“America’s First Celebrity” detailed in new book

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

There is nothing like live theatre. Years ago, while living part of the time in London, I saw two of the world’s great film stars on the stage, Vanessa Redgrave and Dame Maggie Smith. These renowned actresses were mesmerizing. I can still recall the nuance and drama of those performances; such is the power of a brilliant theatre actor.

Charlotte Cushman was such an actor — a towering, iconic performer about whom the reviews were always raves and the famous made sure to see her act so they could tell their friends. Cushman was known on two continents as the greatest actor — female or male — of her time.

Born in Boston in 1816, a family tragedy propelled Cushman onto the stage as a teenager for the most quotidian of reasons: her family was destitute and needed money. Once there, Cushman made the money that fed her penurious family. But Cushman fell in love with the stage and it her. She began a career of nearly four decades in the U.S. and Europe, captivating audiences that included Abraham Lincoln, Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Queen Victoria. Walt Whitman wrote of “the towering grandeur of her genius” in his column for the Brooklyn Daily Eagle. Louisa May Alcott put her in a novel.

“Lady Romeo: The Radical and Revolutionary Life of Charlotte Cushman, America’s First Celebrity,” Tana Wojczuk’s new biography of Cushman, brings the actress to life with vivid storytelling and newly researched details drawn from letters and archival materials. Senior nonfiction editor at Guernica and a writing instructor at New York University, Wojczuk’s essays and other writing have appeared in numerous magazines and literary journals. In “Lady Romeo, Wojczuk writes in a novelistic style imbued with a flair for the dramatic that captures Cushman and the impact she had on her era and on other people. It’s a page-turner.

Re-creating a star one has never seen is work, but Wojczuk uses her literary approach to pull the reader into Cushman’s oeuvre and explain and explore how Cushman became, as Wojczuk declares, “America’s first celebrity.” Cushman was as much a character as the ones she played, and Wojczuk details that here.

Tall, imposing, androgynous and famously “lantern jawed,” Cushman played both female and male roles on stage. And it was this versatility that set her apart from every other actress and actor of her time. “Her love speeches had a poetic cadence that, [critics] argued, no male actor could achieve,” writes Wojczuk. One aches to have seen Cushman perform from Wojczuk’s descriptions and the reviews of the time.

From Boston to New Orleans, Philadelphia to New York, London to Rome, Cushman was Lady Macbeth, but she was also Romeo. She was Nancy of “Oliver Twist,” but also Hamlet. At a time when women’s legs were hidden and a glimpse of an ankle caused a thrill, Cushman strode onstage as a “trouser actor” — her legs, her female legs — in leggings, pants or tights. She would go out after her work dressed like the flamboyant Billy Porter of her time: Male attire to the waist, skirts below.

As Wojczuk writes, “To men, she embodied the man they wanted to be, gallant, passionate, an excellent sword-fighter. To women, she was a romantic, daring figure, their Romeo. American artists and writers who later became famous were starstruck by her, and she was a household name on two continents.”

Cushman made both women and men swoon from the stage, but it was just women she wooed to her own boudoir. Previous demure recountings of Cushman have noted she “never married” because she was living openly as a lesbian, bedding women and living what some called a “bohemian” lifestyle, setting up a lesbian enclave in Rome for artists and writers that included several of her lovers, often vying for her attentions.

Drama followed Cushman, on and off the stage. The excerpts from Cushman’s letters are incredibly compelling and make the story of her complicated personal life likewise compelling. Wojczuk’s framing is enticing and gives a clear sense that Cushman’s lovers were as in thrall to her as were her audiences.

As Wojcuzk describes it, Cushman created “an entourage of female friends, ambitious, unorthodox artists like herself who longed for more freedom than they could find in America or in England.” One of Cushman’s lovers, and her partner until her death, American sculptor Emma Stebbins, memorialized the actress in the famous Bethesda fountain, Angel of the Waters, in Central Park.

“Lady Romeo” is above all a provocative, fun and easy read. While academic biographies of the famous of another era are often pedantic and plodding, Wojczuk writes with a gossipy, entré nous style that has a page-turning quality. I read the book over a weekend. The most frustrating part about “Lady Romeo” is wanting to share the details with a friend  or spoiler alert it out on Twitter: “Wait, did you hear about what Charlotte Cushman did to her nephew?! Two Emmas? Really, Charlotte?”For that delight, you’ll have to gift “Lady Romeo” to a friend. Wojczuk’s biography is highly recommended for both its historical content in exploring Cushman’s role as the first celebrity and an openly queer figure as well as for its entertainment value in bringing that time and Cushman’s complex persona believably and readably to life.