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    Charlotte Cushman and Her “Marmorean Flock”

    rainbowguyBefore Sarah Bernhardt, there was Charlotte Cushman. Before Nazimova and Duse, before Fontanne and Cornell and le Gallienne, there was Cushman. Only Cushman. Critics and audiences said she was the greatest actress of her generation. On stage she played both strong-minded women and conflicted men, appearing with the important talents of her time, including Edwins Forrest and Booth. Off stage, in a Victorian world, she lived as openly as she could by creating a community of “emancipated females who dwell … in heavenly unity.”

    Born in Boston in 1816, Cushman made her professional debut there in 1835. Across her long career she portrayed some 190 different men and women, but her greatest successes were as Lady Macbeth, Hamlet, Romeo, and Meg Merrilies in Walter Scott’s Guy Mannerling. Critics, even if they knew or suspected, could not discuss how her love of women infused her interpretations and enabled her to triumph. They often described, however, the ways she used “her powerful, energetic body and her deep resonate voice” to convey the range of a character’s emotions.

    What Cushman did better than anyone else, wrote one observer, was to play characters “where, roused by passion or incited by some earnest and long cherished determination, the woman, for the time being, assumes all the power of manhood.” Lady Macbeth was typical, whom she portrayed as “forceful rather feminine.” As another critic noted, her characterization was “more than masculine in ambition, courage and will, more bloody, bold, and resolute than … her husband. She was the source and mainspring of the whole tragedy.”

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    After conquering the United States, Cushman travelled to Great Britain in 1844. As Romeo in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, she created a sensation. No less than The Times (London) described a portrayal “far superior to any Romeo that has been seen for years,” a “living, breathing, animated, ardent human being.” Others agreed. Her Romeo, wrote one, had all “the warmth of passion, the melancholy, the luxuriant imagination, the glowing yet delicate vitality … of the Italian boy-lover.” For her audiences she “seemed just man enough to be a boy.”

    Cushman went on her first of many farewell tours in 1852. She moved to Rome, where she fostered a group of creative, sexually like-minded women. Henry James dismissed them as “that strange sisterhood of American ‘lady sculptors’ who at one time settled upon the seven hills in a white marmorean flock,” but with Cushman’s support, they were able to challenge the prevailing biases against women’s talents.

    Foremost among them was Harriet Hosmer, who joined Cushman in Rome in 1852. The first woman able to support herself as a sculptor in the nineteenth century, Hosmer was celebrated as one of our country’s finest artists. Those who appreciated her remarkable talents did not necessarily approve of her personal style, though, with many being “shocked” by her “unfeminine” short hair, her taste in the men’s jackets and ties she wore, and her “flamboyant” behavior.

    Another member of Cushman’s “flock” was the sculptor Edmonia Lewis. James especially disliked her. “One of the sisterhood,” he wrote, “was a negress, whose color, picturesquely contrasting with that of her plastic material, was the pleading agent of her fame.” Not so. With what Cushman described as her “praiseworthy efforts,” she became first woman of African American and Native American heritage to achieve international fame as a sculptor, and the only one recognized to any degree by the American artistic mainstream.

    Welsh sculptor Mary Lloyd also was one of the group. Through Cushman she met Frances Power Cobbe, an Irish feminist, social reformer, and women’s suffrage campaigner who often wrote about women’s occupations and independence, female artistic genius, and moral, rather than physical, beauty. The two women lived together from 1864 until Lloyd’s death in 1896. Unlike James, Cobbe thought that “there was a brightness, freedom, and joyousness among these gifted Americans which was quite delightful to see.”

    Not all of the expatriot women in Rome’s creative community had a connection with Cushman, but many did. They included cameo cutter Margaret Foley and sculptor Elizabeth Hadwin, who developed a deep, lasting relationship with each other; writer Kate Field; sculptor Anne Whitney and painter Adeline Manning, her life partner; and Isa Blagden, whose novels featured the intensity and primacy of women’s relationships with each other. None ever married, instead finding “exquisite enjoyments” in their intimacies with other women.

    The women succeeded, despite James’ assessment of their value. Hosmer’s works are now in the permanent collections of the Art Institute of Chicago, the Huntington Library, the Smithsonian American Museum, and others. Sculptures by Lewis can also be found in the Smithsonian, as well as in the Newark Museum, Howard University, and the Walters Art Museum. Whitney’s statue of Samuel Adams is seen by thousands of people who annually visit the National Statuary Hall Collection housed in the United States Capitol. As for Cushman, when she died in 1876, honored and revered, she entered legend.

    Bill Lipsky, Ph.D., author of “Gay and Lesbian San Francisco” (2006), is a member of the Rainbow Honor Walk board of directors.