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Cushman, Charlotte (1816-1876)  
 
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Cushman returned to America in 1849. Now a recognized star, she was able to demand pay equal to that of the most prominent male actors.

Roman Years

In 1852 Cushman decided to retire and live in Rome, where there was a lively American expatriate community. Cushman established a household of "jolly bachelor" women that included Hays, journalist Grace Greenwood, and sculptor Harriet Hosmer.

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Cushman used her celebrity and influence to promote the careers of these and other women artists, such as Mary Edmonia Lewis, a Chippewa/African-American sculptor, and Emma Stebbins, a painter who had come to Rome to study sculpture.

All was not bliss in the "jolly" household, however. In 1854 Hays left Cushman for Hosmer. She eventually returned, but tension remained between the two. The final rupture of the relationship in 1857 was explosive. Hays saw Cushman writing a note that she suspected was to Stebbins, who had been growing increasingly close to Cushman. Jealous, she demanded to see it.

Although the note was not to Stebbins, Cushman refused to show it to Hays, who became enraged and began chasing Cushman around the house and attacking her with her fists. After the break-up Hays threatened Cushman with what would now be called a palimony suit, saying that she had sacrificed her own career to provide emotional support to Cushman as she pursued hers. Cushman gave Hays "some small sum" and warded off the lawsuit.

After Hays's departure, Stebbins moved in with Cushman, and the two remained together until Cushman's death.

Despite her devotion to Stebbins, whom she called "my other and better half," Cushman fell in love with another woman, Emma Crowe. The eighteen-year-old Crowe met Cushman in 1858 when the actress was in America on tour. Cushman was smitten with the young woman, whom she called her "little lover."

When Cushman returned to Italy, Crowe followed. There she attracted the attention of Cushman's nephew Ned, who was by then also her son, since she had adopted him after years of supporting him and he had legally changed his name to Cushman. Desperate to keep Crowe near her yet not wanting to hurt Stebbins, Cushman encouraged the match. In April 1861 Crowe married Ned Cushman and became an official member of Charlotte Cushman's unorthodox family.

Return to America

In 1869 Cushman was diagnosed with breast cancer. Accompanied by Stebbins, she went to Scotland for surgery, which did not entirely eradicate the disease. After a brief return to Rome, Cushman and Stebbins decided to move back to the United States, where, despite the pain of her condition, Cushman went back on stage.

In 1874 she made a series of farewell performances, doing readings rather than plays, for which she no longer had the stamina. At her appearance in New York, William Cullen Bryant recited an ode in her honor, and the show was followed by a parade on Fifth Avenue and a fireworks display.

After the tour Cushman and Stebbins went to Boston, where Cushman died on February 18, 1876.

Emma Stebbins described the funeral as "simple and sweet and touching" and noted that "above her head, the inscription on the chancel wall--'This is my commandment to you, that ye love one another'--seemed to be speaking to all the lesson of her life."

Lapse into Obscurity

In the wake of her death there were numerous tributes, including memorial sermons, to Cushman, then one of the most famous women in the world but now largely forgotten. Lisa Merrill explains Cushman's lapse into obscurity as a result of changing attitudes toward romantic friendships between women.

In Cushman's era, romantic friendships were accepted because the women participating in them were seen as chaste since no heterosexual desire was involved. Indeed, physical desire was, at the time, considered to be a masculine trait. As ideas about--and even the name of--lesbianism evolved, Merrill argues, the perception of Cushman changed, and her life and achievements were trivialized, dimming the light of a woman who was once known as a "bright particular star."

Linda Rapp

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arts >> Overview:  American Art: Lesbian, Nineteenth Century

The accomplishments of American lesbian artists in the nineteenth century, some of whom are only now receiving recognition, is all the more remarkable for the obstacles they faced as women and as homosexuals.

literature >> Overview:  Romantic Friendship: Female

Until the beginning of the twentieth century, intimate, exclusive, and often erotic romantic friendships between women were largely perceived as normal and socially acceptable.

arts >> Overview:  Stage Actors and Actresses

Gay, lesbian, and bisexual actors and actresses are among the elite of contemporary theater, but only recently have many come out publicly.

arts >> Hosmer, Harriet Goodhue

American sculptor Harriet Hosmer, among a handful of successful women artists in the nineteenth century, frequently scandalized the polite society of her day by her mannish dress and adventurous behavior.

arts >> Lewis, Mary Edmonia

American sculptor Mary Edmonia Lewis lived most of her life in Rome, where she was a member of a lesbian circle of American expatriates and artists.

arts >> Stebbins, Emma

Emma Stebbins is remembered for the sculpture that she produced between 1859 and 1869 and for being the lover of actress Charlotte Cushman.

literature >> Whitman, Walt

Celebrating an ideal of manly love in both its spiritual and physical aspects, Walt Whitman has exerted a profound and enduring influence on gay literature.


    Bibliography
   

Crawford, Julie. "Cushman, Charlotte." Lesbian Histories and Cultures. Bonnie Zimmerman, ed. New York: Garland, 2000. 217.

Leach, Joseph. Bright Particular Star: The Life & Times of Charlotte Cushman. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1970.

Merrill, Lisa. When Romeo Was a Woman: Charlotte Cushman and Her Circle of Female Spectators. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1999.

Miller, Tim. "Charlotte Cushman, Lesbian Superstar: Tim Miller interviews the author of When Romeo Was a Woman, Lisa Merrill." The Gay & Lesbian Review 7.3 (July 31, 2000): 16-17.

Mullinix, Elizabeth Reitz. "Acting between the Spheres: Charlotte Cushman as Androgyne." Theatre Survey 37 (November 1996): 22-65.

Stebbins, Emma. Charlotte Cushman: Her Letters and Memories of Her Life. 1879. Rpt. New York: Benjamin Blom, 1972.

 

    Citation Information
         
    Author: Rapp, Linda  
    Entry Title: Cushman, Charlotte  
    General Editor: Claude J. Summers  
    Publication Name: glbtq: An Encyclopedia of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual,
Transgender, and Queer Culture
 
    Publication Date: 2002  
    Date Last Updated November 9, 2004  
    Web Address www.glbtq.com/arts/cushman_c.html  
    Publisher glbtq, Inc.
1130 West Adams
Chicago, IL   60607
 
    Today's Date  
    Encyclopedia Copyright: © 2002-2006, glbtq, Inc.  
    Entry Copyright © 2002, glbtq, Inc.  
 

 

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