" I WAS born a tomboy," wrote Miss Cushman once. By tomboy she meant that she was a girl who
preferred boys' plays, and had boy's faults. She did not care much to sew upon dolls' clothes, but could make dolls'
furniture very nicely with tools. She was fond of climbing trees, and it was a custom with her in childhood to
get out of the way of trouble by climbing to the top of a tall tree. In short, she was a vigorous, strong-limbed,
courageous girl, who might have been the mother of heroes if it had not been her fortune to be a heroine herself.
In 1816, when she was born, her father was a West India merchant, of the firm of Topliff & Cushman, who
had a warehouse on Long Wharf in Boston. Her father, at the age of thirteen, was a poor orphan in Plymouth,
Massachusetts, though a lineal descendant of Robert Cushman, one of the pilgrim fathers; a descendant, too,
of other Cushmans, IN hose honored graves I have seen upon Burial Hill, in Plymouth. Her father walked to
Boston (thirty miles distant) while he was still a boy, and there, by industry and good conduct, saved a capital upon
which he entered into business upon his own account, which enabled him for many years to maintain his family
in comfort. Many a time Charlotte played the tomboy on Long Wharf, in and out of her father's store, climbing
about vessels, and getting up on heaps of merchandise.
Once, in jumping on board a vessel, she fell into the water, and was only rescued from drowning by a passer by, who
sprang in and helped her out. Her deliverer kept on his way, and she never knew who he was until, many years
later, when she was a celebrated actress, a respectable old gentleman called upon her and told her that he was the
person, and how honored and delighted he was in having been the means of preserving so valuable a life.
Two things may be said of all true artists. One is, that the germ of their talent can be discovered in one or
more of their ancestors. Another is, that their gift manifests itself in very early childhood. More than one of
her ancestors had wonderful powers of mimicry, as well as well as a happy talent for reading and declamation.
One of her grandmothers possessed these gifts. While she was still a little girl Charlotte had a remarkable power
of mimicry. Besides catching up a tune after once hearing it, she unconsciously imitated the tones, gestures, and
expression of people she met; and this talent she preserved to the end of her life, greatly to the amusement of
her friends. She was one of those people who can imitate the drawing of a cork, and give a lively representation
with the mouth, of a hen chased about a barn-yard, and being finally caught. She could imitate all brogues and
all kinds of voices.
Born in Puritanic Boston. we should scarcely expect to find such a talent as this nourished and cultivated from
her youth up. But so it was. From her mother she learned to sing all the songs of the day, and she learned
to sing them with taste and expression. In those days almost every one sang a song or two, and a most
delightful accomplishment it is. If ever I should found an academy I would have in it a teacher of song-singing.
Miss Cushman was so lucky, too, as to have a good uncle —a sea captain—who used to take her to places of
amusement, and with him she saw her first play, Coriolanus, with Macready in the principal part.
She saw many of the noted actors and actresses of that time, and the more
frequently because her uncle was one of the stockholders of the old Tremont theatre. Through him, too, she
became acquainted with some of the performers, and thus obtained a little insight into the world behind the curtain.
Everything seems to nourish a marked talent in a child. One day at school, in the reading class, it came her turn
to read a speech from Payne's tragedy of Brutus. Before that day she had been bashful about reading aloud in
school, and had shown no ability in it whatever. When she began to read this speech her tongue seemed to be
suddenly unloosed ; she let out all the power of her voice ; and she read with so much effect that the teacher told
her to go to the head of the class. Miss Cushman always assigned the birth of her talent to the moment of her
reading the passage from Brutus. The talent was in her before, but the glow of that speech warmed it into sudden
After the war of 1812, commerce, from various causes, declined in Boston; large numbers of merchants
withdrew their capital from the sea, and invested it in manufactures. Miss Cushman's father was one of those who
did not take this course, and when she was thirteen years of age he failed, and she was obliged to think of
preparing to earn her own livelihood. Charlotte's gift for music suggested the scheme of her becoming a music-teacher,
and to this end she studied hard for two years under a very good master. When she was about sixteen years of
age the famous Mrs. Wood came to Boston to perform in concert and opera, and while there inquired for a
contralto voice to accompany her in some duets. Miss Cushman's name was mentioned to her, and this led to a trial
of the young girl's voice. Mrs. Wood was astonished and delighted at it, and told her that, with such a voice
properly cultivated, a brilliant career was assured to her. After singing with Mrs. Wood in concerts with
encouraging success, Miss Cushman appeared at Boston as the Countess in Mozart's Marriage of
Figaro. Received by the public in this and other parts with favor, she seemed
destined to fulfill Mrs. Wood's prediction.
But a few months after, at New Orleans, her voice suddenly deteriorated, and she was obliged to attempt the
profession of an actress. She made her first appearance, while still little more than a girl," a tall, thin, lanky girl,"
as she describes herself, in the difficult part of Lady Macbeth. She was obliged to borrow a dress in winch to
perform it, and she played the part, as she once recorded, " to the satisfaction of the audience, the manager, and
the company." At the end of that season she came to New York, and, by dint of hard work and earnest study,
she gradually became the great and powerful artist whom we all remember. Her biography, by her friend, Miss
Emma Stebbins, reveals to us in the most agreeable manner the secret of her power as an actress, as well as the
secret of her charm as a woman. Here is the secret, in in her own words :
" How many there are who have a horror of my profession ! Yet 1 dearly love the very hard work, the very
drudgery of it, which has made me what I am. Despise labor of any kind ! I honor it, and only despise those
who do not."
I will copy two or three other sentences of hers, to show what a wise and high-minded lady she was :
" The greatest power in the world is shown in conquest over self."
"How hard it would be to die if we had all the joys and happiness that we could desire here ! The dews of
autumn penetrate into the leaves and prepare them for their fall."
" We cannot break a law of eternal justice, however ignorantly, but throughout the entire universe there will
be a jar of discord."
" To try to be better is to be better."
" God knows how hard I have striven in my time to be good, and true, and worthy. God knows the struggles I
" Art is an absolute mistress ; she will not be coquetted with, or slighted ; she requires entire self-devotion, and
she repays with grand triumphs."
But the best thing she ever wrote or said in her life was written to a young mother rejoicing in the glorious
gift of a child.
" No artist work," said Miss Cushman, " is so high, so noble, so grand, so enduring, so important for all time as
the making of character in a child. No statue, no painting, no acting, can reach it, and it embodies each and all
That is truly excellent, and is a truth which probably all genuine artists have felt ; for art has no right to be,
except so far as it assists the best of all arts-the art of living.
I remember this fine actress when I was a school-boy, at home from school, and she was a member of the
company of the old Park theatre in New York, acting for twenty dollars a week. I remember her playing
Goneril, in King Lear, with so much power that I hated her, making no distinction between her and the part she played.
New York was a very provincial place then, and could not give prestige to any artist, and therefore it was not
until she went to England, and electrified the Londoners with her powerful acting, that she made any great
headway in the world ; although for years she had maintained her mother, and been the mainstay of the family. In
England she made a considerable fortune, which, towards the close of her life, was much increased in her native
land. She was always glad, in the clays of her prosperity, to recall the period of poverty and anxiety which preceded
her great success in England, when she was living in the vast, strange city of London, with no companion save her
faithful maid, Sallie Mercer, with no present prospect of an engagement, and with almost no money. The strictest,
severest economy was necessary ; and she used to relate with great amusement and no small pride the ingenious
shifts to which she and Sallie were driven iii matters of housekeeping, and how they both rejoiced over an
occasional invitation to dine out. Sallie herself bears witness to their straitened circumstances.
"Miss Cushman lived on a mutton-chop a day," she once said, and I always bought the baker's dozen of muffins
for the sake of the extra one, and we ate them all, no matter how stale they were ; and we never suffered from
want of appetite in those days."
In spite of all their economies, things went from had to worse, and Miss Cushman was actually reduced to her
last sovereign, when Mr. Maddox, the manager of the Princess Theatre, came to secure her. Sallie, the devoted
and acute (whom Miss Cushman had first engaged on account of what she called her conscientious eyebrows "),
was on the look-out, as usual, and descried him walking up and down the street upon the opposite side of the
way, too early in the morning for a call.
"He is anxious," said Miss Cushman joyfully, when this was reported to her. " 1 can make my own terms
She did so, and her debut took place shortly afterward, her role being
Bianca, in Mifflin's tragedy of Fazio.
Her success was complete and dazzling. The London Times of the next day said of it :
" The early part of the play affords no criterion of what all actress can do ; but from the instant where she
suspects that her husband's affections are wavering, and with a flash of horrible enlightenment exclaims, '
Fazio, thou hast seen Aldobella Miss Cushman's career was certain. The variety which she threw into the dialogue
with her husband—from jealousy dropping back into tenderness, from hate passing to love, while she gave an
equal intensity to each successive passion, as if her whole soul were for the moment absorbed in that only—was
astonishing, and yet she always seemed to feel as if she had not done enough. Her utterance was more and
more earnest, more and more rapid, as if she hoped the very force of the words would give her an impetus. The
crowning effort was the supplication to Aldobella, when the wife, falling on her knees, makes the greatest sacrifice
of her pride to save the man she has destroyed. Nothing child exceed the determination with which, lifting her
clasped hands, she urged her suit—making offer after offer to her proud rival, as if she could not give too
much and feared to reflect on the value of her concessions—till at last, repelled by the cold marchioness and
exhausted by her own passion, she sank huddled into a heal) at her feet."
This was the climax of the play, and Miss Cushman was in reality so overcome lay the tremendous force of
her own acting, as well as by the agitation consequent upon the occasion, that it was long before she could
muster sufficient strength to rise ; and the thunderous applause which burst from all parts of the house was
even more welcome as granting her a breathing space than as an evidence of satisfaction. When at last she
slowly rose to her feet, the scene was one which she could never afterward recall without experiencing a thrill of the
old triumph. The audience were all standing, some mounted upon their seats ; many were sobbing; more
were cheering, and the gentlemen were waving their hats and the ladies their handkerchiefs.
"All my successes put together since I have been upon the stage," she wrote home, " would not come near my
success in London, and I only wanted some one of you here to enjoy it with me, to make it complete."
She and Sallie were no longer filled with gratitude for a chance invitation to (limier. Invitations came in
showers, and they were overrun with visitors. It soon became a joke that Miss Cushman was never in a room with less
than six people. She sat to five artists, and distinguished people of all kinds overwhelmed her with attentions.
" I hesitate to write even to you," she says in a letter to her mother, " the agreeable and complimentary things
that are said and done to me here, for it looks monstrously like boasting. I like you to know it, but I hate to tell it
to you myself."
After a splendid career of success on both sides of the Atlantic, she took up her abode at Rome, returning
occasionally to her native land. It so chanced that she was obliged to resume her Roman residence soon after the
war broke out, and she deeply lamented that she was called away from her country at such a time. But she
bore her share in the struggle. It is hard to imagine how she could have been spared from her post in Rome, where
she was the light and consolation of the desponding little American colony. In the darkest days, when the news
from home was of defeat following defeat, her faith never wavered for an instant. She was sure the Union cause
would prove victorious.
Her countrymen in the city called her " the Sunbeam " ; and in after days many of them confessed to having
walked the streets again and again, in the mere hope of meeting her and getting a passing word of cheer. A year
before this, in London, she held with her banker, Mr. Peabody, a little conversation which perhaps displays her
feeling better than anything else. He told her that the war could not go on ; the business men of the world
would not allow it.
" Mr. Peabody," she replied, " I saw that first Maine regiment that answered to Lincoln's call march down
State Street in Boston with their chins in the air, singing: 'John Brown's soul is marching
on, and, believe me, this war will not end till slavery is abolished, whether it be in five years or thirty."
In 1862. in a letter from Rome written when news of the early Union successes began at last to be received, she
lets us perceive how sorely this high confidence had been tried.
" It has been so hard," she wrote, " amid the apparent successes of the other side, the defection, the weakness
of men on our side, the willingness of even the best to take advantage of the needs of the government, the
ridicule of sympathizers with the South on this side, the abuse of the English journals, and the utter impossibility
of beating into the heads of individual English that there could be no right in the seceding party—all has been so
hard, and we have fought so valiantly for our faith, have so tired and tried ourselves in talking and showing our
belief, that when the news came (lay after day of our successes, and at last your letter, I could not read the
account aloud, and tears—hot but refreshing tears of joy, fell copiously upon the page. 0, I am too thankful ; and
I am too anxious to come home! . . . I never cared half so much for America before ; but I feel that now I love
it dearly, and want to see it and live in it."
To live in it was impossible just then, but the longing to see it became too strong to be resisted. She
resolved to return at least long enough to act for the benefit of the Sanitary Fund; and in June, 1863, she
sailed for home. Five performances were given—one each in New York, Boston, Philadelphia, Baltimore, and
Washington—and were so successful that she had the pleasure of sending to Dr. Bellows, president of the
Sanitary Commission, from the vessel in which she left to return to Europe, a check for the sum of eight thousand
two hundred and sixty-seven dollars.
"I know no distinction of North, East, South, or West," she wrote in the letter which accompanied this generous
gift ; " it is all my country, and where there is most need, there do I wish the proceeds of my labor to be
One more extract, taken from a letter written to Miss Fanny Seward w hen the final triumph came, may fittingly
close Miss Cushman's record as a patriot. It is her song
of exultation :
"With regard to my own dearly beloved land, of which I am so proud that my heart swells and my eyes brim
over as I think to-day of her might, her majesty, and the power of her long-suffering, her abiding patience, her
unequaled unanimity, her resolute prudence, her inability to recognize bondage and freedom in our
constitution, and her stalwart strength in forcing that which she could not obtain by reasoning. . . . To-day my pride, my
faith, my love of country, is blessed and satisfied the news that has flashed to us that 'the army of Lee has
capitulated!' that we are and must be one sole, undivided—not common, but uncommon—country; great,
glorious, free; henceforth an honor and a power among nations, a sign and a symbol to the clown-trodden peoples,
and a terror to evil-doers upon earth."
After a long period of retirement, she returned to the scene of her former triumphs. People wondered why she
should continue to act during her last years, when she was tormented by the pain of an incurable disease, and
when she had a beautiful home at Newport, where there was everything to cheer and charm her declining years.
A single sentence in one of her last letters explains it, wherein she says :
"I am suffering a good deal more pain than I like to acknowledge, and only when I am on the stage or asleep
am I unconscious of it."
She died at Boston in 1876, aged sixty. There have been a few greater actresses than Charlotte
Cushman. but a better woman never trod the stage. The very soul of
goodness dwelt in her heart, and inspired her life.