century since women were considered incapable of erotic desire and the term "lesbian" hadn’t even been coined yet. 

 Rosalie Sully painted by her father Thomas Sully

In 1843, Cushman hired the famous artist Thomas Sully to paint her portrait. The portrait (at the top of this page) is so flattering that it's unrecognizable! The two became such good friends that Cushman was soon considered part of the Sully family. Sully’s beautiful young daughter, Rosalie, became extremely close with Charlotte Cushman. The two young women were soon spending all of their free time together and writing passionate letters when they were apart. In July of 1844 Cushman gave Rosalie a ring and then cryptically noted in her diary: “‘R Saturday, July 6, ‘Married.’ “

They made plans to reunite after Cushman’s return from her London engagements, but the tour was so successful that it last for years. Cushman eventually started another relationship with a female actress and when word got back to Rosalie she was beyond despair. Not long after the break up, the heartbroken Rosalie died of a fever, some say due to her weakened emotional state.

When news of Rosalie’s death reached Cushman in London she suffered a mental collapse and her shows were canceled so she could visit a spa to take the “rest cure.”

 Charlotte in mourning

 Matilda Hays

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 with her partner Matilda Hays

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. 

 5 years later, in 1854, Matilda left Charlotte for the lesbian sculptor. Cushman soon became involved with the sculptor Emma Stebbins. Stebbins was a feminist and lived openly as lesbian in the bohemian circles of Rome at that time. 
Stebbins 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.

 Emma Stebbins, Sculptor

  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 18 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. Crow followed Cushman back to Italy, but ironically ended up marrying Cushman’s nephew in April 1861.

 Emma Crow with Charlotte Cushman, 1860

Charlotte Cushman was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1869 and was treated by the best doctors of her day. She managed to live fairly comfortably with it for many years. She did any extensive fair well tour of the United States after her treatment; none of her audience suspected that she was ill. Her last dramatic performance was in Boston, at the Globe Theater on 15 May 1875. 

 Charlotte Cushman in costume from a period postcard.

She followed that with a reading-tour and then eventually retired to her recently constructed villa in Newport. 

In October she went to Boston for treatment of her breast cancer again. Emma Stebbins put her successful sculpting career on hold and devoted her time to caring for Cushman. Charlotte died of pneumonia in her hotel room in Boston in 1876 at the age of 59. 

1915 she was elected to the New York University Hall of Fame.

For more about the life of Charlotte Cushman


  1. What an incredible woman! A. I wish I had that vintage cigar box and B. I want to go back in time and catch her performances.

  2. I'm also very curiouse And try to imagine her performances..

  3. I am a tour guide at Laurel Hill Cemetery in Philadelphia where Thomas Sully has a family plot. Daughter Rosalie is buried there. I always include the story about Rosalie and Charlotte on my tours, along with two other fascinating Sully children, General Alfred Sully and Blanche, who posed as Queen Victoria in her robes and crown when Thomas was summoned to do an official portrait in 1837.