All her life, Charlotte Cushman refused to submit to others’ expectations. Raised in Boston at the time of the transcendentalists, a series of disasters cleared the way for her life on the stage—a path she eagerly took, rejecting marriage and creating a life of adventure, playing the role of the hero in and out of the theater as she traveled to New Orleans and New York City, and eventually to London and back to build a successful career. Her Hamlet, Romeo, Lady Macbeth, and Nancy Sykes from Oliver Twist became canon, impressing Louisa May Alcott, who later based a character on her in Jo’s Boys, and Walt Whitman, who raved about “the towering grandeur of her genius” in his columns for the Brooklyn Daily Eagle. She acted alongside Edwin and John Wilkes Booth—supposedly giving the latter a scar on his neck that was later used to identify him as President Lincoln’s assassin—and visited frequently with the Great Emancipator himself, who was a devoted Shakespeare fan and admirer of Cushman’s work.
Her wife immortalized her in the angel at the top of Central Park’s Bethesda Fountain; worldwide, she was “a lady universally acknowledged as the greatest living tragic actress.” Behind the scenes, she was equally radical, making an independent income, supporting her family, creating one of the first bohemian artists’ colonies abroad, and living publicly as a queer woman. And yet, her name has since faded into the shadows.