When her girlfriend Matilda Hays came downstairs looking for her, Charlotte Cushman was at her desk writing a letter. Outside on the busy Via del Corso, tourists browsed new stores selling antiques. It was April and Rome was soon to burst out in bloom. Inside, though, the weather was distinctively chilly. Charlotte and Max (as everyone called Hays), had been bickering again. Max was restive, worrying that she had sacrificed her career as a translator — for the bisexual French writer George Sand, among others — to follow her girlfriend on what Charlotte had promised would be her last American stage tour.
But, Charlotte would never retire, not really. Both women knew it. By 1857, the 41-year-old actress was one of the most famous people in the world. Walt Whitman had been an early supporter, declaring her a genius before audiences in London and then, finally, across America followed suit. Charlotte had become famous for playing men’s roles, “breeches parts” like Hamlet and, infamously, Romeo, opposite her own sister in the role of Juliet. The dashing figure she made sword fighting onstage, was matched by her quick wit and powers of seduction offstage: She’d even convinced Max to be her Juliet for a time.
Max and Charlotte had moved to Rome in 1852 with a group of friends. Their all-female artist colony included Sarah Jane Lippincott, who would write dispatches from Rome for The New York Times, and Harriet Hosmer, known as Hattie, an exceptionally talented young sculptor. When Hattie’s father briefly joined their gang of female “Jolly Bachelors,” they solved the problem of his gender by simply calling him “Elizabeth.”
Hattie and Charlotte became close friends, and, though Charlotte was the celebrity, Hattie was the wild one. She came close to being arrested for indecency by going around Rome dressed in men’s clothes, and when she and Charlotte went out riding together it was not side-saddle but full-tilt, as fast and far as they could go. Max was jealous of their relationship, and had reason to be. Charlotte, after all, had been with another woman, a poet named Eliza Cook, when she began wooing Max. For her part, Charlotte also suspected Max of getting too cozy with Hattie.
Who are you writing to? Max demanded. Charlotte ignored her, head bent over the letter. Max tried to snatch the letter off the desk and Charlotte stuffed the paper in her mouth rather than “give [Max] the satisfaction” of knowing what was in it. Charlotte jumped up and Max chased her around the house, swearing “I’ll make you swallow it!” Hattie arrived and tried to make them stop bickering “like fishwives” but Max only swore at her. Two days after their big fight, as Charlotte was surely still digesting the letter, Max went back to London.
While Max and Charlotte were bickering, Hattie had been having a grand time, going to parties and staying out late, while her friend Elizabeth Barrett Browning worried that Hattie might be taking drugs. Browning herself struggled with an addiction to opium. But despite her partying Hattie was producing work. The puckish young artist took the opportunity of being far from puritanical America to study nude models in Rome and learn from a master sculptor willing to take her under his wing. She progressed quickly, and was soon running her own studio. Her figures were mythic, but her take on them was fresh. Medusa seemed trapped halfway between a mortal woman and a fury.
The freewheeling Jolly Bachelors had rubbed some American expats the wrong way. The sculptor William Wetmore Story, a close friend of Henry James, claimed to be scandalized by Hattie’s liberties. Miss Hosmer, he wrote, “takes a high hand here in Rome, and would have the Romans know a Yankee girl can do anything she pleases, walk alone, ride her horse alone, and laugh at their rules.” Henry James, when he wrote of them, called Charlotte and her friends a “harem-scarem.” James compared them to rigid marble, calling them “the white Marmorean flock.” It was not a compliment.
For the Jolly Bachelors, however, success was the best revenge. Charlotte moved up in the world, literally, from the bustling Corso to the ritzy via Gregoriana, up the steep Spanish Steps. Her parties were the place to be American expats, where she gave lavish, “apian feast(s).” Hattie was creating her masterwork, a sculpture of Beatrice Cenci, a young Italian noblewoman who had murdered her rapist father. Sarah Jane Lippincott, inspired by Italy, wrote prolifically, and Nathaniel Hawthorne declared her work “better than any man’s.” (Her success would later lure him and his wife Sofia Peabody Hawthorne to Italy, where he was inspired to write The Marble Faun.)
Charlotte became the hub on a spoked wheel, the original networker before such a term existed. Her personality was magnetic, she was funny, intelligent, and exciting. Thomas Wentworth Higginson, who became Emily Dickinson’s editor, declared her a brilliant conversationalist. Geraldine Jewsbury, a writer and activist, wrote excitedly to her friend Jane Carlyle “all in a blaze” about her new friend Charlotte Cushman. This made Jane achingly jealous, though Geraldine insisted she and Charlotte were only friends.
Queerness was visible, if not discussed publicly. Elizabeth Barrett Browning first met Charlotte and Max, at a party in Paris where the three of them could see from the balcony Napoleon III taking the city in a violent military coup. The moment was memorable not only as the overthrow of a democratic government, but also as Elizabeth’s first glimpse of a “female marriage.” She wrote to her sister that the two women dressed alike and went everywhere together. Her sister assured her that these relationships were “by no means uncommon.”
A few months after she and Max broke up Charlotte met the woman who would be her partner and wife in all but law for the rest of her life. Emma Stebbins, while not as radical in dress or manner as Max and Hattie, was a talented sculptor in her own right. Soon after they met, Emma and Charlotte were living together. Many years later Charlotte still rose early to walk with Emma to her studio where she could watch her work on the Angel of the Waters, the statue that would crown the Bethesda Fountain in New York’s Central Park. The statue, once unveiled, bore a strong resemblance to Charlotte’s figure. Even today, she towers above lovers, laborers, and magicians, staring down the rows of men along Poet’s Walk.
Lady Romeo: The Radical and Revolutionary Life of Charlotte Cushman, America's First Celebrity is available for purchase here.
Photo courtesy of the Folger Shakespeare Library.