Review | Lady Romeo: The Radical and Revolutionary Life of Charlotte Cushman, America’s First Celebrity – Tana Wojczuk

About the Book

From the very beginning, she was a radical. At age nineteen, Charlotte Cushman, America’s beloved actress and the country’s first true celebrity, left her life—and countless suitors—behind to make it as a Shakespearean actress. After revolutionizing the role of Lady Macbeth in front of many adoring fans, she went on the road, performing in cities across a dividing America and building her fame. She was everywhere. And yet, her name has faded in the shadows of history.

Now, for the first time in decades, Cushman’s story comes to full and brilliant life in this definitive, exhilarating, and enlightening biography of the 19th-century icon. With rarely seen letters, Wojczuk reconstructs the formative years of Cushman’s life, set against the excitement and drama of New York City in the 1800s, featuring a cast of luminaries and revolutionaries that changed the cultural landscape of America forever.

A vivid portrait of an astonishing and uniquely American life, Lady Romeo reveals one of the most remarkable women in United States history, and restores her to the center stage where she belongs. 

288 pages (kindle)
Published on June 9, 2020
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I came across this book purely by chance, and since I read it, I’ve sat here wondering just how on earth I planned to write a review about it. And married to that thought, is why don’t more people know about Charlotte Cushman? 

I’ve been on a bit of a “women in history” nonfiction bender recently. The more obscure and overlooked, the better, because let’s be real here for a moment. If you want to plumb the depths of forgotten important historical figures, the vast majority of the ones you’ll find are women.

Enter Charlotte Cushman. 

I bet you’ve never heard of her. I bet she’s a woman whose name has never crossed your path. That’s how it was for me, and since I’ve read this book, I’ve been a bit obsessed. 

Charlotte Cushman as Meg Merrilees (via Wikipedia)

Now, before I get into the details of Cushman’s life and what, exactly, this biography is about, I want to take a moment to tell you how accessible this book really was. Some biographies are hard to get into, because they read more like a textbook than the story of someone’s life. This one, however, is grounded. There is a lot of fact here, and a lot of information given to the reader, but Tana Wojczuk never derails herself from the easily accessible manner in which she started the book. The story is broken up into short, rather punchy chapters which keeps the reader from ever feeling bogged down. I never felt like I was reading a textbook. I never felt like I was being buried alive under mountains of information. What Wojczuk really excels at, is telling a purely human story, in a very human fashion. 

Charlotte Cushman is a fascinating historical figure that has been largely forgotten and really shouldn’t have been. Having been one of America’s very first celebrities, she was wildly popular in her day and age. Alive in the 1800s, she lived through a lot of this nation’s earliest growing pains, and not only suffered loss and tragedy (personally and politically), but was thrust into the national spotlight at an early age and thrived there. The title of the book, Lady Romeo, is applicable for many reasons, but I think the primary one is due to the fact that Cushman was one of the first actors to bring Shakespeare to life for American audiences. 

“For Charlotte, a character was not only learned but grasped at once in a flash of intuition. Then she would distill the character through repetition. Charlotte’s Meg was so popular the show was extended. When her stockings wore out, Charlotte mended them rather than buy new ones, to keep up the appearance of age and poverty. When her costume needed to be replaced, she dyed the new one by hand, rubbing it with dirt and other mixtures she invented herself to age it. She continued to do her makeup and hair as she had done that first night: a river of lines and age spots.”

One of the many interesting things about Cushman’s life, was how she grew on stage, but also along with this fledgling nation she was part of. She became an adult in the public eye. She weathered a lot of storms that assaulted the early United States of America, and she did it all while standing in the spotlight. It was fascinating, how Wojczuk managed to tell the story of Cushman as set against the dynamic and changing backdrop of a nation that is just learning how to be a nation. She met some incredible people, too. For example, in her role as an actress, she was introduced to Abraham Lincoln.

And lest you believe she was some small-fry celebrity, she wasn’t. There were crowds of people who would follow her around, mob her, make life hard. She was always on stage in public, even when she wasn’t on stage. Her private life was carefully protected, but never fully private either. She was also known internationally and spent time in Europe enjoying the adulation there. She was a Very Big Deal.

One thing that I really love about history is how nothing is new, and sometimes you run across a book that highlights that fact. Charlotte Cushman was a lesbian, and openly lived with her lovers, and considered herself married. Charlotte and her wife went on tour together, traveled together, braved mobs of fans together, and while it’s not surprising that gay people existed in the early 1800’s, what did surprise me was how open and unapologetic she was about it. When I think of LGBTQ+ people in the early 1800’s, I generally assume they would have had to be pretty quiet about it, and that just wasn’t how it played out for Cushman at all. She was very much a, “this is who I am, take it or leave it” kind of woman. 

Charlotte Chushman and Matilda Hayes, from Wikipedia.

And this isn’t to say that Cushman’s romantic life was ever easy. There were ups and downs, but she was a very pragmatic, forward-thinking woman who, in a lot of ways, used her status and influence to fight for women’s rights, and equality, and I daresay being so open and unashamed about her sexuality likely did a world of good for others around her who were likewise part of the LGBT+ community. 

“Charlotte’s legacy is present, though invisible, in every-one of these performances. She was the first to prove that an American could interpret Shakespeare onstage. She resurrected the original text of Romeo and Juliet, and her interpretations of many of Shakespeare’s characters survive today. She inspired generations of women to wear the breeches, on- and offstage.”

This is also, perhaps, the one part of the book that I wished to see more of. The author never goes much into detail about Cushman’s love life or her relationships, and there’s precious little examination of the broader LGBT+ community during her time. While I can see the reasons for this: Cushman is far more than a lesbian, and she should be examined as such, I really did want more about her relationships, about her place in the world and her struggles in a time where stuff like this just was not done (and if it was, it was kept quiet). That being said, Cushman was very powerful in her time, and influenced and empowered many other women with her unabashed resolution to ditch the dress and wear pants (gasp) and her fight for equality both on and off the stage, and so much more.

And yes, the author does cover some of her worries. For example, Wojczuk does touch on the fact that Cushman worried, especially early in her career, about what would happen if the populous found out she was married to a woman. Furthermore, Americans seemed to be more conservative and prone to making a big deal out of her relationships and her prevalence for wearing pants than those in Europe. However, I think I still wanted more. 

It did make this book feel a little off-balance. Wojczuk is best when she’s detailing Cushman’s life on stage, her acting, and her time in front of people, in any respect. However, her personal life, her inner thoughts, and the people around her all seemed to pale a bit in comparison, and that’s really where I would have enjoyed more information. Not just about the LGBT+ and women’s rights, but just life in general. Cushman often felt like a person when she was onstage, but not so much in private, and that’s unfortunate. It resulted in a bit of an unbalanced feel, and some disconcerting time jumps where we skip ahead a few years in her life with not a whole lot of explanation of what happened in those intervening years. 

So, what does this leave us with? 

Despite the fact that Lady Romeo did feel a little off-balance, and I ultimately wanted more information, this book was impossible to put down. Charlotte Cushman was a powerhouse in her day and age, a woman who was unashamedly exactly who she was. She blazed a trail that many still, unknowingly, follow today. Her influence has resonated through the centuries, and still, somehow, she was forgotten. It is unfortunate that so many powerful, incredible women get lost in the shuffle of time. It is a blessing that Wojczuk is bringing her to life here. Charlotte’s story is one that needs to be told, and her influence should be recognized. 

4/5 stars