America’s First Celebrity Was Queer But You’ve Probably Never Heard of Her

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In Jezebel’s newest series Rummaging Through the Attic, we interview nonfiction authors whose books explore fascinating moments, characters, and stories in history. For this episode we spoke with Tana Wojczuk, author of Lady Romeo: The Radical and Revolutionary Life of Charlotte Cushman, America’s First Celebrity, a biography that unearths the life of 1800s American queer icon and actress Charlotte Cushman, who has largely been lost to history until now.

Years ago, author Tana Wojczuk was an aspiring actress. “I played Viola in Twelfth Night,” she recounts. “I remember the sensation of trying to be a man on stage. And it’s not about wearing pants versus a skirt, or what you wear. It’s about a certain kind of freedom in the world, in the way that you move about the world. That made me understand what a performance it was to be female as well.” Inspired to find more women who played men’s roles in the theater, Wojczuk stumbled upon the life of a now-forgotten Charlotte Cushman, an American actress who took the country by storm in the 1800s. “Everybody we know now from that era knew her, or wanted to know her,” says Wojczuk. “Here’s a woman who performed for Queen Victoria, Lincoln, and had the brightest lights of American and British society as her close, intimate friends … Why don’t we know her now? What happened to her and why wasn’t her legacy better preserved?

Cushman was born on July 23, 1816, almost 40 years after the signing of the Declaration of Independence. “It was really the first time that America had the luxury to think about creating their own culture, and think about what that might look like,” says Wojczuk. At her mother’s boarding house, Cushman met actors who discussed their work and life in the theater which, at the time, Wojczuk notes was both extremely popular and very divisive: “[It] was a lightning rod for people who were debating what was sinful, what was entertainment, what was going to teach Americans something. And Charlotte came along right in the middle of all that.”

Cushman took to the stage and shot to stardom, securing her celebrity with her interpretation of Romeo: “She was very daring and brave in her portrayal of Romeo … she challenged what a lot of people saw as a certain kind of masculinity.” Cushman was lauded for the way she portrayed both women and men on stage, competing with famous actors like Edwin Forrest for roles.

As Wojczuk dug deeper into America’s culture at that time, it quickly became apparent that the 19th century Cushman knew was not the one Wojczuk thought she knew: According to Wojczuk, many scholars had assumed queerness was not recognized in 1800s America because of its lack of mention in newspapers or books. What they missed, however, was its frequent discussion in private letters. “It’s just not being published in the public eye,” she says. “I think it’s really interesting how visible queerness could be, and yet how unremarked upon … And that was a myth, about American culture being so much more prudish and the like back in the 19th century, that [we think] ‘Oh, of course, we’re getting more and more enlightened.’ That is not the case.”

Cushman died in 1876, right when America’s perception of queerness began to change—and her legacy along with it. “In 1880, a seminal work comes out that claims to be a study of perversions and awareness. Once there is a language for it and it’s considered a perversion, it just becomes visible in this really negative way,” explains Wojczuk. “One obituary says, ‘Oh, Charlotte Cushman. She was great, but thank god women don’t have to debase themselves by playing men on stage anymore.’ That’s completely different from how critics were writing about her throughout her career.” A few years after her death, a collection of work by and about actors on Macbeth was released with no mention of Cushman’s popular portrayal of Lady Macbeth—which is believed to have inspired President Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. “[It] is her biggest role at the beginning and end of her life … and she’s not in [this book]. She’s nowhere in it.”

“It just made me keep a much more open mind about looking for those moments of complex, exciting cultural happenings, cultural moments, and then really paying attention to what happened to them, that they didn’t just go away. They were intentionally killed, or splotched.”

Now, almost 150 years after her death and more than 10 years after setting off to write Lady Romeo, Wojczuk aims to re-introduce Cushman to the public and cement her place in American history. “I’m really happy that she’s out in the world now, and it’s bizarre. I can’t tell you how strange it is to hear her name on other people’s lips.”

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