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Cushman, Charlotte (1816-1876)  
 
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In 1837 Cushman had the opportunity to play opposite Edwin Forrest, one of the most prominent American actors. When Forrest finished his appearance at the Park Theater, Cushman took over one of his roles, that of the lover Claude Melnotte in Edward Bulwer-Lytton's The Lady of Lyons.

The same season Cushman played Nancy Sykes, the impoverished prostitute in Charles Dickens' Oliver Twist. To prepare for the role, she lived for several days in the slums of New York's Lower East Side. She even acquired ragged clothing from the women that she met there in order to make her costume more authentic.

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Since the line between an actress and her character often blurred in the public's mind, taking the role of a prostitute was a risk for Cushman, but audiences were impressed by her work. Walt Whitman described it as the most "intense acting ever felt on the Park boards."

In 1839 Susan Cushman Merriman joined her older sister on stage. At the age of fourteen Susan Cushman had been married to Nelson Merriman, a friend of her father. Merriman, old enough to be Susan Cushman's grandfather and claiming to be in declining health, offered to provide for the girl by leaving her his fortune if she married him.

Charlotte Cushman spoke out against the loveless match, but her parents agreed to it. After the wedding Merriman's health miraculously returned. The young bride soon became pregnant and gave birth to Edwin Charles "Ned" Merriman just before her sixteenth birthday. Shortly thereafter, Nelson Merriman, beset by creditors, abandoned his young wife and son. It fell to Charlotte Cushman to provide for them.

Susan Cushman (who used her maiden name professionally) did not feel the same enthusiasm for the stage as her sister, but the performances of the Misses Cushman were popular with the public. The daintily pretty Susan took ingenue roles opposite Charlotte in breeches. The sisters became famous for playing Romeo and Juliet together.

In 1842 Cushman became the manager of Philadelphia's Walnut Street Theater, an unusual job for a woman. Cushman stated that her mission as manager was to "offer this community those good old plays that have secured the approval of the public, and which may be seen with advantage and pleasure as they excite a healthy tone of feeling by their morality and generous sentiments."

While in Philadelphia, Cushman became close to young writer Anne Brewster. The exact nature of their relationship is not known, but Brewster's brother came to regard it as "wicked" and forced his sister to abandon the association.

An important development in Cushman's career occurred when William Charles Macready, the celebrated British actor, asked that she play opposite him when he came to Philadelphia on an American tour. The pairing was a success, and the two went on to perform in New York.

In 1843 Cushman commissioned a portrait of herself by Thomas Sully. At the artist's home she met and fell in love with his daughter Rosalie, herself a talented painter. Their relationship was clearly an intimate physical one. Cushman's 1844 diary mentions sleeping with "Rose" and includes the entry "'R.' Saturday, July 6th 'married.'"

London Success

Cushman and Sully would soon be separated, however. Since success on the British stage was considered essential for a Shakespearean actor, a tour of England was important to Cushman's career. With regret Cushman bid farewell to Sully, whom she would never see again because the young artist died while Cushman was abroad.

In England Cushman signed to appear with Edwin Forrest. Ever aware of the importance of public perception, however, she insisted on playing a starring role without him before they acted together. A critic for the London Sun said of her performance, "Since the memorable first appearance of Edmund Kean in 1814, never has there been such a debut on the boards of an English theatre."

In England Charlotte Cushman became acquainted with women artists and writers. Her circle included Mary Mitford and Geraldine Jewsbury, who based a character in her novel The Half Sisters (1848) on Cushman. She also met Matilda Hays, a novelist, journalist, and translator of the works of George Sand.

Cushman and Hays became romantic partners on stage and off. Cushman coached Hays in acting and toured the British Isles with her in Romeo and Juliet and The Lady of Lyons.

Hays was never comfortable as an actress, however, and soon withdrew from the profession. She and Cushman remained partners and were publicly recognized as a couple. Elizabeth Barrett Browning noted, "I understand that [Cushman] and Miss Hays have made vows of celibacy and of eternal attachment to each other--they live together, dress alike, . . . it is a female marriage."

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